On suffering, the Bible, and preaching – Part 1

In connection with the Winter 2011 Concordia Journal and the Seminary’s partnership with Lutheran World Relief, we have compiled a number of writings by past and present Concordia Seminary colleagues on issues related to suffering, the Bible, and preaching. If there are wise words you can share related to these topics, comment below, or email us at [email protected].

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From Paul Raabe, theological observations on “God, Bad Things, and Good People: Three Biblical Models”:

Does God do bad things to good people? How should those who suffer respond to their affliction? These are perennial questions that a pastor has the occasion to address while at the hospital bed or the funeral home, or in countless other situations calling for pastoral care. They are the kind of hard, existential questions that really push us and our theology to the wall. It seems to me that the Scriptures present three basic “models” for interpreting human suffering and for responding to it on the part of the sufferers.

Before proceeding we must recognize and adopt two presuppositions that the Biblical writers generally have. First, things like sickness, pestilence, and death are, per se, “bad”; they are things to be delivered from, alien intrusions into the created order. The Old Testament calls them “curses” (Lev. 26; Deut. 28), while the New Testament refers to death as the last “enemy” (1 Cor. 15). We should not deny their reality and their “badness”; we are not, after all, Christian Scientists. Second, the Biblical writers generally assume that the one who ultimately lies behind these kinds of events is God. There is only one God and He rules over all things. He might use secondary causes, and we might say that He “allows” bad things to happen, but still God is the one who allows them. The distinction between God “allowing” bad things and God “doing” bad things may have a role to play in theology, but the Biblical writers usually do not say it that way. They simply say that “God does” these things (e.g., Amos 3:6; Pss. 38:2; 102:10,23).

That God does bad things to people inevitably and quite properly raises a personal theological question for those who suffer: “How do I stand with God?” It is not simply a question of how nature operates or how viruses work but of what God is up to with me. Job is a classic example. He interprets what happened to him as “bad things,” and he believes that God is the one who has done these things to him. Therefore, he wrestles with the issue of his relationship to God. Given the aforementioned assumptions, the question for sufferers then becomes, “How should I respond to the situation?”

1. The first Biblical model is a “confession-absolution” approach: God does bad things to bad people, not good people. The book of Judges provides an example. When Israel disobeyed and became idolatrous, God was provoked to anger and punished them by giving them over to their enemies. Israel’s proper response was to repent and to return to God for forgiveness (cf. Amos 4:6-13; Ps. 38). In this model the bad things represent God’s Law work, which is designed to lead sinners to repentance. The recipients of the curses—or other observers (cf. Luke 13)—might repent of certain actual sins or of original sin, but they should repent. The bad things are a wake-up call from God to attend to their relationship with God.

2. The second model is the “hope-in-God-against-God” approach: God does bad things to good people, but the good people refuse to accept the bad things as God’s final action. One sees this model in the lament psalms (e.g., Ps. 13), Job, and Habakkuk. In this model the recipients of the curses do not repent. Rather, they view themselves as members of God’s covenant people who have heard and firmly believe God’s promises. They are “good” people in that they have been declared good by God’s grace and they by faith hold on to the gift of their justified status. Here the problem is not with the sufferers but with God. God seems to be acting strangely, in contradiction to His own promises and His own Gospel nature as the God who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Therefore, they protest with their agonizing questions, “Why have you given me over to my enemies?” and “How long will you hide your face from me?” They do not protest God, per se, but they do protest God’s Law work, God’s alien or strange work of wrath against them.

Furthermore, they hope in the Gospel against the Law; they appeal to the proper work of God’s mercy against the alien work of God’s wrath. Job expresses it as radically as possible: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15). They do not accept God’s “no” but hold on to God’s “yes” against God’s “no.” A New Testament example is the story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15. She refused to accept Jesus’ “no” even though Jesus was acting “strangely” by not helping her: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus then praised her faith and answered her prayer.

3. The third Biblical model is the “suffering-as-blessing-in-disguise” approach: God does bad things to good people, but they ultimately become good things, not bad things. One sees this model frequently in the Pauline epistles: “God works all things together for good to those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28); “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance…” (Rom. 5:3); “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Here the stress lies on the positive purpose of the suffering; God uses it to strengthen faith and reliance upon Him alone. Therefore, sufferers can rejoice in their suffering and receive it as a gift from their loving God. Note that even the lament psalms typically end on a note of praise and doxology.

