When I was a teenager, I suffered from anxiety, depression, and what appears to have been obsessive-compulsive disorder (disorders with which I have learned to cope, but still battle from time to time even now). I hit the age of 16, and suddenly a massive load of pressure and stress collapsed on me. There was long-enduring family dysfunction and brokenness. There was my own sense of deep sinfulness and a longing to “get it together” spiritually, even as my efforts became frustrated again and again. There was isolation and loneliness. There was an awakening to the truth of my own mortality. This was a heavy load to bear at such a young age. I confessed my sins again and again, only to find more in need of confessing. I purged my belongings. I washed my hands again and again. I attempted to scrub my mind of any and all sinful thoughts. I read the Bible and attended church, desperately anxious for a sign of God’s love and favor. I was a living shell of a person.
It was around this time that two things happened. The first was that I read a biography, The Triumph of Truth: A Life of Martin Luther by Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigne. The second was that my hurting family, a family with roots in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity, began to attend a Lutheran church.
My first resonance with Martin Luther, that great Reformer who changed the world, was relating to him, story to story, in his biography. I had grown up in the Church. I had had a profession of faith at the age of 2, on the changing table, for Pete’s sake! I probably believed even before that. When I was a child, my faith was simple and easy. But as I got older, I thought too hard. I worried too much. And the sometimes-legalism of the fundamentalism surrounding me began to choke me (to be fair, a lot of this was probably my own disposition and not just legalistic religion). When I started to get serious about my faith, I could not keep up with my sin. I was drowning. I didn’t know the way out, other than to keep trying to do more religious things.
Martin Luther felt this way too. At least I had grown up studying God’s Word and knowing it backwards and forwards. He did not have that privilege. All he saw were the great legalisms and hypocrisies and abuses of power in the Church universal. All he saw were his own futile attempts to please God. A terrifying thunderstorm awakened this sensitive soul to the fear of the Lord and led him to make a vow to seek God completely. At this time, Luther disappointed his father (who wanted him to be a lawyer) and entered the monastery. But rather than this decision making things better for Luther, his mental state became even more tortured. d’Aubigne writes:
A tender conscience inclined Luther to regard the slightest fault as a great sin. He had hardly discovered it, before he endeavored to expiate it by the severest mortifications. “I tortured myself almost to death,” said he, “in order to procure peace with God for my troubled heart and agitated conscience; but surrounded with thick darkness, I found peace nowhere (19).
Luther was not to remain in such despair, however. His wise and loving superior in the monastery, John Staupitz, was to bring him words of God’s grace such as these:
Look at the wounds of Jesus Christ, to the blood that He has shed for you: it is there that the grace of God will appear to you (24).
As Luther began to awaken to the truth of the Gospel and to be delivered from his morbid fear of God, he also began to encounter the actual words of Scripture which he had not been able to read for himself as a layman. The verse that transformed his world forever was this one: “The just shall live by faith” (reference). As God’s Word began to take up residence in his heart, Luther came to understand that it was not our works of righteousness that save us, but Christ’s righteousness–which we appropriate by faith alone. He takes our wretched sinfulness and brokenness on Himself and gives us His righteousness, goodness, and wholeness instead. This principle is at the absolute center of our relationship with God. We are free indeed because of what Christ has done for us.
I had read all the same Bible verses that Luther read. I had studied Bible college courses. I had listened to countless Christian radio programs. But it was the story of Martin Luther that began to change me forever.
Intellectual engagement is fantastic; lists of truths are deeply valuable, but most of us don’t become transformed by intellectual assent to a list of truths. What has the power to transform our lives is the interaction of truth with story. What has the power to transform our lives is the interaction of truth with relationship.
As I began to learn the story of Martin Luther, the story of the Gospel that transformed him into a man who was free, I began to learn this story also in the lives of the Lutherans I came to know in the local church we had begun to attend. Our family approached this church with the skepticism fundamentalism often holds for those in mainline churches (“are they actually Christians?”). But over time, the church’s leaders won our trust with their careful interpretation of Scripture, their gracious love, and their balance in all things. I began baby steps of freedom, baby steps away from legalism and fear. I went on to attend a Lutheran college, to study English and the Humanities, and to begin to leave behind artistic legalism (the key word being “begin”). I went on to attend Luther Seminary, to learn the story and ideas of Martin Luther even better, to practice more baby steps of freedom (sometimes remembering and sometimes forgetting that “all things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial”), to go on to serve with my husband as Lutheran pastors of a two-point rural parish, to go through some tough church times, to move to a new congregation, to begin a new phase of life as a writer yet again. I continued to battle bouts of anxiety and depression (we live both in “the now and the not yet” as ____ has said). I have learned a lot. I have been freed from legalism, and I am never going back. This life of faith does not depend on me, but on the One who died for me and rose again. Through it all, the freedom of the Gospel that connected with me in that 500-year old story of a tortured soul who found grace and rest has continued to sustain me.
Surely there is a lesson here for Christian witness today. We shouldn’t share Jesus by giving people lists of rules or edicts to follow. When the first thing people hear from us is how they’ll never, ever measure up (don’t they already know that? New Year’s resolutions, anyone?) and how righteous we are, we just lay the burden of legalism on them all over again. But when we lead with story–listening to theirs and sharing our own–a door opens to share not just a list of truths but the experience of truth. Where can we identify our own struggle of feeling inadequate to our responsibilities as humans? Where can we speak of our own staggering failures? Where can we identify the reality of our common human brokenness in popular culture today? And how can we speak of the Good News of the weight of expectation, requirement, and consequent failure being forever lifted from our chest? We can speak of it through our stories and through the stories of Christians throughout history.
I give thanks for all that the Protestant Reformation brought about. And I give thanks for the good story that Christ lived through the life of an imperfect, freed saint and sinner named Martin Luther.
Quotations come from The Triumph of Truth: A Life of Martin Luther by Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigne. Edited by Mark Sidwell. Translated by Henry White. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1996.