As I said yesterday, it’s interesting to look at death metaphorically. Yes, there’s the ‘big one’ where our physical bodies kick the bucket and we croak. What happens after that, no one knows. I can only speak of the small — albeit very real — deaths we experience countless times during our days and nights walking the earth in this human form.
In Martin Luther’s day, death was far more real than it is today. It wasn’t kept to the hospitals and funeral homes across town. In 1500’s Germany, death didn’t give people the elbow room it does today. The bubonic plague had just wiped people out left and right. It spared no favorites. Men, women, children, rich, poor, and in-between were laid waste as it swept through town.
Add to that the Roman church stressing people out telling them that they had to do all these things to get into this place called Heaven when they died. They attributed these things as the ‘works’ mentioned in the Bible (notably James 2:14–26) and they had to be followed according to the church’s request… or else.
Eventually, as humans do, the church wanted to make more of a profit, so they started selling ‘indulgences’. These were documents authorized by the church that could be substituted for penance (one of the required works). Instead of doing the routines the church prescribed, you could buy an indulgence that would get you off the hook, so to speak, with the man upstairs.
Luther, a young over-achieving German monk at the time was damn near killing himself with anxiety over all of these works. He was chasing his tail doing this and that thing that his church was prescribing in order to keep the devil away from your door.
See, to Luther, the devil was real, both theologically and in the world around him (that I briefly described above — you know: death, sickness, bad food, etc.). Luther fought that bastard tooth and nail. Soon, he had a breakthrough.
Holy shit, Luther said to himself (I paraphrase). These so-called ‘works’ are total nonsense. If grace is real, it can’t be conditional. Grace, by definition, is free from condition and is a gift from God.
From there, Luther — this crazy, type-a, brilliant-but-unstable (oh, how relatable and flawed Luther was) monk — made history by calling the Roman church out on their tomfoolery and starting the Reformation.
I love this story...
Even if you’re not a Christian who fears a judgmental God waiting on the other side of life who can possibly damn you to hell, this might prove comforting to you as well.
I have a friend who claims to be an atheist. She has a loved one who’s terminally sick. In a moment of vulnerability, she broke loose with these questions (maybe you’ve had them):
What did he do to deserve this?
What did I do to deserve this?
Even atheists who may not believe in G-O-D, still often think — especially in moments of intense stress and suffering — that life itself has it out for them. That there is some kind of score keeping going on and they have to pay in order to settle the balance (sound familiar?).
If this is you — Christian or not — I have this to say…
I know (but I can’t prove) that God/Life doesn’t have it out for you. There’s nothing you can do or not do to be more or less worthy of love, healing, and new life. They’re already yours, freely given.
No God can free us from all pain and suffering. The story that I follow — and the experience I’ve lived — portrays a God that enters my pain and suffering and sits through it with me before rising me anew.
The question is, can we accept that freely-given grace? Because it’s a hell of a lot easier (and it totally makes sense as a defense mechanism) to put a scapegoat out there in the sky and shake your fist at it.
This is human. It’s fine. I’d even say it’s healthy. Because with intense faith comes even more intense doubt.
But also know that this same God — the ground of life itself — will be there to catch you when you expend all of your energy and come crashing down on the cool grass, washed in the salty baptism of your own tears.
You’re good. You’re loved. God isn’t just a salve to suffering or an opiate of the masses. God suffers with us in solidarity and holds us to the notion that there is life on the other side. Something is us knows this is true.
In this very life we’ve been gifted with right now.