Sick Souls Hoping in the Suffering Servant

Michael S. Horton
Tuesday, March 2nd 1999
Mar/Apr 1999
The Christian movement is a degeneracy movement composed of reject and refuse elements of every kind…. It is therefore not only national, not racially conditioned; it appeals to the disinherited everywhere; it is founded on a rancor against everything well-constituted and domi-nant: it needs a symbol that represents a curse on the well-constituted and dominant-It also stands in opposition to every spiritual movement, to all philosophy: it takes the side of idiots and utters a curse on the spirit. Rancor against the gifted, learned, spiritually independent: it detects in them the well-constituted, the masterful.
-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (1)

A contemporary of ours who embodies Nietzsche's will to power (and his appraisal of Christianity) is CNN's Ted Turner, a son of fundamentalist missionary parents, who has reportedly called Christianity "a religion for losers." (2) In his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Harvard philosopher William James distinguished between two types of religious expressions: "healthy-minded" and "morbid-minded." Those who belong to the "sick-soul" camp are those who see themselves as sinful, dispossessed, and disinherited, while the "healthy-minded" religious experience exudes optimism. In the American Century, this has meant that the "bad" stuff has got to go: no downers, like human depravity and inability for self-salvation, the need for divine rescue, and so forth. Garry Wills, in his intriguing and controversial best-seller, Reagan's America, contrasted the type of spirit expressed by presidents Reagan and Carter:

There are different theologies at work. Carter's in some ways is more modern…. But he is com-paratively old-fashioned in his theology; too old-fashioned, in fact, in the eyes of evangelicals themselves, who deserted him for Reagan in 1980. Carter's religion is what William James called that of the "sick soul"-a religion of man's fall, of the need for repentance, of humility. In its Calvinistic form, this "classical" religion was important in the early history of America. But America has increasingly preferred the religion James called "healthy-minded-ness," which replaces sin with sadness as the real enemy of human nature. The modern evangelicals, beaming and healthy successes in the communications industry, are exemplars of that religion. (3)

Forget for the moment any political agenda behind Wills' comments, and with or without Reagan it becomes clear that for Christians and non-Christians alike, "feeling good" has emerged as not only a national priority, but a religious obsession.

And why not? Is Christianity supposed to be a form of masochism or stoic resignation to suffering: "Keep a stiff upper lip"? Perhaps Nietzsche, Marx, and Turner are right after all, and Christianity is just a "slave morality," a way of keeping the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed in their place. That is certainly not how Martin Luther King, Jr., saw it, according to one of his noted interpreters, Harvard's Cornel West. (4) In actual fact, Christianity has been an enormous force for change in the world, often providing a theological rationale for defending every person's dignity, relieving suffering and pain, and for building institutions which take account of human corruption, limiting both personal and institutional power through systems of checks and balances. Not a page of Western "progress" in virtually any field can be written without footnotes to the many Christians who contri-buted to their advance.

But this is only one side. Christianity has also been exploited by the powerful through-out history as a justification for inflict-ing suffering. We need not rehearse the history of the crusades, the wars of religion, slavery, the injustice shown to Native Americans, and apartheid. On one side there are those, like Ted Turner, who can only see Christianity as the chief source of oppression in the world, and then there are others-well, you know their names-who attribute microwave ovens to the success of Christianity. Both views participate in a passion for glory: either Nietzsche's "healthy-minded" narcissism or evangelicalism's "healthy-minded" optimism. Both seem committed to therapeutic "wellness" at the expense of facing the reality of sin, death, judgment, hell, and suffering here and now. A sign of this theology of glory among Christians is evident in church-growth expert Lyle Schaller's suggestion:

The best illustration of this [shift from "worship" to "celebrations"] is that we used to have "funerals." Then we went to "memorial services." Now we have a "celebration" of the life and ministry of the departed person. That's a shift in the whole atmosphere of what happens during that period of time. It's gone from pain, sorrow, grief, and crying, to celebration. (5)

This response to death has been characteristic of some Eastern religions and of gnostics, who longed for the spirit's escape from the "prison-house" of the body. Such "memorials" or indeed "celebrations" were held by Unitarians and have been prominent in various mind-science cults. But Judaism, Islam, and Christianity have been characterized by a somber view of death: it's not meant to be this way. There is something wrong. Anchored in the Scriptures, Christians have a healthy respect for the enemy. It is death's victory, not its reality, which is overcome in Christ's resurrection.

