Suffering, Death, and the Hidden God

William M. Cwirla
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Sep/Oct 2002

Truly, you are a God who hides yourself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa. 45:15).

Where is God? Why didn’t he do something? Why do bad things happen to good people? These are the questions asked in the midst of suffering and death. For Lutherans, there are only two theological frameworks from which to answer such questions-the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. In the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Martin Luther distinguished between the two:

That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

The theology of glory is the theology of fallen Adam, who, being “like God,” experiences the creation through the categories of good and evil. He does not trust God’s Word but relies on his own reason and senses. He moves from the seen to the unseen, judging God by what he sees and experiences. This is how Eve rationalized her rebellion: She sensed that the forbidden fruit was good for food; she saw that it was pleasing to the eye; she reasoned that it was desirable for gaining wisdom. And so she and Adam “bit into” a way of doing theology that sets the creature over and against the Creator. With eyes wide open, they saw themselves as autonomous creatures, independent of God, having no need to take God at his word and trust him. They were self-enlightened, self-sufficient, self-aware, self-actualized-their own persons and their own gods. The theology of glory is the natural theology of fallen humanity, centered in the self.

The theology of the cross is the theology of Jesus Christ, the second Adam, who lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. His glory is the cross; his death is his hour of power. The theology of the cross sees the glory of God hidden under the suffering and death of the Son of God. The cross of Christ is the starting point and the focal point for all theological thinking, comprehending the visible and manifest things of God through Christ’s suffering and his cross. Centered in the cross of Christ, the theology of the cross is uniquely positioned to deal with suffering and death.

The theology of glory calls suffering “evil” and the absence of suffering it calls “good.” It sees suffering and death as defeat and loss, a failure on God’s part to be a decent deity. It sees the sufferer and says, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The theology of the cross sees things as they are and names them for what they are-sin and death, grace and mercy, body and blood. It sees in suffering and death the hidden hand of God at work in, with, and under all things. It sees the sufferer and says, “There by the grace of God goes he.”

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

This question arises from a theology of glory. It adopts the categories of good and evil and assumes a person has the ability infallibly to discern the difference between the two. Bad things ought to happen to bad people and good things to good people, if an almighty, merciful, and respectable God runs the cosmos. But bad things routinely happen to good people, and good things to bad people. So the theology of glory concludes that something is wrong with God. The Creator is placed on trial by the creature. The clay judges the divine Potter’s handiwork and finds it to be less than acceptable. God has dropped the ball, and so explanations are demanded.

In the Bible, bad things happen to good people (as in the book of Job), good things happen to bad people (as with the wealthy man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus [Luke 16:19-31]), and many things happen for no apparent reason at all except that the work of God may be manifest (as with the man born blind [John 9:1-3]).

A few days after the terrorism of September 11th, some attempted to explain our national tragedy in moralistic terms: This was God’s judgment on the nation for its immorality. Bad things happen to bad nations. Bad things happened; therefore, our nation must be bad-or, at least, certain elements in this nation must be bad, for which we must all suffer.

But does God operate this way, quid pro quo, this punishment for that evil? Most who suffered had little to do with the bad morals for which God was supposedly punishing the nation. We need to recall that God was willing even to let the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah off the hook for the sake of ten righteous men (see Gen. 18:32). One wonders, in retrospect, what would have happened if Abraham had gone down to one righteous man, which is where God eventually ended in reconciling the wicked world to himself for the sake of his righteous Son.

Consider the classic sufferer Job. The Book of Job is a biblical burr under the saddle of such cause-and-effect theology. Bad things happened to Job, not because he was bad, but because he was good. Job was the kind of man to whom good things ought to happen. By God’s own testimony, he was “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” Yet he lost health, wealth, and family for no good reason. We readers alone are privy to the secret that these terrible events happened because God and the devil were having a little tte–tte over the basis of Job’s faithfulness. Job’s friends-Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar-were quintessential theologians of glory, interpreting his suffering as evidence of divine displeasure and urging their suffering friend to get right with God so that God would get right with him. But that offered Job no real comfort.

Even when God finally broke through in a rhetorical whirlwind (see Job 38-40), no explanations were forthcoming. Job never learned why he suffered. Were God to have ventured an explanation, Job would not have understood. God is God; Job is not God-and that’s good enough for Job. In the end, the only response was for Job to repent in dust and ashes for himself and for his friends. “My ears heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5). Job and his friends had spoken recklessly. In the end, God vindicated Job’s suffering. He restored wealth, health, and family to Job in a grand type of the resurrection from the dead. Yet the cause of Job’s suffering remained hidden to him, a mystery disclosed only to the book’s readers.

