Martin Luther’s Anfechtungen–his own dark nights of the soul, and how they affected his teaching and ministry

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Well, it seems that each of the three sections of my forthcoming article for Leadership Journal has ballooned to the projected size of the whole piece: 2,500 words. So if I am to share in full what I have learned about Martin Luther’s teachings about spiritual depression (Luther is the third of three figures in the article, along with C. S. Lewis and Mother Teresa of Calcutta), it will need to be here:

Perhaps just as surprising as the story of Mother Teresa is that of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. Well known is the story of how, as a young monk, Martin struggled mightily with a sense of his own sinfulness and inability to please God. This struggle culminated in the revelation that triggered the Reformation: righteousness is not within our ability to achieve; God himself freely gives it. Surely such a truth would free a man like Luther from all spiritual darkness. And yet it did not. Again and again throughout his life he descended into severe spiritual anxiety and emotional struggle, starting with a particularly long and intense depression that begin a scant few years after the Reformation, in 1527. During that period, he heard a haunting inner voice that asked him again and again, “Du bist allein Klug?” “You alone know everything?” That is, what if you are leading thousands of people into damning error and breaking the church? At this, said one Luther scholar, “self-reproach plummeted him into the utter depths of despair.”

Historian David Steinmetz describes the terror which Luther experienced at these times as a fear that “God had turned his back on him once and for all,” abandoning him “to suffer the pains of hell.” Feeling “alone in the universe,” Luther “doubted his own faith, his own mission, and the goodness of God—doubts which, because they verged on blasphemy, drove him deeper and deeper” into despair. His prayers met a “wall of indifferent silence.” He experienced heart palpitations, crying spells and profuse sweating. He was convinced that he would die soon and go straight to hell. “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.’” His faith was as if it had never been. He “despised himself and murmured against God.” Indeed, his friend Philip Melanchthon said that the terrors afflicting Luther became so severe that he almost died. The term “spiritual warfare” seems apt.

These times of Anfechtungen (to use his term for it) drove Luther back to Scripture and to the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Another valuable medicine in the struggle for L was “the fellowship of the church: “No one should be alone when he opposes Satan. The church and the ministry of the Word were instituted for this purpose, that hands may be joined together and one may help another. If the prayer of one doesn’t help, the prayer of another will.”

If profound Christian fellowship wasn’t immediately available, other refuges would do—some of them not particularly kosher in the eyes of some modern Christians: “Having been taught by experience I can say how you ought to restore your spirit when you suffer from spiritual depression. When you are assailed by gloom, despair, or a troubled conscience, you should eat, drink, and talk with others. If you can find help from yourself by thinking of a girl, do so.” And even, “Copious drinking benefits me when I am in this condition” (! One is reminded of Luther’s famous dictum, “Sin boldly!”) Of course, such a jovial defense could have its own pitfalls: “But I would not advise a young person to drink more because this might stimulate his sexual desire. In short, abstinence is beneficial for some and a drinking bout for others.’”

Other solutions he offered included “music and good exercise.” Of these, “The first . . . pertains to the spirit and serves to drive away care, while the second pertains to the body and practices the limbs by jumping and wrestling.” Luther biographer Roland Bainton observes, “In all this advice to flee the fray Luther was in a way prescribing faith as a cure for lack of faith. To give up the argument is of itself an act of faith akin to the Gelassenheit [stillness] 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.”

But more than temporary solutions, his years and decades of cyclical spiritual depression forced him to develop a theology of spiritual darkness. Despite the severity of Luther’s sufferings in these times of spiritual trial, he eventually came to see them as his monastic superior, Staupitz, had taught him: as “meat and drink” to strengthen his faith. This sort of repeated testing from the devil himself both bruised the conscience and drove it to God for consolation. “If I live longer,” said the Reformer, “I would like to write a book about Anfechtungen [dark nights], for without them no person is able to know Holy Scripture, nor faith, the fear and love of God; indeed he is not able to know what the Spirit is, having never been in temptations.” Or again, “Therefore, we should willingly endure the hand of God in this and in all suffering. Do not be worried; indeed such a trial is the very best sign of God’s grace and love for man.”

