Tag Archives: John Kleinig

Vocation and Temptation: Acedia, Anfechtung and Me

I know I have been absent from this blog for some time. My apologies for this. Initially my absence was due to some planned vacation and travel. But then other elements began influencing it—Acedia (spiritual apathy) and Anfecthung (affliction). This post will speak a little bit about these challenges, which may just resonate with a number of you as well.

I’ve written much about the importance of every Christian’s daily vocation—our daily stations of life as a spouse, parent, son, daughter, worker, Christian neighbor, and congregational member, and how they function to serve our neighbor and be the places where we can witness to others. However, it is also precisely in these vocations that Satan begins his attacks on us. His aim is to get us to abandon each of these vocations. And he will do so by afflicting us in any number of ways.

Spiritual warfare is a sinister and tumultuous battle all Christians endure, but fewer and fewer are recognizing how it works, myself included. John Kleinig has written wonderfully on this in his book Grace Upon Grace, and insightfully unpacks the nature of Satan’s attacks: In short he says, “The German word Anfechtung describes Satan’s attack upon our faith in Christ and God’s condemnation of us as sinners” (p.22).

But it is also helpful for us to understand that this Anfechtung has multiple dimensions to it. Luther himself used it in three different ways. David Scaer unpacks the word and the toll each dimension brings upon the human soul:

The American Translation of Luther’s Works uses all three [translation of the word Anechtung], “temptation,” “trial,” and “affliction,” plus “tribulation.” Each of these English words develops one facet of Luther’s Anfecthung and related words. “Temptation” points to the Christian’s life as a period of testing by Satan. In this temptation the Christian is given the opportunity by God to overcome Satan personally, but there can be no suggestion that God is the origin of sin or provokes the Christian to sin. “Trial” suggests a probationary period before God’s bestowing a great good. Through the trial, God puts the Christian to the test to measure the depth and sincerity of faith and to bring it to a higher level. Thus, trial points to God’s control over the Christian’s suffering during the Anfechtung. Suffering does not happen through chance. “Affliction” reflects the real suffering and pain the Christian endures during the Anfechtung. The Christian does not necessarily experience physical pain, but real agony in his soul about his personal salvation. “Tribulation” also refers to the Christian’s suffering during the Anfechtung but suggests the wider dimension as affliction suffered by all Christians. (“The Concept of Anfechtung in Luther’s Thought,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, January 1983, p.15).

There are other elements that can be added to this affliction. For me, it is not Anfechtung alone that’s been plaguing my soul. It’s been combined with what is seen as a debilitating form of spiritual apathy that is known by the ancients as Acedia (a-kah-dee-ah). (Presently, very few would be able to observe these things about me, as I’m guessing is true for many of you out there as well. But, it is an intense internal spiritual battle that, if left unchecked and untreated, can certainly begin to manifest itself in spiritually unhealthy and observable ways. Thus, at this point, other than my wife and Father Confessor, few would know that I have been wrestling with this.)

In any case, the notion of Acedia is probably best unearthed by others more well-versed in it than I. As such, Kathleen Norris in her 2008 work Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life vividly opens up the depth of this affliction by drawing on her own experience, and even more aptly, by engaging in the insights of one of the ancient monastic Desert Fathers:

“Acedia” may be an unfamiliar term to those not well versed in monastic history or medieval literature. But that does not mean it has no relevance for contemporary readers. The word has a peculiar history, and as timelines on the Oxford English Dictionary website reveal, it has gone in and out of favor over the years…

At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cry out,” as in a lament. Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother.

…I first encountered the word acedia in The Praktikos, a book by the fourth-century Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus. Across a distance of sixteen hundred years he spoke clearly of the inner devastation caused by the demon of acedia when it “[made] it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long.” Boredom tempts him “to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine [the lunch hour].” But Evagrius soon discovers that this seemingly innocuous activity has an alarming and ugly effect, for having stirred up a restlessness that he is unable to shake, the demon taunts him with the thought that his efforts at prayer and contemplation are futile. Life then looms like a prison sentence, day after day of nothingness.

As I read this I felt a weight lift from my soul, for I had just discovered an accurate description of something that had plagued me for years but that I had never been able to name. As any reader of fairy tales can tell you, not knowing the true name of your enemy, be it a troll, a demon, or an “issue,” puts you at a great disadvantage, and learning the name can help to set you free. “He’s describing half my life,” I thought to myself. To discover an ancient monk’s account of acedia that so closely matched an experience I’d had at the age of fifteen did seem a fairy-tale moment. To find my deliverer not a knight in shining armor but a gnarled desert dweller, as stern as they come, only bolstered my conviction that God is a true comedian…

The desert monks termed acedia “the noonday demon” because the temptation usually struck during the heat of the day, when the monk was hungry and fatigued, and susceptible to the suggestion that his commitment to a life of prayer was not worth the effort. Acedia has long been considered a peculiarly monastic affliction, and for good reason. It is risky business to train oneself (“training” being a root meaning of asceticism) to embrace a daily routine that mirrors eternity in its changelessness, deliberately removing distractions from one’s life in order to enter into a deeper relationship with God. Under these circumstances acedia’s assault is not merely an occupational hazard—it is a given.

