From Ashes 12: Metamorphosis and Sophronismos – Neuroplasticity and the Renewed Mind

Rene Descartes' illustration of the mind-body problem Wikimedia Commons
Rene Descartes’ illustration of the mind-body problem
Wikimedia Commons

As I approach my 30th birthday, which brings with it much reflection on all that God has done in my life so far, I have found myself drawn again to one of the most well-worn parts of my the Bible – Psalm 139. For many, this is their favourite psalm, and it is certainly one of mine. Perhaps its comfort derives from the fact that it is one of the clearest places where we learn of God being deeply invested in us as individuals; and, say what we might about western culture being far too individualistic for its own good, for better or worse we desire the sense that God is intimately acquainted with us. What comfort, then, it is to read:

O Lord, you have searched me

                  and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

                  you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

                  you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

                  you know it completely, O Lord.

And what comfort too to read that God has “knit us together”, that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. In a world in which the church sits awkwardly somewhere between secular views on self-esteem and a desire to recognise the depths of human sinfulness, it is a powerful tonic to read that, for all our sin, the Bible declares us, as God found on first creating us, to be “very good”.

This, of course, is not the whole story. We have all learnt sinfulness from a very early age, both being corrupted from birth as affirmed by David in Psalm 51:5 and learning sin as we become more acquainted with this world of sin. Seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan expressed something of this process in his poem, “The Retreat”, when he speaks of the time when he “understood this place”, in the sense of knowing its ways, and “taught [his] soul to fancy” sin, “dispens[ing]/A several sin to every sense”. Certainly, the contrasting view he presents of early childhood, in which he “shined in [his] angel infancy”, seems to over-idealise childhood innocence. Yet the picture Vaughan gives is nonetheless a powerful one. The word “retreat” implies “re-treading”, an act of walking back over a path which needs to be reversed. “Some men,” he writes,

            a forward motion love;

But I by backward steps would move,

And when this dust falls to the urn,

In that state I came, return.

Simplistic though Vaughan’s theology is, he reminds us of something helpful: that it is necessary for us to affirm both that we possess sin in us from birth and that we have learnt to sin more and more throughout our lives. Though no-one had to teach me to be selfish, I did have to learn to yell, to steal, to cheat, to lie, to lust. There are many sins that I know now how to commit which, at birth, I did not know. My sinful nature seized upon those sins as it encountered them, yet I did not at birth possess the same knowledge of sin that I now have.

Recognising this complexity to the nature of human sinfulness can, I think, help us make steps towards bypassing the age-old “nature vs. nurture” debate which has bogged down the church at least since Rousseau, if not for longer. The book of Proverbs affirms several times that the company of sinners corrupts the company of the righteous (see Proverbs 1:8-19, 13:20 and 22:24-25), thus acknowledging that righteousness can be encouraged or discouraged by the environment we are in. Yet this is not to say that we are innately good and that only a bad environment creates bad people. Augustine of Hippo, one of the most significant formalisers of the doctrine of original sin, charted in his Confessions the journey from his infancy into adulthood through which he both learnt to sin and learnt to cry, motion, speak. His childhood impulse to cry when not getting what he desired indicated the innate, sinful sense that his rights were more important than those of others, yet this was still a sin which, once given birth, could grow and manifest itself in many different ways. Nature and nurture, I would suggest, need not be an “either/or” proposition; they walk together throughout our lives.

Avoiding this kind of dichotomy can be highly productive, especially in the realm of understanding mental health. If we take a reductionist view of mental health, then we may understand our impulses, both good and bad, to stem primarily from our nature. In contemporary neuropsychology, this would suggest that our neurological make-up determines the way that we think and act. In this view, our moral impulses, thoughts and feelings are nothing more than chemical signals in the highly complex organism that is the brain. The other extreme, however, is to over-spiritualise our concept of “mind” in a way that divorces it from the physical brain, or indeed the body, as was often done from antiquity into the Enlightenment. Rene Descartes, in a theory now termed “Cartesian dualism”, proposed that the disembodied mind had control over the brain through the pineal gland, arguing in his Passions of the Soul that the

part of the body in which the soul directly does its work is…a certain very small gland deep inside the brain, in a position such that…the slightest movements by it can greatly alter the course of the nearby spirits passing through the brain, and conversely any little change in the course of those spirits can greatrly alter the movements of the gland.

