Martin Luther: Perfect Weakness

Martin Luther, the once obscure German monk who then started the Protestant Reformation, has always been a controversial figure. However, one commonality you may find across opinions is the acknowledgement of Luther’s great boldness. Though they may not agree with him, most people view him as a courageous man with strong convictions for which he was willing to die. They do not picture Luther as fearful and insecure, however, before Luther knew about Christ’s gift of grace, this may have been how he saw life. The story of Luther’s own inadequacy reveals a key truth of Christian faith: our great weakness displays Christ’s great power. 

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9-10, ESV)

Throughout much of his early life, Luther wrestled with fear and anxiety. He frequently experienced periods of crippling despair, at times feeling as if he had been abandoned by God. Many modern psychologists and scholars believe that Luther may have had a form of OCD called scrupulosity. This means he would’ve dealt with “excessive worry about religious and moral issues” and “[engaged] in mental or behavioral compulsions” to alleviate this worry. Someone dealing with this may fear that they blasphemed against God, so they excessively confess or pray until their anxiety is alleviated. 

This particular example is something that Luther himself struggled with constantly. He wrote, “I tortured myself with prayer, fasting, and vigils…I regarded [Christ] only as a severe and terrible judge.”  Luther believed that to be forgiven of personal sins, he needed to achieve atonement through actions of confession and penance. It seems as if Luther was trying to earn his salvation while at the same time feeling as if the only thing he did was sin which drove him to despondency.

When everything seemed darkest for Luther, God’s light shined through. In reading through the Bible, Luther began to see that forgiveness is a free gift from God through the sacrifice of Christ. On this topic, Luther wrote, “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift from God, namely by faith.” This is the good news of the Gospel, and it was a huge relief to Luther, which is why he clung fast and shared the news with such fervor, turning Europe upside down and changing the course of history forever. 

It was Luther’s fear and sorrow, the thorns in his side, that God used to open his heart to the message of grace. Luther fully knew how wretched he was, but because of this, he also knew that he desperately needed a savior. How could it be that a man so crippled by anxiety could spearhead the Protestant Reformation and change history? It was by the might of God. God often chooses the weak for His mighty purposes so that His strength can shine through. Through our weakness, God is glorified, and this is the pursuit of the Christian life. 

Luther’s story should be greatly encouraging to anyone struggling with grief, doubt, or turmoil. It tells us that God doesn’t choose us for any greatness of our own but out of His mercy. That even in our lowest moments, we are never too far gone for God. Pain is not a sign of God’s unfaithfulness but something that God turns around for His glory and our good. Through our weakness, He is glorified. God does not leave us to despair but uses even our worst experiences to draw us and others nearer to Him. Let our weakness be a testimony to the faithfulness and power of God; He can not only drag us out of the depths but take what seems broken and lost and use it for good.

Personal Note:

The story of Martin Luther has always resonated with me personally. There are many times in my life where I’ve struggled with the fear and angst that Luther described in his writings. In hearing his story, I feel a sense of consolation that I am not alone in my feelings. I also feel a sense of encouragement in that God used Luther’s circumstances to build his faith while he was still struggling. Luther did not need to find a way to overcome his doubt or pain by himself. Instead, God helped him through it and used those experiences to do great things to him. This should provide great comfort to people dealing with depression, illness, strained relationships, and much more. God didn’t give up on Luther in the darkest moments of his life, nor will He give up on any of His people when they inevitably fail and struggle. Rather, in His infinite patience and faithfulness, God stands by His children, lifting them up when they fall and using their pain to help them learn and find comfort in Him.

Feature image courtesy of UChicago.