Contrast Schaller's perspective with that of theologian Karl Barth, for instance. Each Sunday, the church bell is rung to announce to the village that God's Word is to be proclaimed. "And if none of these things help, will not the crosses in the churchyard which quietly look in through the windows tell you unambiguously what is relevant here and what is not?" (6) In Reformed, Anglican, and Lutheran service books there were specific public prayers offered for the sick and afflicted-and not a general "one-size-fits-all" response. There are prayers for wartime, natural disasters, epidemics, a sick child, those in bereavement, travelers, and prisoners. In Puritan families, the body would normally be placed in an open casket in a central living space until the funeral itself. Children would ask about its meaning. Ministers visiting those on their death-bed would ask them directly, "Are you prepared to die?", while some wrote eloquently and wisely on the art of dying well. During the mid-seventeenth century, as many as one-third of London's population died either in the plague or in the great fire. In New England, things were not much better, given the harsh conditions, each winter leaving death in its wake. People did not have the time to complain about their treatment at work or their dysfunctional parents. It was not because they were stoics, but because they were veterans of sickness, suffering, and death. They learned that they either had to reach more deeply into God's Word for sustenance or simply call the whole thing off. (Recall the advice of Job's wife: "Curse God and die.")

The Book of Common Prayer's service "for the burial of the dead" (not the deceased or the "resting," or the "departed," but the dead) begins with the glorious promise of future resurrection. But then the Psalmist is cited:

Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days; that I may be certified how long I have to live. Behold, thou has made my days as it were a span long, and mine age is even as nothing in respect of thee; and verily every man living is altogether vanity. For man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain; he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them…. And now, LORD, what is my hope? Truly my hope is even in thee…When thou with rebukes doest chasten man for sin, thou makest his beauty to waste away, like as it were a moth fretting a garment: every man therefore is but vanity. Hear my prayer, O LORD, and with thine ears consider my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears: For I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength once more before I go hence and be no more seen (Psalm 39).

Other passages of hope are recited at this point, from the Psalms, Gospels, and Epistles, affirming the resurrection of the body and the free justification of all who trust in Christ. Then comes the sober prayer:

O GOD, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered; make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us through this vale of misery, in holiness and righteousness, all the days of our lives: That, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of thy church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; in favor with thee our God, and in perfect charity with the world. All which we ask only through Jesus Christ our LORD.

But Where Is God When There's So Much Suffering?

Neither this article nor this issue of Modern Reformation aims to address the larger theoretical problem of evil. Instead, I want to relate a specific biblical theme to the practical situation of those who suffer and grieve. I have been overwhelmed in recent years by seeing just how central is the contrast between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross in the Gospels. I realize that Luther drew this contrast in a relatively peripheral comment in his Heidelberg Disputation. Yet, it is important in both Luther and Calvin. This contrast is between God's glorious majesty which inspires fear, and the humiliation of God's incarnation, suffering, and death for reviling sinners which draws us into his loving arms. And no wonder it was a major distinction for the reformers, since it was so central for Paul and the New Testament-for that matter, for the biblical writers in general.

But we see this especially in the development of our Redeemer's last three years on earth. The God who created heaven and earth is now incarnate, dependent on a poor couple barely capable of providing for their own basic needs. As Jesus approaches his messianic vocation, John the Baptist announces, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" So from the very beginning, Jesus lived under the shadow of the cross. He is recognized by the Old Testament, consummated in John's ministry, as the substitutionary sacrifice. As John baptizes him, Jesus knows exactly what will happen. This baptism not only "fulfills all righteousness," but consecrates Jesus as Lamb of God. In other words, it seals his death already. The heavenly voice responds, "Behold, my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased." It is in these moments of greatest humiliation for the Son that God is most pleased-not because God likes to see people suffer, much less his only begotten Son. It's no morbid interest on God's part; God's joy lies in the result:

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the LORD shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous One, my Servant, shall make many righteous and shall bear their iniquities (Is. 53:10-11).

