Martin Luther: Comforting the Sick

I know the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation is over, but I just happened upon an old essay I wrote on Luther’s pastoral approach to the sick and dying I found interesting.

Martin Luther’s book Comfort For the Sick and Dying provides a window into his faith and theology as it is worked out in the face of physical suffering and death.  There is no greater test for the depth and sincerity of faith than when faced with the perils of human suffering—especially when those afflicted are one’s own beloved father, mother, daughter, and close friends.

THEMES IN LUTHER’S CARE FOR THE SICK & DYING

In what follows, I will expound upon five theological themes that emerge from these personal correspondences of Luther.  They are: 1) sicknesses and suffering are willed by God for the purpose of “fatherly chastisement” to strengthen and humble the believer, 2) faith and prayer are powerful and effective tools for enduring suffering and overcoming the ploys of Satan, 3) this life is but “a vale of tears”, full of suffering and sin, and our hope lies ultimately in the hereafter, 4) our momentary sufferings are reminders of God’s grace and point us to Jesus whose sufferings far outweigh our own, and 5) our greatest consolation in the midst of physical suffering is to shift our focus away from our momentary ailments and to consider the cross of Christ, where we were saved from the ultimate disease—the power of sin unto eternal death—and our future hope stored up in heaven.

First, Luther holds in high regard the determinative will of God.  It naturally follows then that God’s purposes would be sought to explain moments of suffering and sickness.  For Luther, God is the source of everything—including suffering.  Thus, he urges George Spalatin to “patiently bear the blows of his kindly hand…” (29).  Luther informs his mother that “this sickness of yours is his gracious, fatherly chastisement” (33).

A part of Luther’s regular routine in visiting and ministering to the sick is to “assure himself  that the sick man’s will is inclined toward God, that he acknowledges that the illness, sent upon him by the will of God, is to be borne with patience…” (36).

To Caspar Mueller he writes, “I am sorry that God has heaped more sickness upon you…But if God wishes you to be sick, his will is surely better than ours” (39).  Furthermore, he writes, “He is a good merchant and a gracious tradesman who sells us life for death, righteousness for sin, and lays a momentary sickness or two upon us by way of interest…” (39).

To Urban Rhegius, Luther writes that “this trial comes to you, as it does to other brethren who occupy high stations, in order that we may be humbled” (41). God is again the source of such testing: “Our condition depends upon Him who bloweth where he listeth” (41).

Again, in a description of a typical ministry encounter, Luther “admonished her to submit to the will of God, who (as is his wont) was chastising her after freeing her from all the evils of Satan…” (43-44).  Then he said, “A daughter should bear the chastisements of her Father unto death or life” (44).  It is clear that Luther sees sufferings as ultimately from God and for his divine purposes of testing, strengthening, humbling, and molding.

Second, Luther evidences a high regard for the efficacy and necessity of prayer and faith in times of testing.  To Frederick of Saxony, Luther explains the Christian’s obligation to perform works of mercy for those who are sick, following both the Scriptural mandate and Christ’s clear example.  Considering the various acts of mercy one might perform for those in need, he declares, “Above all else we ought to pray…” (28; cf. 52).  Luther always promises to pray for his patients (37).

Concerning an instance of demon possession, Luther retells how they “succeeded in subduing him by perseverance and by unceasing prayer and unquestioning faith” (42).  All Spiritual battles, according to Luther, should be fought with the double-edged sword of “faith and prayer” (43; cf. 44, 45 and 52).  Luther challenged physicians that when diagnosing illnesses, they “observe only the natural causes of illnesses” and “do not understand that Satan is sometimes the instigator…” (46).  Luther suggests, “To deal with Satan there must be a higher medicine, namely, faith and prayer” (46).  To Justus Jonas, Luther warns that “Satan is beginning to feel secure because we are slumbering and are slothful in prayer” (49).  Likewise, in the same letter, Luther believes that God is less likely to “perform miracles on account of our very cold prayers” (50).  Thus, Luther holds prayer and faith as the key defenses against Satan’s ploys and the necessary instruments for invoking God’s miraculous healing.

Third, in his ministry to the sick and dying, Luther presents a very negative view of this present life and places all hope in the Hereafter.  He repeatedly describes this life as a “troubled and unhappy vale of tears” (31; cf. 41).  All hope for peace and rest is found in the afterlife:

“This life, cursed by sin, is nothing but a vale of tears.  The longer a man lives, the more sin and wickedness and plague and sorrow he sees and feels.  Nor is there respite or cessation this side of the grave.  Beyond is repose, and we can then sleep in the rest Christ gives us until he comes again to wake us with joy” (32).

This negative view of this life directly influences the low value and worth Luther places on himself: “So I pray that the Lord will make me sick in your place and command me to put off this useless, outworn, exhausted tabernacle.  I am quite aware that I am no longer of any value” (48).  Furthermore, “We are best off when we ourselves acknowledge that we are framed of dust and are mere dust” (41).  With such a view, it is not surprising that in his encounters with sick and dying people, Luther attempts to shift the patient’s attention off of their own sufferings and onto Jesus’ greater sufferings.  This leads to the next theme.

Fourth, Luther’s Theology of the Cross shines through in his ministry to the suffering, as he finds in our own sicknesses and weakness, a poignant reminder of Jesus’ greater sufferings.  Luther urges his patients to bear patiently their sufferings, recognizing how light and insignificant they are in comparison to Christ’s passion: “You should accept [this sickness] with thankfulness as a token of God’s grace, recognizing how slight a suffering it is (even if it be a sickness unto death) compared with the sufferings of his own dear Son…” (33-34).

