The way I think about God is shaped by what I’ve learned about the inspiration for Martin Luther’s famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
I’ve sometimes heard people discuss this hymn in a romantic sort of way, speculating that as time passed Luther looked back nostalgically on the security he had experienced while staying in seclusion at the Wartburg Castle during 1521-1522.
“What is God like?”
We can picture Luther asking as he begins to write a hymn; “Oh, God is like a fortress, a strong mighty fortress. That’s it!” (In fact, when I travel in Germany, almost every castle tour guide insists that their castle is the one that inspired Luther’s famous hymn.) But history tells us that the hymn was written in a much more specific context.
“A Mighty Fortress” first appeared in a Lutheran hymnal in 1528.
The Reformation was well underway, and the German rulers who supported reform were concerned that the Emperor might attack them in order to suppress Lutheranism once and for all.
In preparation for military conflict, the ruler of Saxony, John the Steadfast, began to strengthen and rebuild the city walls and other fortifications surrounding Wittenberg.
It was at this point in history that Luther wrote those powerful words, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God, a sword and shield victorious.”
You see, Luther was not writing in a poetic vacuum, to answer the question “What is God like?”
Instead, Luther was attempting to answer a much more important question:
What, or Who, is our strongest fortress?
What, or Who, is our best defense when conflicts and struggles threaten to overwhelm us? God working through Jesus Christ is our fortress, Luther insists, not walls of stone.
When we are tempted to rely on our own strength, we cannot win, Luther reminds his prince, just as the prophet Isaiah reminded the Kings of Israel long ago.
Trust — real trust in time of need — is the key to understanding Luther’s hymn.
In fact, it informs the way we understand all the other biblical metaphors for God. We need to read them backwards.
Not: “What is God like? Oh, the Lord is like a shepherd.” But rather, when I am a lost and wandering sheep, where is the shepherd who will care for me? The Lord is my shepherd.
Not: “What is God like? Oh, like bread.”
But, when I am hungry, when I am starving, where will I find nourishment for body and soul? Jesus is the bread of life.
The best way for a Christian to answer the question “What is God like?” is to ask the question “What do I most need?”
Protection, like a fortress. Guidance, like a shepherd. Nourishment, like bread. What we most need is what God promises to be for us. Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Dr. Kathryn Kleinhans, Professor of Religion
Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission, Wartburg College