The cross itself, in short, stands at the center of the Christian message, the Christian story, and the Christian life and mission. It has lost none of its revolutionary and transformative power down through the centuries. The cross is where the great story of God and creation, focused on the strange story of God and Israel and then focused still more sharply on the personal story of God and Jesus, came into terrible but life-giving clarity. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was a one-off event, the one on behalf of the many, the one moment in history on behalf of all others through which sins are forgiven, the powers robbed of their power, and humans redeemed to take their place as worshippers and stewards, celebrating the powerful victory of God in his Messiah and so gaining the Spirit’s power to make his kingdom effective in the world.N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, p. 416
I propose a fourfold reading of scripture. We are to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength.
1. The heart: Lectio Divina, private meditation and prayer, and above all the readings in the eucharist.
2. The mind: historical study of the text and its original contextual meaning.
3. The soul: the ongoing life of the church, its tradition and teaching office.
4. The strength: the mission of the church, the work of God’s kingdom.N. T. Wright, “The Fourfold Amor Dei and the Word of God“
I came across this proposal in an essay by Michael Gorman, “New Testament Theology and Spiritual Formation,” in Spiritual Formation for the Global Church: A Multi-Denominational, Multi-Ethic Approach, edited by Ryan A. Brandt and John Frederick.
Most Christians approach the study of the Bible with a genuine desire that the Holy Spirit would impart knowledge of how to love God more fully and serve him more faithfully. Openness to God and a desire to gain knowledge of God’s will are a wonderful beginning. Lifting one’s heart to God is an essential first step for spiritual growth. But God calls us to love him with all of our being, heart, mind, soul, and strength.
Gorman argues that the purpose of the New Testament writings is spiritual formation. The gospel stories, Acts, the epistles, and Revelation present a “theology seeking faith,” or “theology seeking spiritual formation in its hearers and readers.”
Seeking God with the heart, deepening faith by applying the mind, asking God to sanctify the soul, and exercising God-given strength to act upon conviction work together to move the believer toward Christian maturity. If you begin with a heart set upon God, wonderful! Go further. Engage the mind, open the soul, and ask for the strength to live a life pleasing to God.
No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t? Supposing real human wisdom doesn’t mean being able to string together some dodgy speculations and say, “So that’s all right then?” What if, after all, there are moments such as T. S. Eliot recognized in the early 1940s, when the only advice is to wait without hope, because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing?
Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world. It’s bad enough facing a pandemic in New York City or London. What about a crowded refugee camp on a Greek island? What about Gaza? Or South Sudan?
[ . . . ]
It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope. New wisdom for our leaders? Now there’s a thought.
– N. T. Wright, in Time Magazine, “Christianity Offers No Answer About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To“
The headline is misleading, as headlines often are, and I doubt (and hope!) that N. T. Wright did not pen it himself. Wright argues that Christians do not have an explanation for the coronavirus, but they do have an answer. That answer is lament.
To offer lament is to cry out in anguish and pain. It is a means of expressing grief, of naming injustice, and declaring one’s suffering. The Bible has countless examples of lament, particularly in the Psalms.
N. T. Wright argues that Enlightenment rationalism is the reason that we long for explanations. I suspect the human proclivity for designating attribution to God or another source is much older than that. For Christian people, our response is to refrain from explanations, and to leverage ancient wisdom. That wisdom is lament, to humble oneself and to confess that there are some things that are beyond comprehension but in need of divine intervention. To lament is to cry out for mercy, and to hope for deliverance.