Simple Gelassenheit

| April 19, 2019 | 0 Comments

You may well have heard it said that the German word Gelassenheit cannot be translated easily into English. Yet, the idea of Gelassenheit is strongly upheld in the Anabaptist tradition. How are we supposed to live out an ideal if we cannot even define what the ideal is? Thankfully, the idea that Gelassenheit is not translatable to English is not really true. There is a really, really simple translation for Gelassenheit!

Gelassenheit is …

A few years ago a young Christian man from Germany, Michael, stayed at my home a few days. He had just come from a meeting here in the US where the idea of Gelassenheit was expounded. In that meeting, the expositor (and others?) repeatedly commented on how hard it was to translate the German word Gelassenheit into English.

Well, Michael came to my house immediately after the meetings, and Michael was perplexed as well. Only his perplexing thoughts had nothing to do with how hard Gelassenheit was to translate to English: he was perplexed why these Anabaptist preachers couldn’t figure out what Gelassenheit was!

It’s so simple, Michael exclaimed. “Gelassenheit is …”

Can you guess the word Michael used?

“… relaxation.”

Relaxed on the Autobahn

Michael went on to say that, as an example, he had seen an advertisement for a German auto company that had a picture of a car speeding down the Autobahn, with the word “Gelassenheit” put over the picture in big letters. Now to our American minds, driving a car on the Autobahn—notorious for having no speed limit—would be the opposite of relaxation! But to the carmaker and to German people, the ad made perfect sense: If you want to have a relaxing ride on the Autobahn, with the pedal to the metal, the only car you could do that with was their brand. In other words, their car was so dependable that you could relax while going 150 mph down the highway. You can only relax when you trust, right?

Michael went on to explain that when you see a person kicked back in the grass reading a book, you would say, “That person is so Gelassen (relaxed)!”

Doing a Google image search on the word Gelassenheit came up with the following image (among many). This portrays the German concept of Gelassenheit being relaxation.

[Note that the copyright of this graphic is unclear. I cannot find it again after finding it months ago; I thought it was public domain but cannot verify that now. ~MA]

Do you get it now? Gelassenheit is the ability to relax in a boat surrounded by sharks. Not a worry nor a care! How can one relax in such a situation? Probably because he has a lot of faith in the boat!

Gelassen horses

The next Google image search I did was for the term “Gelassenheitstraining Pferd”. Translated, this would be “Training relaxation to horses.” The resulting pictures from the search were of horses being put into all kinds of stressful situations. Playing volleyball over the back of the horse; balloons scattered about its feet; making it walk on a tarp; throwing a tarp over the horse; jumping over sticks; making it walk through flowing banners; walking through mud; making it walk over a teeter-totter; making it drag a sack; and etc. By the time a horse goes through these types of training exercises, it will be Gelassen: relaxed in any stressful situation. An Amish horse seller might advertise such a Gelassen horse as “Traffic safe and sound.” Let the big trucks come up behind, blaring their air horns: to a horse that has achieved Gelassenheit … no big deal, that’s just part of life!

Power naps and Gelassenheit

I once read of a technique that has been called “power napping.” The concept is that a short nap after lunch is a really good way to reset the body and mind. One does not need a long nap, just long enough to achieve total relaxation. To achieve this short but total relaxation, the person takes a small ball in his hand—a tennis ball, Ping-Pong ball, or similar—and lays his hand on the armrest of a chair, with his hand holding the ball just over the edge of the armrest. Lying back in the chair to relax, the person knows he has achieved his power nap when he feels the ball drop out of his hand. He will have fallen asleep, but the movement of the ball dropping out of his fingers will awaken him. This signals that he has relaxed and is ready to go again. I am not promoting this concept as a sound precept. I only use it to illustrate the idea of Gelassenheit: relaxation, or “letting go.”

The origins of Anabaptist Gelassenheit

Within the Anabaptist tradition, Gelassenheit has taken on an almost other-worldly sainthood. You cannot ever quite define it; you are just supposed to achieve it. From where did this concept originate, and what does it really mean? For answers, we are going to look at a tract written in 1523, two years before the Anabaptist movement officially kicked off in Switzerland.

Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt is the author. Karlstadt was one of Luther’s earliest comrades, although he was more radical than Luther and the two soon took separate paths when Karlstadt tried to push the reform further than what Luther wanted. Karlstadt was never an Anabaptist, but some of his writings were used by Anabaptists. Although Karlstadt had been ordained in the state church, one move he made was to step down from that position and consider himself on equal with all other believers. Thus, in the tract we are about to examine the author calls himself “A New Layperson.”

[Note that the rest of this article could be considered an “article review” or summary of Chapter 6 in the book “The Essential Carlstadt.” Karlstadt is sometimes spelled Carlstadt. The chapter is a translation of Karlstadt’s tract titled “The Meaning of the Term Gelassen, and Where It Is Found in the Bible”.]

From whence?

Karlstadt explains that he does not know where the terms Gelassen (relaxed) and Gelassenheit (relaxation or relaxedness) originate. Not all of the people across the Germanic lands are used to the words, but they seem to have been around in some areas for a while. Some people used the similar German word Verlassen, which means to abandon or detach. If someone quits using foreign money, he has abandoned it. The Latin term relinquo (relinquished) fits the definition. The Latin word renunciare (renounce) also fits. The whole point is that of “letting go”: just like the power-napper that drops the ball when he relaxes.

[On a note not included in Karlstadt’s tract, a good number of the German Mystics in southern Germany eventually accepted rebaptism and therefore became Anabaptists. Some of the Mystics returned to being Mystics in the following years (Hans Denck, Hans Hut, etc.), while others stuck with the Anabaptist movement. Regardless of these personal moves, it cannot be denied that the German Mystic movement affected the Anabaptist movement. The idea of Gelassenheit is probably of Mystic origin; one of the good aspects of Mysticism that was adopted by the Anabaptists. German Mysticism can be traced as far back as the 12th century.]

