Antidotes to Melancholy
by Josiah Audette
Q. What are God’s works of providence?
A. God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing of all his creatures, and all their actions.
PROVIDENCE & JOY
The foregoing doctrinal thesis is a fundamental understanding of Christendom. One which we at Grace Haven are more than familiar with. Acknowledging simply, that providence is the collation of the Divine Provision and the Divine Government of God exercised in His righteousness, wisdom, and omnipotence. It is a necessary doctrine due to the doctrine of Creation (Which the Catechism most wisely explained in the question and answer before). Creation and Providence are intimate doctrines of an inseparable relationship to be preserved to the utmost degree. Just as all creatures were called into being by the creative act of God in Creation, so they instantaneously fall under the sovereignty of God in Providence. This is antithetical to modern man’s philosophy. They are incompatible, and when held in error are egregious. No philosophical idea is religiously neutral. No idea is without consequence. Thus, philosophy and theology answer the same questions, but in different manners. If we were to imagine an atheistic catechism on the question of teleology or meaning we could read thus. Existentialism believes all creatures and all their actions are governed by free will. Nihilism believes all creatures and all their actions are governed by meaninglessness. Platonism – by social engineers. Rationalism – by science. Pragmatism – by the polls. Socialism – by total equality. Environmentalism – by nature. Evolutionism – by chance. These are all summarily anthropocentric ideas of meaninglessness and purposelessness. Such philosophies are exhibited in the Oxford and Cambridge comedians of Monty Python’s film, “The Meaning of Life.” In the film the meaning of life is dramatically alluded to but never discovered. Contrarily, life is portrayed in the film as absurd and meaninglessness due to the total absence of a discovered purpose. Such abandonment of teleology ought to leave us the audience with an intense emotion of apprehension and anxiety. To overcome this anxiety, Monty Python induces in the audience amusement and comedy, which is nothing less than artificial joy. Neil Postman was absolutely correct when he wrote we a-muse (literally, not-think) ourselves to death. Only a sick and twisted world can come to the most sobering conclusion that there is no meaning and laugh at it. The resulting emotion of anxiety from existential thought was so widely and strongly felt 19th century society that it was given its own word. The term given to depict something of the inner turmoil which terrorized the minds of adherents to existential philosophy was “Angst.” The social ill still persists to this day on a massive scale, just we now call it “mental illness.” Indeed everything and anything outside God’s control leaves man in Edvard Munch’s “infinite scream passing through nature.” Whereas the true realization of providence produces eternal joy in the heart of the believer, an ultimate denial of providence and acceptance in its stead of chaotic chance produces only angst.
ORTHODOXY & ORTHOPRAXY
Therefore, doctrine of Providence may be applied to combat despondency and depression in our lives. It mercifully provides a promised future, not a meaningless chaos. It relieves us of the angst that the philosophies of man will helplessly leave us in. Despondency is fought by preaching the truth of God’s providence to ourselves concerning God and his promised future. Providence is a not just a profound truth, but a profound reality. Morecraft explained this possibility as follows, “In theory it is easy to understand the premise of all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose, but to get this into our blood-streams is another matter. It is one of the most difficult tasks of the practicing Christian. It involves not only believing in God but believing God.” In other words, just shelving this doctrine in your orthodoxy does not permit you to “Pass Go and Collect $200.” It must also affect our orthopraxy. True orthodoxy results in right orthopraxy. Orthodoxy is concerned with believing what is true where Orthopraxy is concerned with doing what is correct. Simply interpreted, what you believe will affect what you do. To have one without the other is hypocrisy and potentially heresy. The great scholastic Robert Burton wrote, “By ignorance we know not things necessary, by error we know them falsely. Ignorance is a privation (Omission), error a positive act (Commission). From ignorance comes vice, from error heresy.” Without applying the orthodox doctrine of Providence to our orthopraxy, whether through ignorance or error, we will still experience that inner angst. However, if we do apply it the result is a glorious doxology.
