The Rev. Thomas Rank
2014 Synod Convention Essay
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. 2 Corinthians 4:17 (NKJV)
A century ago, Europe was filled with optimism. The start of a new century and the application of progressive programs in society and church gave support to this sentiment. Yet, as we draw to within a few weeks of the centennial of the outbreak of the Great War, the “war to end all wars,” World War I, we know that such optimism, based as it was on the assumption of human progress, was unwarranted, to say the least.1 Hermann Sasse, himself a survivor of the Western Front, noted in an essay written sixty years ago:
The secular faith in progress, which saw in the Euro-American civilization a culture which, because of its internal and external superiority, would spread out over the entire earth and would become the culture of humanity found a parallel in Christendom …. It took two world wars and a series of revolutions and political realignments … to break this hope, and this optimism is still not entirely dead. But the reality of today’s world events speaks far too loudly.2
Faith in human reason’s ability to provide solutions to the human condition (original sin) resulted in the “final solution,” just one of many solutions attempted in the past century. But the faith in human ability continues. This is due to the fact that human reason cannot fathom the immensity of the weight of sin, and therefore retains a baseless confidence. Faith in progress rises, resulting in the denial of a need for a Savior—we can do it ourselves, for the most part. At least this is the problem in much of Western civilization today.
Times of immediate, personal trial then come as a shock. Trial and suffering are suddenly not far-away events seen only as 30-second video clips on the nightly news or YouTube, but are actually—not virtually—experienced.
In the past few years and months a variety of articles have appeared in print that suggest that suffering and trial are, not surprisingly, on the minds of many.3 But how are such times addressed? What resources are available for individuals burdened with issues of sickness, disease, war, accident, etc.? A survey of some of these recent writings provides some further context for our own study.
While we are accustomed to thinking of trauma as the inevitable result of a major cataclysm, daily life is filled with endless little traumas. Things break. People hurt our feelings. Ticks carry Lyme disease. Pets die. Friends get sick and even die.
“They’re shooting at our regiment now,” a 60-year-old friend said the other day as he recounted the various illnesses of his closest acquaintances. “We’re the ones coming over the hill.” He was right, but the traumatic underpinnings of life are not specific to any generation. The first day of school and the first day in an assisted-living facility are remarkably similar. Separation and loss touch everyone.4
For the lucky few, there is reason to hope that life will be a business of evenly rationed suffering: stern parents perhaps, a few humiliations at school, then a love affair or two gone wrong, maybe a marriage broken. Our parents will die, and farther off, ideally deferred, will come our own steady demise. Plenty of suffering for a life, certainly, but most of us subsist on the plausible expectation that fortune will draw a circle around that personal portion, and that the truly unbearable—murder, rape, dead children, torture, war—will remain outside the cordon. Norman Rush, in his novel “Mortals,” calls this “hellmouth”: “the opening up of the mouth of hell right in front of you, without warning, through no fault of your own.” Without warning, and yet always feared. Job, whom God places into hellmouth to test him, knew that paradox: “For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.”5
It is not dignified to be undressed and dressed by cheerful young women the age of your granddaughter. It is not dignified to waste away, to lose the ability to speak, to eat, to drink. It is not dignified for your children and grandchildren to see you that way. It is not dignified to die when death takes you and not when you choose …. All “dying with dignity” requires is that you declare yourself God … But you are not God, and, the Christian believes, the decision of when to leave this life is not one He has delegated to you. It is not your call. The Father expects you to suffer if you are given suffering and to put up with indignities if you are given indignities. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord …. This is not, from a worldly point of view, a comforting or comfortable teaching. It is one much easier for Christians to observe in theory than in practice, and to apply to other people than to themselves.6
What he produces is an anatomy of suffering the major axis of which is the irony that “battles over the value of suffering intensify in the contemporary world precisely at the same time people in ever greater numbers discard the notion that suffering is an inevitable part of human experience.7
… Our many medical triumphs and the consequential receding of serious suffering from everyday experience created a concomitant terror of travail that threatens the morality of society. For example, when people actually did die in agony, there was little agitation for euthanasia. Yet today, when writhing demises are entirely preventable “even if it occasionally requires sedation” many support voluntary killing as the best solution to incurable disease and disability …. Once avoiding suffering becomes the primary purpose of society, it too easily mutates into license for eliminating the sufferer.8
In his excellent 2010 essay for The New Yorker entitled “Letting Go,” Dr. Atul Gawande outlines a problem that has arisen in contemporary American culture. “In the past few decade,” he writes, “medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die.” We have gotten so used to living, Gawande writes, so used to fighting and resisting, that we have forgotten how to undergo that most universal of human processes. And this deficiency has a dark side:
In 2008, the national Coping with Cancer project published a study showing that terminally ill cancer patients who were … admitted, near death, to intensive care had a substantially worse quality of life in their last week than those who received no such intervention. And, six months after their death, their caregivers were three times as likely to suffer major depression.
In other words, our ignorance of how to die well, our discomfort and lack of experience with even the idea of death, our fight-it-at-all-costs attitude and actions, drastically reduce quality of life both for the dying and for those who love and care for them.9
We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.
But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.
But the big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course ….
First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself .…
Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control ….
Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.10
To summarize: All generations are subject to trial. While we might hope that the “hellmouth” will not open underneath our feet, we have no assurance that we can avoid it. God does not give to us the “vocation” of life-ender (not of ourselves, not of others, except in certain vocations, e.g. soldier, hangman). The more we try to avoid suffering, the greater is its burden when it finally and unavoidably does arrive. A consequence of avoiding suffering at all costs leads to the removal of those who suffer so that the non-sufferers remain blissfully unburdened by their pitifulness. Not only are those who suffer affected by our society’s attempts to deny suffering, so are those who care for them. We cannot live in a permanent state of “happiness,” yet suffering brings changes to individuals that are not necessarily or absolutely detrimental to the individual.
A time of trial is a time when one’s status as vulnerable becomes increasingly clear. We like to think of ourselves as being immune to the troubles of the world, unaffected by various disasters, natural or manmade. A trial, a time when our physical life (or that of a loved one) is suddenly vulnerable to accident, disease, and death, forces us to examine our life, to see what protection there may be, what resources may be accessed, what gods on which to call for help.
In the Large Catechism Martin Luther explained what it is to have a god, a question that is at the heart of the time of trial:
What is one’s god? Answer: To whatever we look for any good thing and for refuge in every need, that is what is meant by “god.” To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in him from the heart …. To whatever you give your heart and entrust your being, that , I say, is really your God.11
What does a time of trial reveal about your God? This is a crucial question since such times may very well reveal little difference between the actual events in the physical lives (those which we experience here and now) of pagans or Muslims, Hindus or atheists, Confucianism or Christianity. As the twin towers collapsed on September 11, 2001, included among the thousands who perished were people who followed a variety of gods. Their physical end was the same. So the question put to the Christian church, understandably, is: what makes your religion, or any religion, different? Why not eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die? What advantage is it to follow Christ if we experience little difference in the life we can know through our senses?
