If we could ask Martin Luther how to make sense of the current pandemic, he would likely encourage us to view it as the “alien work of God.” The phrase appears in his earliest lectures on the Psalms and again in his lectures on Romans and Hebrews, where he develops the defining contours of his evangelical theology. It directly informs the advice he gives in his much-quoted “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” and is central to the way he interprets suffering and misfortune.
Luther believed that God is utterly sovereign over all things, including suffering of various kinds. God is even sovereign over the Devil, whose diabolical plots in the world the Wittenberg reformer took quite seriously. Luther was very honest about the reality of suffering in the world, along with the pain and despair that it causes—there is nothing Pollyannaish about his theology.
But Luther firmly believed that God is good. God’s very nature is ardent, self-giving love—this is foundational for Luther. Human beings, on the other hand, are deeply sinful and strongly prone to self-deification in all things. Even Christians have to engage in a daily, life-or-death battle with the “old Adam” (or “old Eve”), which they can only win by divine grace. Many are also prone—as he himself was prone—to see God as an angry judge who is easily provoked to wrath. Luther knew firsthand that when such souls experience suffering, they nearly always view it as divine punishment for sin.
The phrase “alien work of God” was Luther’s pastoral response, putting all of these beliefs and concerns together and offering some comfort in the midst of overwhelming suffering. The term expresses Luther’s desire to assure Christians that God is for them, never against them, despite appearances to the contrary.
According to Luther, suffering is God’s work. That is, God is its ultimate cause, although not necessarily its immediate cause—God can sovereignly use the Devil or other agents as tools to accomplish his larger redemptive purposes in the world. But suffering is not God’s proper work, which is always to love and save. Suffering is alien to God in the sense that it is foreign to his nature and intentions, even though he is still sovereign over it.
This means that in the midst of suffering, faithful Christians shouldn’t read their lives for signs of God’s attitude toward them. Rather, they should trust what Scripture says about God—that he is good—not what fallen reason concludes—that he is not. Luther thought that if people relied on their own unaided efforts to find and understand God in the midst of the reality of suffering, they would wind up concluding that God is absent or that God doesn’t love humans. But by faith, Luther believed, we can see through suffering to the true nature of God.
Luther’s emphasis on suffering as the alien work of God was connected to his larger conviction that God is mostly hidden from our view in this life. God can be discovered, however, in the last place fallen human reason would expect to find him—the Cross. In fact, Luther once asserted, drawing directly on 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:5, that “God can be found only in suffering and the cross.”
According to Luther, God hides from view to confront us with our sin, which necessitates this veil, and to drive us to know him by faith, which is itself a divine gift. Luther refers to such faith as kunst—an “art” or “craft”—stressing that while faith is essential to the Christian life, it is also difficult, requiring daily practice in surrender to God.
In his Treatise on Good Works, Luther explains how such faith rescues the Christian from despair during suffering:
It is an art to have a sure confidence in God when, at least as far as we can see or understand, he shows himself in wrath, and to expect better from him than we now know. Here God is hidden, as the bride says in the Song of Songs [2:9], “Behold there he stands behind our wall, gazing in through the windows.” That means he stands hidden among the sufferings which would separate us from him like a wall, indeed, like a wall of a fortress. And yet he looks upon me and does not forsake me. He stands there and is ready to help in grace, and through the window of dim faith he permits Himself to be seen. And Jeremiah says in Lamentations 3 [vv. 32–33], “He casts men aside, but that is not the intention of his heart.”
Luther, the father of evangelical Protestantism, would want the faithful Christian to know that COVID-19 is not the proper work of God. Rather, it is the alien work of God that summons us to know the true intentions of his heart by the art of faith, even as it is working to conform us to the image of Christ and his self-sacrificial love. Luther would want to console us with these words, especially those of us who are inclined to doubt and despair.
The current pandemic is dark and menacing for many of us, and it is easy to wonder whether there is a good and sovereign God in heaven or not. Luther would welcome and even encourage such honest questions. But he would finally want to teach us how to glimpse our loving yet hidden God as he beholds us in grace through the window he has placed in this wall of suffering. This window is faith, “dim faith,” which clings passionately yet always imperfectly to the Word and its promises that God loves us in all things, including suffering.
Dim faith may be all we can muster in these difficult days. It’s frequently all I can muster. But it can suffice to assure us of what we most need to know: Our God is with us and for us in this crisis; he does not forsake us but eagerly seeks to help us, for this is his true heart. All of this may seem strange to us, but such is the alien work of God.
Ron Rittgers holds the Erich Markel Chair in German Reformation Studies at Valparaiso University. He is the author of The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany, along with other book chapters and articles on Christian responses to suffering in the past.