Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free
It is not exactly breaking news to say that our culture has an aversion to suffering, regardless of how inescapable it may be. This is because we-you and me-have an aversion to suffering. Who wants to suffer? But the conscious avoidance of pain is one thing; the complete intolerance, or outright denial of it, is another.
Why do we run so hard from something so inexorable, so much so that we often make the painful situation even worse? Setbacks fly in the face of our dearly held beliefs about progress. They rub against the grain of our collective obsession with personal control, that is, our sin. Celebrated American novelist Jonathan Franzen put it this way:
We have this notion in this country, not only of endless economic growth but of endless personal growth. I have a certain characterological antipathy to the notion of we're all getting better and better all the time. And it's so clearly belied by our experience. You may get better in certain ways for 10 years, but one day you wake up and although things are a little bit different, they're not a lot different.
It's true. Despite the inevitability of suffering, everything in our culture points toward progress, progress, progress. And I'm not just talking about classic rock anthems like The Beatles' "Getting Better," or Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop." Unfortunately, our churches often espouse a Christianized version of this gospel of progress, framing the life of belief as primarily about personal improvement. What may start out as a faithful by-product of Christian belief soon becomes its focal point, inadvertently serving as the foothold for Original Sin, aka the innate God complex hiding within us all. Such is the default curved-in-on-itself position of the human heart, or what Augustine termed incurvatus in se.
Perhaps you've heard this tendency expressed as a legalistic formula: "The reason for suffering and the lack of abundant life among Christians is due to lack of faith. Or, if you fall ill or come upon hard times financially, maybe it's because there's a hidden skeleton in your closet that needs to be confessed and exposed." Sadly, such thinking has also seeped into our evangelism: "Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and all your dreams will come true"-despite the fact that the general tenor of the New Testament suggests increased suffering for believers, not decreased. Which isn't to say that Christians never experience victory over areas of compulsive sin and brokenness. They certainly do! But as beautiful and miraculous as these thanksgivings may be, they are not the gospel. In fact, the thinking that ties suffering to faithlessness actually is in the Bible-but it's not affirmed, it's condemned! What is affirmed, however, is God working through our afflictions.
This is where Martin Luther, the great leader of the Protestant Reformation, comes in. One of his most important and lasting contributions to the faith involves the distinction between the "theology of glory" and the "theology of the cross." These two divergent views did not originate with Luther. They are as old as the hills; he simply gave them names. It may sound like an esoteric distinction, but it is just as essential today as it was in the sixteenth century.
"Theologies of glory" are approaches to Christianity (and to life) that try in various ways to minimize difficult and painful things, or to move past them rather than looking them square in the face and accepting them. Theologies of glory acknowledge the cross, but view it primarily as a means to an end-an unpleasant but necessary step on the way to personal improvement, the transformation of human potential. As Luther puts it, the theologian of glory "does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil." The theology of glory is the natural default setting for human beings addicted to control and measurement. This perspective puts us squarely in the driver's seat, after all.
One way to understand this dynamic is to look at the ways people talk about painful experiences. If someone has just undergone an ugly, protracted divorce, for example, he or she might say something like, "Well, it was never a good marriage anyway," or "But I've really learned a lot from this whole experience." This kind of rationalization tries to make something bad sound like it is good. It is a strategy to avoid looking pain and grief directly in the face, to avoid acknowledging that we wish life were different but are powerless to change it.
In the church, one hallmark of a theology of glory is the unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of ongoing sin and lack of transformation in Christians. A sign that you are operating with a theology of glory is when your faith feels like a fight against these realities instead of a resource for accepting them. The English poet W. H. Auden captured it beautifully when he wrote,
We would rather die in dread / Than climb the cross of the moment / And let our illusions die.
A theology of the cross, in contrast, understands the cross to be the ultimate statement of God's involvement in the world on this side of heaven. A theology of the cross accepts the difficult thing rather than immediately trying to change it or use it. It looks directly into pain, and "calls a thing what it is" instead of calling evil good and good evil. It identifies God as "hidden in [the] suffering." Luther actually took things one key step further. He said that God was not only hidden in suffering, but He was at work in our anxiety and doubt. When you are at the end of your rope-when you no longer have hope within yourself-that is when you run to God for mercy. It's admittedly difficult to accept the claim that God is somehow hidden amid all of the wreckage of our lives. But those who are willing to struggle and despair may in actuality be those among us who best understand the realities of the Christian life.
A theology of the cross defines life in terms of giving rather than taking, self-sacrifice rather than self-protection, dying rather than killing. It reorients us away from our natural inclination toward a theology of glory by showing that we win by losing, we triumph through defeat, and we become rich by giving ourselves away. Of course, our inner theologian of glory can be counted on to try to hijack the theology of the cross and make it a new, more reliable scheme for self-improvement. But the theology of the cross happens to us and in spite of us. For the suffering person, this is a word of profound hope.
To avoid confusion, a quick word about the term glory. It is indeed a biblical word that has its appropriate use. I am aiming to untangle the myriad ways we fuse God's glory with our own glory. So the "glory" in the theology of glory is human glory focusing on human effort intended to earn God's favor or exalt human achievement. The late great Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde put it like this:
A theology of glory … operates on the assumption that what we need is optimistic encouragement, some flattery, some positive thinking, some support to build our self-esteem. Theologically speaking it operates on the assumption that we are not seriously addicted to sin, and that our improvement is both necessary and possible. We need a little boost in our desire to do good works…. But the hallmark of a theology of glory is that it will always consider grace as something of a supplement to whatever is left of human will and power.
In the theology of glory, life becomes a ladder. Each little victory or improvement brings us one rung closer to the top-which is always just out of sight. At death, if all goes according to plan, we will enter the heavenly courts with a nicely wrapped gift for God that includes an equitable balance of our good versus bad actions, our moral scorecard, if you will. This image may seem ridiculous, but if we're honest, it characterizes more of our religious life and mentality than we would care to admit. As we tell ourselves this story, we communicate that God exists for our benefit, happiness, self-fulfillment, and personal transformation. Those aren't necessarily bad things, and God isn't necessarily opposed to them, but God in Christ cannot be reduced to a means to our selfish ends. He is the end Himself!
The house of religious cards "that glory built" collapses when we inevitably encounter unforeseen pain and suffering. When the economy tanks and you lose your job of thirty years, or when, God forbid, your child gets into a car accident (or is exposed to something damaging). When you simply can't keep your mouth shut about your in-laws even though you promised you would. When the waters rise and the levee breaks. Suddenly, the mask comes off, and the glory road reaches a dead end. We come to the end of ourselves, in other words, to our ruin, to our knees, to the place where if we are to find any help or comfort, it must come from somewhere outside of us. Much to our surprise, this is the precise place where the good news of the gospel-that God did for you what you couldn't do for yourself-finally makes sense. It finally sounds good!
Yet the message hasn't changed, and neither have the facts. They were there all along. Indeed, He was there all along. It might even be that He is communicating the same thing He communicated once for all on Calvary, what Fyodor Dostoyevsky paraphrased so beautifully in the fourth chapter of The Brothers Karamazov: "You will burn and you will burn out; you will be healed and come back again."