In Advent of 1933, half a year or so into the rule of the Third Reich in Germany, Hermann Sasse preached on the Gospel appointed for that day, Matthew 11:2–11. In this text we find John the Baptizer in prison. Disciples from John went to Jesus to ask on his behalf: “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Jesus told them: “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see.” Then Sasse preached:
How does it help me, John would have thought, that in Galilee the dead are resurrected? Between him and Jesus was a three-day walk. Between Jesus and us are nineteen centuries of world history! How does it help us that at one time such things happened on earth? What then has become of others through the appearance of Jesus Christ? Does the world look like the Redeemer’s feet have walked on it? … That is the greatest disappointment Christ has given us. Certainly, this disappointment has been felt throughout time by John the Baptist, by Christ’s disciples, his people, and his Church …. The whole modern world of the last two centuries has deduced: he must have been a great teacher, but even so, he was not what the New Testament says he was. Millions of men in every land have lost their faith since the world war. And all that our people have lived through since the spring of 1933 has influenced the people very deeply, the view our people have of Christ will be nothing else.12
What is our answer in times such as this? Are we not hearing similar questions in our day? ‘Jesus is a fine teacher, but is He truly God? And if so, why doesn’t He stop all the bad stuff?’ Experience gives the appearance of overcoming the object of Christian faith, Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
As much as 9/11 and the Nazi regime of eight decades ago might get our attention as times of great trial (as do the other totalitarian regimes and their murderous ways of the 20th century), we must understand that trial, suffering, are not limited to such extraordinary situations in history. A time of trial is really not a time when the world is different than before, but only that our status or vantage-point in the world seems to have changed dramatically. C.S. Lewis made this observation in his essay “Learning in War-Time,” which he delivered in October 1939:
The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself … We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies.13
A more recent assessment by a Buddhist-inclined psychiatrist reached a similar conclusion.
Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. One way or another, death (and its cousins: old age, illness, accidents, separation and loss) hangs over all of us. Nobody is immune. Our world is unstable and unpredictable, and operates, to a great degree and despite incredible scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.14
Trial, struggle, anxiety, doubt, physical danger, disease, these and many other experiences cause our sense of vulnerability, a time when whatever gods upon which we rely are put to the test. To engage others with Jesus in such situations is to give them hope in the one true God, in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. We will discover, though, that faith in Christ as the answer will prove to be unsatisfying from the world’s perspective. It will not satisfy the mind that seeks to understand the ways of God; for the answer, basically, is trust God. The clash of faith and sight is where the tension lies.
Acknowledgment of the inevitability of suffering in this life is prerequisite to addressing suffering rightly. If the naïve belief that we can remove all suffering from life becomes our aim as spiritual caregivers, we will end up in sympathy with those who propose eliminating suffering by eliminating sufferers by means of suicide or euthanasia. If, on the other hand, we see that life will always be filled with suffering, we will embrace our calling to bear our own sufferings or to help others bear theirs in Christ’s name.15
How we approach times of trial is one of the very most important ways we confess to the world around us exactly what the Christian faith means in precisely those times when all human resources, when all the other gods, cannot help. And as we observe the changing views toward life, especially the increasing acceptance of assisted suicide and euthanasia, we are seeing the challenge that lies before the Church. There is suffering; there are sufferers; what does this mean for the Church? Are we ready for the challenges that lie ahead? Ronald Ritter, in his study of suffering in the times of the Reformation, notes, “changes in attitudes toward suffering … are among the most important changes that take place in human society.”16 We are seeing change now in early 21st century United States.
At first glance, a stoic approach to suffering appears compatible with the Christian view of suffering. The stoic, as the term is used in modern usage, is unflappable in trial, approaching suffering with patient endurance. While there are admirable traits associated with the stoic approach—the whole “stiff upper lip” mentality—it finally does not bring relief. It may provide a certain hard outer shell by which to shrug off suffering, but it does not address the inner conflict, the questions: “why me,” “why now,” “what did I do.”
Tchividjian addresses this approach to suffering by referring to Romans 8:28, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” as one of the most beautiful and also most dangerous of passages. “Make no mistake, in this context [of trying to offer spiritual help in a time of trial], Romans 8:28 can be a bona fide conversation stopper. A spiritual ‘shut up,’ if you will. And lest we think only Christians are prone to such insensitivity, the secular translation, ‘Don’t worry; it’ll all work out,’ is no less ubiquitous.”17
Part of the danger of this stoic approach is that it attempts to deal with the sufferer in the very midst of suffering, directing the sufferer beyond the immediate experience of trial and sorrow and doubt to a time when things will be clearer and easier to understand. Perhaps we could compare such attempts to those who are living through a five month winter and being told: “don’t worry, spring is just around the corner.” I wonder how many of us in the Midwest this past winter found such words helpful as we drove through blinding snowstorms and slid off icy roads and into ditches. The fact is that it was still below zero, and the car was still stuck in a snowdrift. The fact of spring’s eventual appearance was not only unhelpful but discouraging. But hey, don’t worry, right?
Theodicy is the human attempt to justify the action or inaction of God in times of suffering and trial. Why did God allow that? Why didn’t God stop that? If God is omnipotent, why is there suffering? If God is not omnipotent, then why bother believing in Him? Of course, what lies at the heart of such attempts to justify God is the idolatry that puts the human in any position to judge God. Can the creature judge the Creator?
The book of Job stands out as the primary revelation from God regarding the topic of theodicy. The righteous man, Job, has been allowed by God to be targeted by the attacks of Satan. Beloved children and the accumulated wealth of a lifetime are swiftly taken. Job is left asking “why?” Friends attempt consolation. But they try to seek the hidden will of God by working with a basic, but faulty, equation: you are suffering, therefore you sinned. The one-to-one correlation of act and consequence is something they believed had to have occurred in order for Job to be experiencing what he did. They believe that God would not have done what He did to Job, or allowed it to happen, unless Job had deserved it. They cannot find any other reason, despite Job’s protestations.
Eliphaz was right in urging Job to turn to God …. And yet his words have a hollow ring. They reveal a lack of true sympathy for his friend …. No doubt intending to help Job, Eliphaz rather irritated him when he repeatedly mentioned that God would bless him by giving him gold if he repented.18
As we know from their speeches, Job’s friends had repeatedly stated that God rewards the upright and punishes the evildoers. Job strongly disagreed. Indeed, his experience had taught him that quite the opposite was often true.19
Job is correct in his defense of himself over against his consolers. But then Job accuses God of being unfair in His treatment of Job. Job believes that he can defend himself before God if only he is given the opportunity. God supplies that opportunity.
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: 2 “Who is this who darkens counsel By words without knowledge? 3 Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding (Job 38:1–4, NKJ).
Later the Lord continues, and we hear Job’s response:
Moreover the LORD answered Job, and said: 2 “Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it.” 3 Then Job answered the LORD and said: 4 “Behold, I am vile; What shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth. 5 Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; Yes, twice, but I will proceed no further.” 6 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: 7 “Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me: 8 “Would you indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified? (Job 40:1–8 NKJ)
We like to be right. We need to be right, even if that should result in judging God to be wrong. That is the extent to which human pride goes in order to justify the human in opposition to God. How different this is from the perspective of faith seen in the confession of Paul to the Romans: “Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written: ‘That You may be justified in Your words, And may overcome when You are judged’” (Romans 3:4 NKJ). Our task is not to justify the actions of God for the simple reason that His ways and thoughts are higher than our own (Isaiah 55:8,9).
Cross and Revelation
There are two distinctions that are necessary and helpful to understand when dealing with the topic of the trials in life (whether for the Christian or the non-Christian) and how we can help, engage others with Jesus, during such times. These two distinctions are: the hidden vs. the revealed God; and the theology of the cross vs. the theology of glory. Human reason loves the theology of glory and seeks the hidden God in the ways and places God has given no promise to be found. Faith in Christ lives in the theology of the cross and is created and nourished by the God revealed in His holy Word and sacraments. We confess this in the fifth article of the Augsburg Confession: “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, where and when he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel” (Tappert, AC V). Also in Luther’s explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel” (ELS Catechism).
The revealed God
God does tell us about Himself and about our own selves in Holy Scripture. But as much as He reveals there, we want more. So we continue to desire to look behind the curtain, to catch a glimpse of the inner workings of the Trinity. We want this not only out of idle curiosity, but also so that we do not have to rely on faith alone. The quest for seeking God where He has not told us to look for Him is a consequence of our fallen nature. We do not want to be totally reliant on someone else, even when that Someone Else is the almighty God. Even from the earliest of ages we see that human nature is malcontent and seeks freedom from all constraint. When we are young, not having experienced what we believe to be real freedom, we pull away from the authority God has put over us. When we are old, having experienced independence, at least to some extent, we resent the encroachment of renewed dependence as our bodies begin to fail, quickly or slowly. Likewise, we resent that which constrains us from knowing God’s ways in the depth we believe that we deserve and that we think we can easily manage. Little do we consider that God’s lack of total revelation to us of all His ways is a matter of His total grace toward us.
