Martin Luther was, to put it mildly, a busy man. Born of respectable middle class means, his parents instilled in him a dogged Teutonic work ethic that saw him beginning his college education at the University of Erfurt at only seventeen years old. Once there, he blitzed through a wearying curriculum of law (which dissatisfied him), philosophy (which frustrated him), and theology (which electrified him). After a near death experience during a lightning storm in 1505 where he promised Saint Anna he’d become a monk in exchange for his life, he abandoned his secular studies to enter an Augustinian monastery. Within two years he was ordained. In three, he was teaching theology in Wittenberg. In four, he’d earned two more bachelor’s degrees with a Doctor of Theology following in seven. In just a decade, this tireless young man became a provincial vicar charged with overseeing eleven monasteries in eastern Germany.
The rest of his story is one many of us are more familiar with. The Ninety-five Theses nailed to the church door. Justification by faith alone. Excommunication by Pope Leo X. Cross-examination at Worms. Flight to Wartburg Castle. Translation of the the New Testament into German vernacular. Peasant revolts and uprisings. The break with Catholicism, the founding of Lutherism, the birth of Protestantism. And through it all Luther maintained a steady, prolific output of catechisms, commentaries, pamphlets, treatises, masses, hymns, books, and sermons. By the end of his life he’d accumulated over 100 folio volumes of original writings. And all this while fleeing various authorities, both papal and secular, as the Turks ravaged Hungary and Austria, waves of plague swept England, and the Holy Roman Emperor’s own troops sacked Rome. The world was turning itself to ashes.
During his whirlwind life, Luther found himself time and again facing the darkest corners of doubt, sorrow, and exhaustion. According to various sources, Luther repeatedly turned towards the forty-sixth Psalm for comfort and respite. Stories go that he would ask his close friend and fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon to sing it with him: “Come, Philip, let us sing the forty-sixth Psalm.” Such was his love for the Psalm that opened with the triumphant declaration “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” that he officially set it to music to write one of the greatest hymns in Christendom: “A Might Fortress Is Our God.”
But it’s in the tenth verse that the psalmist’s triumphant bombast gets tempered by a proclamation from God, telling them to be quiet, be still, and know that God is God. This is a psalm for boasting in the strength of the Almighty, but it’s also a command for one of the hardest things man can do: surrender oneself. There comes a moment in the depths of adversity where one must remove oneself from trying to control the forces of fate and simply trust in our creator. To do otherwise would be to lose ourselves to our own neuroses and anxieties. It’s only in this quiet and stillness that we find our center, and it’s there—much like Moses in the desert, Elijah in the cave, or Paul on the road to Damascus—that we can finally find and know God. And it was in this emptiness inspired by reading the forty-sixth Psalm the night before his incendiary refusal to recant his beliefs at the Diet of Worms that Martin Luther found the courage to face his accusers and make one of the bravest stands in the history of Christendom: “I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”