On November 3, 1515, Martin Luther began to lecture on Romans at the University of Wittenberg. Luther had been a professor at the university for just over three years, but the posting of his famous Ninety-five Theses was still two years in the future. After several weeks of lecturing, he reached Romans 5:3-4: “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” (NRSV).
Trials come in many forms and can make us or break us.
As he prepared his lecture notes, Luther could see the positive impact of hardship which Paul had described; Luther saw how suffering could develop virtues in an individual’s life. However, Luther realized that the converse was also true: hardship could also have a corrupting effect on an individual. Perhaps he was thinking of his own life as an Augustinian friar. Luther was very unhappy while living the cloistered life of a friar, but his hardship did not lead to spiritual growth; on the contrary, Luther found that the more he fasted and prayed, the more miserable he became.
Luther concluded that his suffering had not led to the endurance, character, and hope that Paul spoke of because his heart had not been in the right place. His spiritual life had been based on fear and guilt rather than on God’s matchless grace; consequently, his suffering had an effect opposite to the one that Paul described. When he rose to lecture, Luther told his students:
Luther’s time as a monk was fraught with anxiety and discouragement.
“Whatever tribulation finds in us, it develops more fully. If anyone is carnal, weak, blind, wicked, irascible, haughty, and so forth, tribulation will make him more carnal, weak, blind, wicked, and irritable. On the other hand, if one is spiritual, strong, wise, pious, gentle, and humble, he will become more spiritual, powerful, wise, pious, gentle, and humble…Those speak foolishly who ascribe their anger or their impatience to tribulation. Tribulation does not make people impatient, but proves that they are impatient. So everyone may learn from tribulation how his heart is constituted.”
Luther’s words have proven true in my own life, and particularly in my work in the church. Sometimes I get anxious about the budget, and it seems that if we just had a little more money then everything would be fine. Or if I just didn’t have so many meetings, I would have more time for the things that really matter. Or if that one demanding church member would just find a different congregation, then I would be so much less stressed.
But none of that is true of course. I will be anxious about the budget regardless of how much money the church has. If I can’t find time for the important things now, then I won’t find time for them regardless of how I juggle my responsibilities or rearrange my calendar. And if I am allowing one person to make me anxious now, I will just allow someone else to have that power over me in the future; the face may change, but the root problem will still be there. As Luther said, my anxiety or stress or busyness does not come from any of the tribulations that I face—they come from the flaws in my own heart. Blaming those external factors is a self-serving attempt to avoid my deeper problem.
The next time you face a difficult situation, take note of how you react. Are you hopeful, humble, and prayerful? Or are you fearful, impatient, and angry? Your reaction is not flowing primarily from your hardship, but from somewhere much deeper.
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