by Sheryl Anderson.
Whilst commemorating 500 years since the Reformation, I have been exercised by Luther’s understanding of God and the relationship God has with humanity through Jesus Christ. Luther came to his understanding of justification by grace through faith after much struggle.
‘Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.’
Personally, I do not recognise ‘the righteous God who punishes sinners,’ or God, ‘also by the gospel threatening us with his righteous wrath!’ Initially I attributed this to historical and cultural difference. Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) lived in a very different time and circumstance from me. Even so, Luther seems to have been a deeply troubled man.
Then I discovered St Pierre Favre (Peter Faber) 1506 – 1546, a contemporary of Luther and a close companion of Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier. Favre is arguably the 16th Century’s least known saint. He came from Savoy; his parents were working farmers and he grew up herding sheep in the high pastures of the alps. As a young man, he studied at the university in Paris and was a gifted scholar. However, like Luther, he was a deeply troubled man. He struggled with his sense of his own sinfulness, with indecision, and with a permanent deep-seated fear of offending God.
It is worth noting that, when Favre was engaged in his theological studies, the teachings of Luther and his contemporaries would have been hot topics for debate in the lecture halls and rooms of the universities. However, this would not have been an abstract discussion. As a university student, Favre would have been obliged to attend the public execution of heretics. Given his personal insecurities, such brutality could have had a deep and potentially traumatic impact on him.
It was through his relationship with Loyola, that Favre slowly came to terms with his fears and anxieties. Years later he wrote:
‘… he gave me an understanding of my conscience and of the temptations and scruples I had had for so long without either understanding them or seeing the way by which I would be able to get peace’
Favre kept a journal for the last four years of his life. The reason we have any insight into his understanding of God and the relationship God has with humanity through Jesus Christ is largely because of this. His Memoriale is one of the main texts that documents the spirituality of the early Jesuits. In it he imagines his life as a journey, following the example of Christ: traveling for obedience, always alert to seek God’s will and not his own. Unlike Luther, Favre’s attitude is founded on his belief that people are changed more by those who love them in God’s grace than by those who seek to coerce, outsmart or overwhelm them.
Simplicity and goodness should eventually get the upper hand over our natural way of thinking. That is to say, though on a natural level we might think it right to be angry or depressed over something, nevertheless goodness and simplicity ought to put up with it. Sometimes we are interiorly anguished; and though this spirit may speak what is true, reproving us for our many failures, nevertheless if it robs us of our tranquillity it is not the good spirit. The spirit of God is peaceful and gentle, even in reproof.
These profoundly contradictory notions of what God is like have led me to wonder: to what extent is our understanding of God, and the relationship God has with humanity through Jesus Christ, determined not so much by our world, but by our world view?
 Luther’s Works, Volume 34, P336-337.
 I am grateful to Edel McClean who introduced me to Pierre Favre. More about him can be found here http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20130802_1.htm
 Memoriale: The Spiritual Writings of Pierre Favre (Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996) §9, p. 65.
 ‘Instructions for Those Going on Pilgrimage’ in Spiritual Writings, p. 342, my emphasis.