So the revealed God comes to us as less than we desire when we consider Him from the perspective of our sinful hearts and minds. Receiving the revealed God is a matter of faith, of trusting God so much that we are content with what He gives here and now, believing that He gives us the knowledge He knows is right for us.20
This understanding of the revealed God impacts us in several ways. First, it teaches us to receive gratefully the Holy Scriptures. Second, it teaches us to rely on what God gives, and not seek or demand other ways. Martin Luther dealt with many during the time of the Reformation who criticized him for remaining within the constraints of Word and Sacrament, the what and where of God’s revelation, and refusing to be more open to the workings of the Spirit, as his critics presume themselves to be. Andreas Karlstadt, an early ally of Luther, eventually took issue with what he considered to be the slow pace of Luther’s reforms. Karlstadt, one among many of those later termed the “Enthusiasts,” believed that reform of the church meant anything resembling Roman Catholic doctrine and practice was to be cast out. Here we find one of the reasons for the discord between Luther and other more radical reformers. The radicals were convinced that nothing Roman should remain as the reform gathered momentum. A particular target of theirs was the Sacrament of the Altar. They could never understand why Luther continued to confess the Real Presence of the Lord’s Body and Blood in the Supper. Their lack of spiritual discernment led them to disregard the Lord’s own institution of the sacrament, replacing sound doctrine with their own mix of human opinions. They were not content with the revealed God, but desired to search heaven itself for what they considered to be a better, that is, more spiritual, understanding of the Supper. Luther engaged in much debate with Karlstadt and other reformers who insisted on pushing the reform of the church beyond the constraints of God’s revelation.
In his usual understated way, Luther points to the fundamental necessity of God’s revelation, that is, His Word.
Our teaching is that bread and wine do not avail. I will go still farther. Christ on the cross and all his suffering and his death do not avail, even if, as you teach, they are “acknowledged and meditated upon” with the utmost “passion, ardor, heartfeltness.” Something else must always be there. What is it? The Word, the Word, the Word. Listen, lying spirit, the Word avails. Even if Christ were given for us and crucified a thousand times, it would all be in vain if the Word of God were absent and were not distributed and given to me with the bidding, this is for you, take what is yours.21
A few paragraphs later, Luther confesses:
So that our readers may the better perceive our teaching I shall clearly and broadly describe it. We treat of the forgiveness of sins in two ways. First, how it is achieved and won. Second, how it is distributed and given to us. Christ has achieved it on the cross, it is true. But he has not distributed or given it on the cross. He has not won it in the supper or sacrament. There he has distributed and given it through the Word, as also in the gospel, where it is preached. He has won it once for all on the cross. But the distribution takes place continuously, before and after, from the beginning to the end of the world ….
If now I seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I hold to the suffering of Christ, as Dr. Karlstadt trifles, in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross.22
These familiar words are echoed in Luther’s later years as he lectured on the book of Genesis. In the account of Jacob’s dream of the ladder reaching to heaven, Luther expounded on the need to remain with the revealed God:
Do not seek a new and foolish entrance. But look in faith at the place where the Word and the sacraments are. Direct your step to the place where the Word resounds and the sacraments are administered, and there write the title THE GATE OF GOD. Let this be done either in the church and in the public assemblies or in bedchambers, when we console and buoy up the sick or when we absolve him who sits with us at table. There the gate of heaven is, as Christ says (Matt. 18:20): “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” Throughout the world the house of God and the gate of heaven is wherever there is the pure teaching of the Word together with the sacraments (LW 5, 246).23
The theology of the cross
In Luther’s commentary on Genesis 27, in which we are told of the trials of the patriarch Jacob as he left his home to avoid the wrath of his brother Esau, Luther uses this as an opportunity to expound on the greater trials of Jesus. He explains the theology of the cross, how it is hidden under the form of defeat and death, and yet there is Christ’s victory for us.
When [Jesus] wants to ascend into heaven and to enter into His glory, when He is about to overcome death, sin, and the devil, He is nailed to the cross, dies, and is buried as the most rejected of all men and demons. This is not an entrance into glory or a victory and triumph over death, is it? It surely is; for these are God’s hidden ways, which must be understood not according to the flesh and human understanding but according to Scripture and Christ Himself, who says to His disciples (Luke 24:26): “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory?” (LW 5, 185).
Notice how Luther directs us to the revealed God in order to understand that theology of the cross. The cross of Christ is understood not by human reason but through the hearing of the Holy Scriptures.
Prior to our engagement with those outside the Church in times of trial, we who are in the Church are required constantly to examine our own confession of the faith when the inevitable struggles arise. We test our confession (not in terms of whether or not it “works” in some pragmatic way, but in terms of its faithfulness to the testimony of Holy Scripture) against the trials of our own lives, the lives of our fellow parishioners. What instruction does the Church give to believers in Christ who undergo trials and struggles? How is this instruction reflected publicly, in worship, hymns, sermons, individual confession and absolution?
It has become increasingly clear to some, even within the Evangelical churches of America, that contemporary Christianity has missed badly in its attempts to help those who struggle in times of trial. A recent book which diagnoses and suggests remedies to this state of affairs is Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free. Written by Tullian Tchividjian, the book explores suffering from the perspectives of the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. The author, the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, critiques the message given to sufferers from those who approach suffering from the theology of glory. The very churches which have served as models for countless congregations scattered across our country have, in large part, provided a false message, one which, sadly, actually increases the burden on those who suffer. In contrast, the theology of the cross points the sufferer not to some distant God, but to the God who suffers with us and for us. Quoting Phillip Cary, Tchividijian notes:
Like every consumer product, the new evangelical theology is always advertising itself—and advertising is always about how great it is to experience the product that’s being advertised. No advertiser ever lets on that there’s deep suffering in the world and that it might be your job to participate in it. And so the promises of Christ, which are for our comfort and encouragement, become advertising slogans we have to live up to in order to keep up our image as Christians—as if to say, “Look at me. I’m living the victorious Christian life, as advertised!” Our Lord promises abundant life (John 10:10), so if your life doesn’t look very abundant these days, you have to wonder what’s wrong with you.
Sadly, this “new evangelical theology”—the prosperity gospel—has left a legacy of spiritual wreckage in the lives of countless believers who simply desired to love and obey God. The prosperity gospel does not answer why bad things happen; it merely encourages us to focus on how to live in the present. It tells us that God is a good God, who gives only good things to His children. Which is about as classic a half-truth as you could possibly find.
Unfortunately, Christians are never, ever promised in the Bible that God will rescue us from our suffering—never [in the way the prosperity gospel promises].24
The theology of the cross leads us to understand the true nature of the suffering of this world and its resolution in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The church that desires faithfully to reflect this theology does well to examine how she presents herself to the world. Those churches that are based on the theology of glory should not and cannot be seen as theologically legitimate resources for how we order the divine service, the hymns, the very architecture and arrangement of the sanctuary. Such matters are not of a pragmatic nature, as if whatever “works” (and however that “working” is defined) is sufficient.25 Rather, the scriptural depth, the confessional and comforting substance, and aesthetic of the Lutheran church are to inform us. These truths are what the people of our time need, just as they have in prior generations.
In many ways, suffering was the battlefield on which the early modern Christian confessions—or at least their leaders—fought for the souls of the European population …. Suffering was viewed as the most important litmus test of confessional loyalty, for it was in suffering, as nowhere else, that people’s deepest religious convictions were revealed.26
The time of the Lutheran reformation was a time when the pastoral care of the suffering underwent in-depth examination and eventual modification, focusing more and more on the Gospel’s comfort for those who suffered.27 Luther’s insights into the theology of the cross were foundational to this.
