Heaviness, weeping and joy

Title page from Miles Coverdale’s Bible (1535)

Today’s appointed psalm in the lectionary was Psalm 30. This is one of my favourite psalms, especially the celebrated lines:

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

Lines that will be familiar to P.G. Wodehouse fans, for starters.

We were at the Savoy Chapel this morning (our middle son sings in the choir), where they sang the Prayer Book version, in which these lines are rendered by Miles Coverdale as follows:

Sing praises unto the Lord, O ye saints of his :
and give thanks unto him for a remembrance of his holiness.
For his wrath endureth but the twinkling of an eye, and in his pleasure is life :
heaviness may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

That word “heaviness” also appears later in the psalm, where the words translated in the NRSV (following the Authorised Version) as “you have turned my mourning into dancing” become:

Thou hast turned my heaviness into joy :
thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness.

What I love about this word “heaviness”, as an alternative to “mourning” or “weeping”, is how specific it is in rendering a feeling we surely all know from time to time: that heaviness in the limbs that gives physical form to our sad, weary, despairing emotional state.

Above all, this precision of language creates a strong sense of connection with the translator: a translator who uses the word “heaviness” here is someone who is intimately familiar with this state of mind and body. And this should come as no surprise, given Miles Coverdale’s years in exile, and his proximity to early Reformation martyrs such as Robert Barnes and William Tyndale: enough to give anyone an abundance of “heaviness”; though Coverdale also clearly knew what it was to be “girded with gladness” by the grace and promise of God.


“Laughably pretentious”? Michel Houellebecq and the Incarnation


I’ve recently read Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel, Submission. Published on 7 January 2015 – coincidentally, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre – the novel tells the story of an Islamic government coming to power in France in 2022. I’ve written more about the novel here.

Houellebecq has been accused of Islamophobia (and has to some extent admitted this), but Submission’s main target is not Islam, but what Houellebecq clearly sees as a spiritually flaccid and morally bankrupt Europe. Indeed, towards the end of the novel, Houellebecq has one of his characters, a convert to Islam, give a rather sympathetic, even attractive, presentation of the reasons for his belief – though, in the context of the novel, even this is something of a figleaf for the rather baser reasons for conversion to which the speaker is more subtly appealing (a restored academic career, high pay, the opportunity to marry two or three nubile young women, etc).

The speaker, Robert Rediger, dean of what is now the Islamic University of the Sorbonne, describes to the narrator how he uses astronomy when starting to talk to someone about God:

Yes, the beauty of the universe is striking, but the sheer size of it is what staggers the mind. You have hundreds of billions of galaxies, each made up of hundreds of billions of stars, some of them billions of light years – hundreds of billions of billions of kilometres – apart. And if you pull back far enough, to a scale of a billion light years, an order begins to emerge. The galaxy clusters are distributed according to a vast cosmic graph. If you go up to a hundred people in the street and lay out these scientific facts, how many will have the nerve to argue that the whole thing was created by chance? Besides, the universe is relatively young — fifteen billion years old at the most. It’s like the famous monkey and the typewriter: How long would it take a chimpanzee, typing at random, to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays? Well, how long would blind chance to reconstruct the universe? A lot more than fifteen billion years. […] At the end of the day, isn’t there something ridiculous about some puny creature, living on an anonymous planet, in a remote spur of an ordinary galaxy, standing up on his hind legs and announcing, “God does not exist”? (pp.210f.)

Now of course an atheist who has truly thought through their (non)belief is unlikely to find this argument persuasive, but part of the point Rediger (and Houellebecq) is making is that most people in the west have not thought these things through: they have just lazily assumed that “these metaphysical questions” are no longer relevant, even though they are still “exactly what men fight over, not market shares or who gets to hunt where” (p.209).

Anyway, so far this line of argument is one which many Christian apologists and evangelists would find familiar. But Rediger takes it further, to show why he turned to Islam rather than Christianity:

Presumptuous – that’s the word. At the end of the day, there’s something incredibly proud and arrogant about atheist humanism. Even the Christian idea of incarnation is laughably pretentious. God turned Himself into a man … Why a man and not an inhabitant of Sirius, or the Andromeda galaxy? Wouldn’t that be more likely? (p.211)

How are we to respond to that argument? It’s hard not to appreciate that, on the face of it, looking at things rationally, it has some apparent force – even if it does rest on (currently) unprovable suppositions about extraterrestrial life and about God’s dealings with any such life that might exist.

