A History of Darkness
Steinmetz paraphrases Luther, "The fact of your beginning recovery is hidden under the contrary appearance of your virulent fever. You can grasp it now by closing your eyes to your symptoms and opening your ears to the word of your physician, who contradicts by his prognosis your immediate experience of pain."
Luther loved to say that in our times of darkness, we are seeing "the view of God from behind," wording based in Exodus 33:23, where Moses asks to see God's face, and God tells him that he couldn't handle such an encounter, but he would show him his back. Luther saw this same dynamic in the story of the Syrophoenician woman pleading with Jesus to be allowed to eat "the bread that falls from the table" of God's children. All Christ's answers to this woman, said Luther, "sounded like no, but he did not mean no. He had not said that she was not of the house of Israel. He had not said that she was a dog. He had not said no. Yet all his answers were more like no than yes."
Luther saw a parallel in our experiences of darkness: "This shows how our heart feels in despondency. It seems nothing but a plain no. Therefore it must turn to the deep hidden yes under the no and hold with a firm faith to God's Word."
"That there may be room for faith," Luther insisted, "everything which is believed must be concealed. Thus when God brings to life, he does it by killing; when he justifies, he does it by making guilty; when he exalts to heaven, he does it by leading to hell." This paradoxical vision comes most powerfully in the story of the Savior who is born into poverty, rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, and ends up being judicially murdered.
Thus, experiences of Anfechtungen not only "make 'room' for faith," they also "help teach total dependence upon the promises of God."
How redemptive did Luther really find these experiences of darkness? It was during his prolonged crisis of 1527, so intense and agonizing that his friend Melanchthon felt Luther actually came near to death, that the Reformer composed that great hymn of faith, "A Mighty Fortress is our God." How many since his day have discovered in that single song a bulwark against darkness and doubt?
Chris R. Armstrong is professor of church history at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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