When Faith Fails to Make Sense

Sherlock Holmes, Martin Luther’s Anfechtungen, and the “Unthinkable”

David Clay / 9.9.21

Sherlock Holmes was famously difficult to rattle. On one occasion, however, he solved a case so heartrending that it elicited a rare bit of angst from the great detective: 

What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly … “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.

Holmes, that consummate empiricist, had found himself compelled to believe in something not proven by the available evidence, namely, that there is an ultimate, transcendent meaning to the events that happen on this planet. Uncharacteristically, Holmes is a little imprecise here. It is of course “thinkable” that there is no ultimate meaning (or God) beyond the physical universe. A lot of people not only think that thought, but also believe it. In fact, the BBC’s recent reincarnation of the detective (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a snarky atheist, something which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary creation is decidedly not.   

But we still understand what the (original) Holmes meant. All of us hold certain beliefs that, if they were somehow proven to be false, it would damage our ability to function in the world. Sherlock Holmes cannot survive in a world ungoverned by Reason. Others apparently can’t stand the thought of living in a world that is round. When presented with evidence to the contrary, human beings (British detectives and flat-earthers alike) feel a psychological pain that modern writers often call “cognitive dissonance.” 

Martin Luther had his own term for it. Throughout his life, Luther dealt with periods of intense spiritual anxiety or depression, in which it seemed for all the world that God had turned his face away from him, and that he would be damned in spite of the Bible’s promises of justification by faith. He called these Anfechtungen (singular: Anfechtung) in his native German, and there is no precise English equivalent. The word combines the notions of a trial of faith, a temptation to despair, and an objective assault from outside forces. 

One of the worst of these Anfechtungen came in 1527, a decade after the Protestant Reformation got underway. By this point, many of Luther’s friends had given their lives for his cause. The Reformer wondered why he himself had not been counted worthy of martyrdom. He found himself plagued with doubts about the wisdom of splitting apart the Catholic Church. The taunt, “So, you alone are wise?”, thrown at him years earlier by his talented theological opponent, Johann Eck, continued to haunt him. At the time, Luther jauntily reminded Eck that the Lord had once seen fit to speak through an ass. But now, even years later, the Reformer fretted that perhaps he really was leading multitudes of faithful Christians astray.

Things came to a head during one particularly terrible week. Luther later reflected,

For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God [1].

Luther firmly believed that these Anfechtungen were often (although not always) Satanic assaults. In such a case, the devil is sincerely trying to destroy the Christian’s faith in God and thereby his or her soul. But, like the writer of the biblical book of Job, Luther also knew that blaming Satan for all of one’s troubles is in the end a theological cop-out. God himself is finally responsible for Anfechtungen. It is the Lord who permits or even sends experiences that seemingly contradict the Bible’s proclamation that he is good and that he intends to save those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. 

The believer’s salvation — and, really, his or her ability to keep on functioning even in this world — depends on believing that God is good and that he keeps his promises even if, as Luther once pointed out, he does so in ways we would not have expected. Any confidence in ourselves is destroyed in the process. We finally have no recourse but to loudly and desperately hold God to his word. Like Jacob, we wrestle with God and refuse to let him go until he blesses us [2]. 

Luther believed that God uses our struggles and inner turmoil to ensure that we maintain a living and active faith. Without these Anfechtungen, we’re apt to grow complacent and treat God like an academic subject, or maybe as an important but rather abstract organizing principle of our lives. “For when there is peace and quiet,” Luther commented, “we do not pray. Nor do we meditate on the Word, but we treat the Scriptures and all things that belong to God coldly or slip into fatal smugness” [3]. 

On the other hand, the Reformer knew very well that these temptations toward despair, at their worst, make it all but impossible to either pray or read the Bible (he would have someone read the Lord’s Prayer out loud when he couldn’t bring himself to form the words). Moreover, they often seem to happen to the most devoted and least complacent of believers. They are cognitive dissonance on full blast, and attempts to explain them as part of God’s good plan feel (in the moment at least) suspiciously like the flimsy rationalizations people offer when their most vital beliefs run aground on the shoals of contradictory evidence. 

And yet Luther’s idea still makes sense. If justification by faith is true — if it is not our moral striving, theological or religious aptitude, spiritual depth, or emotional connection with God, but only our taking him at his word that makes us right with him — then it is not surprising that God would periodically see fit to nullify our strivings, aptitudes, and emotions. In the midst of our trials, despairs, and angsts, there remains only the question posed to Abraham, “Do you believe God’s promise or not?” 

But who can know beforehand how they will answer?  “I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested,” sang the Mighty Mighty Bosstones back in 1997, “I like to think that if I was I would pass.” The truth is that most adult humans on this planet will pass through some version of a “dark night of the soul,” in which their basic assumptions will be shaken and their most cherished truths will be put on trial. There is no avoiding this, nor is there any way to know what will result. 

Christianity does not offer anyone an escape from the pain and uncertainty of being a human,  Anfechtungen included. Christians, like everyone else, are forced to think the unthinkable from time to time. What Christianity does offer is the straightforward acknowledgment that these dark seasons will come, and that, when they do, our survival is not dependent on manufacturing faith against all odds. ” “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Beneath the unbelief that floods our hearts, the Spirit of Christ believes for us. Even at the gates of hell, no one can pluck us from the hand of Christ.