Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Reflection: On Suffering and the Cross

Life is really hard! We have been going through it lately; my cancer, unemployment, less than desirable employment ("but it's a job" kind of job), financial struggles, our daughter's recent accident and emergency brain surgery (and now really hard recovery; esp. mentally and emotionally for her, and us!). We all have trials and tribulations; in fact the New Testament is clear that this is our lot. Indeed it is the muck of this life that is 'working for us a far more exceeding eternal weight of glory'. And yet Jesus said, 'take heart, I have overcome this world!' So we try to take heart; not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit!

So what's the meaning of all of this? Jesus wondered this in Gethsemane; he cried out for another way, but there was none. As participants in Christ, constantly being given over to his death that his life might be manifested in our mortal bodies, having the sentence of death written upon us that we might not trust in ourselves but in the One who raises the dead, experiencing the tribulation of Christ that we might experience his comfort so that we can comfort others with the same comfort we have been comforted with ourselves; these are some of the reasons, the blessings, the purposes and points of suffering now. Indeed, this is it! We are participants with Christ all the way down; in his death, and now, AMEN!, resurrection life. But we live in the in the between time; praise the LORD that in his wisdom, he has met us right where we are, in our suffering and despair. Martin Luther understood this; he understood that the place, the person where we know and meet God is in the midst of the cross of Christ. This is God's grace, wisdom, and love demonstrated; he has become sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him. He has penetrated the depths of our wounded and dead selves so that we might penetrate the wonders of his life giving throne of Grace; next to the Father. Luther understood that we can quit striving to have relationship with God through what man perceives as glory; that is through the praise of others. Luther understood that it's not the fancy ideas of men that get us into the heavenlies, but, indeed, it is the putting to death of humanities' ideas, and bringing humanity into HIS ideas, his life wherein we know God. We don't have to perform, or orchestrate anything for this to happen; we're born into the muck of sin and disorder. This is the grace of God in Christ; this is the wisdom of God in Christ! He has come to us, become us, and through adoption made us what he is by nature, by grace. It is when things 'look' the most sideways that we, by faith, look beyond and see the One who is right side up for us in the midst of trial and the dark nights of the soul. Here is what Randall Zachman has written on Luther's theology of the cross:

In the context of theologia crucis, faith means believing with certainty that God’s Word is true even when the whole world, the heart of the believer, and even God himself contradict the truth that is revealed in the Word, particularly the Word of promise. Thus, when God begins to show mercy, God does so by first revealing wrath (in law); when God makes alive, God does so by slaying. The same contradictions apply especially to those who have already come to faith. God promises the forgiveness of sins, yet our conscience feels nothing but sin and wrath; God promises life, yet we see nothing but death. Faith, therefore, is the art of believing the Word while experiencing, seeing, and feeling the opposite. We believe that Christ is the Son of God, even though we see and abandoned man on the cross; we believe that God cares for the church, even though we see nothing but a church persecuted by the world and apparently abandoned by God; we believe in eternal life, even though we see and feel nothing but death.

However, the primary locus of the theology of the cross is the experience of trial or tribulation (Anfechtung), when the very heart and conscience of the believer sense that God’s promise of grace and forgiveness is a lie. The believer must regard the promise of forgiveness as true and certain even though the conscience testifies to the contrary.
But under the cross which we experience, eternal life lies hidden. . . . We, too, experience the cross, and death appears to us, if not in fact, yet in our conscience through Satan. Death and sin appear, but I announce life and faith, but in hope. Therefore, if you want to be saved, you must battle against your feelings. Hope means to expect life in the midst of death, and righteousness in the midst of sins.
This is the very meaning of being simultaneously righteous and a sinner (simul iustus et peccator): to believe that we are righteous coram Deo even though we feel like condemned sinners.
Within the context of the theology of the cross, the grace of sanctification and its attestation in the testimony of a good conscience would necessarily be subordinated to the grace of justification and the promise of the forgiveness of sins. This is because the testimony of the good conscience confirms one’s faith in the promise, whereas the theology of the cross emphasizes that testimony of the conscience that contradicts faith in the promise; that is, Anfechtung. Therefore, although Luther continually insisted upon the necessity of sanctification and of the testimony of the good conscience, within the framework of theologia crucis he could not help but consistently subordinate the grace of sanctification to that of justification.