The theology of glory cannot account for the “innocent sufferer” or the victim of oppression, injustice, or genocide. Moralistic models of cause and effect fail utterly to deal with suffering. It makes good moral sense when the habitual drunkard develops cirrhosis of the liver; it makes no moral sense at all when her baby is born with fetal-alcohol syndrome.

Some people confronted Jesus with a political atrocity that sounds as though it had been ripped straight from the front pages of their tabloids. Pilate had slaughtered some Galilean worshipers and mingled their blood with their sacrifices. What did Jesus think?

His answer is a rhetorical question that cuts to the very heart of the theology of glory. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus?” Can we discern the hidden mind of God or the spiritual condition of these Galileans by their awful suffering and death? Jesus’ answer is a firm “No!” along with a warning, “Unless you also repent, you will all likewise perish.” Then Jesus adds an atrocity of his own-a kind of “I’ll see your act of political terrorism and raise you one construction accident.” “What about those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Were they worse sinners than all the other inhabitants of Jerusalem?” Again, the answer comes back, “No! And I’m telling you that unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

The only response to suffering and death, whether by political atrocity or the sheer dumb luck of being under the wrong tower at the wrong time, is to repent, to have a metanoia-that is, a “re-cognition” or change of mind. We must think entirely differently about how God works in a fallen cosmos where death is the way of life. We must “re-cognize” our life in the midst of death.

The theology of glory assumes a fix-it God in a fixer-upper cosmos. All we need is some rehab and renovation-straighten up our morals with ten handy commandments, get our doctrinal ducks in a row, tighten those spiritual quads and abs with some liturgical aerobics, and we poor sinners are on our way to glory. But that way of thinking is dead wrong from the outset. We are not broken down but dead in sin (see Eph. 2:5). We can’t be rehabbed any more than the dead can be raised with an aspirin and a bandage. We don’t need rehab but resurrection.

How God Actually Works through Death and Resurrection

Death and resurrection are God’s modes of operation. Repentance in the face of suffering means that we drop dead to our preconceived notions of how God should deal with us and make the cross of Jesus our reference point. There we see how God has dealt decisively with sin, suffering, and death once and for all in the sufferings and death of his Son. The cross demolishes the categories of “good” and “evil.” The evil of the cross is the good of our salvation. The miscarriage of Roman justice is God’s justice for the sins of the world. The rejection of Christ by the world is God’s reconciliation of the world. The innocent Sufferer is the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the world’s sin. As Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

The theology of the cross is the paradoxical theology of the law and the gospel. The cross is both law and gospel, both the cursed tree and the tree of life. It is the death of God and the life of man, the punishment for our sin and sin’s atonement.

In the same way, our own suffering and death in the flesh are both law and gospel. Death is law in the sense that it is the just wages for our sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Suffering is the law’s reminder that in Adam all die. This is not a simple cause-and-effect relationship: “He did X so God did Y.” AIDS babies and genocide victims show us that we do not live in a simplistic cause-and-effect world. Death is the intrinsic consequence of our trying to be like God, our common lot as children of Adam. The word of law, spoken to Adam, continues to have its killing way with all of Adam’s sons and daughters: “You will surely die.”

But death is not God’s last word. In his incarnation, Jesus Christ embraces humanity as the second Adam, as humanity’s new head. In his baptism, Jesus stands as a sinner in John’s baptism of repentance, though he is without sin. He becomes the aggregate sinner, made to be sin for us though he himself knew no sin (see 2 Cor. 5:21). In his own flesh, he accomplishes perfect obedience under the law for us, even to his death on the cross. And, just as every sin is atoned for in his death, so every sufferer is embraced in Christ’s suffering. “But I, when I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” the Good Friday spiritual asks. Yes, you were there, in the body of Jesus. “Christ died for all and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14). We, together with all humanity, suffered the just punishments for our sin in the body of Jesus nailed to the tree. He is every sufferer, every death, every victim of genocide, and every victim of oppression, violence, and disease. His thirst is our thirst. His pain is our pain-the pain we inflict on others, the pain others inflict on us, and the pain we inflict upon ourselves. His cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” speaks for every sufferer in his or her time of abandonment. The Son asks his Father “Why?” on behalf of all of us-and hears only silence from heaven. Yet he trusts his Father even in the silence and entrusts his life to him in the silence. “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” The good news comes with his dying breath, for his death is good news for the world: “It is finished.”

It would be a denial of this final word from the cross to say that the suffering of the redeemed is punishment for their sins. “The punishments that brought us peace were upon him, and by his wounds, we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Our suffering and even our death are not God’s punishment, but his discipline (paideia). Our heavenly Father is not our permissive parent in heaven. He disciplines the children he loves (see Heb. 12:7-11).

