The way of man with God cannot be tranquil.
— Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther
* * * * * * * * * * * *
A typical born-again-believer testimony might begin something like this: “My life used to be a mess. I was into _____, ______, and ______, and was about as miserable as a person could possibly be.” At that point the old Hank Williams standard usually kicks in:
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night –
Praise the Lord! I saw the light!
I saw the light, I saw the light,
No more darkness, no more night;
Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight –
Praise the Lord! I saw the light!
If you think this sounds a bit too much like an advertising jingle, you’re not alone. Many of the most celebrated followers of the Pilgrim Path would agree with you. If you asked them, they would probably tell you that seeing the light isn’t always a pleasant experience. That’s because the light reveals too much. It shows you who you really are. When you’ve got warts, pimples, and other less-than-attractive features, the light doesn’t feel like a friend. Darkness comforts and covers like a big soft blanket, but the light introduces a lot of uncomfortable truths.
The prophet Isaiah knew all about this. When God’s glory (light) washed over him like a flood in the temple sanctuary, he wasn’t moved to say, “Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight!” On the contrary, he covered his face and cried, “Woe is me, for I am undone!”
Plenty of others have felt the same way. Take John Bunyan, for instance. It was only after he had set out on the Pilgrim Road – not before – that Bunyan fell into the real-life dungeon of Giant Despair. As he recounts it in his autobiography:
Now I evidently found that lusts and corruptions put forth themselves within me, in wicked thoughts and desires, which I did not regard before … All my sense and feeling were against me; and I saw I had a heart that would sin, and that lay under a law that would condemn.”
Teresa of Avila, too, though regarded as a saint in her own lifetime, always considered herself a great sinner. The early period of her life was marked by almost constant inner conflict. Though she prayed many hours a day, it was nearly twenty years before she was able to find “any joy in God or pleasure in the world.”
Perhaps the best known exemplar of this type of spiritual struggle is Martin Luther. Oddly enough, as the light began to dawn in his life, Luther’s bouts with depression, self-loathing, anxiety, and despair only got worse. So frequent did they become, in fact, that he felt compelled to coin a word of his own to describe them: Anfechtungen.
In standard German, Anfechtung simply means “temptation” or “challenge.” In Luther, the word takes on a much deeper, richer, and more all-encompassing significance. For him, Anfechtungen included “all the doubt, turmoil, pang, tremor, panic, despair, desolation, and desperation” that are capable of invading the human spirit, especially within the context of man’s relationship with God. It was in the midst of a tempest of Anfechtung that he hurled his famous inkpot at the devil. But it was also during a fit of the same distemper that he was driven to a realization that revolutionized the course of his life: The just shall live by faith.
Had Luther been born in our era, his Anfechtungen would probably have been medicated away. In that case he might have lived happily ever after. As it was, he continued to have such episodes for the remainder of his life. In his view, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Near the end of his days he wrote, “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 was never subject to temptation.”
Why would Martin Luther say such a thing? The answer is simple: he knew, as did the apostle James, that one cannot step into the light and draw near to God without encountering his fair share of grieving, mourning, and weeping; and he understood, as did John Bunyan, that the Delectable Mountains are reached only by way of the Slough of Despond.