This past weekend, I led a youth retreat where we asked, “where is God when life is hard?” Over two days, we did a lot of things you might expect. There were campfires, kind notes and a great band. But that stuff is easy. The hard part is, what do you tell a teenager about God’s apparent absence in difficult times?
Luther noticed something odd about the story of Jesus, particularly in His crucifixion. For Luther, Jesus almost always acts through weakness. Especially in the crucifixion, Jesus seems to win by losing. He is abandoned by His friends. He is assaulted before the crucifixion. He is executed in a humiliating way, and this series of defeats leads to victory. Luther says Jesus wins through foolishness. To say it another way, the light of God is found in darkness.
Theology of Glory vs. Theology of the Cross
Luther saw a distinct theme here, and this led him to contrast a Theology of Glory with a Theology of the Cross. A Theology of Glory insists that Jesus is triumphant, defeating evil with His power. It emphasizes Jesus’ miracles, for example. Many Christians bump up against this when they emphasize natural disasters as, in some way or another, God’s will. A Theology of Glory might emphasize the victory of Christian society, and Luther pushed back against this.
A Theology of the Cross looks first to the Cross as the ultimate revelation of Jesus. It is precisely the cross that led to the resurrection. A Theologian of the Cross eagerly reminds you that Jesus did not have to die in such a humiliating, degrading or painful way in order to die a sinless death! To translate this to the way your youth pray: A Theology of Power is thanking God for an unexpected good grade, while a Theology of the Cross looks for God to work in migrant camps in Mexico.
Robert Kolb wrote in a famous essay, “of all the places to search for God, the last place most would think to look is the gallows.” Yet if Luther is right, this is where the Christian hope is found. God subjects Godself to suffering, and in so doing makes this the place where God works. In the cross, God participates in human suffering and redemption begins here. This Theology of the Cross, a theology of suffering, directs us to see God working in our pain and the pain of others. Does that sound helpful to your teenagers?
The Theology of the Cross in Youth Ministry
The Theology of the Cross matters to adolescents because they are looking for God to move in the wrong place. This shifts our understanding of the way God works. There are so many miracle stories in Scripture that youth expect God to work regularly in that way. I believe in miracles, but I also believe they are not as common as my youth expect. So when God does not perform a miracle to, say, restore a broken relationship with an old friend, they feel God has not moved. But they were looking for God in the wrong place the whole time!
Our youth often look for God’s moving by looking for victory over evil. In my understanding, evil hasn’t been defeated yet (at least, not totally). We should expect evil in the world, but our peace comes from knowing that evil is where God is working (Jn. 16:33). That is, if Melissa’s parents are getting a divorce, Melissa might feel God has abandoned her. Melissa has a Theology of Glory. A Theology of the Cross would remind Melissa that this situation is precisely when God will “show up.”
As youth leaders, we often struggle with what to tell adolescents about God and their suffering, except for things that feel trite. “God is in control” implies God is both in control and has completed God’s struggle against evil in the world (which has not happened, per 1 Cor. 15). It is also a Theology of Glory. I believe what our youth need is a Theology of the Cross, emphasizing God’s presence in suffering. We must begin to see that God is present in our pain and failures because that’s where Jesus has always been found.We must begin to see that God is present in our pain and failures because that’s where Jesus has… Click To Tweet
- Andy Root has a great series of books on A Theological Journey Through Youth Ministry. One of the best is his Taking the Cross into Youth Ministry. It’s a great introduction to these ideas, and very practical. It will help you see how this stuff applies to youth ministry.
- Douglas John Hall, a Canadian theologian sometimes called “North America’s Premier Theologian of the Cross” wrote The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. It’s great, practical, and challenging.
- Want a 10-page introduction to this idea? There’s no better place to start the Robert Kolb’s “Luther on the Theology of the Cross.” It was originally published in Lutheran Quarterly, but it’s also widely available online.
- Also, you should notice how easily this resonates with another idea called Christus Victor, which also deals with how God works in relation to evil. However, Christus Victor deals more with the doctrine of salvation, and how exactly that is accomplished.
One of the great things about this idea is that it shifts perspectives on bad things. Instead of youth asking “Why does God let bad things happen,” we emphasize that God is at work in the middle of bad things.
It is helpful to tell stories here of how God works in the middle of evil situations. For example, at this retreat, I retold the story of Daniel & the Lion’s Den to emphasize how Daniel must have felt rejected by his community. But at the darkest moment (in the literal pit), God was at work to show that this evil was powerless.
Discussion questions might include:
“How does Jesus tend to operate in the gospels? If He still operates like that, what sort of things would you expect Jesus to be doing?”
“Has evil been eliminated from the world? If not, what is God doing about it?”
“Is God operating more actively in good things, or in bad things?”
 Robert Kolb, “Luther on the Theology of the Cross,” Lutheran Quarterly vol XVI (2002), 443.
Stephen Hale is Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church Redondo Beach. He is also Director of International Programs for INALIENABLE, a non-profit working for the dignity of migrants. He received a BA in Social Sciences from BIOLA, an MA in Theology from Fuller, and is finishing an M.Div from Claremont School of Theology in May (he hopes). You can keep up with him at STEPHENPHALE.WORDPRESS.COM.