Delving into God’s Depths: Johannes Tauler
By Glenn E. Myers, Ph.D.
-- Inspiring crowds of thirsty Christians, Johannes Tauler was one of the great preachers of church history. Tauler lived during tumultuous times in fourteenth-century Europe. Natural disasters and climate change caused famine across the land. Peasant uprisings and war spread abroad. The Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig of Bavaria vied for political control with Pope John XXII, causing church doors across the German-speaking world to be barred. The Bubonic Plague ravaged Christendom, annihilating one-third of Europe’s population.
In the midst of chaos and suffering, Johannes Tauler called young and old into a personal relationship with Christ. Challenging nominal Christians to leave behind their apathy and their preoccupation with temporal possessions, he invited them to abandon their lives into the hands of a loving God.
Born to a well-to-do family in the German city of Strasbourg about the year 1300, Tauler gave his life to God’s service at a young age. Around fourteen he joined the vibrant spiritual movement of the Dominicans, receiving discipleship as well as a good education. He likely moved to Cologne to receive a further degree in theology, and he was ordained around the age of twenty-five.
Tauler’s ministry centered about the Rhine River, with most of his years serving in the city of Strasbourg. In 1339 the Dominicans were expelled from the city, so Tauler and his brothers moved to Basel for several years. On various occasions he also preached in the larger city of Cologne. He died in 1361, and his tombstone can be seen today in the city of Strasbourg.
Most of Tauler’s ministry focused on preaching and providing spiritual direction. Many of his sermons were delivered to congregations of Dominican nuns and Beguines, both of whom were in large numbers in Strasbourg and Cologne. He also preached to mixed crowds including laypeople from the city who were hungry to grow in the Lord. In fact, at various points he praises the common people for progressing spiritually further than many of the monks and nuns in his day.
A popular preacher, Tauler filled his sermons with practical instruction on Christian growth and illustrations of every-day life, from sailing the dangerous seas to shoveling manure in the barn. Tauler tirelessly called people into the deeper Christian life, genuine inner transformation, and greater intimacy with God.
Not only was Tauler a popular preacher of the time, but his sermons have been printed and reprinted for the past eight centuries. Martin Luther wrote, “If you want to read pure, solid theology . . . you should get hold of Johannes Tauler’s sermons.”(1) Appreciated by Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, his message welcomes thirsty souls into a vibrant walk with the Lord.
Detach from Worldly Preoccupations
Tauler’s sermons are as alive and applicable today as they were for his original hearers. First and foremost, Tauler calls us to make room for God. If we want more of the Lord in our lives, asserts Tauler, we need to empty our hearts of their many temporal preoccupations. As Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21 NIV). Tauler brings this home, “if God is to enter in, all other things must make room for him.”(2) Our number one task in following Christ it to detach from all that we cling to.
The German Preacher defines three categories of temporal things that we must let go. First we must release physical possessions and material comforts. Second, we need to surrender other people to the Lord. This is difficult because friends and family are close to us, and it is easy to cling to them. Third, we must disengage from ourselves—our self-reliance, our self-serving plans, in short—the boastful pride of life.
If we want to grow spiritually, asserts Tauler, “we must arise from everything that is not God—from self and all created things. Such rising sets off deep within us a fierce longing to be stripped free and liberated from everything that separates us from God. The more we lay aside all these things, the more such longing grows within us and flows out over itself, and—when God touches our bare depths—it often surges through our flesh and blood and marrow!”(3)
Embrace the Suffering God Allows
Try as we might, however, we cannot completely break free from temporal attractions, especially our obsession with self. Even spiritual disciplines are ineffectual in dealing with self-focus, precisely because our spiritual exercises are often self-chosen and reliant on self-discipline. Like flailing one’s arms in quicksand, all our efforts simply sink us deeper into self.
Instead we need help from the outside. In his grace God throws us a lifeline to pull us out of worldly desires and self-absorption. That lifeline, however, is not what we expect. God’s lifeline to us is the gift of suffering.
God allows suffering in our lives because it breaks us free from our obsession with temporal comforts and self-determination. No trial comes into our lives outside of the Lord’s sovereign will. “Consider it pure joy,” exhorts James 1:1, “whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Trials produce perseverance and bring us to maturity.
In fact, God allows the exact kind of suffering that each of us needs, affirms Tauler: “Just as the artist foresees in his mind how he will make each stroke of the brush on the canvas—how short or long or wide (and there is no other way if the painting is to become a masterpiece!) where he should use red or blue—so God does the same, and a thousand times more, in our lives through much suffering and many strokes of color. He does so in order to achieve in us the masterpiece that pleases him the most, so long as we truly embrace these gifts—these bitter circumstances—from him.”(4)
Delving into God’s Unfathomable Depths
If we empty ourselves of temporal attachments and embrace God’s work in our lives through trials, we are free to experience the fullness of God we have longed for. Tauler describes such encounter with the Almighty in terms of delving into the depths of his love.
Here our soul “submerges itself and loses itself completely in God. What happens to us then—all that we experience, perceive or feel—no one can speak about or imagine or understand. How could it possibly be grasped or comprehended by our understanding? Our spirit itself does not know, for our spirit has so melted in the divine depths that it knows, feels and perceives nothing but the simple, pure, unveiled One God.”(5)
Such loving oneness with God is what we ultimately desire. We are indeed “filled with his goodness, lost in his love!” Created in God’s image, our souls were made for intimate union with the Lord. All our clinging to material things is an empty pursuit in comparison.
A Challenge to Go Deeper
How easy it is in our culture to focus on creaturely comforts and self-interest. Tauler challenges us—as he did Christians in medieval Europe—to step back from temporal matters in order to make room for God. When we empty our hearts, God fills us beyond our greatest expectation!
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1. Quoted in The Theologia Germanica of Martin Luther, trans. Bengt Hoffman (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 154.
2. Johannes Tauler Predigten: Vollständige Ausgabe, ed. Georg Hofmann (Freiburg: Herder, 1961), 19. All translations are my own.
3. Ibid., 35-36.
4. Ibid., 31.
5. Ibid., 148
Glenn E. Myers is author of Seeking Spiritual Intimacy: Journeying Deeper with Medieval Women of Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011), welcoming believers to pursue a deeper walk with Christ. He is also a contributor to Zondervan’s Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (2011). Glenn’s passion is helping contemporary Christians grow spiritually by introducing them to the rich heritage of the past two thousand years of the church. Offering fresh spiritual water to thirsty saints today, he authors a blog: deepwellswithglennmyers.blogspot.com.
In 1995-1996, he and his wife Sharon ministered with CBN in Kiev. Receiving an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in church history from Boston University, Dr. Myers has served as pastor, missionary and professor. Currently he is a professor of Church History at Crown College with a specialization in the history of Christian Spirituality. Glenn also serves on the board at Restoration Ministries, Inc., offering retreats and provides spiritual direction.
© Glenn E. Myers. Used with permission.
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