Letting go of everything is not the ultimate goal; union with God is the goal. It’s just that we cannot be united to God while we are hanging on to other things. You cannot have your hands full and cling to anything more. Therefore, God calls us to Gelassenheit (relaxation) so that we can then cling to Him.

Me, myself, and I

Karlstadt immediately gets to the core of the matter. And the core is that egotism, self-centeredness, is the root problem. While all material pursuits are to be dropped and renounced, non-material pursuits such as pleasure seeking, fame seeking, and such like are just as evil. We should be satisfied with the necessities of life.

Complete Gelassenheit is only achieved when we seek God for the good that He is, not for what He can do for us. We can so easily begin to obey God because we want something out of Him, or because it makes us look good to others. We can quote Scriptures to make ourselves look wise. All of these subtle forms of me, myself, and I need to be dropped.

Detachment from material goods can be a sneaky thing as well. We may well let go of the money with our hands, but hold it in our hearts and desires. We must let go of all things; Jesus has told us that if we do not forsake all, we cannot be His disciple.

And, don’t get caught up in your Gelassenheit! Just like we can be proud of our humility, we can be taken up with a good view of ourselves because of our letting go of material things and reputation. Whatever good we may have achieved is a gift from God.

Letting go so we can love

As already mentioned above, the goal of God is not to have us merely detached from this world, but to be united to Him in, and by, love. Gelassenheit is compared to circumcision; the unnecessary flesh is cut off. Love is the knife that performs the spiritual circumcision. Faith also circumcises the heart because we trust in God. Remember the man relaxing in the boat surrounded by sharks? That is the positive side of Gelassenheit: faith in something outside of ourselves.

Yet, Karlstadt claims that we cannot circumcise ourselves. God must ultimately do the work. This is why infants were baptized as a figure; someone else did the cutting. We do not lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps is the way we would say that in modern terms. Essentially, Gelassenheit is spiritual circumcision, the cutting away of our attachment to things of this life.

Fear means no Gelassenheit

Some of the signs of an unyielded heart are that we become burdened with comforts, lusts, cares, and fears concerning money or food. Some of the freest people on this earth are those who have only what they can carry on their back, while some of the most worried and burdened are those who have way more food in the cellar and clothing in the closet than what they need.

Remember Lot’s wife

Remember Lot’s wife? Why did she look back? It was because her heart was still attached to the things behind her. We must cut off the past and sweep the house clean if we want to be a disciple of Jesus. Her looking back could have been from her love of those things behind her, or from a lack of trust in God for the future. The Gelassen (relaxed) believer will not look back for either reason.

Release your intellect

Remember that dropping ball? Well, Karlstadt says that we should drop our egotistic wisdom, the wisdom that we gained from merely using our own wisdom. Drop it! This includes our trust in doctors and herbal remedies. And, our self-defense … which is usually composed of our own intellect conjuring up ways to defend me, myself, and I.

He even takes it one step further: release your hold on Scriptures! That sounds heretical, for sure, but Karlstadt is trying to say that so many times our interpretations of Scripture are based upon mere human intellect. This leads to following the letter rather than the spirit of the written words. Let it go, he pleads!

Immersed in God

Ultimately, the relaxation of our grip on this world’s goods and opinion will lead us to a total renunciation of self. We will then be ready to be immersed into the will of God, ready to suffer whatever it takes to follow through. Gelassenheit can be boiled down to giving up me, myself, and I.

Once the old man is gone, the new man can arise. But beware: just like a fox looking for a chicken meal, the self-life will always be sneaking around to take advantage of whatever entrance he can find.

Dying to self is pictured in the Bible as planting a seed. The old life of the seed must perish before a new life can sprout. And all of this must be done so as to glorify God, not so that we can get a name for ourselves. Nor, so that we can get to heaven instead of going to hell. If we examine our motive for serving God, too often we will find that we serve God for what we can get out of Him! That’s not a pure heart; a pure heart serves God for who He is, not what He can do for me, myself, and I!

Education is not the answer

Next Karlstadt unleashes against seeking God through theological training. So many times people want a big name for themselves, and they try to achieve that through studying in schools to learn about God. That way they can out-argue others. This is me, myself, and I in a big, bad, ugly form, even though it can appear to be very religious.

If we do love something, such as our family or church, we must love them for God’s sake, not for our sake. Do we love the church because of the friendships we have there? Do we love family because they comfort us? These are still forms of egoism. If we find these motives in our heart, we need to practice Gelasseneit.

Relax. Drop. Renounce.

Remember King Assur

In the Bible, King Assur was used by God to chastise the Jews. But Assur got big-headed about it and began to think and say that he had beaten the Jews in the battle because of his own strength. This didn’t settle well with God; Assur had won the battle because of God giving it to him.

We do well to remember Assur and consider that whatever good does come from our life, whatever battles against sin that we do win, come from God. Giving ourselves the glory is a sign of a lack of Gelassenheit: we are grabbing glory instead of relaxing our grip on it.

Not a one-time deal

The practice of Gelassenheit is not something we do once and are finished. No, says Karlstadt. Our self-denial cannot be lukewarm, distant, and theoretical.  Daily we need to let go. Daily we need to take up the cross that kills our self-centeredness.

Every day, all day long, we need to be in the boat relaxed, trusting God. Our “power naps” are not a momentary relaxation that drops whatever we are holding. The real “power nap” of the Christian life is to practice Gelassenheit 24/7/365.

In summary


Let go.



That is Gelassenheit!

~Mike Atnip

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