God is for us, but are we?
I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, self—Martin Luther in Peter’s Quotations
Reflections by: Jonathan Krull, visiting professor of philosophy, Huntington University
One current way of interpreting Luther’s statement is to use it as a tolerance parable or as justification for relativism. I teach Introduction to Philosophy, and students are always eager to trot out this little morality play. The conclusion would be that everyone’s belief system is undercut by our flawed humanity, so we can’t say that anything is true. In this interpretation, being dogmatic about anything is the dangerous thing. But this way of reading Luther ignores part of the quote. Yes, he fears himself rather than an outside force. But he doesn’t fear himself because he might have bad information or be mistaken. Neither is the quote about being tentative when it comes to belief. I have to believe something. This is about my active manipulation of the truth, with the reality beyond my own will, with the very way I think of myself. As Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”
We are in danger as long as we hold our hearts in our own hands.
I am filled with pride, arrogance, a desire to control and manipulate, and I twist whatever I see to fit my demands. Soren Kierkegaard, in the first part of Either/Or, has the aesthete say, essentially, “If I had a servant who brought me a cup of wine when I asked for plain water, I would dismiss him immediately. The importance is not what I get but that I get my own way.” I do not care what is actually real, true, beautiful, or good, but instead I view the world through the lens of what I want and I call what I want the real, true, beautiful, and good. This tendency destroys my ability to know the world and myself. I manipulate my picture of myself constantly. I try to appear to myself as the victim or the hero, the one who overcomes all obstacles, including the obstacles of other people.
We are the heroes of our own stories only because we don’t want to admit we are the villains. We are our own worst enemies. If we cannot trust ourselves, whom can we trust?
Romans 8:38-39 reminds us, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I memorized these verses for youth group, like many Christians who grew up in church. They were meant to bring us comfort. But Luther’s point is that, among all the things in all creation, we are defenseless against ourselves. While all these outside forces can cause us a certain level of harm, the real fear is that I can destroy myself. These forces, all the powers of the world, can frustrate my plans, persecute me, kill me. Nothing else can take me from God, but I can leap out of God’s hand.
This is an unsettling proposition. And this is what Luther took seriously. Luther raises the horror of persistent willful disobedience, and the resultant destruction. God is for us, but are we? Luther’s mistrust of himself was one factor leading him to emphasize the work of Christ in our salvation. Jesus is trustworthy. Jesus’ work is the work of redemption. We need to accept it by faith. God knows our hearts, and only he can help us, and thus we are empowered by God to obey. This is Luther’s picture of salvation, and it is unsettling. But it is meant to be unsettling. It is meant to wake us up, to stir us to obedience, to sensitivity to the Spirit. Luther was nothing if not a gadfly. Just ask the Pope, and all of his cardinals, and even Luther himself.
Jonathan Krull is visiting professor of philosophy at Huntington University
(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook through October as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.) CHI's exclusive 500th anniversary commemorative coin is a perfect keepsake honoring this monumental event. For more on Luther and the start of the Reformation, see Christian History magazine #115 Luther leads the way, part of our Four-issue series on the Reformation.