Martin Luther is, undeniably, one of the most significant figures in Western history. He is also, undeniably, one of the most quirky and fascinating characters we know of from Western history. His eccentricities, personal testimony, and dramatic writings have led many to speculate about the German reformer’s mental health. Luther displays many symptoms of a serious anxiety disorders, and yet God used that potential disorders to propel him towards good.
From the moment Luther began to publicly speak against the Roman Catholic Church his mental health was questioned. Early Catholic apologists insisted he was “demon possessed,” while later writers appealed to general insanity and megalomania. “For more than four hundred years…Catholics accused Luther of being so unstable,” says Ian Osborn, “that he couldn’t think straight…” (Can Christianity Cure Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?, 48). In the twentieth-century there was a more balanced attempt to examine Luther’s psychological state from two different psychiatrists. One suggested that Luther had an undiagnosed psychosis with episodes of mania. The other argued, from a Freudian perspective, that Luther had a “borderline psychotic state secondary to awakened infantile conflicts” (Erickson, Young Man Luther, 148). Neither diagnosis stuck and the evidenced didn’t seem to match. The question of Luther’s exact psychological state remained.
The particular symptoms which Luther displayed come to us by his own account. The man wrote extensively over the course of his life, more than most, and sprinkled references to his own experiences and troubles throughout his many works. There’s much to draw on, then, in examining his life and mental health. Ian Osborn has done a masterful job of examining Luther’s life through the lens of modern psychiatry and offers great insight.
From an early age Luther feared God, and was particularly sensitive regarding the day of judgment. He wrote that he “horribly feared the last day.” It has sometimes been argued that Luther developed such anxieties because of the strained relationship he had with his father. There is no evidence, however, that Luther had an oppressive father and that they had some bad relationship. The boy was, however, often plagued by guilt, shame, and fear. The infamous story of the lightning strike further provoked fear of death in the young man, who was returning to law school at the time. It was that fear of death that prompted Luther to make a vow to become a monk if God would spare his life: suddenly surrounded by the terror and agony of death, I felt constrained to make my vow (quoted in Osborn, 52). It was just the beginning of his increasing anxieties.
The years in the monastery proved to exacerbate his fear to the point of near mental breakdown. Insecurity about his eternal soul prompted many related fears. The bulk of his symptoms displayed as unwanted intrusive thoughts. He writes:
When I was a monk, I used to think my salvation was undone…I could not find peace, but was constantly crucified by thoughts such as these: “You have committed this or that sin; you are guilty of envy, impatience … all your good works are to no avail.” (Luther’s Commentary on Galatians)
His conscience condemned him, but his thoughts tormented him. He would spend six hours in confession, thinking of every conceivable thing he’d done. Sometimes after hours of confession he would ask his confessor if he could start over for fear that he had not been sincere enough. In addition, he experienced blasphemous thoughts (“does God even exist”), and believed that the devil was keeping him awake all night with thoughts of his own sinfulness. At other times he speaks of having awful images appear in his mind, he would see pictures of death and of watching people stabbed. He also tended to obsess over specific Bible passages that spoke of God’s judgment.
All of these thoughts correspond to what we today characterize as symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. Luther certainly had obsessions, and many of his efforts to alleviate such fear manifest as compulsions. Luther utilized every means that the Church offered to alleviate his conscience. The Mass did nothing for him but increase his fears. His confessions exhausted priests to the point that none wanted to hear from him anymore. Penance and self-punishment became the primary obsession of Luther and he worked them until he nearly killed himself. He would keep all-night vigils, sleep on the cold floor with no blankets in the dead of winter, whip himself, and fast relentlessly. Yet, as with all compulsions, they brought no lasting relief. Other monks might take solace in their sacrificial practices, but Luther always feared that he had not done enough.
Osborn makes a compelling case for a diagnosis of OCD. Luther looks and sounds very much like a suffer of obsessions and compulsions. Yet, whatever the exact nature of his troubles, it was these insecurities and anxieties that God used to bring the man to saving faith – and to change the course of human and religious history. The Bible teaches us that God uses “all things” to “work together for the good of those who love the Lord” (Rom. 8:28). It was Luther’s eccentric fears that led him to discover the comfort of “sola fide” (faith alone). Modern psychology speaks of benefit finding – the positive outcomes made possible by suffering, trouble, and life stress. Luther’s anxiety was a terrible weight and struggle for him. It caused untold suffering on his mind and emotions, and even tempted him with suicidal ideation. He says, “I, Martin Luther, would have killed myself if the light of the Gospel had not come.” Yet, God used all of this for good in the man’s life. He used it to be the means by which he discovered justification by faith. His persistent pursuit of a cure led him to the gospel and to the Reformation. God could have, of coursed, used anything to bring about these events and yet He chose, in His divine wisdom, to use obsessive-compulsive disorder to do it.
It is not easy to understand why God allows the sorrow that He does. It is not possible to learn all of His ways and understand all of His decisions. Yet, the Bible and history invite us to see and believe that He works all things together for good, even things like OCD. Luther’s life is a testimony to this truth. Whatever the exact nature of Luther’s psychological state, God used his suffering to be a means of growth and He will do the same for you and I.