Martin Luther was one seriously miserable guy. He thought becoming a monk would alleviate his anxiety and depression—at last he would feel as if God were pleased with him—but even in his devout monastic life, he felt rotten.
My children’s book actually does an excellent job of conveying Luther’s torment. For the first half of the book, in every picture, the guy looks absolutely traumatized. He’s on his knees in a thunderstorm, woefully gazing at the heavens. Turn the page and he’s on his knees again, furiously scrubbing the monastery floor. The accompanying text reads: “Brother Martin was surprised and saddened that the harder he tried to keep God’s commandments perfectly, the more he felt like a failure.”
Then, in a quiet moment while reading the Bible, everything changes—such a simple and private act that it doesn’t warrant an illustration in my picture book. Luther suddenly understands that God’s love is free for all who wish to receive it. It dawns on him that nowhere in the Bible does it say donations of money are required, or that priests are necessary go-betweens. (Legend has it that this “Aha!” moment actually occurred while he was on the toilet, which is perhaps the best argument I’ve encountered for reading in the bathroom.)
He experienced elation at this realization. Of this moment, he recalled, “I felt as if I was entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open….”
He wanted everyone to go directly to the source and make this joyful discovery for themselves, so he personally translated the Bible into German and, luckily, the invention of the printing press helped him get the word out. Luther wished to empower people to develop their own relationships with God, and for churchgoers to form what he called a “priesthood of believers.”
Today, at the Lutheran church I’m visiting, this level playing field is apparent in the minister’s central location, his simple white linen robe, and his casual demeanor. He seems more like a master of ceremonies rather than a special conduit of God. No need for him to hear our sins and forgive us on behalf of God; he instructs us to take a moment to confess silently and then leads us in reading a prayer of forgiveness printed in the program. He hands the microphone to a young woman from the congregation who reads a passage from the Old Testament, and then to an older man who reads from the New Testament. He cues us when it’s time to recite prayers and sing hymns.
The kind of religious experience Luther was advocating sounds like it might be easier than what came before, but it wasn’t. A personal relationship means work: you can’t rely on priests to do it for you. You have to root around in your own heart and soul, an intimidating and messy prospect. Abandoning fear as a motivating factor seems almost ludicrous. Ever since Adam and Eve covered up their nakedness, part of the human condition seems to include a sense of doom, like our default setting is unworthiness. Attending church because we’re afraid of the consequences if we don’t is one thing, but it’s quite another to show up to be loved. Now that’s revolutionary.