For us, then, the question remains: how do we engage others with Jesus in times of trial? Perhaps the most important understanding of trials is to receive all of them as times to live in repentance and faith. Yet great care must be taken so that the mistakes of Job’s friends are not made by us in our attempts to explain trial and suffering. There surely are consequences for sinful actions; but, that does not mean we will be able to see them or know them clearly, nor does it mean that such a connection should be our first engagement with those undergoing trial. This is actually where we learn why pastoral care is considered an art, and why the application of Law and Gospel to any individual is not simply a bullet-point list to follow. Individuals suffer differently. What one may be able to hear and receive another may very well be unable to hear, at that time and place and circumstance. However, there are also times when the connection must be made between sin and consequence.
In one of the Apology to the Augsburg Confession’s lengthier articles, Melanchthon distinguishes between the two parts of repentance (penitence): contrition and faith. Times of trial will bring with them occasion for contrition. This will be true of believer and unbeliever. But without faith such contrition will lead only to despair. The Apology uses the examples of Saul and Judas on the one hand, and David and Peter on the other, to demonstrate the difference between contrition without the Gospel and contrition with the Gospel.
In order to deliver pious consciences from these labyrinths of the scholastics, we have given penitence two parts, namely, contrition and faith … We say that contrition is the genuine terror of a conscience that feels God’s wrath against sin and is sorry that it has sinned. This contrition takes place when the Word of God denounces sin. For the sum of the proclamation of the Gospel is to denounce sin, to offer the forgiveness of sins and righteousness for Christ’s sake, to grant the Holy Spirit and eternal life, and to lead us as regenerated men to do good. 30 Christ gives this summary of the Gospel in the last chapter of Luke (24:47), “That penitence and forgiveness of sins should be preached in my name to all nations.”
31 Scripture speaks of these terrors, as in Ps. 38:4, 8, “For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.” And in Ps. 6:2, 3, “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is sorely troubled. But thou, O Lord—how long?” And in Isa. 38:10, 13, “I said, In the noontide of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol. I cry for help until morning; like a lion he breaks all my bones.” 32 In these terrors the conscience feels God’s wrath against sin, unknown to men who walk in carnal security. It sees the foulness of sin and is genuinely sorry that it has sinned; at the same time it flees God’s horrible wrath, for human nature cannot bear it unless it is sustained by the Word of God. 33 So Paul says (Gal. 2:19), “I through the law died to the law.” 34 For the law only accuses and terrifies the conscience. In these terrors our opponents say nothing about faith, but present only the Word that denounces sin. Taken alone, this is the teaching of the law, not of the Gospel. They say that by these sorrows and terrors men merit grace if they love God. Yet how will men love God amid such real terrors when they feel the terrible and indescribable wrath of God? What do they teach but despair, when amid such terrors they show men only the law?
35 As the second part of our consideration of penitence, we therefore add faith in Christ, that amid these terrors the Gospel of Christ ought to be set forth to consciences—the Gospel which freely promises the forgiveness of sins through Christ. They should believe therefore that because of Christ their sins are freely forgiven. 36 This faith strengthens, sustains, and quickens the contrite according to the passage (Rom. 5:1), “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God.” This faith obtains the forgiveness of sins. This faith justifies before God, as the same passage attests, “We are justified by faith.” This faith shows the difference between the contrition of Judas and Saul on the one hand and that of Peter and David on the other. The contrition of Judas and Saul did not avail because it lacked the faith that grasps the forgiveness of sins granted for Christ’s sake. The contrition of David and Peter did avail because it had the faith that grasps the forgiveness of sins granted for Christ’s sake.28
There is a mystery here that we cannot unravel with our human reason. It is the question: why some, not others? Why are Saul and Judas cut off from the Gospel which they certainly had heard? Why are David and Peter receiving the faith that holds on to the Gospel? In the earlier quotation from AC V we read: “[God] gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, where and when he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.” Attempts to untangle this divine mystery lead to the error of seeking God where He is not to be found. Sasse gives the warning:
We seek the Holy Spirit where He is not to be found when we overlook the fact that while the Holy Spirit is indeed given in correct preaching, He does not always create faith, but only “where and when it pleases God” … we must hold firmly that the external Word of Scripture and correct Scriptural preaching always brings the Holy Spirit. But we must never forget the other truth, that the Holy Spirit does not always work faith. This is the freedom of God the Holy Spirit which Article V of the Augsburg Confession teaches.29
Sasse observes at the end of this same section of the essay, in regard to Jesus’ words from Mark 4 and Isaiah 6:9 (“so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven”): “whoever is not awed by what is hidden deep in these words will never truly know the Holy Spirit.”30 One can begin to realize that a common answer to the question of “why” in regards to all sorts of trials and sufferings is finally: we do not know, God does and we believe Him.
This realization of our inability always (or even sometimes) to know exactly what God is doing and why, and especially so when we see that He is acting against us, is what leads God’s children to struggle in their faith. God’s promises of forgiveness and life and salvation are opposed by our experiences of suffering and trial, of terrors of conscience, and death. We are not alone in this. And, in fact, it is precisely here that we learn to pray, and to pray using the very words God gives us as He teaches us prayer, especially prayer in the form of lament.
Lament is the anguish of spirit that results in asking God: why? Lament comes from the heart that is constricted by pain, whether one’s own or that of a loved one, family or friend. In the book of Psalms we find the words to express such lamentation to God. Psalms of lament are not strangers or occasional to the Psalter. Lamentation is found scattered throughout the Psalms. It is part of what it means to live as a Christian in this world. We cry out to God for help because we believe His promises but we do not feel or experience them to be true. Instead we feel pain, hurt, sorrow, loss. Why? Why a divorce? Why cancer? Why a miscarriage? Why that accident? Why that tornado? These are not new questions for God. He has heard them before, and He has even written down some ways for us to talk to Him about it.
In his masterful book on Christian spirituality, Dr. John Kleinig devotes a chapter to the spiritual discipline of meditation. There he includes a section on lament in which he lists a variety of psalms that teach us and provide us with the vocabulary of lament to God. Some of these psalms are: 69, 17, 10, 38, 25, 51, 55, 88, 41, 6. There are many more. He describes lament in this way:
The psalms of lament and complaint confront us with those experiences that seem to contradict what we believe. They take God at His Word and hold Him to His promises. They look for God’s light in the face of darkness, for His grace in the face of His wrath, His justice in the face of injustice, and His help in the face of trouble. It is, after all, easy to discern the hand of God and to believe in His goodness when things go well. But it is hard, very hard indeed, to recognize His goodness and to trust in His provision for us when the bottom falls out of our lives. It’s hard to see His goodness when we are surrounded by darkness. That’s when we need the eyes of faith most of all, eyes that see Him at work with us, bringing good out of evil and life through death.31
The biblical passages quoted below do not deny or belittle the sufferings experienced by God’s people, but address those trials, often demonstrating the lament of the people of God who are living the tension between God’s promises of mercy and kindness in contrast with the current burden of suffering and sorrow. This category of lament to God in times of sorrow and trial is not one limited to any one book of Holy Scripture. It is found in both Old and New Testaments.