The glorious result of true orthodoxy subjoined with right orthopraxy is doxology, that is, praise to God. Piper expounds upon this notably, “There is a deep release and a relief that comes when we find a way of seeing and saying some precious or stunning reality that comes a little closer to closing the breach between what we’ve glimpsed with our mind and what we’ve grasped with our heart.” No matter the intentness of your listening, length of your notes, or eloquence of my speech can the joy of God’s providence be unleashed in our lives. It is a work of the Holy Spirit, requested through prayer, when the heart embraces the true doctrine in the mind. So my prayer today is that God would be pleased to move from an intellectual acceptance of believing in God to a wholehearted embracement of the foundational Scripture to the doctrine of God’s providence. “Also we know that all things work together for the best unto them that love God, even to them that are called of his purpose.” Romans 8:28
As stated earlier it is not a difficulty to believe Providence in Romans 8:28. (There have been many a quixotic and romantic sermon done upon it.) But the Providence of God in Romans 8:28 is a lifetime struggle to believe in and take joy from. The realities of our lives, feelings, and emotions seem so very far from the idealism of the mind. Our lives are so riddled with problems and burdens to carry. We are encumbered with thoughts pensive upon sin in and all around us. Life is ultimately too much work for too little a result, a vanity and futility at best. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What remaineth unto man in all his travail, which he suffereth under the sun?” Such at least is the pattern of my own thoughts and while I adhere to Question 11 of the Westminster Catechism I still experience that angst of the unbeliever. As I am aware, this spiritual depression has proven itself to be the predominant sin and battle in my Christian life. Martin Lloyd Jones prophetically wrote, “I have no hesitation in asserting again that one of the reasons why the Christian Church counts for so little in the modern world is that so many Christians are in this condition [of spiritual depression]… The greatest need of the hour is a revived and joyful Church… Unhappy Christians are to say the least, a poor recommendation of the Christian faith.” Lloyd Jones’ assessment has been a painful indictment even in my own life. Countless times family, friends, coworkers, even complete strangers have remarked on my melancholy attitude and countenance. I am not alone in such depression and by far not the furthest overwhelmed. Such spiritual hero’s as the missionary David Brainerd, preacher Charles Spurgeon, and hymn writer William Cowper experienced ineffable suffering under depression. Try as these powerful Christians might, they could not shake throughout their lives their angst. Missionary to the North American Indians, David Brainerd, journaled, “Was so overwhelmed with dejection that I knew not how to live: I longed for death exceedingly: My soul was “sunk in deep waters,” and “the floods” were ready to “drown me”: I was so much pressed that my soul was in a kind of horror.” Spurgeon wrote of it, “Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings. As well fight mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness… the iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back.” Winston Churchill throughout his life referenced personal depression as his “black dog.” It is said that his capacity to rally those who felt overwhelmed by the Nazi threat was built after his sixty years of personal adversity with his black dog and acquaintance with the darkness of horror. In 1621, Oxford Scholar, Robert Burton wrote his encyclopedic monograph on clinical depression called, “The Anatomy of Melancholy.” It was and is an exhaustive and heavy theological, medical, and philosophical compendium on the subject. His reasoning for writing such a work was, “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.” Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain, Richard Baxter, preached extensively on depression “Lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.” Lloyd Jones noted, “Some of the greatest saints are introverts; the extrovert is generally a more superficial person. In the natural realm there is the type of person who is always analyzing himself, analyzing everything he does. The danger for such people is to become “morbid.” Introspective individuals seem to be highly centred on themselves.” So if you find yourself experiencing something of the same, you are by no means the only soul followed by this “Black dog.”
ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY
As a matter of fact, if you as a Christian have not or are not now experiencing depression be sure that you shall in good time. This black dog attacks without discrimination, mercy, or end. Some of you have a mind that is habitually troubled and disquieted. Some of you may know personally a fellow brother or sister in Christ that sees nothing but matters of fear and trouble and all that they hear or do only feeds it. Because they are constantly accused by what they read and learn they cant find delight in anything. Richard Baxter further described depression’s syndrome with, “Fearful dreams trouble them when they sleep, and distracted thoughts do keep them long walking; it offends them to see another laugh, or be merry; they think that every beggars case is happier than theirs; they will hardly believe that any one else is in their case they have no pleasure in relations, friends, estate, or anything..” Men like William Cowper and John Bunyan struggled with the apprehension of God having forsaken them and that their day of grace was past or mind’s were haunted with deprived and blasphemous suggestions. “In a word” finished Baxter, “fears, and troubles, and almost despair, are the constant temper of their minds.” Probably the most fearful reality of this depression is that in many cases those suffering, cannot be consoled nor say anything against those that attempt to convince them of the sincerity of their faith in God. Encourage them as you may, it relieves them of not of the slightest degree of their trouble. “Quiet them a hundred times, and their fears a hundred times return.” “Thy life shall hang before thee, and thou shalt fear both night and day, and shalt have none assurance of thy life. In the morning thou shalt say, Would God it were evening, and at the evening thou shalt say, Would God it were morning, for the fear of thine heart, which thou shalt fear, and for the sight of thine eyes, which thou shalt see.” Deuteronomy 28:67. And so it seems to the poor Christian that “all things work together for their worst.”
