Human Experience, or God’s Word of Promise?
A Lutheran thought for Good Friday.
I am part of group of Lutheran pastors throughout the country, from all of the synods, who share a common devotional practice. We use a resource for daily scripture reading and prayer titled “For All the Saints.” (Learn more about this incredible resource at www.alpb.org/for_all_the_saints.htm. The first reading for this morning filled me with a thought that seemed appropriate for this blog.
The text is Lamentations 3:1-33. It is obvious why it is chosen for Good Friday. While it was written by the prophet Jeremiah as a prayer of grief, after the fall of Jerusalem, its words also speak to Christ’s suffering on the cross. In particular, it helps us feel the sense Christ had of being the victim of God’s wrath against the sin of the world. “I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath.” Lam. 3:1 Phrases like “I have become the laughingstock of my people” apply directly to the crucifixion.
Verses 1 – 20 are a relentless description of the experience of suffering – especially that kind of suffering where we feel that God has abandoned us, and we have no hope. “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is.” (3:17). But suddenly, at verse 21, the mood turns around: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope; the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (3:21-23).
What makes this passage so Lutheran is how places our human experience directly against God’s Word, especially God’s promises. On the cross, Jesus experienced in an intense way something that most of us have known – the feeling that we are lost, the experience of pain, betrayal, and loss of hope. At these times, if we only look at our experience of suffering, we will lose faith, leave church, abandon God, and lose our salvation. This is just what Satan desires. Luther taught us that scripture teaches us to NOT trust our experience, but to trust God’s Word. Judas trusted his experience of guilt and shame for betraying Jesus, and killed himself in despair. Peter felt equally guilt, but must have believed Jesus’ words promising forgiveness.
So, when we are faced with suffering, faithful Christians do not “trust their feelings” or “believe their experience.” Faithful Christians trust God’s promise, given in scripture. That trust opens the doors to God’s mercy and salvation.
This brings me to one of the things that has so deeply troubled me about the ongoing debates in the ELCA concerning scripture. Many voices are going against all genuine Lutheran teaching, and saying that we need to use our personal experiences to help us interpret scripture, even overturn the plain words of scripture. But once we let our own experiences be our guide, all hope is lost. Because our earthly experience is one of sin, failure, guilt, and ultimately, death. The Bible calls us to turn this around, and look at our experiences in the light of God’s promises. Then, even though we experience great loss, we can be like the author of Lamentations, and see the new hope that is beyond our experience, God’s promise of redemption, forgiveness, and eternal life.