Ron Rittgers on How Martin Luther Helps Us See Divine Love in Pandemic Suffering

Ron Rittgers holds the Erich Markel Chair in German Reformation Studies at Valparaiso University. He is the author of The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany, along with other book chapters and articles on Christian responses to suffering in the past.


If we could ask Martin Luther how to make sense of the current pandemic, he would likely encourage us to view it as the “alien work of God.” The phrase appears in his earliest lectures on the Psalms and again in his lectures on Romans and Hebrews, where he develops the defining contours of his evangelical theology. It directly informs the advice he gives in his much-quoted “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” and is central to the way he interprets suffering and misfortune.

Luther believed that God is utterly sovereign over all things, including suffering of various kinds. God is even sovereign over the Devil, whose diabolical plots in the world the Wittenberg reformer took quite seriously. Luther was very honest about the reality of suffering in the world, along with the pain and despair that it causes—there is nothing Pollyannaish about his theology.

But Luther firmly believed that God is good. God’s very nature is ardent, self-giving love—this is foundational for Luther. Human beings, on the other hand, are deeply sinful and strongly prone to self-deification in all things. Even Christians have to engage in a daily, life-or-death battle with the “old Adam” (or “old Eve”), which they can only win by divine grace. Many are also prone—as he himself was prone—to see God as an angry judge who is easily provoked to wrath. Luther knew firsthand that when such souls experience suffering, they nearly always view it as divine punishment for sin.

The phrase “alien work of God” was Luther’s pastoral response, putting all of these beliefs and concerns together and offering some comfort in the midst of overwhelming suffering. The term expresses Luther’s desire to assure Christians that God is for them, never against them, despite appearances to the contrary.

According to Luther, suffering is God’s work. That is, God is its ultimate cause, although not necessarily its immediate cause—God can sovereignly use the Devil or other agents as tools to accomplish his larger redemptive purposes in the world. But suffering is not God’s proper work, which is always to love and save. Suffering is alien to God in the sense that it is foreign to his nature and intentions, even though he is still sovereign over it.

This means that in the midst of suffering, faithful Christians shouldn’t read their lives for signs of God’s attitude toward them. Rather, they should trust what Scripture says about God—that he is good—not what fallen reason concludes—that he is not. Luther thought that if people relied on their own unaided efforts to find and understand God in the midst of the reality of suffering, they would wind up concluding that God is absent or that God doesn’t love humans. But by faith, Luther believed, we can see through suffering to the true nature of God.

Luther’s emphasis on suffering as the alien work of God was connected to his larger conviction that God is mostly hidden from our view in this life. God can be discovered, however, in the last place fallen human reason would expect to find him—the Cross. In fact, Luther once asserted, drawing directly on 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:5, that “God can be found only in suffering and the cross.”

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Source: Christianity Today