Luther on True Christian Suffering
A common theological theme found in Martin Luther’s writing is the suffering Christian. While one’s first assumption may be to consider the suffering Luther experienced from religious persecution, Luther was a man familiar with natural, physical suffering as well. Numerous times in his life, Luther was convinced he was at his deathbed, even going so far as to have his “last” words recorded. Luther was convinced he was dying for good reason. He suffered extensively from circulatory disturbances, headaches with buzzing in his ears, kidney stones, gout, constipation and numerous other infections.1 Luther also experienced mental anguish and bouts of depression. He lost two children, one of whom passed away at age thirteen sending Luther into bitter despair.2
Though well accustomed to pain, Luther does not respond to suffering as a typical German living in the sixteenth century. Rather, he challenges the generally accepted responses to suffering which were based on late medieval penitential theology. Using insights from the theology of the cross, Luther attempts to distinguish between true and false suffering. Luther makes very clear arguments that suffering is for spiritual improvement, not atonement.
In this paper, I will show how Luther’s understanding of suffering differs from many of his contemporaries. Though Luther suffered a great deal of persecution, this paper will focus on natural, physical suffering. I will address Luther’s perception on why Christians suffer and how the Christian should respond to suffering. I will also explore Luther’s pastoral role as he gives comfort to the suffering Christian as well as practical advice. In order to understand the significance behind Luther’s understanding of natural, physical suffering and its theological implications, we must first understand his cultural context.
Suffering in Sixteenth Century Germany
The people of sixteenth century Germany were well acquainted with suffering. Incessant feuding was a common cause for loss of life not only in Germany but all across Europe, the so-called Hundred Year’s War (1337-1443) being the most infamous example.3 Famine brought about much poverty and hunger as unpredictable weather patterns washed away topsoil and ruined crops.
The most devastating event, however, was the Bubonic Plague. Otherwise known as the Black Death, the plague swept through Europe in the year 1347 and continued as a threat for almost four centuries.4 It is estimated that from the years 1347-1353 the plague killed between a third and a fourth of Europe’s population.5
It was generally understood that this extreme form of suffering was evidence of divine wrath. A thirteenth-century Genoese bishop suggested that the Romans and their lascivious behavior caused the plague’s initial breakout in the sixth century.6
Scholar Jane Strohl points out that this understanding of God inflicting his children with suffering to prepare them for eternity was terrifying for late-medieval Christians; “The ferocity of God as evidenced in [the plague] was regarded as a foretaste of the judgment to come and a potent reminder to every Christian to do all he or she could to insure escape from that far more terrible condemnation.”7 Those with a late medieval concept of suffering had a terrifying picture of God.
Church artists made direct connections with the plague and God’s wrath through altar paintings. A famous altar painting of 1536 known as the “Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints” depicts “God the Father, who sends pestilence toward the earth in the form of arrows … SS.Roch and Sebastian kneel in the foreground [interceding].” These two famous plague patrons are characterized by a dog and arrow, their respective attributes.8 Hearing the legend of St. Roch and the unafflicted dog who supplied the saint with food, many people of Luther’s day provided their children with pet dogs, ferrets, and birds (all animals who were not prone to the disease) in hopes that the plague could be warded off.
With medical assistance providing little relief, people relied on the Church for instruction on how to avoid the plague, as well as how to respond to it. Literature from the fifteenth century does not stress physical remedies for the plague, but prescribes “the medicine of confession, viaticum, and final unction.”9 The Church’s primal response to help those suffering was through officially authorized acts of penance.10
It was commonly thought that self-inflicted suffering could prevent or lessen divine-inflicted sufferings both in this life and the one to come. Therefore, it seemed rational for late medieval Christians to seek relief from suffering through penitential acts such as “pilgrimages, processions, self-flagellation, fasting, almsgiving, and many other practices…to assuage God’s anger and secure divine favour.”11
Scholar John Rittgers explains that when encountering a priest, the confessant was instructed to ask the priest “to apply to him not only the merit of Christ and his own good works, but also any sickness or adversity he had endured, along with the daily toil he experienced in providing for his basic needs.”12 And thereby the confessor would take on the suffering of Christ as a future payment to lessen the sentence in purgatory.