Certain members of the Corinthian congregation, failing to discern the Body of the Lord by communing drunk and neglecting the needs of their fellow communicants, incurred a temporal judgment in their becoming sick and dying (see 1 Cor. 11:27-32). This judgment (krino) was God’s “discipline” (paideia) in order that they might not be condemned (katakrino), along with the world, by refusing Christ’s gifts. Their suffering and death were instruction, not punishment; a preemptive warning serving the goal of their salvation.

Suffering and death are also gospel. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his children” (Psa. 116:15). “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on” (Rev. 14:13). The Apostle Paul declares that we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces patient endurance, and patient endurance character, and character hope that doesn’t disappoint (see Rom. 5:3-5). He adds that our present sufferings do not compare with the glory that will be revealed in us, and he likens the suffering of the cosmos to the labor pains of a woman about to give birth (see Rom. 8:18-25). Confident in God’s will to save through suffering, the faithful in Christ bear patiently with suffering and death, enduring and even embracing them, because Christ by his suffering and death has embraced us. “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).

In the cross of Jesus, we see the God who hides life in death, victory in defeat, power in weakness. He buries his divinity deeply in our humanity and then suffers, dies, and rises to save the world. He is most God for us when he is most forsaken and afflicted in his suffering. Faith in Jesus does not seek displays of power and glory, nor does it demand a blessing God has not promised, as though Jesus’ death were not sufficient. Faith in the crucified and risen Jesus is content to have him present in suffering, silently embracing us as the Man of Sorrows who is acquainted with our grief.

God and the “Problem of Evil”

In the parable of the wheat field (see Matt. 13:24-30), Jesus reveals God’s way of dealing with the problem of evil. The enemy has sown evil weeds among God’s good wheat. The interventionist farmhands demand immediate action-pull the weeds in order to save the wheat. But God’s course of action is summarized in the words: “Let be!” (The Greek word is aphete, usually translated “forgive.”) Forgive the weeds, let them be, lest you destroy the wheat. The “problem” of evil turns out to be no problem at all. The weeds will be sorted from the wheat soon enough, at harvest time. God neither abandons the world in its suffering nor does he intervene all that much-except to die on a cross and forgive!

This is not the “Watchmaker God” of Newtonian Deism, who stands completely outside the cosmos and rarely, if ever, intervenes. Nor is he the divine vending machine whose buttons are pushed by our prayer and praise. This is the God who is intimately present yet hidden in, with, and under the created order as the creative and redemptive Word through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together, who fills all in all, and who embraces the suffering and death of the cosmos in his own divine-human death on the cross. God’s Word and the Sacraments reveal this hidden God who suffers for us and with us. In baptism we are buried with Christ in his death (see Rom. 6:4). In the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s Body and Blood, the fruits of his own suffering and death, are given as food and drink (see 1 Cor. 10:16). We live off his suffering and death. “By his wounds, we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).

When we pray for and with suffering people, and when we pray in our own suffering, we pray with that Sufferer of Gethsemane who prayed “not my will but your will be done.” We pray recognizing that God’s will is always a good and gracious will to save (see 1 Tim. 2:4), even when it seems otherwise. We pray knowing that his grace is sufficient for us in our suffering and that his power is perfected in weakness (see 2 Cor. 12:8-9). Prayer motivated by a theology of glory seeks life that avoids suffering and death. The prayer of the cross seeks life in the midst of suffering and death and finds in Jesus the only way through death to eternal life.

Does this mean that we simply accept our fate then and eschew the use of doctors and medicines and “leave everything in God’s hands”? Of course not! This, too, would be a theology of glory. How can we know that it is God’s will that we make no use of his gifts of medicine? Why suggest that God’s hands have nothing whatsoever to do with the doctor’s hands? This would be claiming to know with certainty the hidden will of God concerning the disposition of our suffering. The petition “Thy will be done” means that we actively pursue God’s will, employing whatever means he has placed at our disposal-his Word, baptism and Supper, prayer and confession, medicine and the surgeon’s knife-yet recognizing that whether we live or die, our life is safely hidden with Christ in God, and we are always safe in him. Only through the cross of Jesus are we given to see suffering and death as good news, because only in the death and resurrection of Jesus does suffering and death find its fulfillment and ultimate meaning.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Look to Jesus on the cross, and ask the question again. Behold the Lamb! He is God’s great nonanswer to the problem of suffering and evil. Where is God? Right there, in the midst of it all. Why does God let this happen? It is for you and for your salvation.

1 [ Back ] Rev. Cwirla has quoted Theses 19-22 of the Heidelberg Disputation from Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pp.43-45. He also recommends Robert Farrar Capon's The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

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

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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