If we ever question-and we will-the reliability of that famous assurance that "God works all things together for good for those who love God, who are the called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28), we have before us a dilemma which far outweighs our own struggles with the problem of evil. How could the incarnation, suffering, humiliation, and eventually the death of the Son of God be explained in anything but tragic terms? And yet, unlike most instances of our suffering in the world, in this case we know not only that, but how, all things worked together for our good in those events.

All along the way, there were obstacles. The first, not surprisingly, came from Lucifer the glorious angel, who had led the first Adam astray, had no doubt tempted Israel to "demand the food they craved" in the wilderness, and now sought to draw the second Adam into satisfying his own "felt needs" by choosing worldly pomp ("the kingdoms of the world") over the cross. Taking Satan's route, Jesus could secure the power, money, success, happiness-right here, right now. Total security. Never wondering whether there's enough in the bank account to cover an expense, he would have the world at his feet. Glory for himself now, instead of the Cross, although the latter would lead not only himself but many sinners into future glory: that was the temptation.

If it were only Satan's temptation, we could understand it. But even the disciples never seemed to understand their master's teaching. Repeatedly throughout the Gospels, Jesus is on a clear road leading from Galilee to Jerusalem. There is no press conference in Galilee. In fact, his early ministry is marked by secrecy about his identity, which is one of the reasons he was somewhat disturbed by his mother's insistence that he replenish the wine supply at the wedding reception. But as Christ goes down that road toward Jerusalem, more signs accompany increasingly clear announcements about this person and work. Crowds are pressing on him and his disciples. He tries to confide in his disciples, explaining what this mission is all about, but they keep changing the subject every time he brings up his impending death. Even for Jesus' own brothers, who did not yet believe in him, Jesus was a marketable product. It was the theology of glory, the religion of the "healthy-minded" type: opti-mistic, revolutionary, victorious. They saw Jerusalem as the "big-time": "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." We're going to Jerusalem alright, Jesus kept saying, but it's nothing like what you're thinking. Mark's Gospel especially underscores the repeated times that Jesus tried to explain his death and resurrection. Finally, Peter, weary of all this talk about the theology of the cross, rebukes Jesus:

Then [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" (Mark 8:31-33).

Like the Pharisees, the disciples were often more impressed with Jesus' signs-and-wonders ministry than with his words to which the signs were mere indicators. So from this rebuke Jesus launches into a sermon:

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?" (vv. 34-37).

Jesus will come with power, to liberate and to judge, in great splendor and majesty-as the disciples were anticipating for their arrival into Jerusalem to proclaim Jesus the messianic king. But that is not the purpose of this trip, Jesus says (9:1). James and John want to call down fire on the Samaritan village which refused to hear the Gospel, but "Jesus sharply rebuked them and they went to another village." In Mark 10, Jesus explains his impending death and resurrection for the third time. And what is the disciples' response this time? James and John ask Jesus to put in a petition for their rank in the kingdom of glory: "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." Did they hear anything about the cross? Did they "get" any of it? You see, Jerusalem for the disciples still meant Jesus' coronation day in the capital, and they could barely sleep at night picturing themselves on the platform with him. But here was Jesus' response to this fresh effusion of the theology of glory: "But Jesus said to them, 'You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?' They replied, 'We are able.'" What audacity! They were thinking that he would be anointed king. "Can you bear the awesome burden, as well as dignity, of being consecrated along with me?" This is what they were hearing, although what Jesus was saying-and had been saying often-was that this "baptism" was death! And no ordinary death. It was going to be the cruelest and most despicable form of execution, reserved for the greatest capital offenses. Furthermore, his disciples' sinful fear and his Father's just holiness would leave him bereft of all comfort, alone in a hell of splinters and nails, with all of heaven's wrath weighing down on his brow. Indeed, "You know not what you ask," James and John. In God's mercy, these disciples were not crowned on Jesus' right and left hand, but were spared that ignominious death.

