Archive | May 2016

Finding God in Fear and Despair: the Example of Martin Luther

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Martin Luther (1483-1546) is remembered among Protestants as the champion of church reform, who translated the Bible into German and freed the glorious truth of justification by faith from the overburden of superstition and empty tradition. However, if you look deeper, you find that Luther was very human. He could be touchy, aggressive and opinionated. But above all, you find that doubt and fear of death played a larger role in Luther’s psyche than is often realised.

He knew phases of dark depression. Particularly in later life, with all his triumphs behind him, he experienced seasons of terror that God had utterly forgotten him and abandoned him to hell. His prayers and cries were met only with silence. He felt alone in the universe. For more detail, read this post by Chris Anderson.

At one point, the crushing doubt about his calling led him to such a deep pit of gloom that he wrote, “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.’” He had nightmares, sweats and heart palpitations.

It is a peculiar – but very human – mixture: on the one hand, penning books and hymns in praise of God’s glorious gift of freedom in Jesus Christ, but on the other suffering haunting reproach, guilt, condemnation and cosmic fear.

Richard Marius, in his study of Luther, offers a very telling image: ” For Luther, Christ was like a campfire projecting a circle of light against the vast dark of earthly life. Whenever the darkness threatened to encroach upon that illuminated ground, Luther flung more of his volatile ink onto the fire, causing it to flame up again in his own heart, and keeping the darkness at bay.”

Portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

So Luther the great champion of doctrinal reform becomes Luther the troubled human being, one of us, someone we can relate to when we hit the rocks of life or hang on cliffs of horrible despair. If he found a way through, then we can surely learn from it and find hope.

The answer that Luther found was to allow tribulation to drive him to prayer and Scripture and above all, to God’s promises. ‘God has need of this: that we consider him faithful in his promises [Heb. 10:23], and patiently persist in this belief.’ [The Babylonian Captivity of the Church]  Luther concluded that God uses the assaults of doubt to strip us of self-assurance. In other words, we are unable to wholly grasp the promise of God and our salvation, which saves us from the danger of placing our confidence in ourselves and our own understanding.

In this life, God does not lift the Christian out of human nature, nor does he reveal himself beyond any shadow of doubt. Even to discover God’s saving grace does not necessarily mean escaping spiritual conflict and ‘desert’ experiences.

Rowland Croucher writes: ‘As odd as it seems, doubt serves to protect us from ourselves. When we can’t trust our capacity for faith, we have to go back to trusting God and only God. Doubt serves another purpose in the life of faith. If we’re willing to put the energy and effort into the struggle, rather than just walk away, it can serve to keep us engaged with God.’

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An Early Social Entrepreneur: Basil’s “New City” at Caesarea

An early representation of Basil, perhaps at the Basiliad

An early representation of Basil, perhaps at the Basiliad

In popular usage today, the term “entrepreneur” seems to mean little more than someone who started their own business. The term is much wider, however, and history reveals a noble line of social entrepreneurs, many of them Christian.

According to this article, a social entrepreneur is usually a creative individual who questions established norms and their own gifting, spirit and dynamism to enrich society in preference to themselves. We’re talking about a blend of philanthropist, visionary, business thinker and ‘go-getter’ – and for a Christian, a strong faith.

Christian social care is as old as Christianity itself, of course.  The Bible states that caring for widows and orphans is foundational to godliness (James 1:27). Perhaps the first instance of a more visionary enterprise was Basil the Great’s Basiliad in 4th century Caesarea.

This was a ground-breaking philanthropic foundation where the poor, the diseased, orphans and the aged could receive food, shelter, and medical care free of charge. It was staffed by monks and nuns who lived out their monastic vocation through a life of service, working with physicians and other lay people.

In his funeral address for Basil, his great friend Gregory, bishop of Nazianzus, said: Go forth a little way from the city, and behold the new city, the storehouse of piety, the common treasury of the wealthy… where disease is regarded in a religious light, and disaster is thought a blessing, and sympathy is put to the test. Oration 43, Available online at www.newadvent.org/fathers)

This ‘New City’ was the culmination of Basil’s social vision, the fruit of a lifetime of effort to develop a more just and humane social order within the region of Caesarea, where he grew up and later served as a priest and a bishop.

Image: thegreathospital.co.uk

Image: thegreathospital.co.uk

This line continued primarily through Christian hospitals, only really broadening to other areas with the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. As poverty increased and health deteriorated through the factories, a window of opportunity opened for Christian social entrepreneurs. Suddenly prison reform, schools for poor children, cooperative societies, trustee savings banks and suchlike were big on the agenda, and gifted Christian men and women stood up with vision and application to see them through.

Heaven Touching Earth: Christoph Blumhardt and the Kingdom Rule of God

We Christians think of a heavenly kingdom; I came to see that God intended an earthly kingdom, or rather, a heavenly kingdom on earth. God’s name was to be hallowed on earth, His kingship seen on earth, His will done on earth. The earth should announce eternity: God on earth.”

In a number of writings, Christoph Blumhardt (see previous posts) presented his understanding of the kingdom of God and how it is forever breaking in to life on earth – for that was always God’s intention.

The angels have God in heaven, I have not – I want to pray down here. I must have God here. The earth is the stage set for the kingdom of God, because the kingship of God is in direct relationship with this earth: the Saviour, down here. God’s intention is the here and now: Jesus challenging poverty, sin and misery on earth.”

A post on the John Mark Ministries blog considers the significance of Blumhardt’s writings on the kingdom of God. ‘His ideas had seminal influence on Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently on Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann – theological giants among whom he would most certainly feel a stranger. Despite this legacy, Blumhardt is relatively unknown. To begin with, Blumhardt’s life was a provocation. He also expressed his ideas in impressive and unconventional phrases. His message excited both shock and indignation, for it went against the currents of both the church and the world. He represented something quite different from what we generally understand by Christianity.

‘Blumhardt didn’t care about matters of religion and church, of worship services and dogma, not even of inner peace and personal redemption. For him, faith was a matter of the coming of God’s kingdom, of God’s victory over darkness and death here and now. The kingdom of God was the creative reign of Christ’s peace and justice on earth. His vision of God’s righteousness on earth was an unconditional and all-embracing one: God’s love reconciles the world, liberates suffering, heals economic and social need – in short, it renews the earth.’

Christoph Blumhardt at his desk

Christoph Blumhardt at his desk

Blumhardt believed that the prophets and Jesus wanted a new world: the rulership of God over all reality. He could not identify with most Christians’ longing for heaven and enduring this earthly life as a necessary precursor. In his view, heaven must come down to earth.

“Many people long and yearn for heaven; they stretch out toward heaven. I would like to tell them: Let your minds reach to the heights that we can already perceive on earth. Down here is where Jesus appeared, not above in the invisible world. Here on earth he wants to appear again and again. Here on earth we may find him.”

Here you will find a further meditation by Blumhardt on the in-breaking kingdom of God – and the amazing but urgent opportunities that gives for Christian witness.

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