Many traditions and cultures in and through which the Church has found its liveliness – growing tree-like in different climates and biomes – celebrate the glory of God through praise, liturgy, proclamation, and testimony. All glory, we say or preach or sing, belongs to God. And we affirm that along with the Church across time and space; or beyond time and space, or entangled with time and space, or the Church in all dimensions. We join with the great cloud of witnesses and we bear witness with the visible and invisible realms.
What happens, though, when the glory of God is rendered mechanically into a system?
One time I was privy to a conversation streaked through with sadness and earnest discomfort. Someone aching with the ongoing hollow of loss was squirming at the language of glory – not squirming at perceived distance of God, as one might expect from a person shrouded in grief. The splintering began when loss suddenly slid a new filter on years of absorbing sermons that framed the glory of God in a particular way. Like a trip to the optometrist, lens option one or lens option two can suddenly clarify perception. Circumstances in life often do the same thing; it doesn’t matter how old or young, wise or inexperienced someone is. It is often disorienting, sometimes overwhelming, and depending on the new perspective gained, can bring relief or distress.
The splintering continued. What had been preached – even what had been sung – seemed alien now. Naturally, times of grief and loss throw a great deal into upheaval; most people have questions, and any liminal period is one of undoing and not yet mended. At the same time, if there are genuine fault lines in a particular theological perspective, they will not escape the ruthless honesty of grief.
What was so grating about the language of glory?
It was regularly deployed as a sufficient reason for the worst suffering a twisted world could retch up. The worst thing that could ever happen to you or someone you know – God’s glory demanded it as necessary: the corrosive decay of evil splitting your world rendered as a necessary avenue for the glory of God to parade down.
(This is adjacent to sound reasons for rejecting o felix culpa. For Arminian/Wesleyan Methodists, it may be unsurprising that this ongoing appeal to God’s glory was built from the scaffolding of predestination – though before a sense of self-satisfaction sinks in, we should recall how many of our pews have welcomed resources from a variety of doctrinal perspectives that are sometimes at odds with our own.)
And so, after year absorbing these themes, in the hollow of loss, deep discomfort erupted in response to the language of glory. This – for God’s glory? Is there no value in relieving the suffering of the sufferer? How could such a big God seem so dependent on carefully deferential praise from mortals? How could this not eventually convey that the most vile suffering to sicken the globe was belittled or dismissed? In the face of theodicy, the appeal to glory was a mechanical response, but not only to suffering; to glory itself.
To mute the reality of suffering is to mute questions. But questions must have space to be asked or yelled or wailed in order for the questions to slowly shift from reaction to silence, silence to focus, focus to creation. A question asked in suffering may crack open space for questions asked in creativity. The natural end of grief may be generative; creative – but only if grief is genuinely not belittled or dismissed. (For a nuanced approach to an artist’s theology of mending see Makoto Fujimura’s Art + Faith: A Theology of Making.) One cannot be led by the questions that sprout from suffering to the questions that give way to awe – the genuinely appropriate response to the glory of Triune love – if the questions raised by suffering are treated as irksome signs that one has not yet fully appreciated what the faith is about. And yet space for even a few seconds of grounded wonder is space that is just beginning to gently unfurl hope, one tight leaf at a time.
(Just one minor dimension of the problematic appeal to God’s glory as the justification that a child is parentless or a parent is childless or a group commits genocide is that this kind of sermon rarely is preached in any kind of setting that suggests that God’s glory is worth emptying the building fund for. One doesn’t have to reach far into the imagination for the grim flicker of florescent lighting over the padded stackable chairs that replaced the pews twenty years ago: hardly the ornate interior of an awe-inspiring soaring cathedral. When discomfort shifts and shrugs at language of God’s glory, it is sometimes when the point is housed primarily in proclamation, in traditions with little attachment to sacred architecture and/or iconography.)
More to the point – when language is deployed in preaching on suffering and the demands of God’s glory, but Word is untethered from Table, there is enormous loss. A sacramental approach to the Eucharist will find itself tasting the grace of glory that suffers for us. Here, “your worst hellish nightmare is how you best pave the way for God’s glory” is ground to dust – like a golden calf pulverized and stirred into water; but the drink we find is not the cup of Moses’ rage, idol and water swirling. At the Table, we find our withered notions of fragile golden glory transformed; the cup transformed. At the Table, you drink the truth that while you may have heard your suffering was for God’s glory, in fact, God’s glory is for you; Glory suffered for you. The blood of Glory, shed for you. It was not God’s glory razing your innocence or demanding tribute; God’s glory makes all things marred by evil new.
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain; worthy is the Glory that became flesh; worthy is the Glory that suffered in Gethsemane, that stumbled carrying the cross, that harrowed hell, that startled women in a garden.
God’s sovereignty pulses as even the worst bitter corrosion of a world gone wrong is melted into pathways of grace – not a parade for a tyrant’s glory. You and I respond to the glory of God’s love when we find hope on the paths of grace that God’s creative love fashions out of suffering. And on those paths of grace, bit by bit, you will find the questions borne in suffering slowly threading into questions of wonder that, like our Creator, create.
Featured image courtesy K. Mitch Hodge via Unsplash