May 15, 2009

Avoiding a False Theology of Suffering

Martin Luther's tenure in the monastery was a time of spiritual desperation. He was tormented by unrelieved guilt coupled with a gripping fear of the wrath of God. Why would an educated man retreat to a barren cell and abuse himself with self-inflicted physical punishment? Why would a believer go out of his way to find personal suffering?

The answer may be found partially, though not totally, in a concept that emerged in church history that equated suffering with merit. Monks fled to the desert to seek rigorous forms of asceticism and self-denial, not only as a form of spiritual discipline to maintain a healthy dependence on the grace of God, but also in quest of sanctifying merit.

A biblical text that was often cited as scriptural warrant for such activity is Colossians 1:24. Paul writes, "I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church." The key words of this verse are "fill up . . . what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ."

A false theology of suffering emerged that was built on the hypothesis that the meritorious suffering of Jesus, though necessary for the redemption of God's people, is not complete—there is additional merit that can be added to it by the suffering of the saints.

Coram Deo

Reflect on this truth: The suffering of Christ cannot be augmented by your merit. It is complete.

For Further Study