Luther's Anxiety of the Heart and Today's Despair
Do you ever wake up with the weight of your insufficiencies bearing down on you? You sense the reality that you aren’t good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, or successful enough just as your eyes flutter open. On mornings like this, it’s not the expectation for the day ahead that awakens you, but instead the immediate assault of all that you have left undone.
Often, this despair, or terror of the conscience, sticks with you all day. The wrath of such thoughts is not easily quenched. These are the thoughts not only about how unworthy you are but also about how little there is that you can do about it.
Martin Luther describes such bouts of despair as Anfechtung. This word, which does not have a direct English translation, implies terror and despair due to an inability to trust God’s goodness. This is the realization that all your anxieties point to something much deeper inside of you: namely, your inability to withstand the judgment of God on your own.
"At such a time, God seems terribly angry, and with him the whole creation. At such a time there is no flight, no comfort, within or without, but all things accuse. At such a time as that the Psalmist mourns, “I am cut off from thy sight” [Cf. Ps. 31:22]...In this moment (strange to say) the soul cannot believe that it can ever be redeemed other than that the punishment is not yet completely felt...All that remains is the stark-naked desire for help and a terrible groaning, but it does not know where to turn for help.” (LW 31, 129).
Such anxiety always has to do with man’s uncertainty when it comes to his standing before God, therefore, it is always the terror of conscience experienced by the Christian. And thus for Luther, Anfechtung was not only an unavoidable result of faith but also a benefit of faith. Luther argues that an attack of the conscience (one brought on by the devil no less) will eventually drive us back to Christ. Furthermore, when we are exposed to the wrath of God, our souls laid bare before the Creator, we realize just how big God is and how small we are. We are left with nowhere to run but to the love of God we can see and experience in Christ. Anfechtung is the touchstone, Luther says, “this teaches you not merely to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how consoling, God’s Word is, wisdom above all wisdom” (LW 34, 287).
As a Christian, you may have experienced similar bouts of Anfechtung, I know I certainly have. But this Anfechtung, the overwhelming feeling of being in doubt of your salvation or unsure of the forgiveness promised through Christ Jesus, is not the most frequent terror of conscience I experience. Nor do I believe it is the most frequent anxiety of my generation.
Today’s world has replaced Anfechtung with an entirely new sort of despair: the kind that wakes you up in the morning and drives you to scroll endlessly through Instagram, the type that feeds the fear of internet trolls and the insecurities of twitter bullies. This anxiety is not based on the wrath of an all-good and all-powerful God but instead on the definitions of a world who has killed Him.
Nietzsche was right when he said God is dead. Social Darwinism and Progressivism have taught us that we no longer need a sky deity - we are too smart for Him, and so we’ve done away with Him. He has ceased to be the way our world measures goodness, truth, and beauty and thus, the way we measure our worth. We tell ourselves this "lack of God" is better: no more condemnation from above, no more thunder, lightning and hailstorms, no way anyone any longer can use God as ammunition to oppress the weak or steal from the poor.
We thought when we killed God we also killed the guilt and the Anfechtung too. We live longer and better lives, and even as Christians, suffering in 21st-century American is minimal (or so we tell ourselves).
But try as we might, we cannot really escape suffering, we can only repackage it, or perhaps avoid it for a little while. Now, no matter our belief system, we no longer fear the wrath of God, but we certainly fear the wrath of man. Say the wrong thing, don’t say the right thing, judge or don’t judge and social condemnation awaits. We literally measure how much we are liked in comparison to others. We are creatures addicted to simultaneously doling out and escaping this manufactured wrath. Our modern Anfechtungen no longer stem from anxiety about God’s acceptance but instead anxiety about the acceptance of others.
Void of God, such secular anxiety (or secular Anfechtung if you will allow me the liberty) leads us nowhere. The only place we have to turn is back to our self-help books and our moralistic watchdogging for comfort. But we will find no relief here. We are a people utterly confused. While we’ve convinced ourselves that we've eliminated the problem of Anfechtung, in reality, we've only abolished the solution.
Where are we to look in our hour-long bouts of social media distress? In our concerns with co-workers or financial insecurities? Can we escape through meditation, verse memorization, or intermittent fasting?
We cannot console the Anfechtung of our souls any more than we can console the anxiety and despair created by our own standards. The solution for the terror of conscience remains the same solution today as it was for Luther: only in clinging to the promises of Christ, delivered through water, wine, and bread, are we freed from our prisons of angst. In moments of insecurity and doubt – albeit concerning your relationship with God or your very existence – turn to Christ. Christ, the God we did kill yet who rose again. Christ the conqueror, the God-man who suffered on our behalf. Christ incarnate is the only remedy for your Anfechtung and your existential insecurity. In the concrete and physical realities of Christ alone will you find comfort – no matter how many mornings you wake up unsure, unworthy, or ashamed.