This is a view which few would manage to take seriously today, and we may even struggle to understand how it once seemed so reasonable. Regrettably, however, too much of our thinking about mental health still swings between equally spiritualised, dualistic ideas of mind and body and the reductionist, mechanistic views of some contemporary science. Marilynne Robinson explores the weakness of each view in her essay “Freedom of Thought” in which she considers how mind and soul can be understood by Christians in light of behaviourist and neurological schools of psychology. Speaking critically of attempts to debunk faith through neuroscience, Robinson writes:

Religious experience is said to be associated with activity in a particular part of the brain. For some reason this is supposed to imply that it is delusional. But all thought and experience can be located in some part of the brain, that brain more replete than the starry heaven God showed to Abraham, and we are not in the habit of assuming that it is all delusional on these grounds.

The very fact that our brains contain much of our experience, Robinson argues, does not mean that their reality is in any way less factual than that which exists visibly, quantifiably “out there”. Even if neuroscientists were to discover the part of the brain which is responsible for religious faith, this would not need to diminish the truth of that faith. The heart of our struggle with this concept, Robinson suggests, is that we are fundamentally still dualists in matters of body and spirit:

Nothing could justify this reasoning, which many religious people take as seriously as any atheist could do, except the idea that the physical and the spiritual cannot abide together, that they cannot be one dispensation.

In other words, we either struggle to believe either that the spiritual can exist in physical reality or that, once the spiritual is given some sort of physical explanation, it can continue to have spiritual reality.

Some blame Augustine for this dualistic thinking, and certainly it can be found in his writings, though it surely precedes him by a good few millennia. Nor is he quite as dualistic as some would suggest, famously opposing Manichaeism, the most dualistic system of thought to enter the church in his day. Yet, wherever it comes from, it is hardly helpful. Indeed, if we truly take the Incarnation seriously, then we must be able to believe that body and spirit can coexist, that Christ did not cease to be God when He became man, nor that His humanity is in any way negated by His being God. Body and spirit are not separate, nor are “memory” and “mind”, contrary to what Augustine suggested in Book 10 of his Confessions. Rather, they exist together powerfully, in that complex system of transmissions and signals in the brain which we are only now beginning to understand.

When we read what the Bible has to say, then, about the “mind”, we would do well to remember that the brain as we conceive of it had little or no meaning to the ancients. The Egyptians famously removed it through the nose as a piece of liquefied rubbish; the ancient Greek word for brain essentially meant “the top part of the head”. The understanding that the brain, not the heart, was the seat of the emotions would take much time to develop; indeed, the ancient Hebrews used the word “kidneys” in that context. Yet this aside, conceptions of the mind and its ability to be corrupted or transformed are found in several places throughout scripture. When Paul writes, for instance, to the Romans instructing them to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2), he is suggesting that minds, or brains, can be changed. They can conform to the world, or they can conform to Christ. They can be corrupted or renewed. This view, expressed nearly 2000 years before the world heard of “neuroplasticity”, is remarkably similar to what practitioners of cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) now do: exercising the brain’s ability to change itself through the exertion of an external influence, a view expressed by Richard Lopez in his review of Curt Thompson’s Anatomy of the Soul. Quoting Thompson, Lopez writes:

“The way we understand and make sense of our story is reflected in the wiring of our brain. This networking (via Hebb’s axiom: neurons that fire together wire together) tends to reinforce our story’s hardwiring…and will continue to do so unless substantially acted upon by another outside relationship.” The most important outside relationship, Thompson contends, is with God Himself.

Likewise, when Christ cites Deuteronomy in His instruction to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27), He is in some senses telling us that all our being, co-ordinated by the “mind”, can work together in an act of collective, unified love. This can be an active choice, and is part of the process of conforming the mind to Christ. We do not need to be concerned by the fact that “heart”, “soul” and “mind” are spoken of here separately, any more than we need be concerned that when we feel something deeply, it is co-ordinated by the same organ by which we think. Understanding the many different sections and layers of the brain only confirms that verbal and non-verbal thinking, for instance, are, although organised in the one brain, separate actions, and that one can be brought to bear upon the other. We can preach to ourselves, for instance, by bringing verbal reasoning to non-verbal emotions. Augustine, albeit in a somewhat dualistic manner, explores this very complexity to emotional memory when he states in his Confessions:

This same memory [which contains knowledge] also contains the feelings of my mind; not in the manner in which the mind itself experienced them, but very differently, according to a power peculiar to memory…Sometimes when I am joyous I remember my past sadness, and when sad, remember past joy.

