In his writings, the great reformer Martin Luther, who turned the theological world of the sixteenth century upside down, returned again and again to a very basic problem: how do you believe in the atonement, or grace, or the saving work of Christ, on a personal level? How do you really take in that those things apply to not just humanity in general, and more to the point, not to some category of “good people,” but to a sinner like yourself? “I have often experienced,” he wrote, “and still do every day, how difficult it is to believe, especially amid struggles of conscience, that Christ was given, not for the holy, righteous, and deserving, or for those who were His friends, but for the godless, sinful, and undeserving, for those who were His enemies, who deserved the wrath of God and eternal death.”1 Luther noted that when he found himself consumed by the forces of sin, it was nearly impossible to turn to Christ for rescue and forgiveness. He attributed this at least partly to the work of the devil, whose voice constantly whispered in his ear, reminded him of his unworthiness, and informed him that Christ would surely damn him. He described his experience of being frightened of Christ: “even at the mention of the name of Christ,” he recounted, “I would be terrified and grow pale, because I was persuaded that He was a judge.”2 Luther also observed the inexorable and unforgiving logic of the conscience: “You have sinned; therefore God is angry with you. If He is angry, He will kill you and damn you eternally.” He went on to even suggest that as a result, “many who cannot endure the wrath and judgment of God commit suicide by hanging or drowning.”3
The only way to quiet these condemning voices is, of course, to throw yourself utterly on the mercy of the Savior. But Luther was well aware that this is much easier said than done. To turn to Christ, to look for grace, while being assailed by the forces of judgment and condemnation, he observed, was enormously challenging: “to do this in the midst of struggle is the hardest thing there is. I am speaking from experience, for I am acquainted with the devil’s craftiness . . .”4
I credit Luther’s writings as being the catalyst that pushed me into academic theological studies all those years ago. And it was his profound struggle with this particular question that most deeply spoke to me. (Back in the days when I was a grad student in history, my emphasis was on the period of the Reformation. I still remember the day when we talked about these issues in a class I was taking on Luther, and my professor said something like, “of course we in our day don’t really get this, because we don’t worry about sin in the same way.” I was quite taken aback, as Luther was actually describing the story the story of my spiritual life quite accurately.)
I’m a product of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries of course, rather than the sixteenth, and as such, even as a religious believer, I find that my basic worldview is secular in a way that Luther’s was not. One difference between us can be seen in the fact that he interpreted this struggle as being in a very real way a fight against Satan, whereas I usually use the language of depression and mental illness when describing my experiences of crippling guilt, self-loathing, and despair. I doubt I’ve even once seriously considered the possibility that a thought I was having might have been planted by the devil. But even for me, the psychological and theological are not neatly delineated, and the form my personal emotional struggles usually take is in fact deeply religious. The Book of Mormon passage that has perhaps most resonated with me in this context has been Alma the Younger’s description of his descent into a personal hell after the angel calls him to repentance: “I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.”5 I’ve been there. I’ve really been there. But my experience diverges from Alma in terms of what has followed. Even when I’ve been able to make myself pray—and it’s not easy, and it hasn’t always happened—God has never intervened in my life in the way he did for Alma, who reports that after calling on Christ for mercy, “I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.”6 This passage has so often haunted me, as I have attempted to figure out why the heavens were silent in my case and I was left in torment. Predictably, in my despair I have interpreted the situation as indicating that for me there were no second chances, no forgiveness, and damnation was inevitable.
Years of work in therapy have given me some perspective on and awareness of my emotional patterns around this. I have come to realize that I have an extremely reactive temperament—that is to say, I am easily emotionally activated by particular triggers, and it is very hard for me to calm down again once things are set in motion. To give a recent example, one which my Facebook friends got to watch unfold in real time, last week I had an unfortunate experience involving a phone call out of the blue from my insurance company informing me that I had grazed another car while pulling out of a parallel parking spot, and the person in the other car had taken a picture of my license plate and called the police. I was intensely triggered—situations involving scary things like the police basically shoot my anxiety levels into the stratosphere—and even while I could kind of rationally see that leaving a small scratch on another car wasn’t quite the end of the world, I had to ride out a turbulent emotional storm. I was aided immensely in this instance by the support of my siblings and many friends, as well as of course my therapist, who maintained a sane perspective on the whole thing and just kept talking me down, and it turns out that I actually weathered the situation okay; it was definitely not fun, but it didn’t completely shatter me. This is progress, it really is, because there are times in my life when triggering incidents like this have been the catalyst for serious emotional breakdowns complete with self-destructive behaviors that have made the fallout even worse.
