Contrary to the “prosperity gospel” and other theologies of glory, negative experiences can also have a positive spiritual significance. Many of us go through depression, blue moods, black moods, and other sufferings, whether physical or emotional. These are not signs that you have lost your faith or that God has abandoned you.
Luther, who knew these states of mind well, considered them important for the Christian life. In fact, he considered them necessary for anyone who presumed to be a theologian, the three attributes for that office being meditation, prayer, and tentatio–struggle, trial, assault–the closest he could come in Latin to the untranslatable German word Anfechtung.
In looking for a good description of Anfechtung for that Bach post I wrote recently, I came across “A Primer on Anfechtung” by LCMS pastor Paul R. Harris. It’s worth looking at for its own sake and for what it discloses about a state of anguish that can seem devastating–especially since Christians seldom talk about it today–but which can draw us closer to Christ.
From Rev. Paul R. Harris, A Primer on Anfechtung | St. Antony’s Cave:
As Jerry’s fellow comedian says, “That’s pure gold Jerry; pure gold I’m telling you” when Jerry tosses him a joke as a bone to his sycophantic friend. Well my friends I toss not a bone but the whole steak. First I whet your appetite with this appetizer from Johann Gerhard: “; [T]hus does God the Lord also often allows the members of Christ to experience such anguish, so that they think nothing other than that God has forsaken them and will no longer look upon them in grace. We find such examples of temptations especially in David and Job. And with such temptations God more often assails, not the ordinary Christian, but rather the greatest saints, who have increased more than others in the knowledge of God” (History of the Suffering, Gerhard, 275).
Luther writes about this as well in his Large Catechism under the 6th Petition “lead us not into temptation.” First in the Small Catechism he assures us that the devil, the world, and our flesh will attack us. Then in Larger he says, “”Some feel it in a greater degree and more severely than others. For example, the young suffer especially from the flesh. Afterward, when they reach middle life and old age, they feel it from the world. But others who are occupied with spiritual matters, that is, strong Christians, feel it from the devil” (III, 107).
Both Gerhard and Luther describe the anguish, but neither names it. Its name is Anfechtung.
Illustration by John Hain, Pixabay, CC0, Public Domain