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N. T. Wright on Suffering and Christ


The Adult Bible Study Guide continues to use the metaphor of crucibles and repeats the almost weekly reminder that suffering can reveal goodness. This week, attention turns to “Seeing the Invisible.” Fittingly, since the via negative approach of the quarterly, it explains what this means. “It is even more challenging to realize that we are called to see ‘him who is invisible’ not simply when times are good but especially when everything is going wrong.”

The question seems to be, where do we look when it’s hard to see the hand of God at work in our world? The ABSG turns attention from the invisible to the historical.

We cannot see God as He is in His divine nature. We are in the universe; God is with us, but He also is transcendent, or beyond our reality. We are finite; God is infinite. Moreover, we are sinful; God is holy. That is why we simply cannot see God as He is in Himself. . . . On the other hand, we can literally “see” God in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus, being God, became human so that He could dwell among us in order that we may “see” God’s “glory” and His “grace and truth” (John 1:14; see also Matt. 1:23, Phil. 2:6–9).

Jesus is the answer here. As the revelation of the Word, the life of Christ provides a revealed comfort during a time when God seems distant and providential control is hard to understand.

I’ve really been enjoying these new short video chats by the English New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. The description asks, “Is God in control? If so, is God an [sic] ‘micromanager’ of our every thought and action? In this video, Prof. N.T. Wright insists that we must reframe the idea of control, and God’s role in history, in light of the story of Jesus.” Check out the embedded video below.

In an interview in Christianity Today from 2020, N. T. Wright expands on these questions of suffering and Christianity.

There’s a fascinating passage in Acts 11, where the disciples in Antioch hear from a prophet that there’s going to be a famine (v. 28). They don’t respond: Oh dear, what can this mean? Is God angry with us? Does this mean the Lord is coming back? No, they’re very practical. They ask: Who is going to be most at risk? What can we do to help? And who should we send? The result is that Paul and Barnabas are sent off to Jerusalem with money for the poor church there (v. 29–30).

It’s similar at the start of John 9, the story of the man born blind. Jesus is relentlessly practical and discourages his disciples from asking whose fault this was or whether some sin was to blame (v. 3). It wasn’t actually anybody’s fault. The important question is what God would have us do in response.

So for us, we should start with our neighbors, friends, and family, asking who we could help by bringing some food, tools, or medical supplies. Maybe our church could get involved with something like running a food bank. In short, we should ask: What can we do?

In his wonderful book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, the historian Tom Holland points out that many things the church and only the church used to do have now been taken on by the wider secular society. Thus many doctors and nurses who would not call themselves Christians have picked up this strong imperative to look after people, even at the potential cost of their own lives. That is a noble thing. But in the ancient world, it was only the Christians who did that. So in a sense, some of that Christian ideal has spread out into the world. And we should thank God for that.

For those interested in the artwork accompanying this Sabbath school commentary, here is a description from The Christian Century.

Matthias Grünewald (ca. 1480–1528) painted the Crucifixion as a panel for the Isenheim Altarpiece in the hospital chapel of St. Anthony’s monastery. The monastery hospital specialized in the treatment of ergotism, an especially painful skin disease. The Christ figure in the painting is depicted as suffering from these same sores—a sign to the patients that Christ shared in their afflictions. To Christ’s right, Mary Magdalene kneels in humble adoration and a swooning Mary is supported by the apostle John, the Beloved Disciple. To Christ’s left stands John the Baptist, holding an open book and pointing at the crucified Christ. In the background in Latin are words attributed to John the Baptist in the Gospel of John: illum oportet crescere, me autem minui (“He must increase, but I must decrease”). At John’s feet is a lamb with a cross, echoing other words by the Baptist, also recorded in John: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Karl Barth kept a reproduction of the Crucifixion in his study to remind himself that his role as a theologian was to point to Christ and him crucified.


Alexander Carpenter is executive editor of Spectrum

Title image: Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, The Crucifixion, detail., c 1512–1516 (public domain).

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