On Glory, Suffering, and the Cross

A reflection by Eric Andrae in the wake of shooting sprees and massacres

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Gentiles seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God - and righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:21-30).

Sadly, very sadly, I am not surprised by the recent and frequent shooting sprees of the past few years.  In an ultra-violent culture that happily feeds the depraved mind and offers incredibly and immorally easy access to means of bloodshed, to guns; in an academia that teaches the Darwinist lie that you are a meaningless result of chance and the post-modernistic fantasy that there is no objective truth; in a society in which the family "is under siege" and "opposed by an anti-life mentality as is seen in abortion, infanticide and euthanasia; scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce" (Cardinal Francis Arinze in Julia Duin, "Criticism of Gays by Catholic Cardinal Riles Georgetown University," The Washington Times, 30 May 2003); in such a context, this comes as no surprise at all.

Nevertheless, we must not lose our focus.  A "theology of glory" focuses on what we do; and when it does focus on God, it focuses on his power and majesty. His providence and sovereignty are allowed to overshadow, perhaps even obliterate, his mercy and grace. It teaches that Jesus is more-or-less Mr. Fix-it-man, that the Bible is a manual for happy and successful living, and that when we "decide" to become Christians, all will be right and we will be happy. It is typical "American Christian" religious nonsense - it permeates most churches' teachings, focuses on our works, and, if logically followed, would finally deny the necessity of the cross.

However, Christians - whether mourning yet another school/mall/workplace shooting massacre or daily repenting and clinging to Jesus for life and breath - hold to "the theology of the cross." It is only in the weakness and foolishness of the cross that the Lord helps us (1 Corinthians 1:21-30); through small things like bread and wine, water, words, men - in other words, the Means of Grace: Holy Communion, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Bible, Holy Ministry, Holy Church. "The theology of the cross" focuses on what the Lord does; as the creed confesses:  he creates, he saves, and he sanctifies us. But the Lord does not deal with us as he did with ancient Israel, with armies and by direct revelation. Rather, he deals with us, the New Israel, mediately in weak sinful pastors, through his Means of Grace.

As such, being marked with the cross in Holy Baptism, we acknowledge suffering (though not good in itself) as a real part of this fallen world and of the Christian's life in it. But can there be any purpose of suffering in the Christian life?  Yes.  It mysteriously unifies you with Jesus, who is the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53); it provides an opportunity for you to give glory to God (John 9:1-3); it tests and thus strengthens your faith (1 Peter 1:3-9); it teaches you to love God for his own sake, and not for the sake of prosperity; it conforms and shapes you into the image of Christ (Romans 8:17); it humbles you, reminding you that the servant is not greater than the master and therefore prevents self-righteousness from closing you to his gifts (John 15:20); finally, it teaches you that our theology is indeed and ultimately the theology of the cross, of glory after going through suffering, of forgiveness after repentance, of life through death (Luke 9:22-24; Psalm 34:19-22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Psalm 22). Suffering is the result of evil, of sin, of satanic temptation and human cooperation.  But even out of suffering, even this suffering, God can and does and will bring good.  Suffering, punishment, is certainly not the way the Lord reacts to our sin; he reacts to sin by offering his Son into death instead of us; he reacts to sin by forgiving the repentant sinner, removing the sin (see especially Psalm 103:8-12, John 9:1-3, and Luke 13:1-5; also Psalm 130 and Jeremiah 31:31-34). 

So, we know why suffering happens: it is because of sin, individual and corporate. But we must also be willing to say "I don't know" when it is the honest answer, for we do not know why specific people suffer in specific ways at specific times: We do not know why those specific 33 people [from the Virginia Tech massacre] perished instead of you or me (Luke 13:1-5). As Christians, though, we need to stick to what the Lord has revealed to us: that the crucified and risen Christ comes to comfort us with consolation, peace, and forgiveness in bread, wine, water, words: the different forms and means of the Word that he is for us.

Let us pray for all who are anxious or troubled:  Most merciful God, the Consolation of the troubled and the Hope of all who cast their cares on you, may the hearts that cry unto you in their anxiety, distress, and tribulation find rest in your grace and mercy, knowing that all things must work together for good to them that love you and are called according to your purpose.  Grant unto us all that peace which passes all understanding, so that with a quiet mind we may view the storms and troubles of life, the cloud and the thick darkness, ever rejoicing to know that the darkness and the light are both alike to you, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen. (The Lutheran Liturgy, 280-81, adapted).

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace, comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17).  


Originally delivered as the mediation for a Evening Prayer service of Lutheran Student Fellowship at Carnegie Mellon University on April 18, 2007 following the Virginia Tech tragedy.