We might well ask if these crazy monks don’t have it coming: if your goal is to “pray without ceasing,” aren’t you asking for trouble? Is this a reasonable goal, or even a good one? Henri Nouwen tells us that “the literal translation of the words ‘pray always’ is ‘come to rest.’ The Greek word for rest,” he adds, “is ‘hesychia,’ and ‘hesychasm’ is a term which refers to the spirituality of the desert.” The “rest” that the monk is seeking is not an easy one, and as Nouwen writes, it “has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle.” Acedia is the monk’s temptation because, in a demanding life of prayer, it offers the ease of indifference. Yet I have come to believe that acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married “for better for worse,” anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life. When I complained to a Benedictine friend that for me, acedia was no longer a noontime demon but seemed like a twenty-four-hour proposition, he replied, “Well, we are speaking of cosmic time. And it is always noon somewhere.”

Yes, I will attest that it is always noon somewhere. Much more could be said. But the means of this spiritual warfare are clear. Affliction and the apathy have been diagnosed. And Satan is relentless with them. Others who have experienced the depths of these afflictions are no doubt nodding their heads. The Apostle Paul is quick to remind us of the vastness of this war: For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12).

He is also quick to give us the remedy: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. (Ephesians 6:10-11).

Kleinig summarizes the battle like this: When Satan attacks us, we experience the righteousness and truth of God’s Word with our whole being, rather than just with the intellect; we experience the sweetness and loveliness of God’s Word with our whole being, rather than just with the emotions; we experience the power and strength of God’s Word with our whole being, rather than just with the body. Temptation is therefore the touchstone that God uses to assess our spirituality. Temptation reveals what is otherwise hidden from us. Just as a pawnbroker uses a touchstone to test the presence and purity of gold in a coin or a piece of jewelry, temptation also tests the authenticity of our faith and proves our spiritual health. (Grace Upon Grace, p.21)

However, speaking in all honesty, the attacks are painful and debilitating, and the “experience” Kleinig speaks of, at least for me, is seemingly fleeting. But perhaps that simply describes my own ongoing wrestling. After all, Satan’s desire for all of us is to give up and let him win. But here’s the thing. Jesus has already won. He is the victor! The defeated one is Satan, and as my Father Confessor reminds me, the Lord Jesus fights for me (and for you dear reader.) It remains something I have to constantly remind myself to “rest in.” Yes pastors, especially pastors, suffer from such spiritual maladies and desperately need the Gospel like everyone else.

May the words of the hymn below be for you as they are for me; solace in the midst of all my vocations:

Lord Jesus, since You love me, Now spread Your wings above me And shield me from alarm. Though Satan would devour me, Let angel guards sing o’er me: This child of God shall meet no harm. “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow,” Lutheran Service Book, 880.

Until next time,

Rev. Woodford

High Five or Holy Blessing

This past week I had a chance to spend some time with one of my in-laws on a hunting trip we took together with some other family members. Interspersed amid our laughter, high fives for a good shot, and general camaraderie, he told me of a recent trip back to his wife’s home (LCMS) church.

The congregation was celebrating Holy Communion. My in-law’s family custom (as with many families) is to bring their young children forward with them to receive a holy blessing from the pastor while they partake of the Lord’s Supper.

In this case, as usual, their seven-year-old daughter went forward to receive the blessing. The congregation had a new young associate pastor, who, as I understand it, is well liked by the congregation. They were on his side for the distribution. When my niece came forward for the blessing, the young pastor held his out his hand, however it was not to give a blessing, but to give a “high five.” My niece was puzzled, but obliged, and was then ushered on. Then they all returned to their seats and, as it was related to me, had one of those “what just happened” moments.

I do not know the young pastor, nor is it my desire to disparage his ministry, and I do not know if this is his regular practice. In fact, I am confident he is most likely a fine young man. My prayer for him is that the Lord continues to use him to faithfully feed the lambs of His kingdom. But what strikes me, at least for the purposes of this blog, is how easily sacred rituals and holy acts continue to be traded out for secular and fashionable acts.