The attribution of darkness to the devil may disturb some believers today. But Luther was adamant. It was the devil who attacked Christ’s followers, every time: “All despondency and sadness come from the devil, for he is the Lord of death [Hebrews 2:14], especially when a person is sad and afraid as if God were an ungracious God. This is certainly the work of the devil and his machination.” A diabolical cause, however, did not rule out a divine: “For it is now recognized that the devil in spite of all his power is in fact nothing. Even if he were to gain all things, he is nevertheless only a creature of God.” Thus Luther denied dualism (the teaching that God and the devil are somehow equal in power, eternally struggling over the souls of humans).

Of course, Luther has in mind here such Scripture passages as “For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives’; and ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent.” Hard words (I have often suspected the former is my “life verse!”). Why do humans need such battering and bruising before they can truly come to God? Luther believed, says Steinmetz, that “though sinners know that there is a God, they refuse to take God as he is but insist on subsuming the Godhead under their own narrow self-interests.” God is revealed, yes, in Christ and in Scripture. But we quite often fail to see or sense him, confusing his transcendence with absence. God, then, is both revealed to us and, at the same time, hidden. The thoughts of God are higher than our thoughts, and in fact for Luther, “Things above us are no business of ours.”

As we have seen, in his apophatic explanation of the dark night Lewis used the image of a man who “doesn’t know his own condition,” and then the image of a person who suffers in the dentist’s chair. Luther, in his early lectures on Romans, also speaks of “clueless” patients and physicians to explain how the hiddenness of God works in our experience. A hospitalized patient feels his fever, nausea, and headaches, and stiff joints, and is convinced by that he is getting worse and, in fact, will soon die. A doctor, says Luther, tells this man that, against all the evidence of his senses, he is in fact getting better. What is required here is a simple act of faith. Steinmetz paraphrases Luther, “The fact of your beginning recovery is hidden under the contrary appearance of your virulent fever. You can grasp it now by closing your eyes to your symptoms and opening your ears to the word of your physician, who contradicts by his prognosis your immediate experience of pain.”

What is required here is an act of trust. We cannot trust our senses, because they often lie. Rather, we must trust the word of God, whose purpose for us is healing. And this act of faith is never more difficult nor as needed as in the throes of a spiritual dark night, when God seems a million miles away. Faith, Luther taught, means “letting God be God, accepting the scandal of his hiddenness and trusting him in spite of reason, experience, and common sense.”

To support this claim about how God often ministers to us precisely by staying hidden, Luther drew on a number of Old Testament and gospel stories. Joseph sits in an Egyptian jail, desolate and without consolation, betrayed by his brothers, sold to the Egyptians, and incarcerated by his boss. Where is God? “When there is affliction,” says Luther, “we see God from behind; that is, we conclude that God has turned away from us, as he says in Isaiah (54:8): ‘For a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you’; that is, ‘At first I acted as though I did not know you, as though I had abandoned you.’ This is the view from behind, when we feel nothing but affliction and doubts; but later, when the trial has passed, it becomes clear that by the very fact that God has showed Himself to us from behind He has showed us His face, that He did not forsake us but turned away His eyes just a little.’”

Luther loved this image of “the view of God from behind,” or even, in a variant that tickled his German sense of humor, “God’s back parts.” It is a wording based in Ex. 33:23, where Moses asks to see God’s face, and God tells him that he couldn’t handle such an encounter, but He would show him his back.

Of course Luther also found help for spiritual darkness in the New Testament. Immediately he thought of the Syrophoenician woman pleading to eat “the bread that falls from the table” of God’s children. He found great comfort in the story, in which, as the woman talked with Jesus, All Christ’s answers sounded like no, but he did not mean no. He had not said that she was not of the house of Israel. He had not said that she was a dog. He had not said no. Yet all his answers were more like no than yes.” So too in our experiences of darkness: “This shows how our heart feels in despondency. It seems nothing but a plain no. Therefore it must turn to the deep hidden yes under the no and hold with a firm faith to God’s Word.’”

