Tag Archives: Roland Bainton

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


Martin Luther 2

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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. Continue reading