Melancholy

Note: I wrote this post back in January, but didn't feel I had enough perspective then to decide whether or not I should post it. Now, in the sunshine of May, I decided this little book which I found so helpful might be to someone else as well, so here is the review!

"Seasons of darkness are normal in the Christian life," according to John Piper. King David, the Psalmist Asaph, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, the hymn writer and poet William Cowper, and many other men of faith experienced such times. It might be brought on by unrepentant sin, trying life circumstances, loss, physical illness, exhaustion, or for no apparent reason at all. Moderns call it depression, but the Puritans referred to this state as "melancholy." For a Christian, sin always becomes involved, whether it was the initial cause or comes about as we wallow in despair.

Piper's excellent little book, When The Darkness Will Not Lift: Doing What We Can While We Wait For God - and Joy, helps Christians gain perspective on the causes and remedies of melancholy. (The entire manuscript may be downloaded from the Desiring God website here.) Originally the last chapter of a longer book, both Tim and I have found this short work very helpful. Pastor Piper doesn't mince words, calling sin sin, but he also offers hope. Rather than giving in to hopelessness, desperation, and despair, he counsels waiting patiently in the hour of darkness, while at the same time fighting for joy.

One of the biggest problems with spiritual depression, as I see it, is that our thinking becomes warped. We don't see things accurately and our judgment gets messed up, but more seriously, our view of God becomes skewed. We lie about who God is to ourselves and to others. Richard Baxter, an English Puritan, gave a sermon called "The Cure of Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow." Tim and I think it must have been one of those four hour sermons, because it is going to take us at least that long to read through it together. But it's worth it. Here's what Baxter says about how "overmuch sorrow" messes with our understanding of the character of God:

Overmuch sorrow swalloweth up all comfortable sense of the infinite
goodness and love of God, and thereby hindereth the soul from loving him; and in
this it is an adversary to the very life of holiness. It is exceeding hard for such a
troubled soul to apprehend the goodness of God at all, but much harder to judge
that he is good and amiable to him: but as a man that in the deserts of Libya is
scorched with the violent heats of the sun, and is ready to die with drought and
faintness, may confess that the sun is the life of the earth and a blessing to
mankind, but it is misery and death to him; even so, these souls, overwhelmed
with grief, may say that God is good to others, but he seems an enemy to them,
and to seek their destruction. - "Overmuch Sorrow", 5.

So, what's the remedy? Piper cautions that while we must continue fighting for joy and not "make peace with the darkness", we shouldn't focus overly much on joy. He says, "Paradoxically, if we would experience the joy of faith, we must not focus much on it. We must focus on the greatness of our Savior." He reminds us that while we wait for the darkness to lift there are things we can and should be doing. For one thing, we must not become idle, for that will only increase our misery, but instead give ourselves to the work that God has already placed before us. Pastor Piper quotes George MacDonald who said:

[God] changes not because thou changest. Nay, He has an especial tenderness of love toward thee that thou art in the dark and hast no light, and His heart is glad when thou dost arise and say, "I will go to my Father." ... Fold the arms of thy faith, and wait in the quietness until light goes up in thy darknesss. Fold the arms of thy Faith I say, but not of thy Action: bethink thee of something that thou oughtest to do, and go do it, if it be but the sweeping of a room, or the preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend. Heed not thy feelings: Do thy work.     - George MacDonald

There are more such jewels in Piper's book, but I already feel like I'm close to giving the plot spoilers for a piece of fiction. I really would encourage anyone who struggles at times with melancholy, or who loves someone who does, to read the whole book. At 79 pages, it won't take long, and if you are like me, you'll reap a great reward for the small amount of time invested.
1 Response
  1. Your review of John Piper's book is encouraging me to read it. I tend to veer toward melancholy when I'm not careful. Life brings difficulties and seeming injustices are always at arms reach. Finding contentment in work is a help, serving God in serving others, even if it is sweeping the floor. The Puritans might have been verbose and rather introspective but they were also Brilliant and Insightful and have much to pass down to us. John Piper's book sounds like it would make an excellent source for devotions.