It was assumed that God’s divine favor was only acquiesced so long as the affliction was borne with patience and humility. A well-known woodprint from the medieval Ars Moriendi depicts a man on his deathbed, surrounded by demons who are tempting him to express impatience and become angry at his fate. God, Jesus, Mary, and numerous saints are waiting to attend to the man while he is being tempted. The print reveals how the devil tries to rob the afflicted from the merit of patience and the humble acceptance of God’s will.13 Could one proceed through the suffering with patience, the afflicted would receive a reduced sentence in purgatory.
Suffering was potentially seen as grace as it was God chastising God’s children and calling them to spiritual health. Illness served to “wean one from earthly things and fill one with concern for…one’s eternal destiny.”14 In this way, God inflicts misery now in order to offer rewards in eternity.
Luther’s Response to Suffering
While Luther agrees that suffering is potentially a grace from God, he does not view suffering brought on by penitential acts as legitimate suffering. The problem with works of satisfaction is that Christians are encouraged to flee from suffering or to embrace lesser forms inflicted by themselves, and therefore miss out on divinely sanctioned suffering. For if one desires to possess Christ, he or she must endure Christ’s suffering.15
Luther desires to see the Christian embrace the suffering that God bestows upon her in order that these tribulations might further form the believer. When a Christian has hope that her own merits will diminish her time of suffering, Luther writes she is puffed up. Furthermore, she is experiencing false hope, for “hope that is exercised in merits is no hope.”16 Christ has completed everything on the cross. He has fulfilled all things; therefore, there is nothing left for us to do. “The Christ of the cross takes away the possibility of doing something.”17
Although one must not be hasty to overemphasize Luther’s writings on the theology of the cross, his writings in the “Heidelberg Disputation” shed light on his ability to distinguish between true and false suffering. As mentioned earlier, many in Luther’s day were working to avoid suffering; calling suffering evil and their works, good. The cross, however, inflicts the very suffering people call evil.18 In this way, the cross does not simply give us knowledge from above, rather it attacks and afflicts us.19
Theologian Gerhard O. Forde warns that a theology of the cross can very easily be twisted into a negative theology of glory, whereby our suffering becomes our good work.20 The Christian must come to the place where he can claim his suffering as coming from God, that it is good, and that this suffering is the only way to know God.
Why Christians Suffer
Luther is in agreement with the Roman Catholics that some suffering is the result of divine wrath. He believes that both the plague and a threatening invasion from the Turks are evidence of God’s divine wrath. In his “Appeal for Prayer Against the Turks,” Luther describes the country of Germany as being in a similar state as before the flood.21 That Germany heard a clear declaration of the gospel and has yet not responded has provoked God’s wrath, which will manifest itself in the Turks, or some other instrument of God’s choosing.22
However, not all suffering is a result of sin. In an address to women who have had a miscarriage, Luther explains that the grieving woman should not think that God is angry with her or someone else involved in the situation. Rather, she should see this trial as a test to develop her patience. Luther attempts to distinguish between the suffering of a large multitude, which is often as a result of sin, and the suffering experienced by an individual, which is often used to form the believer.
Luther gives greater detail into why Christians suffer in his “Sermon at Coburg on Cross and Suffering” from 1530. First, we are conformed into the image of Christ when we suffer. Second, the devil desires to torment us and is in constant battle with God. Third, we suffer to keep from becoming sleepy and secure. And finally, because Christ has hallowed suffering for his believers, and we are privileged to pick up his cross.23
1. Conformed to the image of Christ
Luther discusses widely the first point that suffering conforms us into the image of Christ. The only way a Christian can be conformed to the likeness of Christ is if the Christian suffers and bears his or her cross. In bearing the cross, we identify ourselves with Christ by wearing “the colors of the court; the dear Christ issues no others in his court; suffering there must be.”24 It is by wearing these colors that we are identified with Christ.
Luther relies heavily on Romans 8 to make this point; those who are predestined are to be conformed to the likeness of God’s Son (8:29). As co-heirs with Christ, the Christian shares in the suffering of Christ so as to also share in his glory (8:17). Luther also uses 2 Timothy 2:11-12 to claim that the Christian who endures with Christ will also reign with him. The only way the Christian can legitimately share in the sufferings of Christ is to endure the affliction God sends through the devil or “other wicked people.”25
2. The devil tormenting the Christian and battling with God
This leads Luther to his second reason behind suffering: although God does not desire to see God’s children suffer, the devil does. Luther claims that it angers the devil to see anything good and “if he were able he would tear everything apart and put it out of joint.”26 It is only from God’s gracious protection that we are saved from the ultimate attack of the devil. Luther writes that the mere sight of the devil’s conspiring against us would be enough to kill a person.