The three models present different ways for the sufferer to respond to affliction and disaster: to repent; to protest the alien work of God and hold on to His proper work; to rejoice in the suffering as a blessing. Although each model is Biblical, part of the pastoral task is to determine which approach should be applied to a particular person. As the Lutheran fathers emphasized, distinguishing between Law and Gospel is easy on paper but difficult in practice. Yet the Gospel holds predominance. Christ received the wrath of God in our place and was raised again in victory over death. Therefore, “if God be for us, who can be against us?”

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From Henry Rowold, two reviews of books on suffering:

THE PROBLEM OF SUFFERING: A Father’s Thoughts on the Suffering, Death, and Life of His Children. By Gregory Schulz. Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1996. 74 pages.

As small as this book may appear (hardly seventy pages long), it is the most gripping, haunting book this reviewer has read for some years. It is one of the most powerful resources for faith, ministry, and theology available. A wrenching treasure!

The subtitle is much more reflective of the substance of the book than the title. Gregory Schulz, professor of philosophy at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee, is not concerned about contributing to an academic, philosophical discussion. In fact, he’s not even speaking as a philosopher or a professor. He’s speaking as a Christian father, sharing the very personal, difficult struggle of dealing with years of non-stop pain and suffering and questions. He buried his infant daughter of less than a year after three hundred plus days of tortuous pain. He is still ministering to his son who has suffered some ten years with chronic liver disease.

As he shares his struggle, he bares his soul with a jarring honesty seldom heard in the church. He speaks no worn word, no easy cliché, no ready fix, no theological shortcut, and he brooks no patience for anyone satisfied with mere theodicy. His protest is against “God’s abusive actions,” and it rings true to anyone whose suffering of body or spirit is compounded by the deeper agony of a bewildered, uncertain faith.

What makes this book such a treasure, however, is not just his breath-stopping frankness but also his theological depth and his pastoral instincts. In meditating upon the mysterious, surpassing nature of God’s ways, Schulz looks beyond his own horizon of pain to the incarnation, the cross, and the heart of the suffering Father. In the light of the mystery of the cross he seeks to understand his own pain and suffering as a father. Elsewhere he calls the “sterile water” he used to baptize his tiny daughter not sterile at all but rather Word-activated water, water of burial and resurrection. He taps the riches of the Lord’s Supper: participation, communion, anticipation. In a striking neologism, he speaks of the Christian faith as “fore-nostalgia,” an elemental yearning that cannot (and need not) know all answers but can know Him who died. “There is no hiding place in the valley of suffering,” Schulz affirms, “except God himself.” Only from that perspective can the pain a Christian now bears be seen as labor pain leading beyond pain to life, even to a cosmic redemption and rejoicing.

What Schulz shares is so compelling, so well articulated, that even though this reviewer read the book through at one sitting, he had to stop often, wipe the mist from his eyes, and take a deep breath before he could continue. The same power and warmth radiate through in the poem written by Schulz’ older daughter at the death of her infant sister.

This is a superb resource to share and to use with anyone suffering any form of loss. It is honest, straight-forward, expressive, evocative of much reflection and insight, and linked closely to the suffering Savior. This is also a fine book of pastoral theology, because Schulz’ theology is so well grounded in the Word and so well integrated.

While no one envies the pain Schulz has endured and continues to endure, we are indebted to him for allowing us to stand with him in his suffering. In baring his soul we consequently know better how to suffer ourselves, how to suffer with others, and how to share our own suffering. True to the nature of the Body of Christ, we are all richer in faith, ministry, and theology for Schulz’ witness.

THE SCANDAL OF A CRUCIFIED WORLD: Perspectives on the Cross and Suffering. Edited by Yacob Tesfai. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994. 155 pages.

Both by the centrality of its message and the concreteness of its imagery, the theology of the cross was surely one of Luther’s finest contributions to the development of the Christian faith and walk. Beginning in 1990, the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg initiated an international research project to study and apply precisely that concept. Whether by intention or not, the 1ER divided its study into two major steps. The first proceeded along “ecumenical and traditional Western theological understandings,” and the second (1992) “focussed mostly on Third World understandings of the cross and suffering.” It would be interesting to compare the two, but this reviewer is not aware where or how the contents of the first step were published. This volume publishes essays from that second stage, with contributions from Africa (2), Latin America (2), and Asia (2), plus essays from African-American and Feminist traditions—how the latter two are grouped as Third World is unclear, since both authors are rooted in the West. In addition, there is a very lucid introduction to Luther’s theology of the cross by Theo Sundermeier (Heidelberg), which stands apart enough from the other essays to suggest that it may have stemmed from the first stage.

