The many explanations are pretty much a pile of rubbish. People suffer on without consolation. The explanations more or less just pile on, making suffering worse. Think of Job’s comforters; and let’s not be too harsh on them. Do you have three friends who will sit on the smoldering ash heap with you for seven days without saying a word? They were his friends, and good ones. But they were wrong. With good intensions, they poured salt in Job’s wounds. What is a pastor to do?
Luther faced this. He made a breakthrough. He reformed suffering. This is valuable stuff. And now, a contemporary of ours, Ronald K. Rittgers, has brought Luther’s insight forward for us in a treasure of a work, The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany.
As Oxford reviewer Laura Kounine says:
He contends that ‘In the sixteenth century, Protestant theologians and pastors engaged in an effort of unprecedented scope and urgency to change the way their contemporaries understood and coped with suffering’ (p. 5). Indeed, Rittgers argues that suffering formed the battlefield on which early modern Christian confessions fought for the souls of the European population, yet it has been a curiously neglected historical topic.
As an Oxford Press book, this work is not inexpensive, but for the price it is one of the best salves you’ll ever buy. Finally, there is consolation. Further, Luther’s breakthrough on suffering is of a piece with his whole evangelical breakthrough. It is integral to all things Lutheran.
Not sure about the 80 bucks? More good news. You can listen for free to a lecture by Rittgers arranged by John T. Pless that serves as an overview of what you’ll find in more depth in the book. Click the word lecture to stream the mp3 audio, or right click it to download the audio file. In this lecture you will hear Rittgers say,
Here’s the argument of my book, which will save you about 80 bucks. Martin Luther wanted to reform the way his contemporaries understood and sought to cope with suffering, and this reformation of suffering was an essential though understudied part of his overall reformation agenda. Suffering, the reformation of suffering, was central to the Reformation itself.
He then opens up a chapter in the Reformation, the Indulgence Controversy, and shows how that is true, and how Luther reformed suffering and Christian faith.