A History of Spiritual Angst

Samantha L. Miller

I just finished teaching a week-long intensive church history survey, and I was struck once again by a pattern I’ve noticed among theologians. The pattern is especially noticeable when I teach the surveys—both early/medieval and Reformation to present—as intensives rather than semester-long classes, primarily because I have to focus on the biggest names and most important moments. Such a fast overview lends itself to generalizing and to noticing broad patterns like this one.

The pattern is that our great theologians often experienced great personal spiritual struggle, and the resolution of that struggle often leads to their theological emphases. Martin Luther’s struggle is famous. He could not trust God’s love for him. He was wracked with spiritual angst over whether he had ever confessed enough or been contrite enough to receive God’s forgiveness and justification—that is, until he had an epiphany while reading Romans and his justification by faith overwhelmed him. John Wesley had a similar struggle with being assured of God’s love for him. He wanted the faith of the Moravians he’d met and was counseled to preach grace until he believed it. He came to that grace when his heart was strangely warmed on Aldersgate Street. We read all of Augustine’s internal struggles in his Confessions. Julian of Norwich is honest about her difficulty with God’s love in her Showings. St. Francis could not exorcise his angst until he kissed a leper. Gregory of Nazianzus bares his soul in his poetry. John Chrysostom does not reflect on his own internal struggles, but he speaks so often about virtue that I wonder if there’s not something driving it. They all wrestled with God until they received their blessing.

This pattern tells us a few things. First, we are not alone. When we struggle, we look to our friends for encouragement, hope, presence, and prayer, and these theological forebears can be our friends too. We can listen to Luther describe his angst and feel a little less crazy. Someone else understands. Julian of Norwich can speak words of encouragement straight to our hearts. They pray with us as we pray with the psalmist, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Ps 13:2 NIV). Not only are we not alone, not only are we not crazy but imperfectly normal, not only do these friends understand our deepest struggles, but they tell us to keep wrestling. God is with us in the struggle because God is the one with whom we wrestle.

Second, if we look at the struggles these theologians experienced and at the major themes of their theology, we see a correlation. Luther’s struggle gave way to an understanding of justification by faith that shaped churches long after he was gone. Wesley’s wrestling and warming led him to preach grace everywhere and experiences of God’s love. This does not mean that the messages are less true. We all have different experiences and backgrounds from which to describe the mystery of God. If we believe in the providence of God, we believe that God gives us different experiences and backgrounds for the good of the whole church. This does mean we should look at our own struggles and theology. A friend of mine says that all preachers really only have three sermons. I suspect they’re related to our own spiritual angst. What’s the struggle with God that most troubles us? Are we, like Wesley, preaching to ourselves about it until we can believe it? It may be worth reflecting on. What struggle guides our theological emphasis, and what struggles guide our parishioners’ theological emphases?

Third, we learn from this pattern that if we hold on in the wrestling just as Jacob did at the Jabbock, there is blessing. In each of the stories of these theologians, God overwhelms the subject with assurance, love, grace, or rest. Not only is the struggle not the end of the story, but the blessing isn’t either. Those blessings go out beyond the particular recipient to reach many more of us when they are shared in sermons and treatises. Our struggles, when we hold on until the blessing, also become blessings for others when we share them in our three sermons.

Deep spiritual angst is nothing new. Sometimes in seminary or as professional Christians of one kind or another, we worry that our spiritual struggle makes us unfit for ministry. We wonder if there is something wrong with us. Why do we not have the faith of the saints? Or even the faith of the people in our congregations? Take heart. We are not the first. We belong to a long line of saints who wrestle with the living God. They encourage us and tell us we are not alone, we are not crazy, we are not failing God. They tell us to look at our struggle and discern our theological emphasis for the sake of others. They tell us to keep wrestling, for blessing is coming.

Posted Feb 03, 2020

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