Whenever Jesus brings up his death with the disciples, they either rebuke him for morbidity or change the subject to a more uplifting, edifying discourse. Like all of us, they wanted the "healthy-minded" religion, not the religion of the "sick soul." But the Father and the Holy Spirit respond differently. When Jesus willingly embraced the cross in his baptism, the Holy Spirit's benediction was heard. And now, for the fourth time, Jesus speaks at length concerning his death and again the Father and the Holy Spirit testify to the Son's ministry. In fact, the only times in the Gospels where we read of a voice coming from heaven are when Jesus obediently embraces the cross:

"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say-'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die (John 12:27-33).

What is so remarkable is that even at his crucifixion, as the disciples flee, it is the chief Roman military officer who, amidst the clamor of thunder and under the shroud of darkness declares, "Surely this is the Son of God." It is only after the resurrection that Jesus finds his dejected disciples and explains to them how everything that had just occurred was according to plan-and not only God's secret plan, by which he works all things together for good, but according to his unfolding plan in history which was largely available to them if they would only have read the Scriptures with Christ and the Gospel at the center. Like the Pharisees, who had closely studied the Bible without the key missing piece of the puzzle (viz., Christ himself, John 5:39), those who were most expecting glory on Palm Sunday were bitterly crying, "Crucify him!" on Good Friday.

Taking Up Our Cross

In my personal and pastoral experience, I have noticed that those who have demanded heaven on earth here and now-instant health, wealth, happiness, or holiness-often become the most embittered, hostile, and disillusioned critics of Christianity. Whether it's perfect bodies, perfect sancti-fication, perfect success, perfect marriages, perfect children, perfect security, perfect churches-whatever, we must abandon this theology of glory instead of abandoning the God who works all things together for good. Death, like sin itself, is never good. It represents the separation of body and soul-an unnatural separation-that will persist until the final resurrection of the body. Its sting is removed; its ultimate claim over our destiny is broken. But sickness and death, suffering and pain, remain matters to be taken with the appropriate seriousness-not to be trivialized on the one hand, or sentimentalized or "celebrated" on the other.

We must take up our cross, neither avoiding it nor seeking it. As Luther said, the cross finds us. This is no call to morbid martyrdom, still less, to pretending that the cross of splinters is really a cause for celebration. But it is to be prepared to "let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also," for the sake of the kingdom whose treasures far outweigh and outlast anything we can know in this fading age.

Christianity is for the weak and oppressed. On that score, Nietzsche and his disciples were correct. They will tell us that our explanation for the problem of evil is inadequate. And, of course, it is. We can talk about the creation of the world and of humankind in righteousness, original sin, the curse upon all aspects of life because of the fall, and God's provision of redemption from the curse in Jesus Christ. We can speak with great hope of "the age to come" when our bodies will be raised-an event for which the whole natural world groans, since it too will share in the glorious liberty of God's children (Rom. 8). But at the end of the day, suffering is still an enigma. Yet it is only a problem because something in us knows that this is not the way it is meant to be, that there is something more, a purpose for everything in the future. Nietzsche and his disciples may have correctly identified that Christianity is for the weak and not for the self-confident individual in his or her will to power. But because he who was rich for our sakes became poor; he who was powerful for our sakes became weak, and he who was wise for our sakes became foolish, "the meek shall inherit the earth" in Christ. To William James' (or Robert Schuller's) "healthy-minded" optimists, Jesus announces that he has come for the sick, not for the healthy. While some professing Christians have perpetrated enormous injustices in the name of Christianity throughout the ages, more people have died under the experimental reign of Nietzsche and his disciples (most notably, Hitler and Stalin) than in all of the previous centuries combined.

The good news announced so long ago, sealed by the Suffering Servant and his victory over sin and death, is still held out to those who are weary of being "supermen," are tired of being cynical, and who are ready to exchange their theology of glory for a theology of the cross: "Come to me, all of you who are weary and weighted down, and I will give you rest."

1 [ Back ] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1967), 96.
2 [ Back ] Reported in World, November 14, 1998, 33.
3 [ Back ] Garry Wills, Reagan's America (New York: Penguin, 1988), 235.
4 [ Back ] Cornel West, Prophetic Fragments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).
5 [ Back ] Lyle Schaller, Worship Leader, April-May 1993, 7.
6 [ Back ] Karl Barth, The Gottingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 33.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Tuesday, March 2nd 1999

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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