The devil plans disasters for the Christian which God allows for the Christian to endure until she is backed into a tight corner. God allows the powerful horrors of the devil to be seen in order that when God combats the devil with the Word, “we may learn from our own experience that the small, weak, miserable Word is stronger than the devil and the gates of hell.”27 Thus God allows the devil to inflict suffering so as to instruct God’s children on the power of the Word.
3. To keep us from becoming sleepy and secure
Not only does suffering allow for God to show God’s mighty power against the devil, but it also causes the Christian to remain on his or her spiritual toes. For when the Christian is not suffering, there is a temptation to become, as Luther says, sleepy and secure.
Luther writes that God does not tolerate this kind of laziness and allows suffering to discipline Christians and increase our strength “and thus bring the Savior more deeply into out hearts.”28 Just as the human cannot survive without bread and water, so the Christian cannot survive without pain and suffering. “Besides,” Luther continues, “the gospel cannot come to the fore except through and in suffering and cross.”29
4. The noble call to suffer
The fourth reason we are called to suffer is because Christ has hallowed suffering for his believers. Luther makes the argument that those who rush off to Rome, Trier, and other places to visit shrines are foolish, for the cross and suffering of Christ are much nearer to Christ than any article of clothing. It is Christ’s suffering that is holy, not his garments.30 Therefore, the cross is not a bad thing, but something precious and holy. This is a message only the devout that desire to be Christian can comprehend.31
Do these four reasons depict a God who delights in seeing God’s servants suffer? How can the same God who is loving and good cause so much pain and suffering? Luther explains that God can perform actions that are alien to God’s character which result in deeds that are synonymous to God’s character.32
How the Christian Should Respond to Suffering
The Christian should initially respond to her suffering with thankfulness. God’s infliction of suffering is not a negative sign for Luther; rather it is a sign of God’s love as God cares for the development of the Christian. Suffering is a gift given to the Christian out of God’s grace and mercy.33 The Christian “must thank God diligently for deeming him worthy of such a visitation.”34
True suffering is not something to be afraid of, but is a gift to the Christian.35 Furthermore, suffering is not something for the Christian to choose or control. Those in the papacy were not the only ones trying to control the type and timing of their suffering, Luther also speaks out against the Anabaptists and “works righteous” teachers. He refers to these people as the fanatics who “select their own cross” and then “flaunt their suffering and make a great merit of it and thus blaspheme God, because it is not a true suffering but a stinking, self-chosen suffering.”36
Every Christian will encounter suffering. Luther writes that it is not true suffering if it does not weigh us down, grip our lives, or cause great pain and damage to the body, property, honor or life. And while the Christian should be satisfied with the knowledge that his or her suffering pleases God, the Christian experiencing true suffering should also be eager to find alleviation from the pain. While we are to be thankful for this opportunity to be formed to Christ’s likeness, we do not have to enjoy it. The suffering Christian should fervently desire for the suffering to cease. Indeed, Luther joyfully proclaims his suffering while continually seeking medical and dietary remedies throughout his life.37
Images of the theology of the cross can easily become distorted when an individual justifies an abusive relationship with the reasoning, “This is just the cross I am to bear,” or, “God is punishing me.” Luther encourages the embracing of suffering only when there is no choice but to drink the bitter cup. To proclaim an abusive relationship a “cross to bear,” is actually proclaiming a false cross. Luther likens these false crosses to those who fall into deep water and immediately surrender themselves and drown claiming that it is God’s punishment. Or one who breaks a leg and says, “I shall bear it until it heals itself.” He reasons that just because winter brings freezing weather does not mean we must remain outside away from the warmth of a fire. To put up with an evil situation leads to the place where “we abbreviate the Lord’s Prayer and no longer pray, ‘Deliver us from evil.’”38
What is more, although the Christian should desire that the suffering cease, he or she should not insist on deliverance from the pain. Rather, the Christian should address God with cheer, copying the words of Jesus from Luke 22:42, “If I am to drink this cup, dear Father, may your will, not mine, be done.”39
The Christian should be content and joyful that although God has not removed the external evils, God has removed the internal sins of the believer.40 Luther reminds his reader of the promises in Romans 8 that “to the elect who are loved of God and who love God, the Holy Spirit makes all things work for good even though they are evil (in themselves, e.g., sickness, persecution, etc.).”41 Here again we see acts of evil that are alien to God’s character resulting in an end that is proper to God’s character.
