October 19, 2017
The “Great Reformation” of 500 years ago didn’t get started simply as a cultural movement. The Reformation caught fire with a particular personal transformation that acted as a catalyst for social forces already in the air.
Martin Luther was an anxious man. He was anxious about his own physical mortality. He was especially anxious about the eternal standing of his soul. Martin lived in an era when life was more fragile than our own. Medical options for the sick were scarce or non-existent. An average life expectancy in Germany in the early 1500s was about 43, only if you survived childhood. It’s not insignificant that Martin Luther lost three of his closest college friends to the black plague. He was accurately anxious about his own mortality.
However, of even greater concern to Martin was the status of his soul. In his desperation to live “good enough” to please God and merit salvation, Martin took monastic vows and became “Brother Martin,” a Roman Catholic friar. Channeling his prodigious mental and creative energies into the monastic life only made Brother Martin feel worse about himself. Every day, Martin daily discovered new ways in which his motivations, thought-life, and behaviors were not in keeping with the biblical pattern. Martin’s despair grew so great that his fellow monks sent him on a trip (a religious pilgrimage, really) to sunny Italy. When he returned, Martin’s spiritual funk was even darker. Martin’s brothers suggested another change of scenery, this time within Germany.
It his new town, Martin was paired with a spiritual director who diagnosed his anxiety and spiritual despair and offered a two part prescription: (1) Humor and (2) Teaching Others. Martin was taught how to laugh again. He learned to laugh at his own failings, his sin, even to laugh at the predictable tricks and traps of the Tempter himself. And Martin learned to turn all that inward guilty energy outward by helping the students he was mandated to instruct. In teaching university students about the Scriptures, Martin rediscovered the God of the Bible.
When Martin realized that salvation was the Gift of God in Christ Jesus that he could never earn, but only accept by faith, he claims that his heart was warmed and he felt like he “had been born again.”
Yes, and amen! Martin’s spiritual rebirth then catalyzed the longing for change that was in the air 500 years ago, and a Great Reformation was underway.
A single transformed life has the potential to make a world of difference. Without Mahatma Ghandi, the struggle for Indian independence would have been vastly different and delayed. Without Martin Luther King Jr., the American fight for civil rights would have been vastly different and delayed. Without the original Martin Luther, the religious freedoms--and subsequent political freedoms--enjoyed in modern society would be vastly different and delayed.
C.S. Lewis writes that in God’s eternal view of things, each individual human life is more lasting and valuable than any of the current governments, organizations, or institutions that hold so much weight in our present world. For example, the United States of America? It will not exist forever. The United Nations? Temporary. Amazon and Google? Flash in the eternal pan. But you, dear reader, you are meant to live forever. You will exist longer than the Roman Empire did, longer than Oldsmobile or Kmart or Sears. You are built to last!
Now, it would be sociopathic to run around telling others that you are more important than Amazon or the United States. None of us are--in this present moment by any human reckoning. But in God’s eternal perspective, it is another story. Each human life is created to endure and therefore has inestimable dignity and value. Our lives are worth sacrificing for, worth dying for, according to God’s book.
Like Europe 500 years ago, our current social and cultural conditions are ready to be set on fire. Anxiety, dissatisfaction, and change are all in the wind. The world is waiting, I’m waiting, for the next spark of to light the fire of a modern Great Reformation. Lord willing, that spark will come from a life that has been transformed in a similar way to that of Brother Martin.