Then, a couple of days ago, I found myself reading Psalm 8 as part of the appointed readings for that morning. It occurred to me that the argument Rediger makes is precisely that set out in verses 3 and 4, except that Rediger is asking the question with a rather different rhetorical intent from that of the Psalmist:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
   the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
   mortals that you care for them?

And it’s striking that it is precisely this text to which the writer to the Hebrews turns in order to explain what God was doing by becoming incarnate in Christ:

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

In other words: while we should certainly have a full appreciation for the beauty and scale of the universe. the “vast cosmic graph” of the universe; but we shouldn’t allow the resulting vertigo to give a negative answer to the Psalmist’s question, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Because as the Psalmist continues:

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
   and crowned them with glory and honour.

– however unlikely that may sound to us.

Richard Beck on hope for “Winter Christians”

Richard BeckLast night I had the pleasure of hearing Richard Beck speak at The Borough Common in London, as part of his UK speaking tour. Richard’s wife, Jana, also contributed actively to the discussion.

Richard began by describing how it became apparent early in his marriage that he questioned his faith far more than Jana did hers. One thing that helped them both work through this was being introduced to the terminology “Summer Christians” and “Winter Christians”: Richard being in the “Winter” camp, Jana in the “Summer” – though they agreed that 24 years of marriage has moved them closer together, with Richard being more “autumnal” and Jana describing herself as “early spring”.

The focus of Richard’s talk was therefore on what it means to be a “Winter Christian”, and above all how a Winter Christian can learn to have hope as well as questions. He described how Job 13:15 has been a key text: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

This post sets out an expanded version of notes I made after the talk, with my own thoughts in response. I’ve formatted the notes as quotations (and references to “I” are to Richard), but they are notes made from memory after the event and not verbatim quotations. Apologies to Richard in advance for any misquotations or misrepresentations of what he said.

Psalms, prophecy, poetry 

Walter Brueggemann distinguishes between psalms of orientation and psalms of disorientation. An example of a psalm of orientation of Psalm 1: the righteous get their reward, the unrighteous get their comeuppance; it’s a “Hollywood ending”.

An example of a psalm of disorientation is Psalm 13: one of many psalms that say to God, in essence, “why aren’t things working out like Psalm 1 said they would?” One of the things that gives me faith in the Bible is this way in which it contradicts itself; it squabbles with itself.

But most psalms of lament end with doxology: why? Again, Brueggemann provides a framework for this, when he observes the different kinds of “poetry” that are to be found in the prophets.

First, there is the poetry of indictment. Amos is a good example of this: the prophet confronts Israel with its failure to live up to the terms of God’s covenant, and warns of disaster to come if it doesn’t change its ways, particularly in its treatment of widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor. A lot of Christians (particularly those who would identify as “progressive” or “liberal”) find that this type of prophetic “poetry” resonates with them strongly.

Second, there is the poetry of lament, classically to be found in the book of Lamentations. This is where the disaster warned of by earlier prophets has come to pass: Jerusalem is destroyed, the people are exiled. Now the prophet sets aside the poetry of indictment, and sits beside the people to weep with them. Again, this is a poetry with which I can identify.

But then there is the poetry of hope. After all the unheeded warnings, after the disasters and lamentation, we come to Isaiah 40, “the first chapter of the New Testament”, where God tells the prophet to “comfort, comfort my people.” This poetry of hope is often the hardest for “Winter Christians” to express for themselves.

What Winter Christians need is a balanced diet of indictment, lament and hope.

Some thoughts on this: first, I don’t think I’d go so far as to describe myself as a “Winter Christian”, though I’m closer to that than to “Summer” (talking to Richard afterwards, I said that my two favourite times of the church year are Advent and Maundy Thursday). I’m certainly a “person of two questions” (see below).

One of the main benefits of praying the Daily Office is that, by praying all the psalms on a regular basis, we get that balanced diet of indictment, lament, hope; orientation and disorientation.

