I will continue our look at Dennis Ngien’s book, Luther as a Spiritual Advisor: The Interface of Theology and Piety in Luther’s Devotional Writings. The chapter we will look at here is entitled: “Gems for the Sick: Proper Meditation on Evils and Blessings,” and is taken from Luther’s work Fourteen Consolations. Ngien summarizes:
In all these consolations the victorious image of Christ looms large, by which we are lifted outside ourselves (extra nobis), and are so caught up into Christ that we might see how, with such eagerness, Christ was willing to suffer on the cross to make death contemptible and dead for us (pro nobis)” (48).
The fourteen consolations are made up of seven evils and seven blessings. Instead of focusing his attention solely on glory, Luther accepts the reality of the cross as forming the Christian life – thereby making this work – as Ngien argues, an exercise in a “theology of the cross.” Luther, Ngien explains, “accentuates the unity of word and Spirit, working together in accomplishing the proper outcome of any act of meditation. The Holy Spirit assigns value and meaning to a thing on which our mind focuses so that whatever he considers as trivial and of no significance will move us only slightly, be it love as it comes to us or pain when it disappears” (49). Utilizing the great teacher from Ecclesiastes who stated that, “In the day of evil be mindful of the good, and in the day of good be mindful of the evil” (Ecc. 11:25), Luther writes,
It is thus very true that we shall find consolation only through the Scriptures, which in the days of evil call us to the contemplation of our blessings, either present or to come, and, in the days of blessing, point us to the contemplation of evils” (49).
The first image of evil is the evil within us, our true evil nature. Sufferings therefore, are only small revelations of our evil nature and “God’s fatherly chastening.” This image should allow us to rest in the sovereign care of God as Father. The second image is the evil before us, which is “the tragedies, infirmities, and indignities that may yet befall us” (51). Death, therefore, is the greatest evil which will befall us – second only to falling from grace. We must see death therefore as God’s rescuing us from the domain of sin and the reality of something far worse – falling from grace. The third image of evil is the evil behind us. Ngien explains, “The basic argument behind this image is this: if our lives and actions were under God’s guidance and grace in the past, during the times of disobedience, how much more would our present life be under his, even when his presence is not felt? Just as God helped us in the past, he too will come to our rescue in the present with great mercies” (52).
The fourth image of evil which confronts us is the evil beneath us, or the infernal evil, including both death and Hell. Our response to this evil is the realization that, no matter what, we do not suffer as we deserve. The fifth image is the evil on our left hand, which refers to the many different agents of evil in this fallen world. We accept, in other words, like Christ, the agents of evil in this world and recognize their role in our purification, understanding their own state of death. Next, for the sixth image, Luther refers to the evil on our right hand, which is the evils experienced by the saints, both alive and dead. This sign calls out the reality of the suffering of the saints, suffering that is no doubt greater than our own. It is here where Luther puts his theology of the cross to work against the theologians of glory “who honour the saints in the hope that they would be freed from all sorrows and ills.” Ngien offers a helpful quote from Luther:
“If you are a sinner, good! The thief was also a sinner, but by his patience he merited the glory of righteousness and holiness. Go and do likewise. Whenever you suffer, it is either because of your sins or your righteousness. Both kinds of suffering sanctify and save if you will but love them” (55).
The last image of evil is evil above us, which is the suffering of Christ Jesus for our sins. In explanation, Ngien suggests, “For Christ transforms the believer’s existence, turning life’s evils upside-down so that in him all of life may be embraced, not as a source of grief but of ‘delight.’ Consequently, this last image lifts us ‘above and beyond ourselves’ in order that we might see ‘the heart of Christ,’ and be drawn into him, who for our sake suffered the evils mentioned before, those ‘beneath us and near us’ – sin, death and hell, but defeated them by the resurrection.”
Luther’s work here is really interesting to me. The way he takes on the realities of life and weaves them into a theology of the cross – really a spirituality of the cross – seems incredibly fruitful. What are your thoughts?