Numerous evangelicals in the West have embraced a theology that denies many forms of suffering the right to exist: this ought not to be – not if we are a new creation in Christ! More than a few even go further and deny, ‘in faith,’ not just its right to be but its very existence: “I refuse to believe that this (often a serious illness) is so.”
Even if we don’t go to the extreme of denying reality, we don’t find it easy to deal with suffering. What can we say? If suffering comes up in a philosophical or theological debate, or as an argument against God’s existence, there are partial answers we can give to explain the existence of suffering and injustice. We call such a defense theodicy, a term that literally means God’s justice. But what if the question comes up because the other person is suffering?
Philosophical answers are not likely to do much good. Job found no help in the theological answers of his friends. I know these were poor answers. But what if they had been much better? Would it have made a difference to Job? In the end, what helped him is not a theology of suffering but an encounter with God.
A better answer may be found in the psalms, more precisely, in the psalms of lament. This answer is not an explanation given to the sufferer; it goes the other way around. It consists of words that the sufferer may offer to God to pour out his or her heart before him. No holds barred; anything goes. People in the Bible who complained to God in this way were sometimes corrected (say, Jeremiah) but never punished. It turns out, you can say anything to God (except, as some have pointed out and as Moses discovered in Exodus 4, “No!”). He does not get angry if you tell him how you really feel about things.
Luther on the Psalms
2017 is Luther year: it is 500 years since the ‘official’ beginning of the Reformation
And this takes us to Luther. It won’t surprise anyone that Luther wrote extensively about Paul’s letter to the Romans and justification by faith. After all, this is the heart blood of the Reformation. That he also wrote extensive reflections and commentaries on the book of Psalms, more than on any other book in the Bible (Ngien 2015: xvii), is not so widely known.
Why did he do this? Because he was at heart a pastor at least as much as he was a theologian. He did not care about true or right theology for its own sake, but for the sake of those who believed. He recognized in the psalms a tool of immense value for the church. Here were the prayers of believers in the past. Here we get to see their inner life and their walk with God. And perhaps most importantly, here are words we can borrow and make our own to speak to God:
[The Psalter] has furnished believers in every generation with an invaluable source of prayer and praise, and with models for their own response to God. Luther accentuated:
“Hence it is that the Psalter is the book of all saints; and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.” (Ngien 2015: xix)
This quotation comes from a book by Dennis Ngien discussing Luther and the lament psalms, a book I picked up for the occasion of 500 years Reformation. It was not quite what I expected.
1. Lament, penance, confession? First, lament or complaint is a common element in the Psalms. However, by Ngien the term is used in a narrower sense. As such, it is a bit misleading, because it translates the German term Bußpsalm. The original meaning of Buße was penance. These psalms are therefore traditionally called penitential psalms in English.
Penance is something people do to express their regret over sin, almost like a voluntary punishment. It is something they ‘pay,’ as implied in the modern term Bußgeld, meaning fine or ticket (as in a parking ticket or a speeding fine). The idea that we can offer God anything in ‘payment’ for our sin is, of course, something that flies in the face of Luther’s understanding of our plight as sinners before a holy and righteous God: there is nothing we can offer to God, nothing we can contribute to our salvation; it is all of grace. It makes sense, then, to look for a different term than penance, but repentance or confession would have been more to the point than the overly general lament.
2. Which psalms? Traditionally, then, these psalms have been called penitential psalms. At least since the sixth century, seven psalms in particular were listed in this category: Psalm 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. Strangely, and this is the second “not quite what I expected,” Ngien’s book only covers two of these, Psalm 6 and 51. The other psalms discussed are Psalm 77, 90, 94, and 118; these are not normally considered penitential (or even lament) psalms. His book offers no explanation for this strange selection of psalms.
I hasten to add that categorizing psalms is not easy. One reason is that obvious categories such as lament, confession, complaint, praise, and expressions of trust are elements that are combined in many psalms. Still, Ngien’s selection is not an obvious one, regardless of whether we speak of penitential or lament psalms.
3. Luther’s theology. The third reason the book was not quite what I expected goes on Luther’s account. I was surprised at the extent to which Luther imposes his theology on the exposition of the text. The outline of this theology, I trust, is well-known. It is about justification, not by works, but by faith alone, of the sinner who is led by the law to utter despair.
The proper subject of theology is man guilty of sin and condemned, and God the justifier and savior of man the sinner… All Scripture points to this, that God commends his kindness to us and in His Son restores to righteousness and life the nature that has fallen into sin and condemnation. (Ngien 2015: 28)
In Luther’s view, God’s wrath experienced in the form of various ailments or human opposition fits in here. It is God’s ‘alien work,’ intended to lead us to repentance and salvation, which is God’s ‘proper work.’ In the case of believers, God’s ‘alien work’ serves to make them know fully they can only depend on Christ and nothing else. Suffering, then, works hand in hand with the law toward the same aim: establishing human helplessness and need.
A Critique of Luther
The psalms, of course, speak frequently of the wrath of God, the psalmist’s iniquity, and suffering through disease and enemies, often combining two or more of these elements in one psalm. Psalm 38 even includes all four of these. Clearly, suffering can be a consequence of sin and it can be used by God to help us see our true condition and lead us to faith.
But perhaps Luther overdoes it (assuming Ngien has stated Luther’s view correctly). He reads such psalms rigorously within the framework just summarized. It is all about the formal need of the sinner for salvation, not about the very personal felt distress caused by what life throws at the psalmist, leading him to wonder where God is amid all this: why does God forsake me? How long will he be angry with me!? Luther sticks to his scheme even when sin or iniquity is not explicitly mentioned, as in Psalm 102. If God’s anger or wrath is there, sin is implied. The law and this suffering work together to imprint on the sufferer his or her desperate predicament and need of salvation. It is a foretaste of hell (Ngien 2015: 9-10) and makes people realize they are sinners whom only grace can rescue.
I offer a different reading, at least for those psalms that are less obviously penitential. Luther’s reading may work well for Psalm 51, David’s confession after committing adultery with Bathsheba, or for Psalm 38, an obvious confession of sin. But Luther’s scheme appears too simple to cover all cases. When the psalmist interprets his suffering as God’s wrath, is this always fully accurate? There is the messiness of life. We don’t know why things happen to us. We may not know whether it is God or the devil, or both, or neither (but since God is ultimately in charge, his is the right address to go and complain). Something is lost in this overly theological interpretation of the psalms. In many situations, the best use of a psalm is not necessarily to teach theology but rather to help us express our frustration and anguish (or joy and gratitude) to God.
Again I hasten to add something. I can only say this because, thanks to the Reformation, we have learned better principles of interpretation. Inductive Bible study means, at least in theory, that we do not bring our theology and our preconceived ideas to the text. We know this because the Reformation led the way to a better approach in Bible interpretation. In other words, I am only able to see the problem and to criticize Luther because I am standing on the shoulder of giants, with Luther himself somewhere close to the foundation.
Still, the scheme of sin, awareness, and redemption is too limited to read the psalms. A case in point: the complaint in Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Surely this lament does not result from the sin of the speaker or serve to convince him of his sinfulness!
Luther was certainly right in this, however: suffering is real and it is not out of place in the life of a believer. I do not glorify suffering but when it comes, we cannot wish – or believe – it away. The psalms give us words to respond.
Standard Bible Society (2001), The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society)
Ngien, D. (2015). Fruit for the Soul: Luther on the Lament Psalms (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press)