The causes of despondency are as complex and numerous as their syndromes. Depression is never a simple thing. It can be as much spiritual as physical. Lloyd Jones clarified, “You cannot isolate the spiritual from the physical for we are body, mind and spirit.” Psalm 73:26 reads, “My flesh faileth and mine heart also…” Both Burton and Baxter go to great lengths in their respective monographs to address the physical causation and reliefs of melancholy. Says Burton, “Now the instrumental causes of these our infirmities, are as diverse as the infirmities themselves; stars, heavens, elements, &c. And all those creatures which God hath made, are armed against sinners. They were indeed once good in themselves, and that they are now many of them pernicious unto us, is not in their nature, but our corruption, which hath caused it.” There is no simple or single cause of despondency, however it is safe to say there is an ultimate one. Unbelief. Unbelief in God. Unbelief in His providence, His justification, His expiation, His imputation, His grace and such like is the ultimate cause of all spiritual depression. A believer may experience grave depression and it is only unbelief that would let it take its course without resistance. But is it a sin to helplessly feel depressed? John Piper clarifies this quandary, “The first shockwaves of the blast of despondency are not the sin. The sin is not turning on the air-raid siren, and not heading for the bomb shelters, and not deploying the antiaircraft weapons. If Satan drops a bomb on your peace, and you don’t make ready for war, people are going to wonder whose side you’re on.” So when the believer experiences a spirit of melancholy, however anatomized, they must wage war on it by activating their belief. It is not a sin to feel that sickening rush of depression come suddenly upon you, or to struggle months on end in its clutches, yet it is a sin to not give up a fight at the least. It is not a sin to be as Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:8, “afflicted on every side, yet we are not in distress: we are in doubt, but yet we despair not.” When we permit without resistance for our situations, condition, feelings, or emotion to control us we are implying a lack of belief in God’s Providence. Lloyd Jones warned, “A Christian should never, like the worldly person, be depressed, agitated, alarmed, frantic, not knowing what to do.” God’s abundant grace still remains to take up that which we did not. The Christian is not impervious to pressure and suffering, its only that the Christian is the one who can rise above such things. Christianity is not a monastical repression of feelings. The more Christian you are does not mean the greater absence of feelings you will experience. On the other hand, the further your walk with Christ the more feelings you will experience, both good and bad. As one poet wrote,
“Ah my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my swore-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.”
So the Christian is always engulfed in feelings. Overall, as stated earlier, when we believe in the Providence of God in our own lives to “work all things together for the best” will we experience victory over angst. In angst, the imagination runs wild and we spend ourselves in a mad dream chasing and arguing imaginations all the while depriving ourselves of the joy of the Lord. “Peace, peace, there is no peace.” But, we may assure ourselves that we can and shall be revived by God if applied. “The Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.” Ps 19:7 “He restoreth my soul.” Ps 23:3 “Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is the fullness of joy: and at they right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” Ps 16:11 “Joy cometh in the mourning.” Ps 30:5. The difficulty is not in intellectually accepting Question 11 of the Catechism, nor agreeing with the testimony of Scripture, but in applying it as a weapon against our depression or helping others apply it in their own struggles.
