Luther & The End of Striving
This article was written by Ricardo Huerta. Check out his bio.
He had had enough. Laid prostrate on the floor of his bedroom he cried out with an intensity attempting to cast all his doubts, inadequacies, and failures on a God he wasn’t sure was listening. See, he had become a monk by way of promise; caught in a violent thunderstorm while traveling and fearing for his life he begged St. Anne to spare him and in return he would become a monk. He survived, God presumably pleased with the bargain.
Having joined the Augustinian order of monks he lived a life of discipline, fervently fasting and praying and by all means holding to his bargain with God. But monastic life wasn’t what he thought it would be, and as he wrote in one of his journals, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.” A monk who had lost sight of God, an irony that often felt too difficult for him to bear.
I’m writing of Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic monk turned protestant reformer who would be remembered for altering the course of Christianity in the modern world. I share with you Luther’s difficulties because we, as people, are more like him than we think. Philip Jeffery in his review of Eric Metaxas new book on Luther puts this best writing, “In Martin Luther, Metaxas intends to show us a saint, but all he really shows us is ourselves. Young Protestants need to be directed toward Christ—which may or may not be the same as being directed toward Luther.” In the life of Luther we not only see a man struggling to make sense of faith, but a person whose story bears similarities to our own. Like Luther, we too are plagued by doubt, a desire to feel that God is near, and to be enveloped by God’s love. Luther’s story is the human story.
There’s a specific point in Luther’s life and work that upon further inspection we see a man stricken with a malaise us moderns are all to familiar with. By all accounts Luther was a pious man. He carried out his monastic vows with utter seriousness. He prayed earnestly, fasted to the point of starvation, frequented confession, and developed a penchant for serious biblical scholarship. Luther was trying, or perhaps a better word, striving to encounter God. He thought that if he just tried hard enough, if he stuck to his religious vows more tightly, that all his white knuckling would end up paying off. Well, it didn’t. Luther writes,
“When I was a monk I depended on such willing and exertion, but the longer [I worked at it] the farther away I got. I was very pious in the monastery, yet I was sad because I thought God was not gracious to me…”
And perhaps the most startling of admissions is what Luther has to say about all the religious striving he was doing as a monk:
“I was a good monk and kept my rule so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get into heaven through monastic discipline, I was that monk. And yet my conscience would not give me any certainty… Although I lived a blameless life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner with an uneasy conscience before God. I also could not believe that I pleased him with my works… I was in desperation…I kept my three vows devotedly day and night and yet I felt no repose in maintaining my duty so purely…”
Here was a man bogged down by the weight of his own striving. The more religious he became the greater the chasm between himself and God widened. Luther would go on to describe a state of being he termed anfechtungen, a German word for the acute spiritual crisis’, despair, and anxiety that comes with any life. While some scholars have suggested that Luther’s “anfechtungen” might have actually been a form of clinical depression my hunch is that Luther was experiencing the darkest night of his soul. All his attempts to reach God by way of his own hard work was pushing him to the brink of spiritual despair.
I’m tempted to say that it wasn’t the mere recognition of Luther’s sin that caused him such profound anxiety and despair. Yes, “for the wages of sin is death” as Paul writes in Romans. And knowing what we know about humans, death is that pesky evil fact about life that we refuse to accept. But Luther was plagued by something more specific. He was done with striving, both in his personal life and in his theological outlook. Holding fast to his monastic vows wasn’t enough to earn him God’s favor and paradoxically, the more religious he became the less he felt close to God. Put simply, his striving wasn’t good enough and it never would be. Luther rediscovered a message of grace that at the time the Roman Catholic Church refused to recognize. Not only did he call for an end to striving, that is, attempting to merit God’s grace through doing more and trying harder, but he also shattered the concept of religion in the process. See, religion (even Christian religion) has the tendency to believe, much like those building the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, that humans can muscle their way up to heaven. But God isn’t fooled, and one need only finish Genesis 11 to realize that all our attempts ultimately come crashing down.
The modern world is plagued by this striving and in Luther we are pointed to the remedy: an irresistible dose of unmerited grace from on high. God in effect tells us, “Stop your striving. Enough is enough. All your hard work will fall short. Place your trust in me.” Luther never figured out a special spiritual program by which his anfechtungen would subside. No, instead he rested in the arms of a God who recognized that all humans had fallen short of his glory but were freely justified by the grace of Christ. Oh what good news this is!
500 years later, might we do the same?