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Dr. Luther's Tribulation

Feelings of God's absence didn't plague only Mother Teresa.
2007This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

The world seemed shocked this fall when it learned that Mother Teresa experienced several decades of spiritual dryness and a profound sense of being disconnected from God.

Doubleday published Come Be My Light, a collection of private letters to her spiritual advisers. In those letters, Mother Teresa compared her anguish to hell. She described her spiritual state, using words like "dryness," "darkness," and "torture." Such language brings to mind the "dark night of the soul" described by John of the Cross in the 16th century.

CT readers should also recall similar periods of feeling spiritually abandoned in the lives of great Protestants: Oswald Chambers and William Cowper, for example, and especially Martin Luther. It was not in Luther's monastic years, when he was struggling for acceptance with God, that he felt the absence of God most deeply. Like Mother Teresa, it was after his special experience of God's grace and after he wrote his watershed 95 theses that his periods of Anfechtung, his word for doubt, turmoil, and despair, came upon him. To discover grace is not to escape spiritual tribulation.

Here is a sample of how Luther wrote about his feelings of abandonment: "God often, as it were, hides himself, and will not hear; yea, will not suffer himself to be found."

Luther described times when trying to preach or speak of Christ, "the word freezes upon my lips." He said, "Had another had the tribulations which I have suffered, he would long since have died." Luther's call to be a professor forced him to find a new approach to the Scriptures and, in turn, Christian experience. According to historical theologian Robert Rosin of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, the tools of Renaissance humanism liberated Luther from medieval philosophical ...

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