The troubles of my heart have enlarged; Bring me out of my distresses! 18 Look on my affliction and my pain, And forgive all my sins. (Psalm 25:17–18 NKJ)
The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, And saves such as have a contrite spirit. 19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous, But the LORD delivers him out of them all. (Psalm 34:18–19 NKJ)
Yet for Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. 23 Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord? Arise! Do not cast us off forever. 24 Why do You hide Your face, And forget our affliction and our oppression? 25 For our soul is bowed down to the dust; Our body clings to the ground. 26 Arise for our help, And redeem us for Your mercies’ sake. (Psalm 44:22–26 NKJ)
For You, O God, have tested us; You have refined us as silver is refined. 11 You brought us into the net; You laid affliction on our backs. 12 You have caused men to ride over our heads; We went through fire and through water; But You brought us out to rich fulfillment. (Psalm 66:10–12 NKJ)
You have put away my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an abomination to them; I am shut up, and I cannot get out; 9 My eye wastes away because of affliction. LORD, I have called daily upon You; I have stretched out my hands to You. (Psalm 88:8–9 NKJ)
Many times He delivered them; But they rebelled in their counsel, And were brought low for their iniquity. 44 Nevertheless He regarded their affliction, When He heard their cry; 45 And for their sake He remembered His covenant, And relented according to the multitude of His mercies. (Psalm 106:43–45 NKJ)
Remember the word to Your servant, Upon which You have caused me to hope. 50 This is my comfort in my affliction, For Your word has given me life. (Psalm 119:49–50 NKJ)
Forever, O LORD, Your word is settled in heaven. 90 Your faithfulness endures to all generations; You established the earth, and it abides. 91 They continue this day according to Your ordinances, For all are Your servants. 92 Unless Your law had been my delight, I would then have perished in my affliction. (Psalm 119:89-92 NKJ)
Consider my affliction and deliver me, For I do not forget Your law. 154 Plead my cause and redeem me; Revive me according to Your word. 155 Salvation is far from the wicked, For they do not seek Your statutes. 156 Great are Your tender mercies, O LORD; Revive me according to Your judgments. (Psalm 119:153–156 NKJ)
Remember my affliction and roaming, The wormwood and the gall. 20 My soul still remembers And sinks within me. 21 This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope. 22 Through the LORD’S mercies we are not consumed, Because His compassions fail not. (Lamentations 3:19–22 NKJ)32
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. 17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, 18 while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18 NKJ)
For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake. 6 And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe. (1 Thessalonians 1:5–7 NKJ)
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. (James 1:2–3 NKJ)
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, 8 whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, 9 receiving the end of your faith– the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:6–9 NKJ)
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; 13 but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. (1 Peter 4:12–13 NKJ)
Over all of these passages stands the prayer and lament of our Lord, quoting the great Psalm 22, as He hangs dying for the world: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me” Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34). Here we have the theology of the cross in all its paradoxical wonder. This truth is confessed in times of trial, it is believed and prayed, knowing that the mercies of God, His promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation have not failed, do not fail, will not fail.
For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance. 26 Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. (Romans 8:24–26 NKJ)
With the Christian experiencing promptings to lamentation in this world, what about the unbeliever? While the Christian wrestles with the seeming paradox of the promises of God and the experience of trials, the unbeliever must wrestle with the even more basic question of the human condition: original sin with all its temporal and eternal consequences. But the answer to this is spiritually discerned. Therefore the unbeliever must be confronted finally with mortality, and what then? What gods are there on which to rely in the hour of death? How many can approach death with the apparent stoicism of a Christopher Hitchens?
Not that any serious reader of Hitchens suspected that he, of all people, would recant his lifelong atheism and convert on his deathbed. But it seemed reasonable to expect that a mind, and a pen, as strong as his would at least take death more seriously, or have more to say about it. Perhaps Hitchens did experience some kind of spiritual struggle during his nineteen-month illness, but if he did then he did not write about it.
His chief concern seems to have been cementing his legacy. Hitchens wanted to be remembered in a certain way: unrepentant atheist, loquacious contrarian, combative right to the end. Here was a man, larger than life, who left behind a prodigious amount of great polemical writing and a reputation to match. He wanted it all to remain intact, unsullied by whatever doubts or fears or feelings of loss he might have had at the end.33
“Under no persuasion could I be made to believe that a human sacrifice several thousand years ago vicariously redeems me from sin,” he said. “Nothing could persuade me that that was true—or moral, by the way. It’s white noise to me.”34
It is not up to the Christian Church to translate what is heard as “white noise” into the proclamation of the Gospel. That is the work of God the Holy Spirit, as noted above regarding Augsburg Confession Article V.35 The members of the Church cannot argue anyone into the kingdom of God. But the Church can and does proclaim the truth of God’s Word to each new generation, regardless of what that generation may think of that Word. “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15 NKJ). It is the hope of the Christian that will make his confession distinct from those who suffer and mourn without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
While there is no doubt a number of Hitchens-like individuals who neither desire nor seek help from any divine source, there are also undoubtedly many more who are perplexed and seek help outside themselves in times of trial, once they have exhausted all the human resources they can muster. Since we cannot easily or with certainty identify these differences between individuals, the Church prepares to preach repentance and remission of sins to all the world, as our Lord Himself gave command (Matthew 28, Luke 24). The seed is sown regardless of the soil—God does not give us soil-testing kits to determine if a certain community or individuals within it are “good soil.” Rather, the Word is sown indiscriminately, from the human perspective. God will accomplish what He wills with that Word, it does not return to Him without accomplishing the purpose for which He sent it—and even though the accomplishment is often beyond what our human senses can register.
What we learn is that the task of the Church is to be faithful to that which is given to her to use for the consolation and comfort of souls burdened with trials: Word and Sacrament. Such faithfulness is found foremost in the public worship of the Christian Church.
Worship services take into account the need for souls to receive consolation through the divinely given gifts of mercy. The hymns we sing teach people the depth of Biblical resources for hearing from and speaking to God. The vocabulary of the psalms is reflected in hymns, by using the psalms themselves in the various services, both regular and occasional (consider the regular use of Psalms 130, 90, and 23 in the Service of Christian Burial), and as part of the liturgy itself (whether it be the Divine Service or the daily offices). Our sermons deal with themes that address times of sorrow and trial with scriptural truth, and not psychological or sociological opinions. There are many Sundays in the course of the Church Year that include texts that directly address trial, sorrow, doubt, death, etc.: Epiphany 4 (Matthew 8:23–27 [stilling of the storm]), Lent 2 (Matthew 15:21–28 [woman with demon-possessed daughter]), Easter 4 (John 16:16–23 “a little while”), Easter 7 (John 15:26–16:4 “whoever kills you will think he offers God service”), Trinity 16, (Luke 7:11–17, Jesus raises from the dead the young man of Nain). These, as well as many others, are all opportunities for the faithful pastor to address these common, ordinary, circumstances of life, so that the people learn to see such things as suffering, trial, doubt, pain, death, not as extraordinary events, but part of what it means to live as God’s child here in this world.
Various collects address these same topics. Here is one example, the second collect for Easter 4:
Lord God, heavenly Father, of Your fatherly goodness You allow Your children to come under Your chastening rod here on earth, that we might be like Your only-begotten Son in suffering and hereafter in glory: We beseech You, comfort us by Your Holy Spirit in all temptations and afflictions, that we may not fall into despair, but that we may continually trust in Your Son’s promise, that our trials will endure but a little while, and will then be followed by eternal joy; that we thus, in patient hope, may overcome all evil, and at last obtain eternal salvation; through the same, Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen.36
The truth of the Christian experience of the “chastening rod,” to be like Jesus in suffering and glory, to be comforted in temptations and afflictions by the Holy Spirit—these are not prayed here as some unusual experience for God’s people, but what should be expected if one is to pick up one’s cross and follow Jesus.
To engage others with Jesus in times of trial is to learn to treat such experiences as typical, not atypical, and to see that Jesus Himself came in order to address the totality of human life, not merely certain parts of it. From conception, to life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has gone through all that we endure now. Isaiah 53:4–6 opens our eyes to the all-encompassing work of the world’s Savior, to the fact that He was burdened with all each of us carries individually, doing so without sin, yet certainly suffering, dying.
Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4–6 NKJ)
The Christian hope which we desire others to know and believe is based on this work of Jesus Christ for us, the work for which He was sent by the Father who so loved the world. The people whom we meet in our various vocations have had their transgressions, iniquities, bruisings, and stripes put on Jesus, as have we. The inclusivity of the Gospel is here exhibited: all have gone astray, on Jesus has been laid the iniquity of all. This is God’s work, and God’s promise for all. It is the hope which tempers our sorrow and grief, it is the promise to which we cling when God wills us to be chastened. This is the hope which causes us to cry out to God, asking Him, pleading with Him, to remember us, the promises He has given. And while God has not ever forgotten, and will never forget, He hears our lament and keeps giving us His Word.
Recall our confession to the world regarding the ways this word, the Gospel, is given:
We shall now return to the Gospel, which offers council and help against sin in more than one way, for God is surpassingly rich in his grace: First, through the spoken word, by which the forgiveness of sin (the peculiar function of the Gospel) is preached to the whole world; second, through Baptism; third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth, through the power of the keys; and finally, through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren. Matt. 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered,” etc.37
To engage with Jesus those undergoing the wide spectrum of trials that impacts human life in this world is to keep pointing people to the ways God has provided His promises (the Gospel) to be brought to us. The Gospel is spoken, proclaimed, in the sermon. Such proclamation of the Gospel presupposes the right distinction between Law and Gospel. Where the Law is muted or otherwise allowed to be adapted to cultural opinion, there the Gospel itself is affected as its need is diminished in favor of human achievement.
Baptism, with its connection to the death and resurrection of Jesus, is a powerful and divinely mandated way by which souls are connected to Jesus. This promise is for all, for you and your children. It gives forgiveness of sin, the very answer to the question of how the sinful human condition can be adequately addressed—from God’s work, and not our own.
The Sacrament of the Altar is taught by St. Paul as including the proclamation of the Lord’s death. In a world where death is always approaching and daily making its claim, the Supper gives us Jesus, His Body and Blood, for the remission of sins, and as the confession of the Church that here we find the Answer to death: Jesus Christ.
The power of the keys is the power to retain and to remit sin. Luther goes into further detail regarding this when he writes on Confession, Article VIII of this section in the Smalcald Articles. Here we find a wonderful exposition both of the gift of absolution and of the Reformation principle: God only deals with us through His external Word and Sacrament.
Since absolution or the power of the keys, which was instituted by Christ in the Gospel, is a consolation and help against sin and a bad conscience, confession and absolution should by no means be allowed to fall into disuse in the church, especially for the sake of timid consciences and for the sake of untrained young people who need to be examined and instructed in Christian doctrine.38
And the section that remains a necessary confession in our own day, a confession that truly and clearly marks out that which makes the Lutheran church distinctive:
In short, enthusiasm clings to Adam and his descendants from the beginning to the end of the world. It is a poison implanted and inoculated in man by the old dragon, and it is the source, strength, and power of all heresy, including that of the papacy and Mohammedanism. Accordingly, we should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament. Whatever is attributed to the Spirit apart from such Word and sacrament is of the devil.39
It is “enthusiasm” that seeks God where He has not promised to be found. It is “enthusiasm” that seeks other ways to address today’s culture apart from the external Word and sacrament. The faithful Church that desires to address the needs of souls can only do so by giving what Jesus, the Bridegroom, has given His bride, the Christian Church.
Lord Jesus, help, Thy Church uphold,
We are so sluggish, thoughtless, cold,
O prosper well, Thy Word of grace
And spread its truth in ev’ry place.
Thy Word shall fortify us hence,
It is Thy Church’s sure defense;
O let us in its pow’r confide,
That we may seek no other guide.40
Jesus said, “for My yoke is easy, and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Paul wrote: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). To see that God allows and brings suffering, trial, sorrow, is to begin to understand the distinction that Jesus, and later St. Paul, makes. We find trials to be burdensome, but Jesus says that they are light. Using the same word “light,” Paul makes the comparison between what we experience now, and that which we will experience in eternity: light affliction, a weight of glory. Luther explains this comparison in a sermon he preached on April 16, 1530, when he stayed at the Coburg castle, just two months prior to the public reading of the Augsburg Confession:
If you are willing to suffer, very well, then the treasure and consolation which is promised and given to you is so great that you ought to suffer willingly and joyfully because Christ and his suffering is being bestowed upon you and made your own. And if you can believe this, then in time of great fear and trouble you will be able to say: Even though I suffer long, very well then, what is that compared with that great treasure which my God has given to me, that I shall live eternally with him?
Look what happens then: the suffering would be sweet and easy and no longer an eternal suffering, but only a modicum which lasts only a short time and soon passes away, as St. Paul [II Cor. 4:17], and St. Peter [I Pet. 1:6], and also Christ himself says in the Gospels [John 16:16–22]. For they look to that great, immeasurable gift, which is that Christ with his suffering and merit has become altogether ours. Thus the suffering of Christ has become so mighty and strong that it fills heaven and earth and breaks the power and might of the devil and hell, of death and sin. And then if you compare this treasure with your affliction and suffering, you will consider it but small loss to lose a little property, honor, health, wife, child, and even your own life.41
Trial is when that in which we trust becomes most clear to us. Trial helps us to see that which looks heavy is in reality a “light” affliction, a “light” burden. But this is known only by faith in Jesus Christ. By faith we trust that the weight of glory that lies ahead is far superior to what we experience now. Still there is pain and there is trial, so we speak to God, the One who calls us by name, the One who promises never to leave or forsake us, the One who through His only-begotten Son has given us the gift of speaking to Him as our Father. Kyrie eleison!
One last thought
A study of the trials through which all people go in this life is a broad topic, one that really is addressed from various angles through the Scriptures. I have addressed the topic through the lens of the theology of the cross, which I believe is fundamental to understanding trial in the depth needed. However, other ways to address trial are also helpful for us to study. A study of vocation is particularly apt as another direction. As we engage with Jesus those who are undergoing trial, let us remember that within the vocations God has placed each of us, there are opportunities to show compassion simply with the physical aspects of life in this world. To be merciful to others includes helping them with all the gifts of the First Article, as well as the Second and Third. It does not matter if you or your church gets credit for such charity. What matters is that those in need, those who are burdened, are given brief respite. This may well lead to opportunities to presenting the eternal respite given by our Savior, Jesus Christ. The Christian in society is, in large part, about vocation, how we interact with those around us. In those various settings of vocation God allows us to be little christs to our neighbors in need.
Why should cross and trial grieve me? Christ is near With His cheer;
Never shall He leave me.
Who can rob me of the heaven That God’s Son
For my own To my faith hath given?
Though a heavy cross I’m bearing And my heart Feels the smart
Shall I be despairing?
God, my Helper, who doth send it, Well doth know,
All my woe And how best to end it.42
Soli Deo Gloria
1 Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle / Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells, / Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; / And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all? / Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. / The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, / And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
2 Harrison, Matthew C., editor, “The Lutheran Church and World Missions,” Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Volume II; Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 2014; 315–6. In an occasional paper from 2006, it is noted, using “necrometrics,” that 231 million people died in the 20th century, most “by human decision” (see: http://cissm.umd.edu/papers/files/deathswarsconflictsjune52006.pdf, accessed 5/19/14).
3 Not that further evidence is needed, still, take some time to read the comments put on Youtube with songs like Sarah Mclachlan’s “In the Arms of an Angel” or REM’s “Everybody Hurts” (and many other songs, for that matter). Many of the comments, often posted by teenagers, express sorrow and on-going hurt over the recent and not so recent tragic and sudden deaths of family and friends.
4 Mark Epstein, “The Trauma of Being Alive” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/opinion/sunday/the-trauma-of-being-alive.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0). Emphasis added.
5 James Wood book review of Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem, “Holiday in Hellmouth: God may be dead, but the question of why he permits suffering lives on,” http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2008/06/09/080609crbo_books_wood?currentPage=all. Emphasis added.
6 David Mills, “Real Death, Real Dignity,” http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/02/real-death-real-dignity. Emphasis added.
