The Goodness of God as the Antidote for Despair

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In that moment of greatest despair, we find the antidote for all our fears. We know we are beloved of God and there is salvation in Christ’s atoning death.

If I told you I have an antidote for despair from the writings of Martin Luther, you might not expect me to turn to The Bondage of the Will. Of Luther’s major theological works, it is the one that typically makes people most uncomfortable—even some Lutherans! It was the occasion on which Luther dug deepest into theodicy, pushing his understanding of God’s sovereignty to its logical end. Rather than avoiding the darkness, he dove right in, attempting to shake his opponent, Erasmus, out of complacency. Not far into The Bondage of the Will, we read the following: 

“Thus God hides his eternal goodness and mercy under eternal wrath, his righteousness under iniquity. This is the highest degree of faith, to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable, so that he seems, according to Erasmus, to delight in the torments of the wretched and to be worthy of hatred rather than of love.” [1]

So extreme is this paragraph, the man who first introduced me to The Bondage of the Will, despite being a convinced Calvinist, admitted his discomfort. It takes something rather extraordinary to make a Calvinist uncomfortable with election, but mission accomplished for Doctor Luther.

Of course, that paragraph must be read within the context of the entire work, but I find it rather refreshing to see Luther admit what I am often too timid to say: that were we to judge purely upon our human observations and understanding, we would have to conclude that God is either cruel or impotent. Our life here on earth is full of sorrows that God does not prevent, and from this  it’s logical to conclude that God is evil, or he is simply not among us.

But Luther says something else in The Bondage of the Will that we must consider. He makes a distinction between God as he is in himself and God as we come to know him in his Word, or to put it another way, he distinguishes between the hidden God and the revealed God.

“To the extent, therefore, that God hides himself and wills to be unknown to us, it is no business of ours…But we have something to do with him insofar as he is clothed and set forth in his Word, through which he offers himself to us and which is the beauty and glory with which the psalmist celebrates him as being clothed.” [2]

As human beings, we have many limitations. Some are the result of our sinful nature, but others are simply due to being a creature rather than the Creator. Our inability to comprehend the majesty of God in himself—to fully know the all-knowing One—belongs to the latter category, though it is also true that reason corrupted by sin makes assumptions about God that are incorrect. 

One biblical passage that seems closely connected to what Luther is arguing is Exodus chapter 33. Here we find Moses having received God’s covenant law upon Mount Sinai, only to find that while he was away, the entire nation of Israel had committed idolatry. Encouraged by Moses’ own brother, they took the gold they had plundered from the Egyptians and melted it down to form an idol. Such a blatant violation of God’s covenant, which they had only just sworn to keep, merited death. As the one chosen to lead God’s people, Moses was understandably anxious, upset, and even despairing when he spoke to God again.

“Then Moses said, ‘I pray You, show me Your glory!’ And He said, ‘I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.’ But He said, ‘You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!’” (Exodus 33:18-20)

Rather than showing Moses his glory, which would bring death to any human, God offers to display his goodness. Is the distinction between God’s glory and goodness equivalent to the distinction between the hidden and revealed God? Perhaps they do not map onto each other perfectly, but there is a definite similarity. Moses sought to know God’s glory, though as a mere man, he had no capacity to do so. But God did not leave Moses in despair: he offered a glimpse of divine goodness. For God entered into covenant with Israel again, granting them the help of his presence.

But even in a world full of pain, when most reject the revelation of God, the goodness of God is on full display for those who have eyes to see it.

Remember what Luther said? “God hides his eternal goodness and mercy under eternal wrath.” When we see all the evil in the world, we are prone to think that God is not good, but in fact, his goodness is simply hidden. We see wrath rather than goodness, law instead of gospel. But even in a world full of pain, when most reject the revelation of God, the goodness of God is on full display for those who have eyes to see it.

In Psalm 27, David recalls a time when his faith was shaken, then admits in verse 13, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Other English translations have a slightly different wording, but I particularly love the way the New American Standard Bible puts it here. The goodness of God is the antidote for our despair.

When we doubt that we are chosen by God, we must look to the goodness of God: the gospel promise offered to us freely. When we cannot feel his presence, we must look to his goodness. When all about us is blackest night, the goodness of God is our eternal light. God is not absent from our world, but truly present.

The goodness of God is revealed in his Word. We see it in the life of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself up for us. We see it in the promises of Scripture and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He is present with us in these things, even as they remind us that he is always present with us.

Those are the primary, infallible ways that God reveals his goodness to us, but there are other ways: the fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ, material blessings, the beauties of creation. However, these are secondary proofs of God’s goodness, for when the church is full of corruption and discord, God is still good. When we are sick or poor, God is still good. That is why we should look first to those primary proofs of God’s goodness: the gospel of Jesus Christ given to us.

More than anything, we must look to the cross. To the world, the cross is a great evil—an offense and a stumbling block. Only with eyes of faith do we see that the cross is the highest proof of God’s goodness. In that moment of greatest despair, we find the antidote for all our fears. We know we are beloved of God and there is salvation in Christ’s atoning death. If we keep the cross before us, we will know by faith that God is good, not only in general, but to us individually. For as Luther said earlier in his career,

“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.”

[1]  Rupp, E. Gordon and Philip S. Watson. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, The Library of Christian Classic Ichthus Edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), 138.

[2] 200-201

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