One thing that struck me thinking about Richard’s talk afterwards is the importance of realising that the psalms of orientation are as much the Word of God to us as the psalms of disorientation. It’s easy to slip into thinking that the latter are the real psalms, the crunchy psalms, unlike those pollyanna-ish efforts like Psalm 1. But we need to pray the psalms of orientation also (such as Psalm 107 this morning), as an expression of our hope that, ultimately, all wrongs will be righted by God’s justice and love.

How many questions? 

I mentioned above Richard’s distinction between “people of one question” and “people of two questions”. Here’s how he described it earlier in his talk (again, heavily paraphrased from memory):

One difference between Summer Christians and Winter Christians is the difference between being a person of “one question” and a person of “two questions”. Someone may ask, “Why does God allow suffering?” and be given an answer such as: “Because of free will.”

A person of “one question” will accept that answer and move on. However, a person of “two questions” is likely to follow up with: “Well, why did God create us with free will if he knew what the result would be?”, and so on. The moment you ask that second question, your path is determined: there will be a third question, and a fourth question, and your faith walk is always going to be one of questioning.

We shouldn’t fetishise being “questioning” people, though. That can easily degenerate into cynicism. One highly concrete way in which Richard has learned hope (and Jana confirmed these are experiences that have brought the two of them closer together, spiritually) is by spending time with marginalised people: through their work with homeless and poor people, and Richard’s ministry in leading Bible studies in a maximum security prison in Texas.

Lamentation and privilege

Richard described how he had led a very well-received Bible study for a group of university professors on the psalms of lament. This privileged audience readily agreed that the church needed to allow more space for lamentation.

When I was preparing for my first prison Bible study, I reached for this as it had been the most successful study I’d led, and surely prisoners (many of whom had been in prison for decades, and were destined to die there) would understand better than most the gritty reality of life and the need to acknowledge this in our faith.

However, as I started to talk about the psalms of lament, the prisoners cut me off. For them, their faith was the one thing that gave hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. To start deconstructing that was to strike at the root of their very being.

This made me realise the privilege I have. For me, faith is optional. If I stopped believing today, it wouldn’t make much difference to my life tomorrow. But for many marginalised people, faith isn’t optional: it’s the only thing they have that makes sense in their lives. As a result, they are people of hope, not cynical questioners; and I’ve changed, become more hopeful, as a result of this.

That point about how, for those of us with privileged and affluent lifestyles, “faith is optional”, really hit home for me.

Making God’s love credible 

Richard went on to describe how his work with prisoners has also given him a greater awareness of how important the link is between the love we show one another and our ability to experience God’s love:

One prisoner, Steve, asked how the words “God loves you” could have meaning for him when no one had ever said the words “I love you” to him – not his mother, nor his father, nor any family or friends. He had never heard those words spoken to him. So every week now I stand before him and tell him: “Steve, I love you.” My saying “I love you” makes the love of God credible to Steve.

This then has a parallel in our weekly life as a church:

In the same way, when we gather as Christians and share the bread and wine with one another, saying “here is the body of Christ broken for you,” “here is the blood of Christ shed for you,” that has greater credibility because I know that last week, you were showing that sort of love for me; you were being broken for me. That helps me understand what it means for Christ’s body to be broken for me.

The danger of labels

Terminology such as “Winter Christian” does carry dangers, though, as Richard observed during the Q&A following his talk:

We have to be careful we don’t start to apply labels in a way that says, “I’m the best type of Christian.” We often build up our self-esteem in violent ways – psychically violent, that is. We mark the other person down, and mark ourselves up. One of the things that makes Jesus so attractive is his complete refusal to do that.

The biggest problem in the Corinthian church wasn’t diversity or division, but shame. We can see this from 1 Corinthians 12:

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” – this is the language of shaming, of looking down on others as inferior. But God inverts our worldly hierarchies: “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable […] God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member…”

Re-ordering our affections 

Richard concluded his talk by quoting Wendell Berry’s poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, particularly its concluding lines:

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Indictment and lamentation and questioning on their own can lead to cynicism. “Winter Christians” also need to learn to “practise resurrection”, to speak words of hope to others (which can increase both their and your hopefulness). This is partly a matter of reordering our affections:

In capitalist society, we are bombarded with advertising messages designed to secure our affections, to pull them away from the things of God. Right now, someone is being paid to make me want what they’re selling, to make me click on that button. So I do various things to keep my affections centred on God: I pray the hours; I wear a prayer rope on my right arm; I have a tattoo on my left arm; I have a St Francis medallion. My office is nicknamed “the chapel”.