Martin Luther wrote, “Preach the gospel to yourself every day because everyday you forget it.” There is a radical method herein and it is “Soliloquy.” Soliloquy is the act of speaking one’s thoughts when by oneself. It is a notable pattern in the Psalms to read soliloquy phrases as Psalm 42:5, “Why art thou cast down, my soul, and unquiet within me?” Lloyd Jones acutely observed, “Notice the psalmist addresses himself – “he talks to himself,” and herein he discovers the cure.” It is mainly when our feelings and emotions and perception control our lives that we succumb to depression and melancholy. Our emotions are as Delilah’s pleading to Samson. They are importunate upon us with their wailing words continually, and vex us, and our souls are pained unto death. The psalmist recognized the main issue of spiritual depression is that we permit our “self” to do the talking instead of “talking to ourself.” Lloyd Jones goes on to describe this inner soliloquy, “Most unhappiness in life is due to the fact that we ‘listen to ourselves’ instead of ‘talking to ourselves.’ David, in effect, says, ‘Self, listen for a moment to what I have to say – why are you so cast down?’ The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself, question yourself, and preach to yourself – you must remind yourself who God is, and what God has done, and what God has promised to do – this is the essence of the treatment in a nutshell. We must understand that this ‘self’ of ours – this other man within us has got to be handled; do not listen to him! turn on him! speak to him! remind him of what you know! So rather than listening to him and allowing him to drag you down and depress you – you must take control!” When depression hits, someone is doing the talking. Someone is doing the convincing. The question is who is? When your eyes open in the morning and stare at the ceiling who is reintroducing you to all your problems? When you read your bank statement who is reciting all your failings in your head? When you read your Bible who is reminding you of all your guilt? When you fellowship who is saying how unworthy you are to receive? Who is instilling unbelief in your soul? Be as the soliloquizing psalmist and preach to yourself everyday the providence of God, because everyday you forget God’s providence.
WHAT TO SAY?
You must preach Christ to yourself. “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness” not happiness. “Seek for happiness” says Lloyd Jones, “and you will never find it; seek righteousness and you will discover you are happy!” Preach so that you may have an understanding of justification, not sanctification. Piper cautions, “Confusing justification and sanctification will kill joy.” See with John Bunyan that “Thy righteousness is in heaven… I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he lacks my righteousness, for that was just before him. I also saw, moreover, that it is was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, “The same yesterday, today, and forever.” Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful Scriptures of God left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God.” A common issue in spiritual depression is a sense of our own unworthiness. Preach to yourself the difference of the kingdom of God to the kingdoms of men. “So the last shall be first, and the first last.” Leave off your bargaining spirit and remember “I am who I am by the grace of God.” Lloyd Jones encourages, “Do not keep a record or an account of your work! Give up being a bookkeeper… Leave the bookkeeping to Him and to His grace. Let Him keep the accounts. The truth is, there is nothing so gracious as God’s method of accountancy. Be prepared for surprises in this Kingdom. The truth is, you never know what is going to happen! The last shall be first! What a complete reversal of our materialistic outlook – everything in God’s kingdom is upside down!” Preach to yourself James 1:2, “Count it exceeding joy, when ye fall into divers tentations.” Philippians 1:29, “For unto you it is given for Christ, that not only ye should believe in him, but also suffer for his sake.” John 16:33, “In the world ye shall have affliction, but be of good comfort: I have overcome the world.” Acts 14:22 “We must through many afflictions enter into the kingdom of God.”
Christian faith is a very concrete, logical, and intelligent act. Christian faith is never blind.
“Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.”
