by Rev. Stephen Preus

In Psalm 119 Luther found “three rules” for the correct study of God’s Word: oratio, meditatio, tentatio. Concerning tentatio he writes: “This is the touchstone which teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.”[1]

A casual reader might say, “That sounds great! Give me some tentatio!” Then one finds out what tentatio actually is. The Latin word is related to the English word “tension,” and means something like an “agonizing internal struggle.” [2] It is wrapped up with trial and temptation, suffering and affliction, opposition and persecution. This is hardly the type of pleasant stuff that we would ask God to foist into our laps. Yet, Luther still asserts that it is how God teaches you to experience how awesome His Word is.

Tentatio is unique to the Christian, for though unbelievers also have internal struggles due to tension in family, work, government, etc., tentatio is a direct result of one praying (oratio) and meditating upon the Word of God (meditatio). When a Christian prays for the Holy Spirit, when he meditates on God’s Word through which the Spirit works, then the spirit of darkness, the devil, will assault him and cause tentatio. The devil hates God and His Word and so attacks the Christian occupied with it.

In the case of tentatio the devil’s tool is not to tempt toward sin, which he certainly does in other cases. Rather, through trial and temptation, suffering and affliction, opposition and persecution, the devil causes agonizing internal struggle and doubt in the heart of the one occupied with God’s Word. He makes it seem that God is failing us, is not living up to His Word, and does not care.

Luther explains tentatio with the example of David in Psalm 119:

“[In Psalm 119 David] complains so often about all kinds of enemies, arrogant princes or tyrants, false spirits and factions, whom he must tolerate because he meditates, that is, because he is occupied with God’s Word (as has been said) in all manner of ways.”[3]

David’s tentatio was caused by many attacks. Read Psalm 119 and you hear of the opposition, affliction, and persecution David faced for meditating upon God’s Word. [4] He asked God, “How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me?” (v. 84) The devil’s intent was to cause such agonizing internal struggle that David would in despair flee from God and His Word.

However, the devil’s attacks against David actually proved counterproductive, for God’s intent is different. Luther writes, “For as soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor of you, and by his assaults will teach you to seek and love God’s Word.”[5]

So it is that David wrote, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word” (v. 67). And again, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (v. 71). Through tentatio God drove David to experience his own weakness and God’s strength, his own nothingness and God’s goodness. Through tentatio God drove him back to His Word to experience how wonderful it truly is, “sweeter than honey to my mouth” (v. 103).

Luther experienced the same. In the “official report” about Luther’s death he is said to have stated, “as he began to feel ill: ‘the devil does this to me every time I intend and ought to undertake something important—he first tempts me in this way and attacks me with such a tentatio.’”[6] Again, it is due to Luther being occupied with God’s Word that the devil attacks him. The devil sought to stir up misunderstanding, confusion, and contradiction within him. But, like David, Luther was thankful for the agonizing internal struggles and those who caused them, for they drove him back to God’s Word:

“I myself (if you will permit me, mere mouse-dirt, to be mingled with pepper) am deeply indebted to my papists that through the devil’s raging they have beaten, oppressed, and distressed me so much. That is to say, they have made a fairly good theologian of me, which I would not have become otherwise.”[7]

Luther’s translation of Isaiah 28:19 demonstrates the same thought: “For agonizing struggle[8] alone teaches one to pay attention to the word.”[9] Experiencing tentatio meant returning to God’s Word for certainty and comfort in Christ Jesus. For only in Him did Luther see “wisdom beyond all wisdom.” Like David, only through tentatio would Luther turn away from himself and toward the God who sent His Son to die for Him and give him salvation. Only through tentatio would Luther experience all the joy that the Word of God brought his weary heart and conflicted conscience.

So it is for you. Tentatio comes upon all Christians who are occupied with prayer (oratio) and meditation upon God’s Word (meditatio). It is vital to correctly study God’s Word. So, whether facing persecutions like David did or illness like Luther, whatever it is that causes you, the Christian, to face this agonizing internal struggle, God grant that this tentatio lead you back into the Word of God. For there in His Word you will find Christ, your Savior. There in His Word you will find your loving Father who will never leave you or forsake you. There in His Word the Spirit of adoption will assure you that you are indeed God’s children and co-heirs with Christ of a glorious inheritance, and you will experience for yourself just “how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is.”

The Rev. Stephen K. Preus is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Vinton, Iowa.

[1] AE 34:287.

[2] Like its German equivalent Anfechtung, there really is no English equivalent for tentatio, and so we tend to stick with the Latin and German when discussing this topic.

[3] AE 34:287.

[4] David’s tentatio is plentiful. See verses 23, 28, 51, 53, 61, 67, 71, 78 84-87, 92, 95, 107, 110, 113, 118-120, 134, 136, 141, 143, 150, 152, 157, 161, 176.

[5] AE 34:287.

[6] AE 50:291.

[7] AE 34:287.

[8] Anfechtung

[9] Quoted in Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology, 21.