How do we make sense of suffering in our own lives and the lives of those whom we love? How do we understand pain in the life of a community of faith or in a family?
What do we make of the lingering sins that seem to beset us? What of the painfully slow progress we make toward holiness and Christ-likeness?
Trying to make sense of these realities often leads people to one of two alternatives: to deny or to resign. If we experience suffering we might be tempted to jump directly to the good that God causes to bring out of it and deny the reality of the pain. Our pain becomes our problem–something we did wrong.
Equally, we might be tempted to resign ourselves to the belief that God has somehow abandoned us and that God is somehow disinterested in our lives and removed from acting in our lived experience. God becomes a religious idea rather than a person.
A new paradigm
From the depths of his own anguish as a Christian and as a scholar, Martin Luther came to distinguish between two rival ways of understanding God, the Christian faith itself, and the Christian life: the theologia crucis (“theology of the Cross”) and theologia gloriae (“theology of glory”).
The theology of the Cross understands that the Cross stands at the very center of our knowledge of God. In other words, the Cross is the paradigm for understanding both God and ourselves. Christ’s death on the cross is the climax of his ministry rather than the low point. As one writer put it,
[Luther] understood the image of Jesus’ death on the cross to reveal not just the mechanism of salvation but a fundamental principle about life and about God. He came to believe that God always works ‘under his opposite’ (sub contrario), and that we see this in the crucifixion, where God’s victory was in his defeat and life came about precisely through death.
The theology of glory, on the other hand, is an approach to Christian understanding that minimizes or seeks to bypass the suffering, pain, and brokenness of the Cross. In other words, the Cross is not paradigmatic. The “victory” comes up a lot when dealing with theologies of glory.
What does this mean for us?
The theology of the cross as a view of God, of self, and of the Christian life stands in sharp relief to the dominant narrative of the American dream. That’s why for many of us, suffering and setbacks are an unwelcome surprise.
The theology of the cross gives us a better lens through which to view life. Through it we realize that all of the expectations of effortless perfection in terms of personal and family life, career and vocation, godliness, and church life are false. The reality is that life is messy and that the good news of the gospel is that God meets us in the mess.
After all… no mess, no Gospel.