The events of human suffering and death – and how to care for the bereaved left in the aftermath of these events – present some of the most difficult pastoral challenges imaginable. There are many typical strategies of pastoral care that one could easily conscript for the task. For example, some might suggest that we console the bereaved by encouraging them to ignore their experience of grief, hopelessness, and loss, and instead, focus on the positive. Others might say that the process of grief is designed so that we can benefit from its challenge: that through it, we might be strengthened in our resilience, resolve, and self-reliance. Finally, a third possible strategy of consolation is to remind the bereaved of the suffering of Jesus Christ; showing how His passion and experience of death reveal His empathy for those who suffer and grieve. Such a strategy directs the one being comforted to the empathic dimensions of Christ’s saving work.
Martin Luther’s approach to pastoral care differs in a number of critical ways from each of these three strategies. Students of Luther’s theologia crucis (theology of the cross) might be initially inclined to reach for the third option. That Christ suffers in His passion and death for us is indeed a central element of the Gospel. Moreover, Christ’s suffering is real. He does not suffer as a matter of appearance but truly and not only in a metaphorical sense (see LW 26:288–289). But Luther’s own writings on consoling the bereaved yield little evidence that Luther is particularly interested in enlisting the empathy of the suffering Christ in the care of those who grieve.
While it contains only a sample of what Luther has to say about suffering and grief, Theodore G. Tappert’s collection, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, includes some crucial resources from Luther’s pen on this topic.
Therein, Luther writes to several different grieving people: the families of deceased colleagues, the parents of children who’ve died, those grieving the loss of a child in birth, and to the widow of a man who died after an attempted suicide. In each case, Luther’s care and concern are evident. These letters do a great deal in humanizing Luther––especially for those primarily familiar with him as a preacher, professor, polemicist, or provocateur.
God imparts all manner of suffering to deliver an even greater gift in the promise of the Gospel.
There’s much to be gained from engaging Luther’s remarks to the bereaved. But the most important upshot is the subtle but consistent theological point he makes about human suffering and the experience of grief. God sends the trials and tempests of life not to make people more self-reliant, push them into distractions, or emphasize how much Jesus understands the sufferer’s pain. Rather, God imparts all manner of suffering to deliver an even greater gift in the promise of the Gospel. Luther writes, “[Suffering] is the school in which God chastens us and teaches us to trust in him so that our faith may not always stay in our ears and hover on our lips but may have its true dwelling place in the depth of our hearts” (p. 56). In other words, suffering is the active way in which God drives us toward His word of promise which creates and sustains faith––first in the ears, and therefore also in the heart.
The old monastic (or perhaps Augustinian) approach to suffering––maybe best on display in Dante’s Divine Comedy––says that undergoing life’s trials redirects our desire away from the sins we love so much toward the God we don’t love enough. Suffering hones and refines desire so that we become better and more virtuous people through it, thereby desiring the things we’re supposed to. Consequently, suffering helps us to participate in God, who is the highest good (summum bonum), thereby we become collaborators with God in the accomplishment of salvation. This construal of suffering roughly corresponds to one of the pastoral care strategies I outlined above, which says that suffering makes us stronger and more resilient people.
Luther understands, however, that this is a problem because desire (eros) itself is the very source of the sinner’s own ambition to become divine. This heaven-storming desire is what encourages people to look inward to the resources of their own hearts in order to engineer a constructive and self-reliant solution to the problem of grief. Luther actually encourages his readers to give up this desire to assert the self amidst grief, much like Abraham gave up Isaac in a near-sacrifice (Gen. 22:1–19). Luther is very careful to emphasize that losing a loved one is not the sacrifice made, in this case. Instead, it is this “strong affection which asserts itself too powerfully in us. While for the Lord this burnt offering is necessary, for us it is a consolation” (p. 81).
On the other hand, Luther does not simply call the reader’s attention to the empathy of Jesus for those who suffer. Christ’s suffering is certainly relevant. But meditation on Christ’s own suffering does not render it meritorious. Luther writes, “Our dear Lord and Saviour, who is also the model of all our sufferings, comfort you and stamp himself upon your heart that you may offer him this sacrifice of a broken spirit and give him your Isaac willingly” (p. 67). Again, the figure of Isaac stands in for the ambition of sinners to assert themselves––especially when it comes to matters of suffering. Here, desire is not redirected but brought to an end. Since Christ’s suffering is His own self-giving, its imprint on our hearts directs us first to the Gospel which sustains faith through suffering, but then also to service of the neighbor.