7 John P. Sisk, book review of Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering, by Joseph A. Amato, “Suffering Humanity,” http://firstthing.com/article/2007/11/002-suffering-humanity?keepThis=true….
8 Wesley J. Smith, “Our Neurotic Fear of Suffering,” http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2012/08/our-neurotic-fear-of-suffering, emphasis original.
9 R.J. Heijmen, “Dying to Live: What are the Side Effects of the Modern Hospital,” The Mockingbird, Winter 2014.
10 David Brooks, “What Suffering Does,” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/08/opinion/brooks-what-suffering-does.html.
11 Luther’s Large Catechism, trans. F. Samuel Janzow, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1978, 13.
12 Hermann Sasse, Witness: Erlangen Sermons and Essays for the Church, 1933–1944, trans. Bror Erickson, Magdeburg Press, Saginaw, Michigan, 2013, 66–67.
13 C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Harper Collins, San Francisco, 2001, 49–50.
15 Richard Eyer, Pastoral Care Under the Cross: God in the Midst of Suffering, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1994, 150.
16 Ronald Ritter, The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany, Oxford University Press USA, 2012, 257.
17 Tullian Tchividjian, Glorious Ruin, David C. Cook, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2012, 119–120.
18 Rudolph Honsey, Job, Northwestern Publishing House, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2nd edition, 2000, 155.
19 Honsey, 163.
20 Luther observes regarding the hiddenness of the things of faith to human reason: “The second reason is that faith has to do with things not seen [Heb. 11:1]. Hence in order that there may be room for faith, it is necessary that everything which is believed should be hidden. It cannot, however, be more deeply hidden than under an object, perception, or experience which is contrary to it. Thus when God makes alive he does it by killing, when he justifies he does it by making men guilty, when he exalts to heaven he does it by bringing down to hell, as Scripture says: ‘The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up’ (I Sam. 2[:6]). This is not the place to speak at length on this subject, but those who have read my books have had it quite plainly set forth for them.
“Thus God hides his eternal goodness and mercy under eternal wrath, his righteousness under iniquity. This is the highest degree of faith, to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable, so that he seems, according to Erasmus, to delight in the torments of the wretched and to be worthy of hatred rather than of love. If, then, I could by any means comprehend how this God can be merciful and just who displays so much wrath and iniquity, there would be no need of faith. As it is, since that cannot be comprehended, there is room for the exercise of faith when such things are preached and published, just as when God kills, the faith of life is exercised in death” (Luther, Bondage of the Will, LW 33, 62–63).
21 Martin Luther, “Against the Heavenly Prophets,” LW 40, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 212–213.
22 Luther, LW 40, 213–214.
23 Earlier in his Genesis commentary, Genesis 26, Luther addressed the complaint that suggests that if God would appear to me in person like He did to the patriarchs, then I would find it easier to believe and would not be subject to doubt and apprehension. Luther responds: “I answer: You have no reason to complain that you have been visited less than Abraham or Isaac. You, too, have appearances, and in a way they are stronger, clearer, and more numerous than those they had, provided that you open your eyes and heart and take hold of them. You have Baptism. You have the Sacrament of the Eucharist, where bread and wine are the species, figures, and forms in which and under which God in person speaks and works into your ears, eyes, and heart. Besides, you have the ministry of the Word and teachers through whom God speaks with you. You have the ministry of the Keys, through which He absolves and comforts you. “Fear not,” He says, “I am with you.” He appears to you in Baptism. He baptizes you Himself and addresses you Himself. He not only says: “I am with you,” but: “I forgive you your sins. I offer you salvation from death, deliverance from all fear and from the power of the devil and hell. And not only I am with you, but all the angels with Me.” What more will you desire? Everything is full of divine appearances and conversations” (LW 5, 21).
24 Tchividjian, 102–103.
25 I wonder how many praise bands would be in Lutheran churches today if the churches of the enthusiasts that were on the cutting edge of introducing them in American worship services had not been able to show positive numerical results by doing so. My guess is that Lutherans would have ignored this phenomenon if not for the numbers.
26 Ritter, 5.
27 It would, however, be a mistake to think that pastoral care for the suffering was at best only minimally addressed prior to the reformation. A variety of manuals and other helps for the care of those suffering were produced prior to the reformation. Johannes von Dambach, a student along with Johannes Tauler of Meister Eckhart, wrote the Consolation of Theology, an in-depth study of suffering. Dambach addressed many types of suffering. “Dambach treats a truly dizzying array of adversities: loss of mundane property, loss of honor or reputation, private or public shame, sojourn in this vale of misery, bodily sickness, war, persecution, homelessness, exile, martyrdom, temptations of the flesh, various divine scourges, daily toil, difficulty in cultivating virtue, contrition and penance, the care of souls, an adulterous spouse, imprisonment, sterility, impotence, the death of friends and loved ones, fear of hell, fear of death, fear of predestination, loss of food or clothing, a rigid teacher, the demands of study, bodily deformity or loss of limbs through amputation, loss of memory and knowledge, loss of sacraments through interdicts, blocks to (monastic) devotion, and even shortness of stature, to name but a few” (Ritter, 56).
28 Tappert, Apology, XII, 28–37, 185–187.
29 Hermann Sasse, “On the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” We Confess: the Church, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri, 22. Emphasis original.
30 Sasse, 23.
31 Kleinig, John. Grace upon Grace: Spirituality for Today, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri, 2008, 137
32 Regarding the book of Lamentations, and the category of lament in general, Eugene Peterson writes: “Lamentations is a concentrated and intense biblical witness to suffering. Suffering is a huge, unavoidable element in the human condition. To be human is to suffer. No one gets an exemption. It comes as no surprise then to find that our Holy Scriptures, immersed as they are in the human condition, provide extensive witness to suffering …. Lamentations, written out of the Exile experience, provides the community of faith with a form and vocabulary for dealing with loss and pain.” (“Introduction to Lamentations” from The Message, included as a resource in The Problem of Suffering: A Companion.)
35 Note the subject of the verbs in Old Testament lesson for Easter 7 (ELH Historic Series): “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” Ezekiel 36:25–27.
36 Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, Collect #69, 156. Luther, on this same theme notes: “We are not absolved from sins in order that we may live for them and serve them, but in order that we may fight against them and stoutly persevere in the promise, in order that I may chastise and mortify my flesh and bear it with a calm mind when God imposes a cross, in order that we may be purged and bring forth richer fruit. ‘By this,’ says Christ, ‘My heavenly Father is glorified, if you become My disciples,’ (cf. John 15:8); that is, if you suffer as I did, and if you become like Me. For he who is not a ‘Crosstian,’ so to speak, is not a Christian; for he is not like Christ, his Teacher” (LW 5, 274).
37 Tappert, Book of Concord, Smalcald Articles, III, IV, 310.
38 Tappert, 312.
39 Tappert, 313.
40 Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, 511, “Lord, Jesus Christ, with Us Abide,” stanzas 3,8.
41 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 51, “Sermon at Coburg on Cross and Suffering,” Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 199-200). Compare the fourth stanza of “A Mighty Fortress:” “And take they our life,/ Goods, fame, child, and wife,/ Let these all be gone,/ They yet have nothing won;/ The Kingdom ours remaineth” (ELH 250).
42 ELH 377 stanzas 1,2.
Today we live in a culture where instead of people having done something to deserve their troubles, we all seem to believe that people deserve something for their troubles. If bad things happen to good people, then they deserve more good stuff! No one typifies this mentality (and its pitfalls) more than America’s favorite television “loser,” Mr. George Costanza.
George: So he’s keeping the apartment. He doesn’t deserve it, though! Even if he did suffer, that was, like, 40 years ago! What has he been doing lately?! I’ve been suffering for the past 30 years up to and including yesterday!
Jerry: You know, if this tenant board is so impressed with suffering, maybe you should tell them the “Astonishing Tales of Costanza.”
