Luther's Counsel for the Worried and Anxious
Known for his letters of consolation and comfort (which we have been writing about now for weeks), Luther certainly had words for those struggling with anxiety, worry, and deep-seated doubt. The reformer talked openly about his own, anfechtung, a kind of spiritual depression resulting from a lack of trust in God’s promises, and he was quick to recognize the same terrors of conscience in others. Often, like for Luther, this anxiety stemmed from spiritual doubts concerning one’s salvation or eternal election.
For many of us today, these concerns may seem irrelevant, or at the very least, not as urgent as the never-ending sources of anxiety we face daily in school, career, and social situations. And statistics do show that anxiety is on the rise, dramatically, with 54% of Generation Z adults and 40% of millennials reporting feeling anxious, which is a significant jump from previous generations. While most of this anxiety would be foreign to Luther, I can’t help but wonder if we might still glean something from his counsel. Our improved medical understanding of (and always improving treatment for) anxiety is certainly something to be thankful for, yet we would be remiss to sequester hope against feelings of despair and worry solely to the realm of medicine and therapy. This is not a call to abandon the advances of modern science, for these too can be claimed as gifts from God to be used to the benefit of our health. However, hope in healing (even the psychological) without hope in Christ crucified doesn’t remain hope for long.
“It is his urgent command that we keep before us the image of his Son, in whom he has abundantly revealed himself to be our God (as the First Commandment teaches) who helps and cares for us,” Luther wrote to Barbara Lisskirchen in 1531 (Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 117). Mrs. Lisskirchen was troubled by the doctrine of predestination and felt anxious about her own salvation. As he did consistently throughout his ministry, Luther encouraged her to turn away from her doubts and toward the person of Christ, revealed in Scripture, because it’s through Christ that we see God working for us. It’s through Christ, that God’s promises to care for us and be our God are fulfilled.
“But God declares everywhere that I should let him care for me. He says, ‘I am thy God.’ This means ‘I care for you; depend upon me, await my bidding, and let me take care of you’” (p. 116). Luther was quite aware of the ethereal and abstract world in which doubt and worry live. Anxiety, no matter its focus, arises in its victims through thoughts of what is unknown or intangible, not through thoughts of what has already been proven true. This is why Luther worked so hard to ground people in the down-to-earth reality of God’s promises. These are not the same as our own, imperfect promises which more often than not turn into half-hearted commitments or IOUs. God has already fulfilled his promises to love, save, and comfort his people before the foundations of the earth through Christ Jesus. Where we find Scripture, we find Christ, and therefore where we find Scripture, we find a genuine comfort that breaks us free of our own thoughts and points us to something of real substance in the cross.
Aware of the danger in the thoughts of an anxious person, Luther was quick to recommend people find solace outside of themselves, both through prayer, as well as through seeking out the proclamation of Scripture. There is no greater reset to worry than through hearing God’s word from the lips of another, specifically the words of Gospel (Rom. 10:17). “If you are unable to pray well, have something for the Psalms or New Testament read to you in a clear voice, and listen attentively to the reading. For at such a time you must accustom yourself not to wrap yourself up in your misfortune and sink into your own thoughts, with the Word of God, as if you proposed to wait until terror subsides,” Luther suggests to Valentine Hausmann in a 1532 letter (p. 121).
Today’s advice for the anxious and worried tends to include some version of solitude, typically in meditation or journaling, all of which are suggestions that would have likely horrified Luther. It’s in solitude where, as a young monk, Luther himself fell into his deepest anfechtung. For here, sin and doubt assail without interruption. “God wishes that his name be proclaimed and praised before men and spoken of among men rather than that one should flee into a corner,” he says (p. 120). The anxious need a word from the outside, not more thoughts about what is “possible” from the inside. This is not meant to be any word nor distraction, but the forgiveness of sins through Christ crucified. This is good advice not only for the one who struggles with anxiety but also for the one who knows someone fighting anxiety and worry. Each of the members of Christ’s body has the ability to proclaim forgiveness over another - so proclaim it and proclaim it often.
In the midst of anxiety, one needs to hear that their own thoughts and fears are a lie because they will never line up with God’s words - both His words about us: “You are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Gal. 4:7), and His words for us: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13). Too often, we define God’s words as abstract and our own thoughts as reality instead of the other way around. But we don’t have a God who constricts himself to the heavens; we have a God who’s very Word did, in fact, create and save reality by dying for it (John 1:1-14). In an exchange with his dear Katie, Luther playfully (and yet precisely) reminds his wife of this exchange of realities, “Do not plague me any longer with your worries. I have a better worrier than you and all the angels. He lies in a cradle and clings to a virgin’s breast, and yet he is at the same time seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Therefore be satisfied. Amen” (p. 106).
Even with this encouragement, Luther knows there are still some of us who will doubt the truth of these words personally. When this is the case, he writes to the anxious to turn to God’s promises specifically given within the Sacraments. In Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we remember that no matter our worries, God has given righteousness and forgiveness to me. “God did not come down from heaven to make you uncertain about predestination or to cause you to despise the Sacraments. He instituted them to make you more certain and to drive such speculations out of your mind” (p. 133). God knows we are likely to doubt His word, and so he gives us His word, tied to a specific moment with water, bread, and blood, and thus makes the reality of His promises verifiable.
Scripture is not some sort of magical incantation with only as much power as our own obedient adherence allows. God’s word can’t ever fully fix our anxiety when we diminish it to platitudes and practical wisdom. The reason Scripture has power is because it points us to Christ and his finished work on the cross; it is the story of a changed reality. For the anxious and worried, the good news of God’s Word is not a quick fix. It is the foundation by which we can find psychological safety, no matter what distresses us.