As with any anthology, there is a wide range of background, coherence with overriding topic, and quality of presentation. What ties them together is a very ambiguous connection with Luther’s theology of the cross. On the one hand, there is ambivalence, even opposition. To some, for instance, Luther’s concept is an in-house, theological abstraction, used by Western churches to ignore or even excuse its lack of involvement in the suffering of the poor. To others, the cross carries a connotation of military or cultural conquest and oppression, all too often by the Christian church—admittedly, not anything Luther condoned. On the other hand, the impatience of some of the authors with the aloofness of academic theology leads them to reapply, even redefine the theology of the cross, so that the cross of Jesus stands in direct equivalence with the cross (suffering) of the poor and oppressed of the world. The intensity of their passion, even if uneven and at times misdirected, is tangible, and is a reminder that the theology of the cross must be as determinative of life as it is of theology. The danger is that passion can also distort. When the cross becomes merely a model or a paradigm of the suffering of others, it becomes Law rather than Gospel, and loses its redemptive and recreative power. Similarly, when the relevance of the cross is limited to a societal or political context, our Lord’s struggle with and victory over primal, demonic evil are short-circuited—which, however, does not excuse the church from applying the Lord’s redemption to our varying social and political contexts.

As said above, the essays here are uneven, ranging from superficial to angry to challenging to perceptive and reflective (especially Moltmann-Wendel and Persaud). As a group, however, they clearly illustrate the growing number of articulate, assertive theologians around the world, even if those selected here are not representative of all Christian traditions (confessional, evangelical, Pentecostal). As the focus of the Christian church’s growth moves eastward and southward, we anticipate more theological challenges and probing to come from around the world. Our readiness to participate in the theological quest with them enriches both the wider Christian church and our own Lutheran tradition.

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From Travis Scholl, a homiletical help on Matthew 2:13-23:

Talk about good news, bad news. The day after Christmas (“On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”), and already the evangelist has swept up the holy family to Egypt, and Herod is massacring the innocents of Bethlehem.

Of course, as much as the news might wake us out of our two-turtle-dove stupor, the news was worse for Mary and Joseph and even worse for the mothers of Bethlehem. Not that they probably expected different; they were used to life under the thumb of a paranoid king and a ruthless empire. It is we who experience the culture shock of expecting those in authority to protect the littlest and the least among us but then hearing otherwise. Thank God that they do. Or do they? Perhaps that’s another question for another time.

Back to the text. There is tremendous upheaval and movement in these ten verses of Matthew—from Bethlehem to Egypt, back to Judea, before we end up in Galilee in the backwater town of Nazareth. And all these movements, as well as the massacre enveloped within them, carry prophetic weight. This shouldn’t surprise us, given that this is Matthew’s telling of the Gospel story. Nevertheless, these prophetic reverberations remind us that these are not isolated events and their cause-and-effect are not random.

Indeed, despite the genocidal horror, history is on the side of the little family making their way to Egypt. Egypt: the land of exodus and the Bible’s deep symbol of otherness. New Testament scholar Mark Allan Powell notes the ironic parallels in Matthew’s account of the flight into (not out of) Egypt: “Matthew tells the story of the holy family’s flight to Egypt with incredible irony. In the exodus story, babies were slaughtered in Egypt by the wicked pharaoh. But now, righteous Jews must flee to Egypt to escape a massacre of infants in their own land (Mt 2:16–18). It is not, of course, a detour without precedent: another Joseph, who was also guided by God through dreams, once brought his family here (Gn 37–50). And, as it turns out, Jesus’s sojourn here is a brief one.” (Mark Allan Powell, www.workingpreacher.org)

Matthew’s Jesus will rise from Egypt, just like Moses and the wilderness-wanderers before him, and will settle in Galilee, almost outside the boundaries of the “true” Israel of his day, so that there will be no stranger or little one left behind by his messianic mission. He’d see to that. Of course, when the angel tells Joseph, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (v. 20), that’s not without irony either. It’s exactly that messianic mission that will get him killed 30 years later.

And I wonder, too, just how foreign—how shocking—this text would sound if our ears weren’t North American. Forced migration and mass violence are not ancient problems; they are problems that the Christian church in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East is confronting as we preach. How comforting it must sound to their ears to know that Jesus started his life as both an immigrant and a refugee. And this text rings in their ears with an urgency that is, shall we say, prophetic.

Indeed, if Matthew and the prophets have anything to tell us about the Christ child—and about what life is like following him—it is that our lives will never be “settled.”





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