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Lauren F. Winner


In Praise of Lament

How early Protestants understood suffering.

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Laypeople also had an active role in announcing the reassurance of God's forgiveness to one another. When a Christian was suffering spiritually over a sin he had committed, absolution from a pastor after a private confession was ideal. But since confessing to a clergyman was not always possible, the church made provision for lay absolution. (A fascinating example, which one can trace from Rittgers' book to a 2004 article by Christopher B. Brown, is the authority of midwives to pronounce absolution: as quoted in Brown's article, "In order that the mother in labor may be assured of such divine grace and of the forgiveness of her sins, the midwife or another knowledgeable person may, in such danger and necessity, where no minister is available, absolve and remit her sins herself: 'Dear sister, since our dear Lord Jesus Christ has given us Christians this power here on earth, that each should and may, in necessity, absolve and remit the sins of another who confesses her sins, believes in Christ, and desires the grace of God, and that the same is then absolved in heaven … [and] since you have made such a confession before me, and in true faith desire the grace of God and the forgiveness of your sins, I therefore, in the stead and by the command of Christ, hereby release and pronounce you free of all your sins, in the Name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.' ") In such lay absolution, ordinary men and women were taking up the seemingly clerical work of giving God's consolation to one another.

The Reformation of Suffering is a historical study. But readers may find themselves pondering the persistence and mutation of the Christian suffering and consolation that Rittgers describes. Churches are by and large still deprived of lament, for example. And the larger question of the range of meanings we find in suffering is with us still. Suffering as salvific and suffering as a test, or a refinement of faith, or a plane on which the Christian may encounter Jesus—those modalities are all different from one another, to be sure. But they share an emphasis on the good work that suffering can do. As I read Rittgers' book, I thought of the hours I have spent listening to women tell me about the abusive relationships they stayed in, year after year. I thought of John Calvin's instruction to a woman whose husband was beating her: "We exhort her to bear with patience the cross which God has seen fit to place upon her." I thought that continued prayerful reformation of our churches' practices of suffering is needed still.

Lauren F. Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. She is the author most recently of Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (HarperOne).

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