“This unique understanding of God’s revelation is based ultimately upon the cross . . .” these are “marks of the revelation which is concealed under its contrary.” “Faith has to do with things which are not readily visible or discerned. ‘Thus that there may be room for faith, everything which is believed must be concealed; but it cannot be more deeply concealed than under the contrary appearance, sensation, and experience. Thus when God brings to life, he does it by killing; when he justifies, he does it by making guilty; when he exalts to heaven, he does it by leading to hell. . . . Thus he conceals his eternal goodness and mercy under eternal anger, his righteousness under unrighteousness.” (11)

One understands the bleakness and woefulness of Garrison Keillor’s caricature of Lutherans in the Lake Wobegone of his “Prairie Home Companion.” But this is an essential insight for Luther, and a reaction to what he felt was the late medieval church’s over-emphasis on what is seen—on relics, icons, robes, decorations in the sanctuary, a multiplication of visible sacraments, cathedrals built with a lavishness unknown even to the palaces of kings, and so forth. This, along with the scholastic theologizing which underwrote it, was all part of what L called a “theology of glory,” against which he opposed his “theology of the cross”—focusing on the essential paradox and scandal of a saving God who man who is born into poverty, rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, and ends up being judicially murdered (the ultimate example of the hiddenness of God). When the church is tempted to strut, it needs to remember its humble origins and the ways in which God has used the foolish to confound the wise, the weak to overthrow the strong, and so forth.

Thus experiences of Anfechtungen not only “make ‘room’ for faith,” (11) they also “help teach total dependence upon the promises of God” (as Teresa had discovered).

As he developed his theology of the absent/present God, Luther also imparted it to hundreds of others through acute, compassionate pastoral counseling in person—around the dinner table of his large and busy home—and in countless letters (over 2,580 still exist). From his own dark nights of the soul, Luther had gained, in the words of M. Vernon Begalke, “a tremendous awareness and acceptance of the basic human condition [through his experiences of A]. Troubled persons could sense in him, a humble fellow-sojourner who experienced many of the same depressive anxieties as they did. One ‘objective’ factor in appraising the significance of this identification is the large numbers of people who sought out his spiritual counsel. The volumes of Table Talks alone attest to this fact.”

For one thing, Luther counseled discernment: Coming out of this dark state of warfare, he had a word of council for others similarly attacked: “[When] Christ comes and talks to you as if to a sinner and tortures you like Moses: ‘What have you done?’—slay him to death. But when he talks to you as God does, and as a savior, prick up both ears.’” In other words, discern the voice of the Accuser from that of the Healer and Savior! Sometimes the devil acts on his own hook, and his words are not worth listening to.

How redemptive did Luther really find these experiences of darkness? Remember that it was during his prolonged crisis of 1527, so intense and agonizing that his friend Melanchthon felt Luther actually came near to death, that the Reformer composed that hymn of faith, “A mighty fortress is our God.” How many since his day have discovered in that single song a bulwark against darkness and doubt?

It seems that for Luther, as for Teresa, the dark nights of his spiritual life prepared and developed him for his vocation. In his Table Talks, his Sermons, his devotional writings and letters, he always speaks out of an intimate knowledge of the human condition.

12 responses to “Martin Luther’s Anfechtungen–his own dark nights of the soul, and how they affected his teaching and ministry

  1. Pingback: How to Get Through Dark Night of the Soul? (8) | Earth Awakens Today after Dark Night of the Soul

  2. Depression and anxiety are actually mercies sent to humble a man and tear down the walls of his arrogance. I know this by experience and 30 years of addiction. On July 17th 1999 at 10:30am I was set at liberty. To the praise of the glory of His grace.

  3. Heath,

    You nailed it. Luther’s mess was “right out there.” Perhaps it took a messy life to address a messy church. And then there’s my suspicion that Lewis’s modernist marrow forced him to tidy up and find meaning in something that continued to disturb him until his death three years after Joy’s. And that Teresa, however resigned and “joyful” she is supposed to have been after Father Neuner helped her “sort it all out,” actually continued to struggle with the darkness. Hard to imagine those things NOT being true for red-blooded, doubt-prone, emotional beings such as ourselves.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Dr. Armstrong.

    It seems that Teresa and Lewis make for better narratives containing a plot that climaxes and resolves. Luther is a mess. Teresa shows acknowledgement and growth after insight was provided by a helpful confessor. Lewis shared the process and struggle that allowed him to dig deeper into life and God. Then we have Luther who would suggest anything from introspection to inebriation.

    On one hand, it makes me concerned with what advice we can take from Luther, but on the other it makes me appreciate his honesty and open wrestling with inner and external struggles. There is a part of me that really would like to know what Luther’s final stance on such an ‘Anfechtugen’ experience… but there is a part of me that wants to be okay with the process more than the product.

    Blessings on your work and ministry.


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