The Theology of Suffering

Crown of Thorns (610x352)Today’s lesson comes from a request to explore how to understand suffering in our lives. How are we to view suffering and, then, based on such a view, handle the suffering that comes our way?


The Theology of Glory versus the Theology of the Cross

Before we look into suffering, we need to look into two different approaches, or lenses, through which we understand the events in our lives. These approaches are “the theology of glory” and “the theology of the cross.”

The theology of glory: This is the theology of fallen Adam and our sinful nature. Such a worldview understands and sees God based on one’s reason and senses. The person moves from the seen to the unseen, judging God by what he experiences. The first example of this was Eve. She sensed that the forbidden fruit was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and so she reasoned that it was desirable for gaining wisdom. She let her senses override the Word of God that Adam had given to her.

The theology of the cross: This is the theology of Jesus Christ. Such a worldview understands that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). When related to the events in life, the person sees God working His good–even in and through the bad events of life. We see this most clearly in the cross of Christ (hence, the term, “the theology of the cross”).


The Theology of the Cross vs the Theology of Glory


The theology of the cross sees life through the lens of the cross. God worked our greatest good through the cross of Jesus Christ. Understanding that, we then know that God is also at work in the suffering in our lives. “We know that all things [even suffering] work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).


Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

This is the proverbial question of humanity since the fall into sin. What are we to make of suffering in this world and then conclude about God based on that? The eyes of unbelief, the theology of glory, see: 1) no God, 2) a weak God, or 3) a God who is unloving. This again is drawing conclusions from the seen (suffering) to the unseen (what does this say about God?). The theology of glory concludes that–if there is a God–something is wrong with Him. The creature puts the Creator on trial.

The Book of Job

  • Did something bad happen to someone good?


Read Luke 16:19-31

  • Did something good happen to someone bad?


John 9:1-3a: As Jesus was passing by, he saw a man who was blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, why was this man born blind? Was it he or his parents who sinned?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned [that caused this blindness].”

  • At first glance, what can we conclude about what happens in this world?


John 9:3b: [Jesus still speaking:] “Instead, he was born blind so God the works of God might be displayed in him.”

  • Jesus healed that man. But, ultimately, how are the works of God displayed in healing?


  • How did, and does, God ultimately heal us?


This then brings us again to the theology of the cross. The theology of glory cannot make sense of the victim of oppression or injustice.

Models of cause and effect do help explain some of what happens in this world. Further, we should have such an understanding as part of our worldview.

Galatians 6:7: Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. A person reaps what he sows.

Such a worldview helps us make sense of events when an alcoholic develops cirrhosis of the liver. He is simply reaping what he has sown. However, a person reaping what he sows does not help us explain, on an individual level, a baby being born with fetal-alcohol syndrome.

In Jesus’ day, Pilate [I think we remember him!] had slaughtered some worshipers from Galilee and then mixed their blood with the blood their sacrifices. That was an act of barbarity that we can make little sense of–except that we live in a fallen, sinful world and are held hostage by such sinful events.

This is how Jesus responded to a question about that horrific slaughter: “Do you think that these Galileans were more sinful than other people from Galilee? No! But unless you repent, you will all perish as well!” (Luke 13:2-3).

  • How are Christians to understand bad events in the world?


  • How are Christians to respond when they become aware of such events?


  • Thus, events in our fallen world show what and our need for what?



What Suffering and Evil Tell Us in this World


God Working through Death and Resurrection 

Death and resurrection are how God works to restore what sin has brought to ruin. Repentance in the face of suffering means that we drop dead to our preconceived notions of how God should deal with us (theology of glory) and make the salvation Jesus won for us as our reference point (theology of the cross). In the cross, we see how God has dealt decisively with sin, suffering, and death in the suffering and death of His Son, Jesus.

In the theology of the cross, we can see how a cursed cross became for us the tree of life. The cross is the death of God and the life of man, the punishment for our sin and sin’s atonement.

But death is not God’s last word–the resurrection of the body is. Just as Jesus’ death on the cross is not the end of our salvation, but the beginning, so also is it with our death. When we die, we enter God’s salvation for us.

Psalm 116:15: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.

Revelation 14:13: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord (Revelation 14:13).

  • Discuss: How can “the dead” die? (Romans 6:3)


  • Why are they blessed? (Romans 6:4-5)


But salvation is not realized in its fullness until our bodies rise from the dead, just as Jesus’ body did. Then we will reign with God in eternity (Revelation 23:5), Jesus having transformed our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body (Philippians 3:21).


God and the Problem of Evil in this World

Read Matthew 13:24-20

  • What does bad seed sown among the good seed represent?


  • Why doesn’t the farmer tear out the weeds?


  • When will the weeds and wheat be separated?


  • When is that harvest time for us and the world?


Why do bad things happen to good people? Look to Jesus on the cross and there find your answer. Behold the Lamb! He is God’s answer to the problem of suffering and evil. Where is God? Right there, in the thick of it all. Why does God let this happen? It is for you and for your salvation. This only the theology of the cross lets us see.


Lutheran Hymnody and the Theology of the Cross

We have many Lutheran hymns rich in wisdom that teach us a “theology of suffering,” a “theology of the cross.” Unfortunately, they don’t have easy-to-sing melodies. Neither are their melodies upbeat, which they shouldn’t be considering their content. But for those two reasons, many hymns that teach us the theology of the cross have fell into disuse to our spiritual detriment.


What God Ordains Is Always Good 

What God ordains is always good:

He never will deceive me;

He leads me in His righteous way,

And never will he leave me.

I take content what he has sent;

His hand that sends me sadness

Will turn my tears to gladness. (LSB 760: 2)


All Depends on Our Possessing 

Well he knows what best to grant me;

All the longing hopes that haunt me,

Joy and sorrow, have their day.

I shall doubt his wisdom never;

As God wills, so be it ever;

I commit to him my way. (LSB 732: 5)


If Thou but Trust in God to Guide Thee 

Be patient and await His leisure

In cheerful hope, with heart content

To take whate’er thy Father’s pleasure

And His discerning love hath sent,

Nor doubt our inmost most wants are known

To Him who chose us for his own. (LSB 750: 3)