Luther and “Struggle”
It is one of those words that doesn’t translate perfectly from one language to another. It is a word Luther used to describe his personal spiritual struggles and then used to help us understand our spiritual faith and life— in the good and bad of it all. The word Luther used is “anfechtung” in German. Before I attempt a definition I should point out that Luther typically studied, taught and wrote in Latin. While preparing a sermon on a Romans text I found a Catholic commentator quoting Luther saying in Latin, baptizatus sum… “I am Baptized.” The same commentator then quoted him in German, werde das, was du bist… ‘become what you are.’ The difference, with exceptions, is that Dr. Luther works in Latin but Pastor Luther works in German. When Pastor Luther preaches he preaches in German and like all preachers, he must preach to himself. Then, as his writings become popular he starts writing in German. When he writes to Rome he writes in Latin but when he writes to Germany he writes in German.
It’s easy to forget that in the time of Luther it was against the law to translate the Bible into any common language; all Bibles were in Latin. When Luther translates the New Testament into German in 1522 he is risking being burnt at the stake. (William Tyndale translated the Bible into English and was mercifully strangled before being burnt in 1536.) In the course of translating, Luther had to find the best words and establish their meaning to get the right translation. In so doing he established the foundation of modern German— as Wycliffe would modern English (Shakespeare was grateful!) My point is this: Luther works hard to find the right words because he has audiences who need to understand their Scriptures and how to apply them. And for Luther it’s personal— he is preaching also to himself. When it really hurts he uses his mother tongue.
So, returning to “anfechtung.” The English edition, “Luther’s Works” translates it as three words in their various contexts: temptation, trial and affliction. I use the word “struggle” modified as spiritual or emotional struggle. But whatever word you use it has to be seen in relationship to God and it has to hurt. It has to be more than anxiety in that it can’t be talked out through human assisted therapy. It has to be despairing and even desperate. When Luther is failing at
trying to get himself right with God he is literally flailing his back with knotted cords trying to find peace through punishment by inflicting pain on himself. His times of depression are the inverse of his times of great productivity and creative genius. He can’t lift himself off of a cold brick floor. But it is there that he understands the meaning of the suffering of his Christ and the value of the gift of grace given through the Cross. When he does rise up off the floor it is the power of God that raises him and it is that power that sustains him. It is the broken one that understands the value of healing and is given the compassion and empathy to heal others.
This is his hope and his knowledge of grace. But the despair comes from the contradiction of his reality. Although Luther knows the Gospel and has been taught that he has victory in Christ, his daily life experiences confront him with a world still under the dominion of ‘the ruler of the air:” Satan. The salvation offered in faith is seemingly withdrawn. The Christian who, through faith, has been saved from sin, Satan, death, hell, and all other related calamities, re-encounters them in anfechtung. This is a paradox of Scripture within which the follower of Christ must live. The Evil One will use times of spiritual struggle to separate the believer from Christ. But it is in that spiritual struggle that the follower of Christ grows and matures. The anfechtung is the pain of that struggle within that paradox that is only resolved by Christ’s Return and our Resurrection to Him. There is no such paradox ultimately in that Christ’s victory on the Cross defeats Satan for eternity.
The surprise of anfechtung is that it does not come before a knowledge of grace but afterward. In other words, a conversion experience or spiritual awakening is not the end of spiritual struggle (i.e. we live happily ever after) but it is the beginning of spiritual struggle that leads us to a total dependence on the Cross even in our pain. Here is a brief glimpse of what happened to Mother Teresa who founded her mission after a spiritual experience.
In 1948 she [Mother Teresa] left the Sisters of Loretto and began her work in the slums, eventually founding the Missionaries of Charity.
Then something even rarer occurred: her interior life dried up completely. A few years after her experience on the train, God began to feel distant, then absent. She wrote to her spiritual director, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”
That painful feeling of absence, what spiritual writers call a “dark night,” lasted until her death and was not discovered by the general public until her collected letters, titled “Come, Be My Light,” were published in 2007.
The publication shocked many. Some falsely concluded that she no longer believed in God. But there is a difference between not feeling God’s presence and not believing in God.
In time, Mother Teresa began to understand these feelings of God’s absence as a way of identifying with Jesus’ feelings of abandonment on the cross and also as a way of entering more deeply into union with the poor, who also often feel abandoned.
What I find the most helpful is that Luther never hides his depression. In contemporary terms, he “processes” it. In doing so he brings a theological perspective on suffering that is rich and deep in perspective but also practical, pastoral and comforting. Out of his struggle comes a way of understanding and coping with our own. Luther allows that there are times when God’s will is hidden from us. There are no easy answers to such “why?” questions like: “Why is God allowing me to suffer?” It is in those moments that we look to what God has revealed to us: a Savior who knows our pain and has given His life on the Cross for ours.
What Luther teaches is in that moment we stop looking deeper and further into darkens but instead to Christ on the Cross— where we discover a perfect love given to us and whose faith becomes our faith through Baptism. As St. Paul says, “when I am weak then I become strong.”
Luther’s worst depression came in 1527 and was so bad that his friend Philip Melanchton thought that he was going to die of it. Guess what hymn is written after that? Here is verse three:
Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill,
They shall not overpower us.
This world's prince may still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none,
He's judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him.
This is of course Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46, “A Mighty Fortress.” And you know that the “one little word” is Jesus.