“Some words defy adequate translation.”
That’s how Reverend Doctor David P. Scaer begins his superb essay on Luther’s theology of Anfechtung. And he’d be right. As Scaer shows, the word itself is much too occupying to be summarily explained. However, the term could be (and has been) rendered as “suffering,” “trials,” or even “temptation.” When the Christian sees these words, he ought to be immediately intrigued because these are realities experienced by all in this fallen world.
Throughout this past summer, in my Sunday morning adult Bible study, we attempted to work through this essay and give this particular theological point some space to breathe. It was a good experience. We as a congregation needed to understand it, having come through a rather tempestuous few years of extreme difficulty. During this study, there was a particular section that raised my brows and seemed to spur the most discussion overall. It was the following:
“The answer to the affliction of the thought that God is treating the believer as an unbeliever and as an enemy by showering down upon him wrath is Christ, in whom God reveals that He is gracious. Luther provides a precise and practical answer for the Christian caught in the affliction of knowing only a God of wrath. The Reformer directs these words to Christians who judge from outward appearances that God is treating them as though they were not His children:
‘To be sure, public calamities hit saints and prophets, too, but not as happens in the case of the godless and ungrateful – out of wrath and punishment for them, but for their salvation, to test and to try their faith, love and patience, that the godly may learn to bear patiently the hand of God in his government…. But the godless are plagued to punish and offend them, so that they are hardened and become worse. For they are not improved by the good and are only made worse by the evil.’
“Unless the Christian knows whether the sufferer is a believer or unbeliever, he cannot interpret the tribulation as Anfechtung for faith or punishment for unbelief. Luther’s real concern is with Anfechtung. The affliction in the Christian’s life should not be seen as a sign of divine wrath. Such introverted soul-searching is Satanic, as again the soul is directed away from finding salvation in Christ” (p. 23).
This particular section assumed a seat of importance during the study. This is true because it suddenly became apparent that, as a congregation, we were experiencing anfechtungen (plural). And as with any struggle in this world’s life, the one subjected to the misery is drawn to ask the worthy but often misconstrued theodicy question, “Why, Lord?!” But in addition to this, it would seem that folks involved in the controversial issues (primarily located outside of the parish and yet retaining thumbs on our pulse) were suddenly experiencing incredibly jeopardous upheavals in their lives—cancer, businesses failing, foreclosures, divorce, heightened familial discord, you name it—while the people of our congregation seemed to be relatively preserved from such larger tragedies and, simultaneously, the horizons among us were (and continue to be) becoming brighter and brighter.
Perhaps you see the danger here. Yes, God’s people were being blessed with successes we’d not experienced in a very long time—and I do believe it is directly connected to the changes we experienced as a congregation that occurred across the board. Quite simply, we became positioned for greater faithfulness. But the sin-nature crept in, and the temptation emerged to discern the scene as “believers” vs. “unbelievers.” Scaer (along with Luther) admits that, in reality, this juxtaposition may be valid. Still, it isn’t for us to know with certainty. Relative to certainty, God desires that we know our salvation in Christ. With that, all things good and bad are working toward this end for the believer. Scaer deals with this skillfully throughout, discouraging the reader from saying, “That man is obviously being punished for his sin.” Again, that may be true. However, we can’t say that for sure. In the meantime, we consider the anfechtungen for what they are in their simplest form—“a proper synonym for the life of the Christian lived by faith” (p. 28). In other words, don’t judge God’s anfechtung actions for others, but rather know to look to Christ in all struggles, direct others to do the same, and in this, whether believer or unbeliever, the anfechtung will have served its purpose and God’s divine will for the salvation of man will have been supported. This is a Gospel effort, and it’s the only one that can make enemies into friends—unbelievers into believers.
If you are interested, you may download and read Scaer’s essay. I have attached it as a link below. Although a little heavier in theological presentation than what would typically be expected during a Sunday morning Bible class, it was helpful and was just the right kind of medicine for the ailment. Additionally, folks are clamoring for me to make t-shirts (black, of course) that say similarly to the “got milk” advertisements, “got anfechtungen?”
As soon as I get some extra cash, I’ll put in an order. And I’ve already asked Dr. Scaer if he wants one. He said yes.