Holy Suffering?

There is a long-running theme in Christianity that suffering – whether mental or physical – is in some way good for us. In a way, we identify more closely with Jesus (the Suffering Servant) when we too suffer, and some people suggest there is a transformative power to our suffering.

Martin Luther wrote on the theology of the cross, and on his reaction to human suffering. He taught that we know that empirical evidence, our natural tendency, is not to be trusted, as empiricism would teach that Christ was defeated on the cross, whereas we know that he was victorious. He paints the gospel as turning the world topsy-turvy, where we seek God not in his glory, his creation and his mighty marvels, but we find him in the degradation and “weakness” of the cross. Luther makes mention of Moses, in Exodus 33, demanding to see God’s glory, but instead seeing God’s “backside” – suffering and the cross.

“Now it it not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross.” (1)

In a sense the cross is the opposite number to glory, as suffering is to works. As God redeemed the world through Christ’s suffering, rather than works, so also the Christian is justified by faith in that suffering, not by works. Luther is very concerned lest we trust our salvation to works instead of faith alone, and sees the maintenance of faith as of primary importance in our lives. Not to say that he doesn’t believe we should do good works, but he says:

it is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s. (2)

In this view, suffering makes us rely on God and prevents us from arrogance. He also argues that suffering is shown to be good by Christ’s suffering, which produced good. Therefore human suffering also produces good for us.

For Luther, if we are Christians then we will suffer, for the Bible states that we must also take up the cross. We will all suffer when we strive against the “old man”, the life of the flesh as we struggle to live in the Spirit. He states:

“Therefore we must note in the first place that Christ by his suffering not only saved us from the devil, death, and sin, but also that his suffering is an example, which we are to follow in our suffering. Though our suffering and cross should never be so exalted that we think we can be saved by it or earn the least merit through it, nevertheless we should suffer after Christ, that we may be conformed to him. For God has appointed that we should not only believe in the crucified Christ, but also be crucified with him… ‘He who does not take his cross and follow me,’ he says, ‘is not worthy of me.’” (3)

Luther believes that when we suffer, we become more like Christ, and that without suffering we might take too lightly the benefits God gives us, and take for granted the sacrifice of Christ. Suffering is holy, for we take on something of the character of Christ who, when he suffered, sanctified suffering for us. He advises us to submit ourselves to Scripture, and accept that God has ordained our suffering and that it will not be more than we can bear. He also states that we suffer, not that there is merit in it but that through it we become more like Christ.

Luther also had something called a “theology of paradoxes” which states that sometimes God works in us by encouragement and forgiveness, but other times by putting us down, taking away hope and leading us into desperation. He wrote:

“You [God] exalt us when you humble us.  You make us righteous when you make us sinners. . . .  You grant us victory when you cause us to be defended.  You give us life when you permit us to be killed” (4)

We should then look for God’s work in our suffering, although he notes that this is something we can only see via the Holy Spirit, as it is not comprehensible in fleshly terms.

Something I find interesting is that Luther characterised the Church as being a hospital for the incurably sick, where we minister one to another, seeking as our above-all concern to be Christ for others.

I’m not sure how far Luther’s theology of suffering is helpful to us personally. I can see a benefit, a certain growth in my self produced by my illness but I find it hard to conceive that God ordained this suffering for me – I can accept that he allows my suffering to happen, and brings blessings out of this curse, but I find it hard to say that God decreed that I should become bipolar. I also find Luther’s passivity in terms of suffering difficult, I have recently been reading a little of Jurgen Moltmann and he seems to stress praxis (practise, activity) to help alleviate suffering in others, serving others as though they were Christ, whereas Luther seems, in his objection to works, to discount the possibility of trying to remove suffering, because he sees it as so important.

There are some interesting websites I have been reading which you may like to check out. Sorry for the sketchiness of this post – my resources on this subject are scant!

Martin Luther’s Doctrine of Love, Suffering, Faith… @pentechorus
Martin Luther on Suffering and Theodicy for the Christian @Suite101
Luther and Moltmann: The Theology of the Cross (pdf) @Concordia Theological Quarterly


1. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works XXXI, 52; Heidelberg Disputation, par 20
2. Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation” Luther’s Works, 31, Career of the Reformer I, ed. Harold J Grimm (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1957) p53
3. Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.);Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.);Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther’s Works, Vol. 51 : Sermons I. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1959.
4.(LW, XIV, 95).

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