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What Church History Can Teach Us [Americans] about Personal Tragedy

Some stories related to the Protestant Reformation rarely escape the dusty pages upon which they’re written. Take the story of Martin Luther’s family life, for instance. Shortly after the Reformation got underway, the middle-aged Luther married a former nun, Katharine von Bora. Together they raised six children, or should I say “birthed” six children. Their second child, Elizabeth, died when she was eight months old. It nearly killed Luther who commented, “never had I thought that a father’s heart could be so broken for his children’s sake.” But the most terrifying event that seriously challenged his faith was the loss off his gracious and loving daughter, Magdalen, who at thirteen surrendered her youth to mortal illness. For a time afterward, Luther couldn’t even gather his thoughts well enough to pray.

Similar stories of great men and women of God, who, like Luther, found little consolation amidst the darkest times of their lives, stir me and remind me that theological precision is a poor substitute for weathered faith. Life, it seems, has this annoying habit of knocking down our fragile, uncontested theological formulas like foul breath beating against a house of cards. Still we are troubled when we read about Luther, a champion theologian and accomplished composer, who was occasionally muted and numbed by personal tragedy. Nor is he an isolated example from church history. As we may recall that New England’s church leader, Cotton Mather, lost eight of fifteen children before reaching their second birthday. And if we are to add tragic marriages (John Wesley, William Carey) and constant illnesses (Charles Spurgeon, Mary Slessor) to the list of life’s tribulations, there would be no time left for the main point, which has been intentionally obscured until now. To the faithful pilgrim, there may be times in life when God alone has the answer for our grieving heart, and it may well be concealed until we pass beyond the veil of this life.

Image: Joshua Earle

I realize that this remark cuts across our American, have-it-your-way philosophy. Frankly, I don’t personally find these stories necessarily uplifting, but they are real and they remind us that death and sorrow are great equalizers while we sojourn on this planet. The first century Christians understood this truth all too well. Paul told the Corinthians of the many perils he faced constantly (II Cor. 11:23-29). The Hebrew author reminded his readers that faith is always rewarded, just not always in this life (11:35-39) as evident in the lives of past saints. Peter went even further, calling attention to our role as “aliens and strangers” (I Pet. 2:11) in this world. I take this to mean that we look to eternity for our ultimate hope, and not meaning that we forsake or despise our earthly, temporal existence. Even Jesus stated that, “in this world [we] will have trouble” (John 16:33a).

The stories we read from church history reinforce the notion that good and godly Christian people can often suffer inexplicably in this life. But having to wait for answers means that we must rely unconditionally on faith in God rather than the standard soapbox bravado and stereotyped propaganda-practices that are more deeply rooted in American business than the Bible. Of course we do not plan our “light and momentary troubles” (as Paul referred to them), but we expect good things from God and in this country we usually get them. But when difficult, even terrible times occur, it is best to remember that we are not entitled to always have a ready answer. Someday, God will “wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning, or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Faith is sufficient for the time being.


Copyright © 2003, Larry Taylor. Used by permission of the author.

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Category: Church History

About the Author: Larry L. Taylor, M.A., D.Min., is Affiliate Faculty at Regis University in the Denver area and formerly professor of humanities at Portland Bible College. Larry Taylor founded a church in Colorado and has 17 years of pastoral experience.

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