Martin Thornton described the basic spiritual “Rule” of Christianity as consisting of “Mass – Office – personal devotion”, with the most important element of “personal devotion” being what Thornton calls “habitual recollection” rather than formal spiritual exercises. That type of recollective, habitual self-reminding of God’s love and hope is one way to “practise resurrection” in our daily lives.


What did I take away from this? Even though I wouldn’t (quite) describe myself as a “Winter Christian”, a lot of what Richard said resonated with me. To put it into the “Mass – Office – devotion” framework I mentioned in the previous paragraph:

  • Office: praying the Daily Office helps to maintain that balanced diet of orientation and disorientation, of indictment, lament and hope. It can also play a powerful role in keeping our affections centred on God.
  • Mass: we need to see the connection between the Eucharist and the concrete reality of our life together as a church: showing love for one another, refusing to bring into the church the world’s categories of who is “superior” and who is “inferior”.
  • Devotion: at its heart, this is about reordering our affections – particularly in the direction of hope and resurrection – through the habitual recollection of God in our daily lives.

Bonhoeffer and Luther on the Psalms

Dietrich BonhoefferI’ve just been reading the last book published by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lifetime, before his arrest in 1941: The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible.

It’s a very short book – really only an essay, 24 pages long – but full of profound reflections on the psalms as a model for Christian prayer. Martin Luther was also a great lover of the Psalter, and Bonhoeffer quotes him on a number of occasions in the book. The interaction between Bonhoeffer and Luther is a good way to get a flavour for the book as a whole.

Bonhoeffer begins by reflecting on how the psalms are prayers that God has given us in his Word to pray back to him, just as Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer. As such, the two are closely interrelated:

All the prayers of the Bible are gathered together in the Our Father, taken up into its measureless scope. The Our Father does not make them superfluous, but they are themselves its inexhaustible riches, even as the Our Father is their crown and unity. Luther says of the Psalter: ‘It is interwoven with the Our Father in such a way that we can understand each through the other very well and see their happy harmony.’ (p.4)

This relationship between the psalms and the Lord’s Prayer is, incidentally, reflected well in the Daily Office, whose twin poles are the chanting (or reciting) of psalms and the praying of the Lord’s Prayer, just as the two poles of the Mass are the ministry of the Word (supremely, the Gospel lesson) and the ministry of the Sacrament.

A little later, Bonhoeffer is discussing the musical nature of the psalms (the word “psalms” itself being derived from the word “psaltery”). Again, he is able to call on Luther in his support:

Many of the rather baffling headings of the psalms are directions for the choir master. Equally, the ‘selah’ which frequently occurs in the middle of a psalm probably indicates an interval. ‘The selah is telling us to pause and reflect diligently on the words of the psalm; for they require a calm and tranquil soul who is able to grasp with understanding what the Holy Ghost is presenting to his thought.’ (Luther). (p.7)

One of my favourite Luther quotations from the book comes when Bonhoeffer describes what a blessing it is for a church to have a liturgical life that is built around the psalter:

In many Churches the Psalms are recited or sung antiphonally every Sunday, or even daily. These Churches have preserved a treasure of incalculable value, for only through daily use do we grow into that divine prayer book. If we read them only now and again we shall find these prayers so overwhelming in thought and power that we shall always want to turn back to lighter fare. But anyone who has begun to pray the Psalter regularly and in earnest will soon have done with his own easy, ‘trifling little devotions and will say: Ah, here there is none of the sap, the strength, the fervour and fire that I find in the Psalms, this is too cold and hard for me.’ (Luther). (p.8)

Moving on, Bonhoeffer quotes Luther’s description of Psalm 110 as “the foremost among the chief psalms of our dear Lord Jesus Christ” (p.13). He also cites Luther on the penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) as “the Pauline psalms” (p.18), for the way in which they “take us to the very depths of what it means to acknowledge our sin before God, they help us to confess our guilt, they direct our whole trust to the forgiving grace of God.”