George: (Interested) I should!
Jerry: I mean, your body of work in this field is unparalleled.
George: I could go bumper to bumper with any one else on this planet!
Jerry: You’re the man!
You might recognize this dialogue from Seinfeld. In the episode in question (“The Andrea Doria”), someone promises the long-suffering George Costanza a new apartment in his building. But then a fellow tenant, who happens to be a survivor of the famous Andrea Doria shipwreck, voices a claim, at which point George’s offer is revoked. According to the tenant association, suffering earns a person a higher place on the list and, thus, a greater reward. George, who in classic biblical (and comedic) fashion, is his own worst enemy par excellence, both the cause and the victim of an absurd amount of suffering throughout the show’s run, decides to plead his own case. He runs through a rudimentary list of his misadventures, and it leaves the board in tears:
George: In closing, these stories have not been embellished, because—they need no embellishment. They are simply, horrifyingly, the story of my life as a short, stocky, slow witted bald man. (Gets up) Thank you …. Oh, also … my fiancée died from licking toxic envelopes that I picked out.
This is a brilliant and hilarious characterization of how many of us confront suffering. Rather than face the underlying reasons for our distress (or look outside of ourselves for some relief), we attempt to leverage our pain for reward. Suffering becomes another way to justify ourselves, another form of works righteousness—a competition just as grueling as the obedience one.
For George, and many of us, victimhood becomes a tool of entitlement, a method for cracking the code of karma. But it doesn’t work. Not for George (the apartment ends up going to someone who bribes the landlord), and not for us. On the show, George’s stubborn refusal to give up makes for some inspired humor. For those of us who live our lives off the soundstage, however, this is no laughing matter.
(Tullian Tchividjian, Glorious Ruin, David C. Cook, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2012, 107–109.)
What I Do After Radiation… One hundred and eighty five minutes until the next diagnosis
I know a woman whose daily schedule hinges on one five minute radiation treatment. There is “What I do before radiation,” then, “What I do after radiation.” Five minutes each day for five weeks. Thirty five minutes a week. One hundred and eighty five minutes until the next diagnosis. To-day is counted in minutes. Life is measured in centimeters.
“Immortality in culture,” is the poetic term for cancer. One woman refers to cancer as “my project.” Another, “This God-damned disease.” For others it’s just, “My cancer,” or, “The cancer.”
When she describes her cancer to me—she claims ownership of it, for better and worse—I imagine cancer the same way I imagine termites eating away at the foundation of a house. Voracious bugs that, instead of timber, devour muscle, sinew, ligaments, and tendons.
This wad of cells, so small. Just a four and a half inch mass. Yet her body, which seems unaffected except for the bald head has a weight, a pull emanating from her leg, like a dwarf star collapsing in on itself.
We talk for four hours about that little dying star. We talk about it. We talk around it. We talk as if it weren’t there. We talk as if it’s always been there. But that’s cancer. No matter where you go with the conversation, there it is.
The conversation is raw, honest, stripped down, economical … we only have until 1:00pm. Then she has to get on a bus that will take her to treatment. Our conversation is part of, “What I do before radiation.”
I’ve been here before though. My schedule, to-day, life, however you want to express it, can also be said to hinge on, “What I did before radiation,” and, “What I do after radiation.” Someone… No. Many people I love have been consumed and swallowed up by tumors that behave as if they are immortal. They are not. Cancer struggles for eternity. Its grasp outstretches its reach. It dies as its host, its universe gasps her last breath.
But, cancer was not there when God laid the foundation of the earth. Cancer has no understanding. It does not determine the measure of a day or a life. It does not sing together with the morning stars and all the sons of God who shout for joy. Why should we fear cancer? Why must we tremble before it? It is not a god. For all its power to destroy, it cannot create. It can induce terror, but never engender hope. It cannot breathe life into putrefied flesh. Cancer cannot speak, hear, feel, walk … Cancer is death come in the flesh.
So, to this woman I know, I say, “Do you not know … all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” “We were buried with Him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too may walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we will certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.”
“I am the resurrection and the life,” says the Lord [Jesus Christ]. “He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die,” no matter what’s on your daily schedule.
Well for me that I have Jesus,
O how strong I hold to him
that he might refresh my heart,
when sick and sad am I.
Jesus have I, who loves me
and gives to me his own,
ah, therefore I will not leave Jesus,
when I feel my heart is breaking.
—from BWV 147, Chorale movement no 6
Jesus remains my joy,
my heart’s comfort and essence,
Jesus resists all suffering,
He is my life’s strength,
my eye’s desire and sun,
my soul’s love and joy;
so will I not leave Jesus
out of heart and face.
—from BWV 147, Chorale movement no. 10
Aurelius, Carl Axel. “Luther on the Psalter”. Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church. Timothy J. Wengert, editor. Lutheran Quarterly Books. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2004.
Bayer, Oswald. “Theology as Askesis: On Struggling Faith.”
———. “Toward a Theology of Lament.” The Problem of Suffering: A Companion Study Guide + Resources for Pastors and Christian Caregivers. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri. 2011.
Brooks, David. “What Suffering Does.” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/08/opinion/brooks-what-suffering-does.html.
Epstein, Mark. “The Trauma of Being Alive.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/opinion/sunday/the-trauma-of-being-alive.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
Eyer, Richard. Pastoral Care Under the Cross: God in the Midst of Suffering. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1994.
Harrison, Matthew C. Christ Have Mercy: How to Put Your Faith in Action. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri. 2008.
———, editor, “The Lutheran Church and World Missions,” Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Volume II; Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri. 2014.
Heijmen, R.J. “Dying to Live: What are the Side Effects of the Modern Hospital,” The Mockingbird, Winter 2014.
Honsey, Rudolph. Job. Northwestern Publishing House, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 2nd edition. 2000.
Kleinig, John. Grace upon Grace: Spirituality for Today. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri. 2008.
Lewis, C.S. “Learning in War-Time,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. Harper Collins, San Francisco. 2001.
Luther, Martin. “Against the Heavenly Prophets.” Luther’s Works. Volume 40. Fortress Press, Philadelphia. 1958.
———. Large Catechism. Trans. F. Samuel Janzow. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1978.
———. Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 26–30. Luther’s Works. Volume 5. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri. 1968.
———. “Sermon at Coburg on Cross and Suffering.” Luther’s Works. Volume 51. Fortress Press, Philadelphia. 1959.
Mills, David. “Real Death, Real Dignity,” http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/02/real-death-real-dignity.
Peterson, Eugene. “Introduction to Lamentations.” The Problem of Suffering: A Companion Study Guide + Resources for Pastors and Christian Caregivers. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri. 2011.
Ritter, Ronald. The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany. Oxford University Press USA. 2012.
Sasse, Hermann. “On the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit.” We Confess: the Church. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri. 1986.
__________. Witness: Erlangen Sermons and Essays for the Church, 1933–1944. Trans. Bror Erickson, Magdeburg Press, Saginaw, Michigan, 2013.
Scaer, David. “The Concept of Anfechtung in Luther’s Thought.” 1980 Reformation Lectures. Lutheran Synod Quarterly. March, 1981. Volume XXI, Number 1. Pages 4–27.
Schulz, Gregory P. The Problem of Suffering: A Father’s Hope. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri. 2011.
Sisk, John P. Book review of Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering, by Joseph A. Amato, “Suffering Humanity,” http://firstthing.com/article/2007/
Smith, Wesley J. “Our Neurotic Fear of Suffering,” http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2012/08/our-neurotic-fear-of-suffering.
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———, editor and translator. Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Regent College Publishing, Vancouver, British Columbia (reproduced by permission of Westminister/John Knox Press). 1955.
Wood, James. Book review of Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem, “Holiday in Hellmouth: God may be dead, but the question of why he permits suffering lives on,” http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2008/06/09/080609crbo_books_wood?currentPage=all).