The suffering and persecution of Christians for the sake of Christ and the Gospel is a recurring theme throughout the New Testament. God gave no pretense that the Christian life is one of worldly success but one of glory in suffering. Most Christians find comfort in this when they suffer for treasuring the Gospel, and American Lutherans tend to remember this particularly when suffering the consequences of holding onto sound Biblical doctrine. We’re often told that our churches would be more successful and our people happier if we would just give up certain divisive doctrines (e.g., Law & Gospel, closed communion, ordaining only men, etc), replace hymns that bear deep theological meaning with fluffy pop songs, and otherwise make the Church like the world so that the world will be comfortable there. When commenting on Galatians 6:14 (“Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucifed to me, and I to the world”), Luther wrote:
“Our boasting increases and is confirmed by two facts: (1) that we are sure that we have the pure and divine doctrine, (2) that our cross of suffering is the suffering of Christ. When the world persecutes and slays us, therefore, we do not have any reason to complain and lament, but only to rejoice and exult” (AE 27:133).
When I first read this, I began to wonder whether we sometimes try to pit the first of Luther’s points against the second for our own sake. Do we use our consciousness of having sound doctrine in order to avoid suffering at the hands of the world rather than glorying in it?
We know that suffering comes because the devil and the world do not tolerate sound doctrine, but does this fact always fill the appropriate place in our thinking? We are often proud to make our stand for the truth and to proclaim it to those in the wrong—and rightly so. But what do we do when they argue with us? Too often we simply content ourselves with the observation that people just don’t like sound doctrine and walk away. We know people only listen to what they want to hear anyway, so we remove ourselves from the painful situation. Why try harder to persuade? We might as well make our point as bluntly as possible and get it over with. At this point, our proud stand for pure doctrine has become the mere sorry-for-ourselves complaints and laments that Scripture tells us to avoid. It becomes a wall that protects our pure Lutheran enclave from having to genuinely engage the heretics and heterodox themselves.
Attempting to persuade is more painful because it forces us to take the other side seriously enough to try and understand it. If we were to take falsehood seriously, we might discover legitimate grievances against the way we handle our pure doctrine. Take Rick Warren, for example. I am admittedly among those who are quick to laugh at him and dismiss his books as shallow and unsound. However, do we seriously ask ourselves why our brothers and sisters see so little purpose in their own lives that they are willing to run to Warren’s books in order to find it? Lutherans have a rich doctrine of vocation; why do so few of our laity actually understand it or apply it to their lives? Chalking up the popularity of books like Warren’s to hatred for sound doctrine tempts us to caricature our opponents. People are that sinful but not that simple. Nobody walks around like a cartoon villain scheming on how to destroy sound doctrine. They embrace it because they think they are seeking something valuable. It may be that our brothers and sisters are seeking because we have failed to provide. We do not always put our doctrine into our neighbor’s service.
We pick up Luther’s confidant bluster in denouncing his opponents, but sometimes forget what it was born out of. As he writes earlier in his Galatians commentary:
“What I have believed and taught since the beginning of our cause about justification, about the sacraments, and about all the other articles of Christian doctrine I still believe and profess today, except with greater certainty; for it has deepened through study, practice, and experience, as well as through great and frequent temptations.” (AE 27:106)
Luther did not ignore or dismiss the opposition until he had truly engaged them for a long time. Even then, we might not want to imitate Luther when he did ignore and dismiss.
Stating sound doctrine is relatively easy. Persuading our neighbors of its truth and putting it into their service is difficult and often painful. Nevertheless, we need to reach out to them—not through hokey evangelism programs and silly gimmicks but through really engaging the trials brought to our door. As Luther writes, “We do not choose these stigmata because of some sweet devotion, nor do we enjoy suffering. But because the world and Satan inflict them on us against our will, on account of Christ, we are compelled to endure them” (AE 27:144).
Rejoicing in suffering is a paradox which I admittedly do not understand. Nevertheless, understanding won’t come by avoiding the suffering and removing the paradox. To glory in the battle, we need to remain there even when it hurts–and actually try to fight.