In his writing, “Comfort when Facing Grave Temptations,” Luther writes that the person suffering must not by any means rely upon his or her feelings. Rather, the person must cling to the words given by God. Also, the Christian must not think that he or she is the only one experiencing suffering, but should remember that there are many others in the world experiencing the same trials.42 Luther also frequently reminds his reader that the suffering he or she is experiencing could be much worse.
At first read, Luther’s call to avoid relying on feelings and to consider how much worse one’s suffering could be sound cold. Jane Strohl raises the question whether Luther’s attitude is one of stoic indifference towards the suffering. She responds to her question by explaining that Luther neither avoids nor diminishes suffering. Rather, he transfigures it and actively rejoices in the burden.43
Luther seeks to transfigure suffering through Christian responses. While Luther gives his readers many instructions in how to respond to suffering, two attributes that consistently appear in his writings are calls for patience and hope. We will explore these two concepts in depth.
Just as the medieval print in Ars Moriendi encourages the sufferer to proceed with patience, so Luther calls his readers to respond with patience. We are not to respond in order to receive time off of purgatory, but simply as a Christian response. These attributes do nothing to improve one’s current state of suffering nor one’s final standing at the last judgment.
In his commentary on the fifth Psalm, Luther claims that patience cannot exist in prosperity. He explains that he is not condemning possessions, peace, power, etc., but the state our minds are in when we are enjoying these pleasures. True patience is tested and tried in times of suffering and trials.44
Luther instructs his reader to have a greater perspective on life. A Christian, he writes, should learn to “patiently…despise his present troubles as being those which he will never have to endure again.”45 Luther admits this demands great effort on the part of the Christian: first that we turn our eyes from what is visible in this fallen world, and second that we continue to hold fast to the word of God.46
Luther writes the sufferer “must endure the hardship, anguish, and persecution which the holy cross brings upon us.”47 He reminds the Christian of Psalm 27:14 to “Wait for the Lord; be of good cheer; do not despair and wait for the Lord.”48 Though we may be waiting for a relief that does not come in this world, Luther assures us that we are on earth for only a brief time and will live eternally in God’s kingdom in perfect peace.49
If a Christian can be patient under the weight of his or her suffering, that person will find hope. Indeed, Luther sees these two attributes closely connected, claiming that patience could also be called “spiritual hope.”50
Being hopeful means not relying on one’s own works. For just as Luther said that patience practiced in prosperity is no patience, so hope that is practiced in merit is no hope.51 While it is easy to feel hopeful in the midst of works, the sufferer is not experiencing true hope. Luther realistically admits that one might not feel hopeful during the bout of suffering sans works, but that often it is only after the suffering passes that the hidden hope is seen. 52
Much of Luther’s hope language is based on Romans 8 as he reminds his reader to look not just at his or her current state, but to hope for a glorious future. He urges the Christian to proceed in suffering with earnest and eager expectation of what is to come. It is this call to look ahead to a future glory that tightly pulls together the two ideas of patience and hope.
Comfort for the Suffering Christian
In a very pastoral tone, Luther warns the suffering Christian to seek Godly comfort over worldly comfort. Godly comfort comes when the Christian seeks the Scripture and waits out his suffering in patience, which produces hope—something the Christian can neither see nor feel. “Worldly comfort, however, insists on seeing and feeling what the afflicted desires and will have nothing to do with patience.”53
Luther instructs the Christian to read and mediate on the Bible to receive Godly comfort.54 The word brings comforting assurance and if the Christian “give[s] [herself] to Scripture, [she] will feel comfort and all…concerns will be better.”55 It is unfortunate, Luther admits, that it is so easy for the Christian to dismiss the written word of God. Were it spoke by an angel, he writes, God’s promises might be taken more seriously.56
We can trust God to provide this comfort as we would a loving father. God instructs the suffering Christian to cry the cry of Romans 8:15, “Abba, Father,” which is a cry of childlike trust and lacks fear. For the Christian is not a mere servant of God, but a child, and an heir to Christ.57 He refers to Luke 11:9-13 asking how much more a father in heaven will care for his children compared to a father on earth. “We are meant to be human beings,” Luther writes, “not divine.”58 Have confidence in God’s promise for eternal deliverance, for “we have no alternative.”59
Luther takes comfort in serving a parental God who works with precision and purpose, noticing when a single leaf falls from a tree.60 While the non-Christian does not have anything with which to comfort himself, the Christian has the promises of the Bible and the confidence in God to ease the mental torment.
