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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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

6 responses to “Finding God in Fear and Despair: the Example of Martin Luther”

  1. John MacArthur says :

    Surely the creative tension of doubt is experienced by almost every rational believer, not because of atheistic jeering but because God himself is suprarational defying our poor logic to plumb his depths. When I was at a (liberal) theological college doubt about almost everything was an ever-present reality. I was comforted, however by the simplest things. Scratched somewhere in the depths of the Roman catacombs by a believer in fear of his life is the simplest of reassurances: ‘God is eternal’.

  2. John Vagabond says :

    Trevor – at the risk of boring you senseless, I’m thinking of migrating one of my own blogs from Blogger to WordPress. It has the advantage of flagging other posts, long forgotten that have some resonance with the one you’re presently reading. Consequently, it led me to this – written a while ago…Thought it might amuse you.
    https://soupyskyepraise.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/call-me-el/

  3. Johnny Cirucci says :

    Well Dr. Saxby you’ll be making history in as much as my second book is historical. I’m contrasting Luther and Loyola and I will be citing your work here. ~ Johnny

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