Augustine explains this ability to feel one thing in the present and yet remember a contradictory feeling from the past by saying that the “mind is one thing and the body another”. Yet this explanation is as unnecessary as it is wrong; neuroscientists now know that the emotional part of the brain, the amygdala, can store emotional memories and can bring them back to “mind” at unexpected times, as seen most significantly in victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rather than the memory being separate to the mind, memory is as much a part of the brain as rational thought. Yet in treatment of PTSD, for instance, psychologists will often encourage patients to verbalise their non-verbal emotions in order to move emotional memory into rational thought.

Think, then, of what it means for each of our thoughts to be known by God before they enter our heads. Think of what it means for Paul to declare to Timothy, as it is rendered in the Authorised Version, that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). The word for “sound mind” here is sōphronismos, and it is often translated “self-control”, being associated with self-discipline and moderation. Yet what is suggested here is that the “spirit” and the “mind” are connected and that God has given us a sound mind. Indeed, this is affirmed in 1 Corinthians 2:16, when Paul asks, “[W]ho has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?”, responding that “we have the mind of Christ”. There is in this sense of process of mental sanctification exactly like our spiritual one: we are declared saints by God, thus declared right in our standing before Him, yet must also “work out our salvation”. The same goes for our mental state. We are given the mind of Christ, yet we also need to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s]”. The word Paul uses in Greek for “be transformed” has the same root as the word “metamorphosis”, a word which, thanks to Escher posters which once bestrewed the walls of my primary school classroom, I will forever associate with one species slowly turning into another. We are declared new creatures, and both our thinking and our being before God must be gradually brought into alignment with that new reality.

There need be no tension then in how we view human brokenness and the workings of the brain. If sin has corrupted all of creation, then it has corrupted our brains as much as it has anything else under the sun. And, if sin has corrupted our brains, then so can God’s redeeming grace renew them just as He renews all that is brought to Him. What that will look like this side of the new creation none of us can know for sure, yet we need not be afraid to make the most of what we can know now about the human brain in order to help exercise the benefits of grace given to us.

If neuroplasticity and CBT tell us that the brain needs new truths to be spoken into it to transform old faulty connections, what better truth to tell us than that we, wondrously, now have the mind of Christ. What better reality to bring our broken minds into; what better way of finding true mental health in a sick and fallen world.


Descartes, R. (2010). The Passions of the Soul, trans. Jonathan Bennett. Retrieved online, 28th June 2014.

Lopez, R. (n.d.). “A Response to ‘Anatomy of the Soul: The Neuroscience of Spirituality”. In The Augustine Collective. Retrieved online, 26th June 2014.

Outler, A.C., ed. (2004). The Confessions of St. Augustine. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Classics.

Robinson, M. (2012). “Freedom of Thought”. In When I Was a Child I Read Books. London: Virago Press, pp. 3-18.

Vaughan, H. (1650). “The Retreat”. In Silex Scintillans Part I. Retrieved online, 28th June 2014.

From Ashes 11: The Poor in Spirit and the Fainting Minister

Poverty in spirit is the porch of the temple of blessedness…Till we are emptied of self we cannot be filled with God. Stripping must be worked upon us before we can be clothed with the righteousness which is from Heaven.

(C.H. Spurgeon, “The First Beatitude”)

I remember a dream I had once, when I was not yet diagnosed with depression. In my dream, I was altogether unable to relate to those around me. Everything I said sounded rude, offensive, ungracious, and everyone assumed I was simply being unkind. Yet I knew that my words only came out of my inability to feel anything beyond deep sadness. And so I retreated to bed. My bed, I recall, was in a room full of people, and a friend – now a minister – was standing by my bedside, telling others that I needed to sleep. “He has depression,” he was saying to them. “He needs to rest.” The sensation that I felt in that dream was one, strangely, of safety. Someone else understood, even when others around me didn’t – even, perhaps, when I didn’t myself.

