Martin Luther felt like throwing away much of what he wrote. Among the handful of things he wished kept was a book from 1525 called De Servo Arbitrio, “Concerning the Bondage of the Will.” Luther wrote this to answer a European scholar named Erasmus who argued for man’s free will: that we must be able to do something to please God; that God wouldn’t damn us to hell for disobeying laws we can’t obey in the first place.
In the course of his argument, Luther said to Erasmus: “Thus God hides his eternal goodness and mercy under eternal wrath, his righteousness under iniquity. This is the highest degree of faith, to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable, so that he seems, according to Erasmus, to delight in the torments of the wretched and to be worthy of hatred rather than of love. If, then, I could by any means comprehend how this God can be merciful and just who displays so much wrath and iniquity, there would be no need of faith.” (LW 33:62-63)
On this side of God, we wonder, “What if he’s the devil? What if God hates me? What if, secretly, he enjoys and delights in damnation? What if I shouldn’t love God, but hate him for setting up this rigged game?” After all, it takes a special sort of perversity to enjoy suffering, to have a taste for suffering, to take pleasure from it. We call that masochism. And the ones who dish it out, in this case, God, we call sadists. What if God delights in cruelty?
It’s hard not to make a case. Paul does. Trouble. Hardship. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Danger. Sword. And again: death and life, angels and demons, present and future, all kinds of powers, heights and depths, all creation. There’s a lot there that fills us with fear. Here we find our phobias and psychoses. Here we find the things that rob us of pleasure, security, comfort, and life. Here we find the weight and burden under which creation groans, which takes creation captive, and under which we groan as well.
On top of it all is an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present God who revels in saying, “I’m it and that’s that.” And for his sake, his sake, we face death all day long? Worse than that, because the NIV softens Paul’s quotation of Psalm 44 slightly. The ancient versions – Hebrew, Greek, Latin – say, and most English translations reflect, that Paul, and psalmist before him, said, “We are killed all the day long.” Or, as one translation paraphrased the verse, “They kill us in cold blood because they hate you.” I’m suffering seemingly unending torment, a Groundhog Day style over-and-over again being killed to death “because they hate you”?
And God appears fine with that. As Luther said, he spends so much of his time hiding himself. So few seem to be saved, so many damned. So few get healed, so many die in agony. So few, so few…so many, so many. And the one who knows God best, his Son, Jesus, says, “This is as it should be.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To his disciples as he prepares to receive Judas’ despicable kiss, Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble.” And worse, the path to God is narrow, but the road to destruction, to perdition, to hell is broad.
We die all day, every day. The world sees us as sheep and nothing more, sheep mindlessly making their way down the chutes to shearing and death, ready to be made into lamb chops and other delicious bits for stews and steaks and suppers. And Paul has the gall to say, “In all these things we are more than conquerors.”
A fascinating word, that. Paul uses it only once, and that’s its only New Testament usage: hypernikomen. We wear the root of this verb on our feet, or at least some of us: nike. Victory. Prefixed by the hyper suddenly it becomes more than victory. It becomes “complete triumph,” or “supreme victory”, or even “overkill.” In military terms we might call it a “decisive victory.”
Decisive victory comes from being killed all day long? The world viewing us as dumb animals getting butchered is “complete triumph” and “supreme victory.” We are, whatever it means, more than a conqueror, we do more than win, more than defeat, more than crush, more than end a war or campaign when we have trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger and sword breathing down our throats, and more, cutting our throats?
This is a God hard to believe. This is a God so many reject for something more palatable, something more to their taste. They prefer the God who fills their coffers with good things. They prefer a God who at least, for all the damning, damns fairly: based on what’s done or left undone. They prefer the ultimate God – themselves – because at least then all is clear and nothing is hidden, what I have, I’ve earned, what I don’t, I’ve also earned, or, better, decided I don’t want or need.
All these gods are more comprehensible than one who lets me be killed “all day long.” I can’t comprehend this. It goes against my instincts, my wishes, my desires, my hopes, because what I see, what I feel, what I think I have is a god who won’t let me win the fight, and when I’m dying just won’t…let…me…die. I damn this god with my last lingering, but unending, breath.
Maybe this is why Paul doesn’t say that these things he list are trying to separate and divorce us from God or from Jesus, but from “the love of Christ” and “the love of God.” Maybe that wording struck you. Maybe you didn’t notice it. Well, notice it. Paul didn’t say, “Who shall separate us from Christ?” Or “Nothing will separate us from God.” He said, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” and nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The love of Christ. The love of God in Christ. This isn’t a feeling or an emotion: that God is “in love” with you, all head over heels, sighing, composing mushy notes and unable to accomplish anything for thinking of you, love. You might get that if Paul only said “from Christ” or “from God.” But to think in terms only of a feeling or emotion doesn’t help us too terribly much, because all these troubles and hardships, being killed all day, doesn’t really give us much evidence that God loves us.
Rather, Paul talks about the love of Christ, the love of God in Christ, which is no mere feeling, but an action, based on a feeling beyond our grasp that Scripture calls “grace”: completely undeserved love. It’s the love Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13, which he calls “the most excellent way,” one of the three things that remain: “faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” This love doesn’t mean well, it does well.
More, this love shows us what God so often hides: his eternal goodness and mercy. This love gives faith something to cling to and hold on to. God’s hidden goodness created the great need for faith. Because I am dying daily, because troubles press upon me, because that is the way it is, I can only “believe him merciful” and “believe him righteous.” We say the same in our Creeds. Notice how “believe” echoes throughout the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed, most significantly: “I believe in…the holy Christian Church…the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
And there’s the love of Christ: “who loved me and gave himself for me”, “who gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” who offered the love of which there is no greater: he “give up his life for his friends.” Most surprisingly, not only for friends did Jesus do this: “But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
How would we get any of this from dying all day long? We wouldn’t. That leads us to hate God and all he stands for, or, better, what we think he stands for. So God comes out from his hiding spot and tell us who he is and what he stands for in the Word: working “for the good of those who love him” and conforming those he calls and justifies “to the likeness of his Son.”
God the Holy Spirit flips the script. Dying all day long seems hell itself. Just ask Jesus, he did it. Like a sheep he went to the slaughter silently. Not only for the sake of the God he loved, but for your sake. What a word of God: he shows us eternal goodness and mercy when he shows us the love of Christ, not feelings, but actions: “for us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became fully human. For our sake he was crucified…suffered death and was buried.” And then rose again. Not to end all earthly suffering and anguish, for we still suffer, but to remove the curse of sin and hell, which those things jam down our throats.
God comes out of hiding again when he kills us – and he does – all day, all life long, not with trouble and hardship, but he drowns us in Christ’s blood at Baptism, and he jams not death and hell down our throats, but the forgiveness of sins delivered in the meal of his Son’s body and blood for me! Here, and only here, in the Word, does God removes the mask of damnation and reveal eternal goodness, eternal mercy, eternal life for all to see and have!
Now, Paul says, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all,” for they throw us back on the love of Christ and the promises of God. We have nothing else. Everything else is terrible, horrible, no good, very bad and against us. But we have “him who loved us.” We have God who loves “in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In Christ, then, we survive, and more, we conquer, and more, in Christ we gain the decisive victory now – “We are more than conquerors” – and in the “not yet”: heaven itself, not just with God’s love, but with God, as Revelation 22 says: “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face.” Not just “they,” but “we,” we will see his face, his good and merciful face, the hidden face of God which we see in Christ, we will see then in glory. Amen.