More than Lament: the Strange Boldness of Christianity

Seeing Beyond the Grave in a Pandemic

Todd Brewer / 4.9.20

Our experience of the pandemic has changed on an almost daily basis. I live in the New York area and it seems that the country has moved from laughing at the inconveniences of social distancing, to the stresses of home isolation, and now to the tragedy of knowing people who have contracted the virus, some of whom have died or are particularly vulnerable to the disease. It feels grim and painfully hopeless.

Image by Yara Nardi, Taken from:

According to N.T. Wright, lament, it seems, is the best recourse we have in these dire moments. He writes that, for us today,

“the Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, come back into their own, just when some churches seem to have given them up. “Be gracious to me, Lord,” prays the sixth Psalm, “for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.” “Why do you stand far off, O Lord?” asks the 10th Psalm plaintively. “Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?” And so it goes on: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?” (Psalm 13).

For Wright, what Christianity offers is not an explanation of the meaning of the pandemic or to offer a comforting “sign of relief”, but to ask God “Why?” and not get an answer, to “wait without hope”.

In contrast to Wright and the psalms of lament, the New Testament holds sorrow and comfort together, bound by a confident hope in God’s providential goodness amid disaster. Left to ourselves and the burden of our circumstances is, indeed, hopeless, but Christianity hopes for what is not seen and believes in a God who gives life to the dead. Our faith exceeds mere sorrow in ways that are incongruous with reality. Where others see only death and decay, Christians see beyond the grave.

Christian lament differs significantly from that of the Psalms. The resurrection of Jesus transposes the psalmists’ anguished pleas to audacious certainties. In the apostle Paul’s day, the church of Thessalonica was grieved to see its members begin to die, as beloved members of the community were likely killed by ongoing persecutions. His response to the grief of the Thessalonians would raise more than a few eyebrows today. Paul would have surely failed his seminary’s pastoral care class. For Paul, there is no neutral, universally healthy way to grieve loss. Paul says that Christians’ view of death is entirely different than non-Christians (1 Thess 4:13). The church’s response to death is informed by Easter. Those outside the church grieve for those who will never return. For the Christian, sorrow and hope coexist in ways unimaginable to the world. The dead are those who are asleep, but waiting to be awakened by the Lord. Death is not ignored, but nor is it a one way street. Instead, our sorrow is transfigured in the hope of the resurrection.

In the midst of a pandemic it can certainly feel as though God is hidden from us, lurking afar in some other part of the world. It’s getting harder everyday, as more and more people we know and perhaps we ourselves get sick. But the experience of a distant God is not the same as what God is actually doing. When the horizon of Jesus’ life-giving death is forgotten all one is left with are prayers of lament that place God on trial. “Why do you stand far off, O Lord?” “Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?”. Instead, what is known about God is more than what appears to be true right now; he sent his son to make all things new. Jesus did not suffer with us, but he suffered for us, to overcome death and take away our fear of it. That is who God is and what God is up to.

More than the psalmists’ lament in the face of desolation, the prayer Jesus taught his disciples does not ask a silent God “Why”, but demands of God with boldness that he will make good on his promises. It is not a request or a petition, but a command. This prayer is a urgent cry for help to a God who will deliver. Our deliverer has already come and in this time between his first and second coming our prayer remains, “Lord, come again—not tomorrow or next week, but today.”

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