A Primer on Anfechtung

As Jerry’s fellow comedian says, “That’s pure gold Jerry; pure gold I’m telling you” when Jerry tosses him a joke as a bone to his sycophantic friend.  Well my friends I toss not a bone but the whole steak.  First I whet your appetite with this appetizer from Johann Gerhard: “; [T]hus does God the Lord also often allows the members of Christ to experience such anguish, so that they think nothing other than that God has forsaken them and will no longer look upon them in grace.  We find such examples of temptations especially in David and Job.  And with such temptations God more often assails, not the ordinary Christian, but rather the greatest saints, who have increased more than others in the knowledge of God”  (History of the Suffering, Gerhard, 275).

Luther writes about this as well in his Large Catechism under the 6th Petition “lead us not into temptation.”  First in the Small Catechism he assures us that the devil, the world, and our flesh will attack us.  Then in Larger he says, “”Some feel it in a greater degree and more severely than others.  For example, the young suffer especially from the flesh.  Afterward, when they reach middle life and old age, they feel it from the world.  But others who are occupied with spiritual matters, that is, strong Christians, feel it from the devil” (III, 107).

Both Gerhard and Luther describe the anguish, but neither names it.  Its name is Anfechtung.  We go to Alister McGrath for a further definition. “The German term is not easy to translate, because of the overtones now associated with it: ‘assault’ is probably more illuminating than ‘temptation’, although the latter is more accurate.  For Luther, death, the devil, the world, and Hell combine in a terrifying assault upon man, reducing him to a state of doubt and despair”  (Luther’s Theology of the Cross, McGrath, 170).

After reading Klemet Preus’ The Fire and The Staff, I said that if I had this book in the first five years of my ministry it would have saved me from thinking I was crazy.  This beefsteak I am throwing your way will help you likewise.  McGrath further elucidates the Anfechtung for Luther as follows: “Anfechtung is thus a state of hopelessness and helplessness having strong affinities with the concept of Angst.  The terms Luther himself used when discussing Anfechtung illuminate the various aspects of the concept: it is a form of temptation (tentatio), which takes place through an assault upon man (impugnatio), which is intended to put him to the test (probatio)” (Ibid.).

The great danger when this assails you is for a well-meaning friend or loved one to try to subjectify it:   You are brining this on your self.  Or what’s even worse to pscyhologize it: You are repressing this or acting out that or defense mechanizing this.  McGrath, therefore, fittingly warns:  “It must be emphasized that Luther does not regard Anfechtung as a purely subjective state of the individual.  Two aspects of the concept can be distinguished, although they are inseparable: the objective assault of spiritual forces upon the believer, and the subjective anxiety and doubt which arise within us as a consequence of these assaults” (Ibid. 170).

My dear friend when the subjective side of this looms large you will surely think you are crazy.  You will think, after all, you are doing this to yourself, and so you will attempt with might and mien to “straighten up and fly right,” “to pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” “to take the promises of God seriously.”  You may even resort to some sort of exercise that is more like a Buddhist mantra than a spiritual endeavor.  You will try to bring yourself out of it by repeating Scripture verses or singing hymns.  And, be forewarned, this will help for awhile, until the attack is renewed all the more.  It is only when you see that the Anfechtung is coming from your dear Father in heaven and not from the pits of hell or worse from the pit of your own fallen psyche (read soul here), that there will be some measure of relief, perhaps relaxation in it is more accurate.

Once more McGrath explains: “Most significantly of all, as we have already noted, God himself must be recognized as the ultimate source of Anfechtung: it is his opus alienum [alien work], which is intended to destroy a man’s self-confidence and complacency, and reduce him to a state of utter despair and humiliation, in order that he may finally turn to God, devoid of all the obstacles to justification which formerly existed…It is for this reason that Luther is able to refer to Anfechtung as a ‘delicious despair’” (Ibid. 170-1).

If you read Law and Gospel, you will find that Walther misunderstands this part of Luther’s theology.  He, and I don’t have the citation, says something along the lines of only the believer who is constantly worrying about his salvation can be saved.  In reality, Luther said that only when a man despairs of saving himself in anyway can he be saved, and this, my troubled friend, is a despair that is as delicious as a whole beefsteak.

Finally, don’t think you’ll ever outgrow this.  Don’t think you can reach a level of spiritual maturity, theological knowledge, or control over your sinfulness so as to avoid the Anfechtung.  It, like Jacob’s limp, will be with you till the Lord calls you home.  Once more McGrath is clearer than I: “Anfechtung, it must be appreciated, is not some form of spiritual growing pains, which will disappear when a mystical puberty is attained, but a perennial and authentic feature of the Christian life.  In order for the Christian to progress in his spiritual life, he must continually be forced back to the foot of the cross, to begin it all over again (semper a novo incipere) – and this takes place through the continued experience of Anfechtung” (Ibid. 171).

Although you will be sorely tempted to, don’t pray for the Anfechtung to lift.  No, it’s God’s work, alien though it is.  He brings it; He delivers from it.  It must have its way with you under the watchful eye of God.  And therefore it is apples of gold in pictures of sliver. It’s pure gold I’m telling you and not fool’s gold either even though it appears ever so foolish to our way of thinking.



About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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