Under the Contraries
Wednesday after Holy Trinity
30 May 2018
Martin Luther reminds us that the Christian life is lived sub contraria, that is, "under the contraries." He believed that God is always hiding His grace and blessings under the signs of those things that our human reason declines to believe capable of bearing the blessings of God. To exercise our faith our heavenly Father plans that our strength should be made perfect in weakness (2Co 12:9), our faith is set in its substance without seeing (Heb 11:1), winning is losing (Phil 3:7-8), only sinners are forgiven (Ps 32:1-2), and life is gained only by death (2Co 4:10-11). You don't get much more contrary than that.
This is one of the great challenges of Christianity in the modern world, in which irony is not the strong suit of the modern intellectual tradition. We want things explained in a straightforward, uncomplicated way. Intellectual indirection is criticized as cant, wordy dogma, or out and out contradiction. At best, irony is a word game, not a hint of the interwoven and complex character of reality in the presence of a gracious God. Irony is thought to be fun and entertaining but in no way is it a description of what is.
When my family talked about the horror movies my oldest daughter enjoyed, my wife was revolted by the content. To this my daughter replied, "But it's not real." In the same way, we tolerate ambiguities in movies only because "it isn't real." I love reading novels of great literary quality, because they often subtly confront the reader with those kinds of uncertainties that give rise to the indirection that deep consideration of life and reality are made of. It isn't that reality's character is unclear, just more complex than we can make out at first glance.
Perhaps some of our ignorance about the contraries has to do with the fallen nature of humanity. We don't see clearly because of our spiritual blindness. In that blindness we begin to impose a shape and meaning on reality that is foreign to its complexity and contrariety. In no area of human life is this more important than in the experience of human suffering and weakness. For example, life is not just so simple as to be described as the effort to avoid suffering or to seek the greatest pleasure, as the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued. Such simplistic interpretations of reality founder on the pervasive and indivisible complexity of things in our experience. Experiences we might call "bitter sweet" are examples of the lack of simplicity in real life.
Motivational speakers say, "What does not kill you will make your stronger." This is not the full story for Christians. For those shaped under the cross of Christ, what does kill us makes us stronger and that strength is hidden under weakness in the cross that God sends. Christianity has this complexity at its very center, returning us to the Eden-like completeness. The cross, suffering, and death hide and confer life, peace, and joy. Our own suffering and anxiety over the human condition must never keep us from seeing that God Himself triumphs in us through such things, all hidden under the contraries.

Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray
Memorial Lutheran Church

   Martin Luther
"We do not yet see the life which we attain through godliness. First, we must fall asleep. Our life is prepared, but in hope. That which is hoped for, however, is not seen (Rm 8:24). Our cross must be understood in hope at the same time; for where there is the exercise of godliness, there the cross is not lacking. Because everything is condemned, there is not peace but a cross (Mt 10:34). Therefore, if we employ the Word, we bear the reproach of evil both from the whole world and from our brethren, and the devil accuses us. But under the cross which we experience, eternal life lies hidden. If it did not lie hidden, it would be the present life. Therefore, we have it in hope. When I am aware of my sin, I am aware of life even in the midst of my sense of sin, and even in death I think to myself: 'I am alive, and I shall live.'
"If a martyr is to withstand, he must not judge according to how he feels. Otherwise he despairs. Instead, he should say: 'Even though I am aware of my sin, Jesus Christ intercedes, and He does not accuse us.' His intercession must be grasped by faith, which senses in fact that Christ is accusing, but which expects in hope that Christ is interceding for it. In that death there will be life for me, for Christ is the Lord of death. 'Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow,' Psalm 23[:4] says. Of course, he realizes that he is being overcome. Nevertheless, he says: 'I fear no evil.' Here hope is aroused, contrary to external appearances, and he does not believe that God is wrathful.
"We, too, experience the cross, and death appears to us, as Romans 8[:38] states, if not in fact, yet in our conscience through Satan. Death and sin appear, but I announce life and faith, but in hope. Therefore, if you want to be saved, you must battle against your feelings. Hope means to expect life in the midst of death, and righteousness in the midst of sins; for no one can conceive of a life in which there is no sin. It is useless for you to run to a Carthusian [monk]. Instead, you should say: 'I am a sinner and can never set myself free. I have been ungrateful for the blessings of God. But in the midst of sin I have the hope of eternal life.' That is a great proclamation. 'Hope which is seen is not hope' (Rm 8:24)."

Martin Luther, Lectures on Titus, 1
Romans 8:18-27

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (ESV)
Dear Lord Jesus, You have joined life and death in Your own person by bearing the awful cross unto life. Give me the faith to see life where the world only thinks there is death. Let me live my life that I might give it up so that dying to sin every day I might live only for You. Help me to understand the contraries as signs of Your work in the world. Amen.
For LCMS district conventions, that those who participate might avoid bowing down to gods of this age and rather be built up into the holy faith of the church through meditation on the Word of God
For Christian congregations striving to be faithful to the evangelical truth, that they would be upheld as they make the good confession before many witnesses
For Keith and Farah Emshoff, as they prepare to move to a vicarage assignment, that the Lord their God would lead and strengthen him in their daily walk
Art: Albrecht DURER, The Adoration of the Trinity (1511)
Memorial Lutheran Church
© Scott Murray 2018
Memorial Lutheran Church, 5800 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX 77057
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