In his conclusion, Bonhoeffer describes the purpose of his book as follows:

We have undertaken this short journey through the Psalter in the hope of learning to pray some of the psalms better. […] [A]ll that really matters is that we should begin afresh faithfully and lovingly to pray the Psalter in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. (p.24)

He then gives the last word to Luther:

May our dear Lord, who has given us the Psalter and the Our Father and taught us how to pray them, grant us also the spirit of grace and supplication, that we may with delight and resolute faith truly pray without ceasing, for thus it behoves us. He has commanded it and desires that we should. To him be praise and honour and thanksgiving. Amen.

Reckoning and not reckoning

Icons of Abraham and DavidIt’s worth labouring the point that we saw Steven Paulson making in my previous post: that the cross of Christ saves us through a “communication of attributes” in which Christ takes upon himself the attributes of sinful human beings (sin and death) and communicates to us his attributes of righteousness and eternal life.

Paulson argues that this makes Luther’s doctrine of justification distinct from all others. In particular, for Luther, justification is neither “inherent” or “imparted” nor, more surprisingly, “forensic”:

To people operating in the scheme of the law it always seems that two options are possible when it comes to how God reckons or imputes righteousness to faith. One is to say that sinners must become righteous in themselves – as judged by the law – before God can rightly declare them just. This could either be done straight-way by works, or by a mystical participation in that which is “above” the sinner; that is, in God’s own being. The other is to say that sinners can be declared righteous, forensically as in a court of law – though they are not actually righteous in themselves. A debtor deserves punishment, but if a generous patron paid the debt it may be right for a judge to let a criminal go free. In either case, the key is that the law remains the form of righteousness.

Perhaps Luther, and a handful of others, are the only theologians ever to reject both of these options. (Lutheran Theology, p.124)

For Luther, it’s not simply that Christ has met the standard for righteousness before the law, and that we can then benefit from this “legal” righteousness of Christ according to some abstract scheme:

For the Lutherans, Christ is the only righteousness, and his righteousness is preached by a word of promise that says, “Your sins are forgiven.” How? “On my account (propter Christum).” Hearing this word makes faith, and this faith is reckoned or imputed as righteous, though there is no righteousness there by any measure of law – including the presence of love as caritas. (p.129)

Christ’s declaration that I am forgiven and righteous on his account – despite all appearances to the contrary – is no mere “fiction”, any more than is Christ’s declaration, of a piece of bread, that “this is my body”; again, despite all appearances to the contrary. For Lutherans, St Thomas Aquinas’ words (as translated by Hopkins) not only express perfectly our doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, but our doctrine of justification:

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

This “reckoning” of righteousness has two parts, which St Paul describes in Romans 4:1-8. First is the reckoning that Abraham experienced: the reckoning of righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3). Second is the reckoning that David experienced: the not reckoning of sin (Psalm 32:1-2, Romans 4:7-8):

This reckoning and not reckoning is precisely the application of the communicatio idiomatum of Christ’s two natures, in which Christ takes your sin upon himself, and in its place puts his forgiveness – which is life now and eternal life to come. When Christ takes sin he no longer “imputes” it; indeed, he takes it out of you (exputes it). Then he reckons, or creates faith as righteousness since that faith trusts his promise of forgiveness just as Abraham trusted God’s promise to him of the Seed – and this trust in the promise is reckoned as righteousness by God, period. (p.131)

One small way in which this can be brought down to earth for us in concrete terms. The other day, the appointed psalm for the evening was Psalm 18, which includes the following verses

The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his ordinances were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from guilt.
Therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

Singing such things can be a challenge for us: “What ‘righteousness’?” we may feel; “What ‘cleanness of my hands’?” But this is to look at things in “the scheme of the law”. Shocking though it may feel to us, the “communication of attributes” between us and Christ means we can make those words our own, just as much as Christ as made our sins his own on the cross.

