May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Attention to mental health has increased in recent years and especially since 2020, as the World Health Organization noted that anxiety and depression increased 25% in 2020. While things have settled down some since that tumultuous year, depression, anxiety, and mental health challenges that emerged and deepened during that time remain.
The importance of mental health is a topic openly discussed more than ever before in society in general and also in the church. One writer who has focused on such issues is David Murray, the author of Christians Get Depressed Too and producer of related online resources and aids.In 2020 he also wrote books to help teens and parents that I would recommend. Another valuable resource and notable ministry that seeks to empower individuals to “live well in spite of a mental health diagnosis” is Fresh Hope; Faith Church has a Fresh Hope group that you can find more about here.
I am thankful for the increased attention on mental health in general, and in the church in particular, that has produced these resources. I believe it has helped those facing challenges to recognize that their experience is not unique nor does it mean that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. In addition, I believe that it has caused people to give more consideration to their mental health. Just as we need to pay attention to our physical and spiritual health, so we are wise to consider our mental and emotional health. In fact, I would encourage you to be aware of your own health during this Mental Health Awareness month.
As I have studied mental health, particularly anxiety and depression, I was also encouraged to discover that pastors discussed these topics to some degree in the past. While they did not have the awareness of the topic we have today, and at times used other terms such as melancholy, we should not overlook the rich resources from Christians in the past that can still help us today. I want to highlight three pastors from across the pond who wrote about and discussed anxiety and depression: Richard Baxter (1615-1691), Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), and Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981).
Richard Baxter’s Thoughts and Advice
Baxter ministered at a time and in an area where medical doctors were often not present, so people would look to pastors to help them in body and soul, which caused him to think about depression and anxiety. He noted that these are complex topics, with many causes and manifestations, and that these struggles are not sinful. Because we are body and soul, Baxter recommended physical aids such as medicine as well as spiritual aids, specifically, the need to think more and more about the gospel. He also saw community as helping us in these struggles and for the need for patience as we walk through them, as healing in body and soul happens over time. These and other insights from Baxter are now readily available in the book Depression, Anxiety, and The Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter.
Charles Spurgeon’s Teaching and Personal Struggles
Charles Spurgeon was a very famous preacher of his time who struggled with depression and sought to give advice to Christians and pastors who might suffer from depression and anxiety like he did. He did not think such struggles disqualified a person from ministry nor served as signs of rejection by God. Rather, he showed that depression can affect even those in ministry, with his darkest struggles often coming right before God did something amazing in and through him. Some of his advice, borne from his own experiences, included the importance of self-care (going for walks, taking vacations, etc.) and focus upon Jesus himself being a “man of sorrows” who experienced his own times of trial – but then was raised; we will struggle, but if we are united with Christ, we also have hope of resurrection. Zack Eswine’s book, Spurgeon’s Sorrows talks more about Spurgeon’s struggles and insights and what we can learn from them.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Diagnosis and Cure
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a medical doctor who then sensed a call to pastoral ministry and used his medical background throughout his teaching and ministry. In 1954, he gave 24 lectures on the topic of “Spiritual Depression” which were compiled into a book called Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures that was published in 1965. His interest seemed less on what would be labeled as clinical depression and more on the various seasons of unhappiness that we all endure. 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. His comments are similar to concepts found in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). 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) and don’t think Christians should experience struggles or difficulties in this life.
The Wisdom of Considering Their Wisdom
I wanted to highlight these pastors and their insights because I think they offer help and encouragement on the topic alongside the resources and insights of our time. The fact that these writers from previous generations discussed anxiety and depression reminds us that these challenges are not new or unique to our time. Our current age likely causes them to be more common, frequent, or intense, but we don’t face those challenges without any help from our heritage. Some strategies of help have been around for a long time, such as the need to take care of our body and reframe our thoughts; however, we might actually struggle because we are looking for new ideas as opposed to drawing upon those that our forefathers have discovered.
Rather than these struggles separating us from the past, they may actually connect us with the past, as depression and anxiety have marked faithful Christians throughout the history of the church – and will until Christ’s return. We can do all the “right” things in life in terms of taking care of our body and tending to our spiritual walk but may still experience struggles in body and soul, so we must not view our struggle as a sign that God has rejected us or is displeased with us, nor that we cannot be used by God. At the same time these examples demonstrate that we will face challenges, they also remind us that there is ultimate hope and help in Christ. We may not be delivered or relieved of these challenges in this life, but we will in the life to come. We can live this life remembering the truth of the gospel that tells us that God comes near to us to help us when we are helpless.
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