While Luther provides much instruction on how one’s attitude ought to be, he also devotes time giving practical advice on how the reader should respond. Luther fears that if the Christian thinks too much on her suffering, the evil will only grow worse. He instructs the Christian to keep from dwelling on suffering and instead simply say:
“I have myself not chosen and prepared this cross; it is because of the Word of God that I am suffering and that I have and teach Christ. So let it be in God’s name. I will let him take care of it and fight it out who long ago foretold that I should have this suffering and promised me his divine and gracious help.”61
This, he explains, is the Christian art of acknowledging suffering without becoming weighed down by evil. In his “Fourteen Consolations,” Luther uses the example of John the Baptist dying an undeserved death to shame any Christian wanting to dwell on or bemoan his suffering.
All suffering, though alien to God’s character, can be used by God to transform the believer. Luther believes this suffering is a priviledge in that when we suffer, Christ suffers with us.62 He explains that “The touch of Christ sanctifies all the suffering and sorrows of those who believe in him.”63 Though it is widely debated how essential the theology of the cross is in Luther’s understanding of the Gospel, his writings on the subject shed great insight into Christian suffering.
The memento mori in Luther’s time was generally understood that in the midst of life we are surrounded by death. Despite the natural, physical suffering Luther experienced, the life he lived allowed him to adjust this phrase, making it more appropriate for the Christian, “In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.”64 For it is in the true, unchosen suffering of Christ that we find ourselves transformed into true Christian living.
Christine M. Boeckl, Images of Plague and Pestilence (Kirksville, Missouri: Truman State University Press, 2000).
Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
Heiko A. Oberman, Luther Man Between God and the Devil (New York: Doubleday, 1992).
Martin Luther, “A Christian Letter of Consolation to the People of Miltenberg,” Luther’s Works, 43, Devotional Writings, II, ed. Gustav K. Wiencke (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).
Martin Luther, “Appeal for Prayer Against the Turks,” Luther’s Works, 43, Devotional Writings, II, ed. Gustav K. Wiencke (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).
Martin Luther, “Comfort For Women who Have Had a Miscarriage,” Luther’s Works, 43, Devotional Writings, II, ed. Gustav K. Wiencke (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).
Martin Luther, “Comfort When Facing Grave Temptations,” Luther’s Works, 42, Devotional Writings I, ed. Martin O. Dietrich (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969).
Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, ed. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954).
Martin Luther, “Commentary on the First Twenty-Two Psalms,” Psalms, vol. 1, ed. John Nicholas Lenker (Sunbury, Pennsylvania: Lutherans in All Lands, 1903).
Martin Luther, “Fourteen Consolations,” Luther’s Works, 42, Devotional Writings I, ed. Martin O. Dietrich (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969).
Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings. Ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).
Martin Luther, “Sayings in Which Luther Found Comfort,” Luther’s Works, 43, Devotional Writings, II, ed. Gustav K. Wiencke (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).
Martin, Luther, “Sermon on Cross and Suffering, Preached at Coburg,” Luther’s Works, 51, Sermons, 1, ed. John W. Doberstein (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1958).
Martin Luther, “That a Christian Should Bear His Cross With Patience,” Luther’s Works, 43, Devotional Writings, II, ed. Gustav K. Wiencke (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).
Martin Luther, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” Luther’s Works, 43, Devotional Writings, II, ed. Gustav K. Wiencke (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).
Ronald Rittgers, “The Reformation of Suffering,” Crux 4 (December 2002): 15-21.
Jane E. Strohl, “Luther’s ‘Fourteen Consolations,’” Lutheran Quarterly 3 (1989):169- 182.
Other works consulted:
Burnell F. Eckradt, Jr. "Luther and Moltmann: The Theology of the Cross," Concordia
Theological Quarterly 49 (1985): 19-28.
Timothy J. Wengert, “Peace, Peace…Cross, Cross.” Theology Today 59 no. 2 Jan-Apr. 2002 Pg. 190-205
Jared, S.J. Wicks "Justification and Faith in Luther's Theology." Theological Studies 44