Psalm 46: a “Lutheran” chant

One of my favourite Anglican psalm chants is the one for Psalm 46, based on Luther’s Ein Feste Burg:

Last year, it occurred to me that this could be adapted for the short chants used in modern Lutheran liturgies such as the Lutheran Service Book. I’ve now finally got round to doing this, and the result is here:

Psalm 46 short chant

Feel free to use it yourself. It’s licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

It can be used either as a double chant or (if your congregation is anything like ours…) as a safety-first single chant.

The heart of Lutheran spirituality: oratio, meditatio, tentatio

King David in a medieval book of hoursAs I mentioned in my previous post, Gaylin Schmeling in his essay Lutheran Spirituality and the Pastor (PDF) describes Luther’s phrase “oratio, meditatio, tentatio” (prayer, meditation and affliction) as “the heart of Lutheran spirituality.”

While Luther emphasised this especially for pastors, it applies equally to laypeople: “It is the method of spiritual formation for each individual who daily dies and rises in Baptism.” Luther identifies it as being taught by Psalm 119:

This is the way taught by holy King David (and doubtlessly used also by all the patriarchs and prophets) in the one hundred nineteenth Psalm. There you will find three rules, amply presented throughout the whole Psalm. They are Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio.

Really, though, the principle of Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio permeates the entire psalter, as a brief glance at (to pick a couple from recent days) Psalm 90 or Psalm 86 will confirm.

Turning back to Psalm 119, though, Prof Schmeling quotes vv.26-27, 58 as an example of how it teaches oratio (prayer):

  Teach me your statutes.
Make me understand the way of your precepts,
and I will meditate on your wondrous works. […]
I implore your favour with all my heart;
be gracious to me according to your promise.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Luther’s Small Catechism (unusually for such a document) includes forms of prayer for morning and evening that are simple yet rich in meaning, encompassing recollection of baptism, confession of our Trinitarian faith, and the prayer that Christ himself taught us “and through which our prayer is united with His continual intercession.”

To illustrate the principle of meditatio, Schmeling quotes Psalm 119:97-99:

Oh, how I love your law!
It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your decrees are my meditation.

To read and meditate on the Scriptures is to encounter Christ himself and all his blessings. As Luther put it:

When you open the book containing the gospels and read or hear how Christ comes here or there, or how someone is brought to him, you should therein perceive the sermon or the gospel through which he is coming to you, or you are being brought to him. For the preaching of the gospel is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him.

Johann Gerhard says that “the Christian will ruminate on the Word or roll it over in his mind as a cow chews on its cud.” And our greatest example of such ruminative meditation is the Blessed Virgin Mary, who “kept all those things and pondered them in her heart.”

The most distinctive element of Luther’s triad is tentatio (which he substituted, significantly, for the traditional principle of contemplatio). Again, Schmeling quotes Psalm 119 (vv.71-72):

It is good for me that I was humbled,
so that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.

The word Luther used to translate tentatio is Anfechtung. The word can refer specifically to the suffering a Christian experiences because of their faith, but it can also be used in the wider sense of all the afflictions we endure in this life:

In affliction our sinful flesh is crucified with Christ, a part of our daily return to Baptism. The afflictions that the Lord allows to come upon the Christian are not a punishment for their sins, rather they are a chastisement from our loving Father to strengthen our faith, draw us closer to Him, and guide us in life. Here we are refined like gold and silver.

We tend to feel that it’s a sign of God’s favour when things are going well in life. However, for Luther, God is even closer to us in our suffering, and it is in suffering that we learn most fully what God is like:

The cross alone is our theology (Crux sola ist nostra theologia). Tentatio makes beggars out of theologians and theologians out of beggars. Concerning Anfechtung, Luther writes, “This is the touchstone which teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.”

And as Schmeling adds a little later in his essay, once again this drives us back to the psalms. Meditation on the psalms reveals how central Anfechtung is to our life as God’s children:

The Psalms inform our minds, warm our hearts, and direct our wills toward the knowledge of God. As one reads the Psalter he must conclude that Anfechtung has always been the common experience of the believer. This is not something extraordinary that is only happening to him as St. Paul reminds us (1 Corinthians 10:13). The Lord has sent this trial or conflict for His good purpose (Psalm 119:71–72). The believer finds his comfort as he meditates on the Psalms perceiving that God has provided endurance and deliverance for His Israel in every age through the means of grace. He prays the Psalms, assured of the redemption of the Lord.