Lutheran spirituality: anguish and joy

Matthew Lynn Riegel

Continuing the theme of Lutheran spirituality, I read an interesting paper on this by the Rev Matthew Lynn Riegel, in which he adopts “the venerable tradition of providing a set of theses”: 32 theses in total.

The whole set of theses is worth reading, but I wanted to single a few out that particularly resonated with me. Starting with the first:

1. It is better to address the question of Lutheran Spirituality as an ideal (what should be) than as a reality (what is).

Never, I would have to say, a truer word…

Moving on, Mr Riegel sets out some theses usefully summarising the role of the means of grace in Lutheran spirituality:

9. The Holy Spirit is given to the human creature by God through the external Word.

10. The Sacraments are the visible Word.

11. Any spirituality which claims that the human can receive the Holy Spirit without benefit of the external Word is rejected.

[…]

26. The Gospel ministry which communicates the Holy Spirit is discharged through the taught/preached Word, Holy Baptism, The Sacrament of the Altar, Holy Absolution, and the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints.

Also worth reading are theses 28 to 32 on the central role of the psalms, the Small Catechism and hymnody in Lutheran spirituality.

But the thesis that particularly struck me was one that introduced what was, for me, a new concept:

19. Until the eschaton, the sanctified are properly said to be simul raptus et gemitus.

Are properly said to be what? In brief, simul gemitus et raptus (as it’s usually put) can be translated “simultaneously anguished [gemitus] and joyful [raptus].” As Riegel puts it in his “exposition” of this theses:

Although simul justus et peccator is a well-known phrase among Lutherans, the corollary which describes the paradoxical quality of life for the homo spiritualis is almost unknown. Since the homo spiritualis clings to the promises of God in Christ with a sure confidence, he/she knows great joy. This joy is rendered as “rapture” or “transporting bliss.” On the other hand, the homo spiritualis also knows that perfection is eschatological – that until that Last Day, Sin, Death, and the Devil will wage war against God’s elect. This knowledge, which is more than intellectual – indeed the homo spiritualis feels in both body and soul the slings and arrows of the enemy – is rendered as (gemitus) “anguish,” “groaning,” or even hyperbolically as “damnation.”

The homo spiritualis suffers real pain. There is no need for spiritual exercises which vicariously engage the human in the Passion of Christ in an attempt to elicit Love. Rather, the homo spiritualis groans in travail with the whole creation, expectantly awaiting the Last Day when the pain will end. This anguished groaning is held in paradox with the joyful hope of rescue. What is more, this anguished groaning is a mark of experience which is called the school of faith, for through trial and tribulation and in the midst of our groaning the Holy Spirit instructs us in true faith.

What I find helpful here is the sane pastoral balance which this enables. It avoids both the “fixed-grin, now-I’m-happy-all-the-day” stereotype of “victorious Christian living”, but also avoids the opposite error in which only misery and heartache can be regarded as truly “authentic”. It’s OK to feel anguish and unhappiness as a Christian, despite the joy which the gospel announces to us; equally, it’s OK to feel joyful as a Christian, despite the suffering in the world around us, despite our own continuing sinfulness. To feel both these sets of emotion at once is the normal Christian experience, not an aberration.

The Christian life in a nutshell: our status is simul justus et peccator; our experience is simul gemitus et raptus.

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