Three Old English Pastors on Depression, Fear, and Anxiety

Due to the increased awareness of depression and anxiety among Americans (especially youth), some churches are now directly addressing these topics, recognizing that past approaches (or silence on the subject) have not always been helpful. Resources such as those by David Murray and ministries like Fresh Hope are among the most notable. Murray’s Christians Get Depressed Too, a is a short book packed with insight on the topic and is highly recommended by Faith Church staff.

Faith Church recently had a sermon series titled, “This is Me” which focused on depression and anxiety. As I prepared for this series, I was surprised to find that pastors have addressed the topics of depression and anxiety in the past; they did not have the awareness of the topic that we have today and at times used other terms such as melancholy. However, I have found their insights are still helpful for us (including me!) today and I want to note three of these pastors and what I have gleaned from them.

Richard Baxter

In chronological order, the first is Richard Baxter, a Puritan Pastor who lived from 1615-1691. His ministry included a focus on people struggling with what he called melancholy. Because Baxter ministered in an area where medical doctors often were not present, people would look to him as a physician of both body and soul. Because the language and writing style of the Puritans is sometimes difficult to understand, a medical physician named Michael S. Lundy has updated the language of Baxter’s writings in a book he and the late J.I. Packer edited called, Depression, Anxiety, and The Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter. In discussing these topics, Baxter recognizes the complexity of depression and anxiety, noting there are many causes and manifestations (in typical Puritan style, giving quite a list). He also notes that these struggles are not sinful in themselves. He offers advice on both body and soul and notes that medicine can be helpful as the body needs healing in order for the mind to function properly. He also points out the importance of spiritual truth in helping us, as we need to focus on the gospel message and what it says to us. I found especially helpful his thoughts that moving forward from a season of depression or anxiety is a slow process. Just as you do not start walking on a broken leg the day after it is set, you might not be able to pray for long periods of time. So don’t get down on yourself if you cannot pray for long just start slow and pray something and  keep building on that. He also notes the importance of being with other people (we may need to lean on them) and avoiding idleness to help move forward. His 300+ year old insights seem to pass the test of time.

Charles Spurgeon

A second historical figure who addressed the topic of depression and anxiety was Charles Spurgeon who lived and ministered in England from 1834-1892. Even though Spurgeon was essentially a “Celebrity Christian,” he struggled with depression due to physical pain and illness and pressure from critics, as well as other issues. He did not think that disqualified him from ministry, and he noted that depression can and does affect others in ministry. In fact, he devoted an entire chapter titled, “The Preacher’s Fainting Fits” in his Lectures to My Students (a book that compiled his teachings for those preparing for pastoral ministry). Zack Eswine’s recent book, Spurgeon’s Sorrows talks more about Spurgeon’s struggles and insights and what we can find from them, but other writings on Spurgeon (such as Michael Reeves, Spurgeon on the Christian Life) also devote sections to his discussion of the topic since it was something that marked his ministry. Spurgeon sought to give advice to Christians and pastors who might suffer from depression and anxiety like he did. This included encouragement to take care of themselves physically (going for walks, taking vacations, etc.). In addition, Spurgeon reminds us that though we look to the triumph of Christ’s resurrection, we must not forget that we follow a Lord who  suffered and was crucified and experienced his own seasons of trial; he was a man of sorrows. Therefore, we can actually become united to Christ in new ways, even through our struggles. Spurgeon noted that these struggles and difficulties are not a sign of rejection, but are used to draw us closer to God (such as the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”), and that he often experienced his darkest struggles right before God did something amazing in and through him.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

The third person whose writings I studied was Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a Welshman who lived from 1899-1981. Lloyd-Jones was a medical doctor and as he began his career in medicine, he sensed a call to pastoral ministry. He went on to become a pastor and one of the most influential English-speaking preachers and teachers of the 20th century. As Jason Meyer points out in Lloyd-Jones on the Christian Life, Lloyd-Jones brought his medical insights and experiences to his work as a pastor, often thinking in terms of diagnosis and remedy as it relates to spiritual health. He is known for his lengthy expositions of books like Ephesians and Romans (which would take years for him to preach through verse by verse). He also felt led to teach on the topic of “Spiritual Depression” in 1954 with his 24 lectures being brought into a book called Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures that was published in 1965. While Dr. Lloyd-Jones is more focused on our spiritual state than what we would call clinical depression, he has given insights that have continued to help Christians. He taught that much of our unhappiness is because “you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself” (p. 20). What he means is that we wake up with our “self” talking about who we are and what we do, but we need to speak back to ourselves as our feelings and thoughts may not always be correct. For example, he notes that we often focus on our miseries instead of the gospel message. As I have learned about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as a way to help people with their thoughts, I was reminded of Lloyd-Jones’ words and approach. He also notes that people sometimes struggle with “spiritual depression” because of an incomplete understanding of the Christian life (which is often the fault of preachers and teachers not teaching the entirety of what Jesus says it is like to follow him) in that we don’t think Christians should experience struggles or difficulties in this life. Satan can use our difficulties to cause us to drift from God, and experiencing challenges in this life can sometimes lead us to think that God is against us, but this truly is not the case! Overall, Lloyd-Jones reminds us that we need to look to Christ, trusting faith and not feelings. However, he did not offer this as a simplistic solution and encouraged others to not only recognize that struggles will come, but also offered tools and insights on how to walk through them.

Some Takeaways

Here are some overall takeaways I drew from their work:

You Are Not Just A Soul

Although extensive research that we have today on brain function as it relates to physical state was not available to these authors,they show an awareness that we are not just souls, but body and soul, with our physical conditions affecting our mental and physical state. It is a reminder that we need to tend to our body and be aware of our emotional states and that we should not be afraid to seek physical solutions, such as medicine, when we have struggles.

You Are Not Alone

We often think  we are the only ones who struggle, but these pastors remind us that we are not alone and that other Christians throughout history have experienced these struggles as well.

You Are Not Weak

The fact that we struggle does not make us a bad or disobedient Christian. Struggles with depression and anxiety have marked faithful Christians throughout the history of the church, so do not think it means that you are excluded from being used by God.

You Are Not Rejected

We must not view our struggle as a sign that God has rejected us or is displeased with us. Followers of Christ experience physical and emotional hardships in this life -- that is part of living between Christ’s first and second coming.

You Might Not Have Answers or Resolution

We may question why we experience struggles , and we don’t always find the answers we’re looking for. We can do all the “right” things in life in terms of taking care of our body and tending to our spiritual walk, but still experience struggles in body and soul. We might never know why, and our struggles may never completely be gone.

You Are Not Hopeless

While we might feel hopeless and helpless, know there is hope and help available. We need to speak the gospel back to ourselves; this is not the only thing that can help us, but believing the gospel is essential to having a proper view of ourselves and the world. We can find help in God and His people.

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