Again, “Behold the good things you possess at his hands rather than what you suffer.  The balance is tipped immeasurably in favor of the former” (38).  For Luther, suffering is not so much something to avoid, but rather to embrace cheerfully in order to share in Christ’s suffering: “But how can I pay for what God has done for me?  Well, I can drink of the cup cheerfully and can praise and thank the name of my Lord.  That is, I can bear my suffering and misfortune with gladness, singing, ‘Alleluia’” (40).

Fifth, and closely related, Luther’s counsel to the sick and dying is to consider of ultimate importance, the victory of Jesus over sin and death, which has secured complete healing for our souls.  When we consider these eternal blessings stored up for us, we will be less likely to be overwhelmed and consumed by the momentary sufferings that now plague us.  Luther encourages his dying mother by reminding her of Christ’s victory over death:

“‘Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?’  Like a wooden image of death, you can terrify and frighten, but you have no power to destroy.  For your victory, sting, and power have been swallowed up in Christ’s victory.  You can show your teeth, but you cannot bite…With such words and thoughts, and with none other, you may set your heart at rest, dear mother” (35).

To Caspar Mueller, he writes, “What should we do but glorify and bear in our bodies Him who gained the victory over the world, the devil, sin, death, flesh, sickness, and all evils” (39).  Luther asks John Ruehel, in the midst of his suffering, what more he needs than what he has already been given: “The realization that you have been called by this Man, that you have been blessed by a knowledge, desire, and love for his Word, and that you have been sealed therein by his Baptism and Sacrament should surely make you more cheerful” (37).

Finally, Luther’s shift of focus from present sufferings to eternal blessings is again stated clearly: “It matters little, then, that God has caused you to be sick and bedridden inasmuch as he has so abundantly blessed you, chosen you, and rescued you from the darkness of the devil and the rabble of hell” (40).

For Luther, ministry to the sick and dying involves a shift in perspective; he does not seek to alleviate or empathize with their pain, but urges them to take their minds off of their own pain and find hope and comfort here and now in the future blessings that Christ has won for them.

EVALUATION OF MAJOR THEMES

Several comments are necessary in response to the themes just described.  First, Luther’s strong determinism is bound to frustrate many who want to avoid making God the source of suffering, the author of evil.  The ‘soul-making’ motif permeates the letters and raises the question of the role of Satan and the universal effects of the Fall in connection to human suffering.  While Luther usually connects sickness and suffering to the willed purposes of God, other times he ascribes suffering and affliction directly to the work of the devil (52; cf. 46).  Thus, Luther remains somewhat ambiguous in distinguishing between instances when suffering is willed by God for the strengthening and chastising of his children, and instances when suffering and disease are the diabolical work of the Evil One.

Second, Luther’s pessimistic view of this life and his propensity to place all hope in the afterlife discloses a certain underlying worldview and may have unfortunately prevented him and his patients from experiencing God’s eschatological blessings—his healing touch—here and now.   Luther’s apparently dualistic view of the world and human nature portrays a morbidly low view of God’s creation.  The redeemed value of humanity is overlooked and the physical, here-and-now, eschatological blessings brought by Jesus to the sick, lame, blind, and deaf of his day are now sought and expected only in the afterlife.

It seems unfortunate that Luther’s ministry to the sick and dying almost completely ruled out the hope for wholeness and healing in this body, in this life.  It is worth emphasizing, that Jesus came not only to secure salvation for our disembodied souls, a hope to be realized only in some otherworldly heaven in some distant future.   Rather, he came to restore and save all of creation—mind, body, soul, rivers, trees, and birds; the first-fruits of which are to be tasted here and now as we live by the Spirit in anticipation for the complete restoration of God’s creation.

On the positive side, Luther’s ‘Theology of the Cross’, which so powerfully penetrates his letters, has much to commend for it.  Without losing all hope for physical healing and wholeness now, we certainly ought to find hope, strength and comfort in the knowledge that Jesus has indeed defeated Satan and the powers of sin and death on the cross, and that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).

Finally, Luther offers a marvelous example of persistent prayer and unwavering faith as we look forward to this glorious reality.

IMPLICATIONS AND APPLICATION

Luther’s counsel to the sick and dying can be of some use and inspiration for the church today; although I would advise that we also seriously consider the weaknesses and drawbacks described above.

First, (and not mentioned in the thematic survey above) Luther rightly sets forth the scriptural mandate and Christ’s example for making it our duty to reach out to those who are sick and in need with acts of mercy and love (26-28).  His letters of deep love and concern, though sometimes hidden beneath passionate theological garb, can spur us on to being more thoughtful with those in our life who are suffering.  We might consider offering more words than just the typical “I’m sorry to hear that; I will keep you in my prayers.”   A heartfelt and well thought-out letter might be the right act of mercy for someone in our own life.

Second, as noted above, Luther’s ministry to the suffering was rightly built on the solid foundation of fervent prayer and unquestioning faith.  We should follow Luther’s example by taking up the same two-edged sword.  Moreover, we must renew our confidence that prayer is actually doing something, taking to heart Luther’s conviction that “the prayer of the Church prevails at last” (42).

Third, Luther’s writings inspire the church of today to consider more seriously the spiritual nature of our sufferings.  In a time of growing medical technology and more numerous means of alleviating pain, we can more easily numb our pains and seek comfort in such manmade remedies.  However, Luther reminds us that our ultimate sickness is not physical, but spiritual; the ultimate enemy is not pain, but sin and death; and the ultimate cure is not medicine or surgery, but the cross of Christ.

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