“The Hardest Thing There Is”: Turning to Christ in the Midst of Sin

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

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  1. Luther’s Works Volume 26: Lectures on Galatians, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), 36. []
  2. Ibid., 178. []
  3. Ibid., 150. []
  4. Ibid., 38. []

Death on a Friday Afternoon

Selections from Richard John Neuhaus,  Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (Basic Books, 2000).

“Christians call them the Triduum Sacrum, the three most sacred days of all time when time is truly told. The fist, Maundy Thursday, is so called because that night, the night before he was betrayed, Jesus gave the command, the mandatum, that we should love one another . . . The second day is the Friday we so oddly call ‘good.’ And the third day, the great Vigil of Resurrection Conquest. Do not rush to the conquest. Stay a while with this day. Let your heart be broken by the unspeakably bad of this Friday we call good . . . let your present moment stay with this day. Stay a while in the eclipse of the light, stay a while with the conquered One. There is time enough for Easter.” (1-2)

“Good Friday brings us to our senses. Our senses come to us as we sense that in this life and in this death is our life and our death. The truth about the crucified Lord is the truth about ourselves . . . The beginning of wisdom is to come to our senses and know that fearful truth about ourselves, that we have wandered and wasted our days in a distant country far from home.” (4) Read More

The Sins of Pride and Self-Negation (or, How I Learned to Lighten Up a Little About Service)

In 1960, a thinker by the name of Valerie Saiving wrote an influential article which is often considered the beginning of modern feminist theology, critiquing traditional models of sin which were centered around pride. Since such perspectives considered pride or excessive self-assertion to be the most basic sin,  they understood the process of overcoming sin as necessarily involving a move toward greater selflessness. Love was defined in such approaches as being “completely self-giving, taking no thought for its own interests but seeking only the good of the other.”1 Saiving raised the objection that these models ignored some basic differences in the self-development of women and men, and arose from an essentially masculine perspective. The crucial point that these formulations overlooked, she argued, is that there is danger in the other direction as well, as it turns out that too much selflessness, far from producing someone in an idealized and virtuous state, leads to the development of a kind of “chameleon-like creature who responds to others but has no personal identity of his [or her] own.”2  Saiving saw this as a temptation to which women are particularly vulnerable. Read More

  1. Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” in Womanspirit Rising (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 26. []
  2. Ibid., 41. []