A MAN OF GREAT DOUBT, MARTIN LUTHER
We all tend to idolize people. We look up to celebrities, politicians, and business moguls. We imagine that their lives are better than ours. That they breathe rare air. I had the same admiration for one of my heroes in the faith, Martin Luther. Though he was a great man of faith, he also was a great man of doubt.
Born in 1483, Luther transformed the Christian landscape and reluctantly spearheaded the Protestant Reformation, a movement that forever changed the map of Christianity and the entire Western world. Though he was best known for his radical faith and individual courage to stand up to the religious hierarchy of his day, Martin Luther wrestled with the demon of doubt throughout his life.
Anfechtungenwas the German word he used to describe the spiritual attacks that “kept people from finding certainty in a loving God.”1 Luther experienced many seasons of anfechtungen, this almost untranslatable word that he employed which combined elements of doubt, the dark night of the soul, and the feeling that God had turned His back on Luther.
Though Luther frequently wrestled with anfechtungen, he saw much benefit to this phenomenon as a means of grace, where God strips you of all certainty and forces you to cling to the Word of God alone.2 Though doubt can be harsh and perplexing, it can also be a good teacher and instigator to lead us into the arms of the Father.
Luther experienced times of fear that “God had turned his back on him once and for all,” abandoning him “to suffer the pains of hell.” Feeling “alone in the universe,” Luther “doubted his own faith, his own mission, and the goodness of God—doubts which, because they verged on blasphemy, drove him deeper and deeper” into despair. His prayers met a “wall of indifferent silence.”3
He experienced heart palpitations, crying spells and profuse sweating. He was convinced that he would die soon and go straight to hell. “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.’” His faith was as if it had never been. He “despised himself and murmured against God.” Indeed, his friend Philip Melanchthon said that the terrors afflicting Luther became so severe that he almost died.4
For me, doubt can be a serious head trip. It’s easy to get stuck in my mind, to live only in my thoughts instead of the real world. Some of Luther’s tactics for dealing with doubt have helped me. In looking at the life of Luther, we can glean three strategies to deal with doubt.
1. GET A FRIEND
Luther dealt with his doubt through a variety of distractions, some healthy and some not so healthy. He was a proponent of listening to music, taking walks, even drinking to quell his internal struggle. He also warned against being alone during seasons of doubt. He emphasized the absolute necessity of voicing doubts out loud to another person. Luther knew our need to hear words of truth from any believer, regardless of their educational background. He said that he would rather have the company of a simple farm worker who believed in God, than to be alone to face his doubts.
One of the most ineffective ways to deal with doubt is to “go it alone.” Trying to battle doubt by yourself, is like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. It’s not going to happen. You have to voice your doubts out loud to another person you can trust.
2. GET OUT IN NATURE
I picked up surfing years ago, and I find it very therapeutic. I don’t have time to doubt when I’m worrying about drowning or getting eaten by a shark. Sharks and the waves are more pressing issues than the doubts floating through my brain when I am in the ocean. I also surf with friends which builds a sense of community. I receive great joy from just being in God’s creation, watching the sunrise, and catching a wave now and then. In the sea, I feel just how small I am and how powerful God is.
A lot of doubters get stuck indoors and inside their head. I think it’s healthy to get outside and allow God to speak to you through nature. Psalm 19 talks about how the created world constantly communicates the character and nature of God.
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
Nature is a great teacher. If you doubt, just getting outside every day helps you to get outside of your head. Take a walk. Ride a bike. Go for a swim. But I’ve found a tactic even more elemental. Exercise helps me get out of my head. I know it sounds silly but to do something physical helps me deal with doubt.
3. GET DOWN AND COUNT
I have a friend from Mexico who was raised in a dirt-poor, single parent family. Against the odds, he rose above his circumstances, got a degree, and worked himself into a fortune. But one day he came home with the weight of the world on his shoulders, gripped by worry and anxiety.
As he shared the story of his stress with his wife, their house keeper over-heard and interjected, “Mr. Allen, may I tell you what I do when I feel this way? I get down on my knees and just start to thank God for everything I can think of. And by the time I get off my knees my worries are gone.”
I found the simple benefit of this strategy too. When I feel overwhelmed by life, when the problems creep in, when I begin to doubt what God is doing or not doing, I get down on my knees and just start thanking him. I thank him for the bed I slept on. I thank him for my cup of morning coffee, I thank him that I have a job. I thank him that I have two legs. I thank him for everything in my life. Staying thankful, and getting specific about it helps me process doubt in a healthy way.
I am glad to know that such a giant of the faith like Martin Luther struggled with doubt. It gives me hope that I am not alone and that doubt can even strengthen my faith.
Ben Young, DMin is a writer and teaching pastor at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. He is also an adjunct professor at Houston Theological Seminary, and the author of seven books, including Devotions for Dating Couples and Room for Doubt: How Uncertainty Can Deepen Your Faith. www.benyoung.org
1. Martin Marty, Martin Luther: A Life (New York: Penguin, 2008), Kindle edition, 409-413.
2. Marty, Martin Luther, 417–24.
3. Chris R. Armstrong, “A History of Darkness,” Leadership Journal, vol. 32, no. 4 (fall 2011), www.christianitytoday.com/le/2011/fall/historydarkness.html.
4. Armstrong, “A History of Darkness.”
Image courtesy: by Joseph Noel Paton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Publication date: August 28, 2017