Luther’s concentration on the theology of the cross also accounts for his refusal to involve the Reformation directly in the external reform of the church. The Word of God does not deal with external, temporal things, but rather with invisible, eternal things; and such invisible things are revealed under an external appearance that contradicts what is being revealed. The theology of glory, in contrast—such as Luther found in the papacy—emphasizes externals to the point of neglecting the invisible truths revealed by the Word: indeed, to the point of calling God’s Word a lie. Thus, those in the Reformation who would introduce concern for externals—such as Karlstadt with his rejection of idols and the papal mass—misunderstanding the whole nature of the Word of the cross, and divert the attention of believers from the invisible, eternal things of God’s promises to the visible, temporal things of human reason and senses. Yet it is precisely reason and the senses that must be mortified if we are to believe that the Word of the cross is true.

Luther’s theologia crucis also explains his suspicion of those, such as the Anabaptists, who emphasized the external holiness and moral behavior of the church. If the Word of the cross reveals the truth of God under a contrary appearance, then one would expect the true church not to look like the church at all, but rather to look like God-forsaken sinners. The “synagogue of Satan,” on the other hand, with its theology glory, would look like the true church of God and would demonstrate a superior holiness externally—as in the monks and friars—but inwardly it would be rejected by God. The theology of the cross would therefore lead one not to stress the conformity of the appearance of the church with its faith, but rather stress the ways in which the appearance of the church denies its claim to be the people of God. The church looks like a gathering of sinners rejected by God and the world, whereas it is in truth the beloved people of God. The church cannot be judged by its appearance, but only by whether it has the Word of Christ crucified. Hence the primary task of the church is to preach the Word of God, while letting externals take their course. [Randall C. Zachman, The Assurance of Faith, 9-10]

There is a lot in what Zachman highlights in regards to Luther's theology of the cross (try to absorb it all at some point). But what I want to stay focused on is knowing God; seeing God in Christ, even when everything looks just the opposite! Isn't this how most of life looks? Just the opposite of what religion and even forms of Christianity tell us it should look like. We shouldn't be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon us; for to us it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but to suffer for his sake. Unfortunately, it's when we are in the depths, that usually we are right where the LORD wants us; if only so that we will look at him, and ultimately look more like him as he transforms us from glory to glory. amen.


  1. Amen and amen to everything you wrote! I remember the last post you wrote on Luther's "Theology of the Cross" (or Zachman's elucidation thereof) back in February, and it had a tremendous impact on me. It can only be through adversity that we come face to face with Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.

    This is literally the crux of our faith, and so crucial to understanding the nature of Christian faith and experience. If the knowledge that God in His love gave Christ to suffer and die for broken sinners like us isn't foremost in our minds, then we are quickly adrift, like a boat in storm that's lost its anchor.

    Although the glory of the Resurrection and the future return of Christ gives us hope in our pilgrimage through this life, the truth of what God did through the Cross is the lens through which the whole of God's revelation comes into sharpest focus.

    And not only is it through the Cross that God has granted us forgiveness of sins and everlasting life, but is it not also the suffering of Christ upon the Cross that has made the love and grace and mercy of God real and tangible for us in our present existence?

    1. Stefan,

      Great points. I pilfered from that post in February by requoting the same quote from Zachman once again here ;-).

      I like how you worked 'crux' and 'crucial' into your comment; nice ;-)!

      I do think the cross is that point wherein God's wisdom in meeting us in love and grace is made most evident; but I think it's the resurrection and ascension that bring the contradiction of the cross into sharpest focus by removing our hearts of stone and giving us recreated, in Christ, hearts of flesh that are sensitive and indeed participating in the heart of God himself. What an amazing reality; I wish more Christians, Stefan, could appreciate the depth and reality of what Christ has wrought for us in himself!


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