Martin Luther used the term “Anfechtung” for the terrifying fears he experienced as a young man. There is no word quite like it in English. It implies more than simply fear and doubt—it carries the sense of an attack. It is sometimes rendered as “trial,” “assault,” or “spiritual struggle.” The worst of Luther’s fears would be diagnosed in the present day as clinical obsessions.
Luther came to believe that the Anfechtung he suffered had a definite purpose. It was part of God’s plan for his salvation. It drove him to rely on the Lord. In his Exposition on the Gospel of John, The Great Reformer writes,
The power and effect of faith first become manifest in times of Anfechtung, as, for example, when faith must overcome sin, death, devil, and hell. These are not insignificant foes. They make you sweat; they crush your bones; they make heaven and earth seem too narrow for you. When devil and death approach, there is no other help than this Person who says: “I have been appointed as the one who will not lose you. Such is the Father’s will.” This is the way we learn the meaning of faith.
Like Luther, when we are faced with obsessional fears we must put our hope in ‘the one who will not lose you.’ That’s Jesus. We must stop trusting in ourselves to deal with our fears, so that we can learn to trust in him. This involves taking what seem like great risks. When obsessions hit, we must take the risk of trusting blindly in the one who promises he will care for us. We must put all our hope in Jesus. Only then will we learn true wisdom.
Anfechtung is the touchstone that 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.