The reform movement in Europe was led by several key figures. Central among them was Martin Luther. Born in Germany in 1483, Martin Luther grew up in an extremely strict household. His father hoped Luther would become a lawyer. But when Luther was in his early twenties, he decided to become a monk. In the face of his father’s anger and disappointment, what led Luther to make such a decision? In part, it was because of an experience Luther had right before joining the monastery. Luther found himself caught in a terrifying thunderstorm. In his panic, Luther promised Saint Anne (the saint associated with miners) that if he was spared he would become a monk. Keeping his word, Luther entered an Augustinian monastery.
As a monk and later as a priest, Luther did all he could to be found worthy in God’s eyes. He diligently and fervently took up the spiritual practices of the church, among them practicing confession, penance, and fasting. Luther painstakingly examined his life to search out and confess any known sin. But rather than clearing his conscience, the confession just led to more anxiety as Luther feared he had overlooked some sin that would lead to his condemnation. Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever found yourself plagued with guilt or consumed with feelings of unworthiness before the Lord?
Luther once recalled, “I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his sheer monkery, it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”
Where was spiritual relief to be found? What could end his anguish? In the midst of his struggles, Luther was instructed to simply focus on loving God. But Luther found this to be impossible. If God were merely a wrathful God standing in judgment against him, how could Luther respond with love?