Monday, July 6, 2009

Martin Luther: a legacy for spiritual strugglers

It's weeks since I finished Roland Bainton's biography, Here I Stand, a Life of Martin Luther, and since my last post on the subject. I'm already on to other projects, but I just don't feel like I can put Luther back on my shelf without first sharing what may very well be the most spiritual of his life lessons - his legacy of Christian struggle, of spiritual warfare, of battling depression.

Anfechtung is a German word, according to Bainton, "for which there is not English equivalent. It may be a trial sent by God to test man, or an assault by the Devil to destroy man. It is all the doubt, turmoil, pang, tremor, panic, despair, desolation, and desperation which invade the spirit of man."

How good for Luther, to have a single word for that which our English Bible must resort to several. I've sometimes wished we had such a versatile word which at once described a variety of troubles and yet recognized them as the same. In the course of my study of contentment last year, I happened upon the subject of trials and temptations. I was surprised and helped to learn that these two words as we encounter them in Scripture tend to be rendered from but a single Greek word. In other words, they are essentially the same thing. So, if the devil and/or my sin tempt me I am being tried. If other difficulties - sickness, unemployment, accident, depression - assail me, I'm also being tried. Truth be told, any trial or hardship sent from God can also become a temptation for me to sin. God does not tempt us - He tests us. (See James 1:13-14.) It may happen, however, that through His trying of us we find ourselves tempted to sin to escape the trial. So, whatever difficulty we face whether it is a hardship or a temptation to sin, a trial is a trial - a test of our faith - a situation which shows us what we are made of, and/or exposes what sin remains. I was greatly helped to know that there is one word which unites these several types of struggle under the category of a single purpose.

No matter what the apparent source, every hardship a Christian endures has a single purpose - to test, prove, to strengthen. That is what we are meant to understand and take encouragement from, even when we can't find any other "why." And Luther too found comfort in this understanding. As he said when telling the story of Abraham's obedience in offering Isaac:
"If he had known that this was only a trial, he would not have been tried. Such is the nature of our trials that while they last we cannot see to the end".
But we can know, because we have the words of Scripture which tell us that in whatever we endure
God is at work sanctifying us and working it all together for good, because we love Him and are called according to His purpose. (Rom. 8:28) And we can say along with Luther:
"In such a case we must say, 'Let go everything in which I have trusted, Lord, thou alone givest help and comfort. Thou hast said that thou wouldst help me. I believe thy word. O my God and Lord, I have heard from thee a joyful and comforting word. I hold to it. I know thou wilt not lie to me. No matter how thou mayest appear, thou wilt keep what thou hast promised, that and nothing else."
So Luther had his all encompassing word, Anfechtung, which stood for anything that could be thrown a human's way to cause him to struggle, to test his faith. And Luther was tested. According to Bainton, "This man who so undergirded others with faith had for himself a perpetual battle for faith." I found unexpected comfort in learning about Luther's struggles with depression, especially when I learned how similar the cause of his was to my own. Perhaps at heart it is the same for every Christian who wrestles so:
"The content of the depression was always the same, the loss of faith that God is good and that he is good to me."
And since to Luther a struggle was a struggle, no matter the type, "The great problem for him was not to know where his depressions came from, but to know how to overcome them. In the course of repeated utterances on the subject he worked out a technique....The first comfort which he offered was the reflection that intense upheavals of the spirit are necessary for valid solutions of genuine religious problems. The emotional reactions may be unduly active, for the Devil always turns a louse into a camel. Nevertheless the way of man with God cannot be tranquil....Luther felt that his depressions were necessary. At the same time they were dreadful and by all means and in every way to be avoided and overcome. His whole life was a struggle against them, a fight for faith."

Luther not only saw troubles as necessary evils, so to speak, according to Bainton: "Luther verged on saying that an excessive emotional sensitivity is a mode of revelation. Those who are predisposed to fall into despondency as well as to rise into ecstasy may be able to view reality from an angle different from that of ordinary folk. Yet it is a true angle; and when the problem or the religious object has been once so viewed, others less sensitive will be able to look from a new vantage point and testify that the insight is valid." I am not inclined to disagree with Luther here. Many very influential of men of faith have endured great bouts of depression (Spurgeon, Cowper, and even J.I. Packer come immediately to mind).

Another method Luther employed was to "banish the whole subject. Seek company and discuss some irrelevant matter as, for example, what is going on in Venice. Shun solitude, 'Eve got into trouble when she walked in the garden alone. I have my worst temptations when I am by myself.' Seek out some Christian brother, some wise counselor. Undergird yourself with the fellowship of the church. Then, too, seek convivial company, feminine company, dine, dance, joke, and sing. Make yourself eat and drink even though food may be very distasteful. Fasting is the very worst expedient. Once Luther gave three rules for dispelling despondency: the first is faith in Christ; the second is to get downright angry; the third is the love of a woman. Music was especially commended." He also recommended manual labor: "A good way, counseled Luther, to exorcise the Devil is to harness the horse and spread manure on the fields."
"In all this advice to flee the fray Luther was in a way prescribing faith as a cure for the lack of faith. To give up the argument is of itself an act of faith akin to the Gelassenheit of the mystics, an expression of confidence in the restorative power of God, who operates in the subconscious while man occupies himself with extraneous things."
(I, too, can testify to the restorative power of physical labor, having often commented to my husband that my greatest emotional difficulties occur during my "days off".)

And, finally, Luther took comfort in the suffering of Christ during His passion, who "at this point was simply a man, and it was for him as it is for me when the Devil comes and says, 'you are mine.'"

So, as if to witness to the truth of Luther's profession that great struggle bears great fruit in the lives of believers and in the church, it was from the year of Luther's darkest depression that the church came to be blessed with these words from the hymn, "A Mighty Fortress":

A mighty bulwark is our God
A doughty ward and weapon,
He helps us clear from every rod
By which we now are smitten.
Still our ancient foe
Girds him to strike a blow,
Might and guile his gear.
His armor striketh fear.
On earth is not his equal.

By our own strength is nothing won.
We court at once disaster.
There fights for us the Champion
Whom God has named our Master.
Would you know his name?
Jesus Christ the same
Lord Sabaoth is he,
No other God can be.
The field is his to hold it.

1 comment:

barrywallace said...

How can you not love Luther? He was far from perfect (like all of us), outrageous at times (like all of us), prone to despondency (if not like all of us like me, at least), and so profoundly captivated by the grace of God. I've been encouraged many times by both his life and his pen.