You may note that I’ve fallen back into the language of psychology in describing this, because that’s what I’ve been using to work through things. But these incidents never come without a religious flavor: usually absolutely core to them is a sense that God is angry at me, hates me, and wants nothing more to do with me. I remember once explaining to my therapist years ago, after a particularly miserable incident left me reeling for days without relief, that the feeling of being unable to pray because of my fundamental unworthiness was not just a side effect of what was going on in my mind, but in a sense actually constitutive of the experience, the thing that made it what it was. And at times like these, even when I know in the abstract that I have these patterns and that I am operating on very faulty religious assumptions, they feel so overwhelmingly real while I am in them that I can hardly even begin to challenge my thinking. At such times I know, I know, at the deepest level, that I have permanently ruined my relationship with God through choosing the wrong, and that there is no way back.
Given this context, I suppose it’s not really a great surprise that in my academic work, I have come back again and again to basic questions of sin and grace and the meaning of salvation. Those questions simply compel me. I don’t know if everyone chooses their academic path based on deep internal psychological conflicts, but that’s basically what I did. And I do think it’s sparked some creative theological work over the years, so there is that. My hope however is to maintain my passion for theology without having to have quite the underlying psychological drama fueling it. I do think I’ve come to see that grace in my life is probably not going to take the form that it did for Alma the Younger, arriving in a single dazzling burst that completely dissipates the darkness, but is perhaps rather to be found in the ongoing process of gradually and over time building up more traction for myself, learning to question my thinking when my emotions are highly activated, and practicing managing the storm without resorting to self-destructive behavior. I absolutely cannot do this alone, and that is perhaps where I can see most clearly the grace at work in my life, in the form of connections to other people who can offer support when it is needed, and also gently challenge me when the situation calls for it.
I once said to my therapist, while I was in the middle of a guilt episode, “It’s too bad you’re not a priest, because you could simply absolve me of sin and clear this all up.” I was remembering something that the therapist (and staunch atheist) Irvin Yalom once wrote about being fascinated by the confessional, and even maybe a bit jealous of the power that a priest potentially wielded over the psyches of his or her parishioners. As a kid, I was actually fascinated by the Catholic practice of confession, and a bit jealous myself, as I imagined that it would be an antidote to my near-constant guilt. These days, while I have nothing but respect for the sacrament of confession/reconciliation, I’m less sure that it would do a whole lot for me in my bad moments; the forces raging in my brain are just too intense. But I’m thinking that the vital practice of turning to Christ while in the midst of sin and guilt might take a different form for me, and not the one which appears in the Ensign—namely, prayer and scripture study. All too often, as I said, prayer at these times is nearly impossible (and usually—though to be fair, not always—fruitless even if I do manage it), and reading the scriptures while you’re experiencing a revelation of personal damnation is not something I would recommend to anyone; they’re a minefield of passages about eternal judgment and condemnation just waiting to explode and separate you from any remaining bits of sanity.
But maybe what it means to seek grace is sometimes just to call my therapist and ask for help; or to choose to act in a way that’s caring toward myself even when the voices in my head are screaming that I don’t deserve any such thing; or to read the works of Mary Oliver and Denise Levertov and Julian of Norwich and Chieko Okazaki, whose writings truly are a balm to the wounded soul; or to listen to calming music or go for a walk in the woods. Because while once in a while God might choose to speak to me fairly directly, I think that as often as not I encounter God’s love mediated through other pieces of life. And awareness of that gives me some perspective, and even a glimmer of hope that when things have been at their absolute worst, despite all appearances to the contrary, God has not entirely abandoned me.