It is telling, and perhaps disquieting, when people who long for the holy and sacred notice when they are missing. Unfortunately this is an ever increasing trend among Lutherans. Old Testament (Australian) Lutheran Scholar, John Kleinig, has much to say about it:

I fear that such talk of holiness tends to fall on rather deaf ears even in Lutheran circles for a number of reasons. First, we are traditionally accustomed to equate holiness with morality. Sanctification is then regarded as nothing more than the life of moral renewal and good works which follows on justification. Secondly, we have been told, and some of us have even been convinced, that Jesus got rid of the primitive, half-pagan distinction between the sacred and the profane. After all, didn’t Jesus, and Paul after him, maintain that everything which God has created was good, and therefore holy? Thirdly, much modern scholarship tends to regard those parts of the Old Testament which are dominated by the language of holiness, like the ‘priestly’ sections of the Pentateuch and the book of Ezekiel, as corrected by the prophets and superseded by our Lord. Fourthly, we are uneasy about too keen an interest in holiness, for we tend to associate it largely with Catholic sacramentalism, Calvinist rigorism, Methodist revivalism and Pentecostal enthusiasm. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, we have been so indoctrinated by the cultural secularism of our desacralised society that we have lost a sense for what is holy.

Whatever the reason, the language of holiness is as lost on us as a foreign tongue. Many of us have become quite unfamiliar with the grammar of holiness. This loss of a sense for holiness has, I believe, created some problems for us in the Lutheran church. Most obviously, many of our people see little reason for them to attend worship. If they do attend, our pattern of worship makes little or no sense to them. (“Sharing in God’s Holiness” Luther Seminary, Adelaide, Australia, pdf; see also his must have Concordia Commentary on Leviticus).

Lutheran pastor and professor, John Pless, has also detailed this for quite some time: Church buildings in their very design were once built to reflect the fact that here we come into the presence of Holy God. The chancel was lifted up giving prominence to the altar as the symbol of the Lord’s presence. An altar rail draws a line between God and the world. The Baptismal font was given a prominent place, often near the door of the church reminding worshipers that we have access to God only through the cleansing waters of Holy Baptism. Stained glass windows illustrated the holy history of our salvation. Nowadays church buildings are designed that look very secular, like auditoriums. And it is no wonder that the things which transpire within them have little connection with heavenly realities. Ministers act as though they were talk show hosts, not stewards of the mysteries of God. Homemade liturgies tell us more about the creativity of those who devised them than they do about the Triune God. (“Holy Lord… Holy Things…Holy People,” 1998 Agnus Dei conference paper, pdf.)

Pastors stand as those who have been given by the Lord to give Holy things for God’s Holy people, particularly in worship. As Kleinig notes: The language of holiness is therefore the language of worship, for holiness has to do with God’s presence, and access to that presence is given in worship. Where God is present, there holiness is to be found; where he is worshipped according to his word, there his presence sanctifies his people and everything connected with their worship. (“Sharing in God’s Holiness” Luther Seminary, Adelaide, Australia, pdf).

Thus, when a holy ritual (i.e. a blessing of God’s holy name) is traded out for a secular ritual (i.e. a “high five”) God’s holiness is unnecessarily withheld and worshipers are left confused, or worse, taught to see the holiness of God given in worship as equivalent to the rituals of a hunting trip or sports event.

Kleinig sums it up well: Every pastor is either a witting or unwitting ritualist. He is, after all, responsible for the performance of that ritual which is necessary for the communication of the Gospel to the members of his congregation. That is not always an easy business, nor is its importance always appreciated; for, while the Lutheran Church has traditionally been a liturgical church, it exists in a culture where liturgical worship, with its emphasis on corporate and supernatural activity, has become alien, incomprehensible, and even nonsensical to many people. So, unless the pastor understands the role of ritual in worship, and creates some appreciation for it by his leadership, both he and his congregation will suffer confusion. They will be caught between the devil of trendy, liturgical innovation, and the deep blue sea of obstinate, liturgical traditionalism. As a church we, therefore, need to perform our rituals wittingly, without becoming either reactionary ritualists, insensitive to the needs of people, or individualistic anti-ritualists who damage our congregations. We may even eventually come to a rather unexpected appreciation of the liberating power and enriching beauty of ritual.  (“Witting or Unwitting Ritualists,” Lutheran Theological Journal 22/1, 1988, 22).

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.


Rev. Woodford


Lutherans, Liturgy, and Life… Seriously?!

Through the ages, Word and Sacrament Lutheran worship has most often been given expression by “the historic liturgy that has been used by countless Christians for almost fourteen hundred years, perhaps even longer.” (Arthur Just, Heaven on Earth,13). However, as noted in the previous post, the worship wars of the last half century have been disturbing and dividing Lutherans—often times vehemently so.

Yet, if Lutherans are being honest, until recently, the liturgical nature of Lutheran worship had always been a part of the Lutheran identity and life. And, to be sure, as noted in the previous post, there can be some flexibility in the practice and forms of the liturgy. (Perhaps a further honest and frank discussion exploring the freedoms and limits of that flexibility would be good.) However the point has been, that until recently, Lutherans being Lutherans, have always expressed and framed Word and sacrament worship by means of the liturgy. And this has been for good reason that goes beyond mere tradition.

