Charles Spurgeon, the great British preacher of the 19th century, once said, “[I know] by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited therewith at seasons by no means few or far between…Fits of depression come over the most of us. Usually cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy.”
In my own battles with spiritual depression, few texts have been more helpful than Dr. Martyn Llyod-Jones’ book, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures.
Medically trained at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) shocked many when he announced he would leave medicine to become the pastor of a small church in Aberavon, Wales. He was eventually called to Westminster Chapel in central London, where he served for over 30 years. “The Doctor,” as he came to be known, gained considerable national influence and international renown for his dynamic expository preaching.
The book, comprised of a series of sermons, carefully and compassionately analyzes an undeniable feature of modern society from which Christians have not escaped—spiritual depression. Early on, Jones looks to David’s Psalms of lament for help on the topic.
The psalmist David writes, “Why are you cast down, O my soul” (Ps 42:5) – David was sad, troubled, perplexed, disquieted, unhappy and spiritually depressed – a very common condition; obviously he felt overwhelmed within himself. 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.” The great Henry Martyn was this type of man – he was a highly introspective, an introvert who suffered from an obvious tendency to morbidity. Introspective individuals seem to be highly centered on themselves. When we get depressed it is because we have “forgotten God” – hence the psalmist says to himself, “Hope thou in God!” (Ps 42:5)
He then offers some really practical advice on how to deal with the issue: the concept of “preaching to yourself.”
Notice the psalmist addresses himself – “he talks to himself,” and herein he discovers the cure. The main problem in the whole matter of “spiritual depression” in a sense is this – we allow our “self” to talk to us instead of “talking to ourself.” 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!
Later on, The Doctor brilliantly diagnoses the root cause of spiritual depression.
Spiritual depression or unhappiness in the Christian life is very often due to our failure to realize the greatness of the gospel. Some think that it is merely a message of “forgiveness;” others conceive of it as only “moral” in nature; still others see it as “something good and beautiful.” The truth of the matter is, the gospel is a “whole view of life” – it is not partial or piecemeal – consequently the “whole man” must be involved in it – the mind, the heart and the will. There is a danger in having a purely “intellectual” experience, just as there is a danger in having a purely “emotional” experience – many Christians are content to simply live on their “feelings” (their head isn’t engaged at all). By the way, we must put things in the right order – mind, heart, and will. “Truth” must be first – once we know the truth, it will move the heart, and once the heart is engaged, your greatest desire will be to live it. The heart is always to be influenced through the understanding, which in turn will work upon the will. (36-63)
Lloyd-Jones also expounds on the Christian doctrine of justification as a means of fighting against depression.
Deliverance from spiritual depression begins with an understanding of “justification,” not sanctifi-cation, as one might suspect. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). “This is life eternal, to know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou has sent” (Jn 17:3). As a believer, are you truly enjoying God? Is He the center of your life? He is meant to be. If He is not, you are living in sin – that is the essence of sin. Remember the “good news” – God made Christ to be the propitiation for our sins – that is, God made Christ responsible for our sins; they were all placed upon Him and God dealt with them and punished them in His Son. So Christ is our salvation – we simply accept Him as our Deliverer and Savior by faith. God then imputed Christ’s righteousness to us – here is the great exchange: He took our wickedness and gave us His righteousness! To get rid of “spiritual depression” you must say farewell to your past! No matter how dark the stains may be, they have all been blotted out! It is finished! Never look back on your sins again! They will only “depress” you! If you focus on “your sinfulness,” you will only conclude that “you are not good enough!” And whether you believe it or not, nobody is good enough! The issue is not our goodness… the issue is God’s goodness.
Finally, The Doctor reminds us of the great hope and truth of the gospel.
It is only when we truly trust Christ that true happiness and joy are possible for us. Deliverance is not found in making resolutions to live a better life, fasting, grieving or praying. No “action” on your part. Repeatedly tell yourself, “I rest my faith on Christ alone, who died for my transgressions to atone.” Remember, a man is justified by “faith” – not by the “deeds” of the Law – your works and behavior have nothing to do with your being saved. Furthermore, since we are “eternally saved by faith,” our salvation is not maintained by “good works.” As long as you see your “sins” as a detriment with regard to your acceptance before God, you will negate the work of the cross in your life – because you will live as though “your sins” really have not been fully dealt with. This is a “critical issue” for many Christians – they have been “set free” from the prison of sin… their prison cell has been unlocked… yet they continue to live in it! Jesus is the Savior of sinners, among whom I am foremost of all! (1 Tim 1:15). (9-35)
Other Resources on Spiritual Depression
When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy by John Piper
Anxiety and Depression, My Strange Friends by Scott Sauls