Faith is by nature an act or action, and must be manually started and put into operation. Faith is not a feeling. Faith is not “feeling assured” or “feeling at peace.” Feelings are fleeting, moment to moment and cannot be faith itself. “Faith is perpetual unbelief kept quiet” is has been defined. Faith does not oblige or intreat the temptation, it rejects it without deliberation. How it does so is far from blind, but incredibly logical and intelligent. The foundation of true, logical, intelligent faith is naturally the truth, God’s Scripture. Baxter wrote, “Hold to God’s word, the sacred Bible, written by the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost… It is not divine faith if it rest not on divine revelation, nor is it divine obedience which is not given by divine government or command.” Faith rejects just as naturally the temptation’s lie as it naturally affirms the truth. Faith considers, agrees, and logically thinks through all that we know to be true and then applies the truth against the onslaught of lies. 1 John 5:4, “This is that victory that overcomes this world even our faith.” Faith is a immune system to the soul, a logical algorithm which carefully calculates all the statements of our temptations and puts them into antithesis with all the propositions of Scripture and concludes the temptations to be logically invalid. The key is to only consider and preach to yourself God’s providential plan. “Looking to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” The moment you pensively consider and permit your self to do the talking you loose ground. As with the Apostle Peter, the moment you take your eyes of Christ and start “focusing on those things that are in juxtaposition to faith” such as the billowing waves, the temptation gives birth to sin and you sink. So the cure to spiritual depression is knowledge of Christ and we hear that in Scripture and we receive Scripture by faith. “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” “For ye have not received the Spirit of bondage, to fear again” “He that hath begun this good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” “Now not him that is able to keep you that ye fall not, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with joy, That is, to God only wise, our Saviour be glory, and majesty, and dominion, and power, both now and forever, Amen.” Faith refuses to be tyrannized by circumstances, reactionary on an extreme level, or dependant upon conditions we desire to control. Burton wrote, “the actions of the will are belle and nolle, to will and nil.” Faith wills contentment and nils anxiety. Faith even refuses to “Just suck it up” and repress emotion from the conscious mind to the subconscious. Faith also does not mean we will “feel better” or that our situation will “change.” Paul learned by faith to be content in all situations not controlling of all situations. Lloyd Jones summed it up as follows, “Conditions are always changing, therefore I must not be dependent upon them. What matters supremely is my soul and my relationship with God. God is concerned about me, and nothing happens to me apart for His approving it. God’s will and God’s way are a great mystery, and whatever He permits is for my good. Every situation in life is the unfolding of some manifestation of God’s love and goodness. I must regard circumstances and conditions as a part of God’s perfecting my soul. Whatever my conditions may be at the present moment, they are only temporary.” Summarily, don’t just believe in Question 11, believe God’s providence.
MEANS OF GRACE
Give thanks in all things. Richard Baxter in a message on melancholy instructed, “Resolve to spend most of your time in thanksgiving and praising God. If you cannot do it with the joy that you should, yet do it as you can. You have not the power of your comforts: but have you no power of your tongues?… Doing it as you can is the way to be able to do it better. Thanksgiving with the mouth started up thankfulness in the heart.” Now you may say that to your weak and weary soul all of this speaking, faith, prayer, and thanksgiving in the battle against the depression of your mind sounds exhausting. Well, you are absolutely correct. Exercising the very practical methods and means of waging war on despondency will deplete you of almost everything, but it is more exhausting not to resist and remain in your disquieted state. It is more devastating to listen to yourself to you than for you to address your self. Baxter stressed that, “A delight in God and goodness, and a joyful, praising frame of soul, from the belief of the love of God through Christ, is far more to be desired than grief and tears, which do but sweep away some dirt, that love, joy, and thankfulness may enter, which are the true evangelical, Christian temper, and likest to the heavenly state.” Behold in this, the example of Christ in Gethsemane who took with himself his close disciples. So too, use with thankfulness the help of men. For others, be not unwilling to support those suffering in such wise. “There is no wasted work in loving those without light” says Piper. Again to the despondent, do not be alone. Burton wrote of solitude, “When I would solace myself with a fool, I reflect upon myself, and there I have him.” Baxter encouraged, “Though lawyers, as such, have none of the legislative power, you need their help to understand the use of the law aright. And though no men have power to make laws for the church universal, yet men must be our teachers to understand and use the laws of God.” Refuse the confusion and despondency of man’s anthropocentric philosophies. Refuse to confuse. “Never set a doubtful opinion” said Baxter, “against a certain truth or duty; reduce not things certain to things uncertain.” Faithfully serve Christ as far as you have attained remembering that “I am who I am by the grace of God.” Never stop learning the truth of God to preach to yourself. Continue as Christ’s scholars in learning more and more. Remember the difference between justification and sanctification. Remember, “It is not by some extraordinary act, good or bad, that we may be sure what state the soul is in, but by the predominant bent, and drift, and tenor of the heart and life.” Forget not also to pray,
“When all things seem against us,
To drive us to despair,
We know one gate is open
One ear will hear our prayer.”
William Cowper, a dear Christian sustained through his life by the his Christian brother John Newton was immersed in depression for all his days. He wrote the following hymn:
“God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Of never failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs
And works his sovereign will.
You fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.”
To end with Baxter, “Digest these truths, and they will cure you.”