Luther's Counsel for the Bereaved
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.
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).
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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.
For Luther, Jesus does something much better for those who grieve than simply identify with them: He brings suffering and evil to an end in His own death. In the case of Justus Jonas’s deceased wife, Luther asserts that “One must find [consolation] in the spirit, in the realization that she has gone on before us to Him who has called us all and who in his good time will take us from the misery and wickedness of this world unto himself” (p. 75). Likewise, in the case of a man who died subsequent to a suicide attempt, Luther enjoins his readers to take consolation in the fact that “Christ struggled like this in the Garden [of Gethsemane], yet he won the victory at last and was raised from the dead” (p. 59).
Luther’s pastoral care in light of suicide is particularly revealing of the deeper logic to his approach. Luther writes elsewhere that suicide is an act of the devil in one’s life, much like a robber attacking and killing a person in the forest (see pp. 58–59). However, suicide exemplifies the human ambition to take ownership over life and death––an ownership which ultimately belongs to God Himself alone. Luther makes God’s lordship over life and death very clear and also a very important part of his consolation for the bereaved. If we imagine suicide as an attempt to wrest control of lordship over death from Jesus Christ, then this is a struggle, Christ will win every time.
All of life is a gift from God, for Luther. It is His to give and His to take as well. In both of these acts––of giving and taking––God is to be upheld as a dear and faithful God (pp. 53–54). There is no escape from this most active God who works all things, both life and death (Deut. 32:39), for the good of His purpose (Rom. 8:28). Most strategies of dealing with suffering and grief try to search the casual chain of events, read the tea leaves (so to speak), and understand why God would permit evil. The result is usually either the conclusion that God Himself is evil, or that the sinner’s self-correction would improve the matter. Luther writes that it “is characteristic of our human nature to think what we wish is best and what God does is unsatisfactory to us. But it would not be good if our will were always done because we would then become too sure of ourselves. It is enough for us that we have a gracious God. Why he permits this or that evil to befall us should not trouble us at all” (p. 69)
Luther finds immense comfort in this for the bereaved. Those who mourn can rest certain in the knowledge that whatever happens in life or death, all things have been made for Jesus Christ. The suffering we endure for now is the surface upon which God enacts His own faithfulness to the promise to bring forth life from death. Suffering and loss challenge this promise itself, but the strange and unexpected byproduct of this conflict between the promise and its contradiction is a sure, certain, and unshakeable hope (Rom. 5:4–5).