Roland H. Bainton’s classic, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, is one of several Luther biographies I have on my shelf and it is a classic work, even if it is a little dry to read. I want to focus in on an insight from one of the last chapters called ‘The Struggle for Faith’ in most of what I write below but first I’m going to indulge a bit of nostalgia since this was also the first book on Luther’s life that I read many, many years ago while I was in middle school. I remember giving a presentation, it was required that we do a biography on a historical figure, and since I knew very little about this person so important they named the denomination I grew up in (and continue to be a part of) I remember finding this book and choosing it from the library. I also remember my verdict on the book, it was boring (to a middle schooler much of the impact of the theological debates was lost). Still over three decades later I find myself once again returning to this classic bio of Luther and finding a new insight from it.
Anfechtung, the spiritual struggle that Luther endured throughout his life which included both elements of depression and self-doubt combined with a struggle for faith, was a continual if frequently unwanted partner in Luther’s life. Luther’s struggle to find a gracious God would provide strength and hope for many people but it also came at a high cost for Luther. Luther’s impact and talent were prodigious and he became an inspirational figure of faith for countless people and yet in his personal life he was in a continual struggle for faith. He proclaimed that God was always good and yet he struggled to accept this gospel for himself. He until the very end felt unworthy of the grace he proclaimed. A quote from Luther and then Bainton that I found helpful:
If I live longer, I would like to write a book about Anfechtungen, for without them no man can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God. He does not know the meaning of hope who has never been subjected to temptations. David must have been plagued by a very fearful devil. He could not have had such profound insights if he had not experience great assaults. (Luther)
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. (Bainton, 283)
I have sometimes admired those for whom faith is simple, who seem to be unquestioning in their trust but that is not my experience of faith. I have often questioned my own struggles of faith, depression and have occassionally viewed them as crippling to my ministry. Yet, perhaps what may be an excessive emotional sensitivity may also be a critical part of my hermeneutical insight, my pastoral presence and my preaching’s relevance. Perhaps it is the vulnerability that allows questions and doubt that allows grace to enter in through my own weakness. Perhaps it is this quality that makes the Lutheran theological tradition resonate with me even today.