The nature of the liturgy becomes significant, not because it is what we have always done, though I suppose that could be a part of it, but because it is the story that forms us. Much more than a mere mundane order of a formal worship service, it is the narrative that tells our story, or rather, the story of Christ, which, by faith, is also our story.

What has become so provocative in our postmodern times is the recognition that the narrative nature of the liturgy is indispensible to the postmodern church. That is, with postmodernism so incredulous toward metanarratives people now emerge in a world where they do not know the story of the world. It is not a narratable world for them, and so they are left with many questions.  “Who am I? Where am I going?  How do I make sense of this chaotic world?”

Here the church need not answer with arrogant certainties, but with a simple confession of faith, telling her story, through her vocational witness, but also and especially through her liturgy. As Robert Jenson notes, “The church has in fact had great experience in this role. One of the many analogies between postmodernity and dying antiquity—in which the church lived for her most creative period—is that the late antique world also insisted on being a meaningless chaos, and that the church had to save her converts by offering herself as the narratable world within which life could be lived with dramatic coherence…The church so constituted herself in her liturgy.” (From his article, “How the Church lost its story.”)

Arthur Just explains it this way: This is how the Church has survived persecution, heresy, wars, famine, and plague. It had a place to retreat and to engage in a confident expression of the story of the world. When it seemed as if the World might be coming to an end, or even worse, as if the world was losing its story, the Church regrouped to the measured cadences of the biblical story told through the historic liturgy. When things looked as if they could not get much worse, the Church entered into the safe haven of the historic liturgy, where through Kyrie and Gloria, through Sanctus and Agnus Dei, it proclaimed to a world in chaos the story of God’s redeeming love.”(13).

In this way, liturgy was more than a stuffy, old fashioned way of doing church. It told the church’s story and confessed the faith all at once. In fact, there has been a tremendous call for the postmodern church to make an intense and intentional return to the ancient liturgy precisely because of the narrative that it is. Reformed author James K. Smith is adamant: “I will argue that the postmodern church could do nothing better than be ancient, that the most powerful way to reach a postmodern world is by recovering tradition, and that the most effective means of discipleship is found in liturgy” (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, 25). In other words, the liturgy tells the story of Jesus Christ and places us in that story.

Even more, the ancient rituals associated with the liturgy enliven the heart, the mind, the body, and the soul of worshipers by imbuing them with the body and blood of Christ and his comforting words of life and salvation.

It is intriguing that a call for a return to the liturgical ethos of the church is not simply by liturgical traditionalists or preservationists, but also by the postmodern Emergent Church as well. Invoking a return to the various practices of the “ancient” liturgy has enlivened the Emergent Church in new ways, while simultaneously testifying to the timeless appeal of this ritual-filled narrative. (See especially the Emergent Church book series, The Ancient Practices Series, particularly Brian McLaren’s book Finding Our Way Again, and Joan Chittister’s, The Liturgical Year).

Australian Lutheran, John Klenig, is resolute in affirming the powerful role of such narrative-driven, liturgical rituals. “[R]ituals do not just embody the basic values of a community; they constitute and maintain its common life. The Lutheran Confessions acknowledge this function when they insist that rites and ceremonies are necessary for ‘the good order’ and ‘well being’ of the Church.  Rituals are not just dramatic performances which celebrate what people have in common; they are performative actions which do what they mean.” (From his article, “Witting or Unwitting Ritualist,” Lutheran Theological Journal.)

In fact, the ritual of worship has been thoroughly demonstrated to assimilate converts into the faith.  “E. Bryon Anderson summarizes a growing body of material from theology, religious education and anthropology, concluding that ritual is the primary way one learns faith, for in ritual one is most fully engaged in the religious message. Anderson asserts that ‘liturgical practice is intrinsically formational and transformational. It is a means by which we come to know ourselves as people of faith and to know the God whom we worship.’ Supporting John Westerhoff’s argument, Anderson asserts that rituals are the most important influence in shaping faith, character, and consciousness.  Succinctly put, it is through ritual that we learn how to be a Christian.” (Todd E. Johnson. “Truth Decay: Rethinking Evangelism in the New Century.” in The Strange New Word of the Gospel: Re-Evangelizing in the Postmodern World, 129).

Thus, with the above said, is it fair to say that there is a demonstrable value to the liturgy beyond mere appeals to tradition? Perhaps the following can summarize: Through the liturgy of the church, Lutheran believers are a story formed, ritualized people of the Gospel, who, as a community of saints, assemble around the narrative of Word and Sacrament in order to be forgiven and freed, renewed and refreshed, discipled and dispersed into the vocations of their daily lives to serve their neighbor and give witness to their Savior.

As always, this blog aims to move past partisanship and demonizing of those who disagree, and endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, foster the goal of talking about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.


Rev. Woodford