This desire to sleep, and sleep, until the trouble is passed, is a common experience of depression. Though I was never so depressed that I could not get up in the morning, though I managed, most of the time, to go to work and fulfil my duties, there were days when I carried there with me such a deep, abiding languor that, though I was there in body, in spirit I was somewhere altogether different. I often thought of the sleepers in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and of Lord Rhoop, beleaguered by the trauma of nightmares turned to reality, who was allowed to sleep among them until his soul was healed. That, I felt, was what I needed most. I later saw this emotional state perfectly, tangibly, evoked in Lars von Trier’s film, Melancholia, probably the most powerful depiction of depression I have ever seen. Yet Melancholia, though it creates and expresses palpable empathy for the broken, can do nothing to heal them. The answer to such brokenness and anguish seemed altogether evasive.

When talking with another friend, now also a minister, about my struggle to feel alive in my faith when everything else in me felt dead, he suggested that I look to figures in the faith who knew the same struggles as me. Perhaps, he suggested, I should read Spurgeon. I had heard of Spurgeon, and recalled his words about divine election being of a particular comfort to me while working in Malaysia, so I began to seek out what I could find of his work and of biographical writings on him. Yet what I found was not the comfort I expected. At a time when I most wanted to hide until it was all over, I read in Spurgeon’s life of a man who continually pushed himself in his work for the Gospel, whose response to depression seemed to be the opposite of what he most wanted to do; he did not sleep, he laboured. Was this what was expected of me? What about my dream of sleeping, and sleeping, until the world was a safe place again for me to enter?

A closer look at Spurgeon’s life shows the truth to be more complex than this. Yet the question remains: how do we handle the deep darkness of the soul productively, in a way that enables healing, when what we most want is to hide until it is over? The first answer is that the Bible promises refuge for the truly broken, expressed perfectly in the opening to Psalm 57:

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,

                  for in you I take refuge.

I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings

                  until the disaster has passed…

Yet David spoke these words when he was fleeing for his life from Saul. The darkness of the soul is much like this, but less tangible. Nor is the “distress” something which always passes; unlike a physical foe which can come and go, the foe of depression can remain far longer, for the very reason that it is not tangible and not so easily defeated or exposed. Spurgeon himself writes:

Causeless depression is not to be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings. As well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet, all- beclouding hopelessness.

The Psalms, however, always manage to move from this “causeless depression” to a place of hope – with the exception, of course, of Psalm 88. The psalmist may often begin “in the midst of lions”, yet he seldom stays there. Often, he does what Martyn Lloyd-Jones would call “preaching to oneself”. He would ask himself: “Why so downcast, O my soul?”, as though it were not needful, however powerful the source of dread may be.

As my depression slowly came into the light and I began receiving treatment, this idea of preaching to myself became a source of great comfort to me. I also began to see certain activities – working, praying, reading the Bible, going to church; serving others – as a kind of soul-physiotherapy. Just as a patient whose body has been broken by injury or stroke needs to begin exercising her muscles slowly, in agonisingly small steps, until they can handle the rigours of walking, lifting, talking and carrying, so my soul needed to be opened, in infinitesimally small stages, until it too could walk, run and praise. I began to see in figures like Spurgeon not an insensitivity to the pains of depression but rather an awareness of the fact that hiding in bed may comfort but does not heal, that only the Gospel can heal, and that only the life lived under the Gospel is truly life.

In a startling account of ministry now highly influential in Christian thinking, Spurgeon once spoke to his ministry students about a phenomenon which he called “the minister’s fainting fits”. In this lecture, Spurgeon presents depression as the norm, not the aberration, among ministers. Granted, such depression may not always be clinical, and Spurgeon – though he did not have the medical vocabulary that we have now to talk about such things – makes no such claim. Yet experience tells us that his statement is true: the levels of clinical depression amongst full-time ministers and missionaries appear far higher than in other vocational sectors among those in the church. Beginning with this solid conviction, based both on personal experience and observation, Spurgeon moves on to ask the question why this is so, offering a number of highly informative answers along the way.

First, he notes, burdens of the body and soul weigh down all believers at some point in their lives. Just as the benefits of common grace reach out to all humans, so do the troubles of this fallen world. Christians are not spared their realities, and so ministers can expect to encounter the very same burdens as others. Indeed, for Spurgeon, experiencing depression oneself is altogether necessary to be able to reach out to the “poor in spirit” among your flock. “Good men”, he writes, “are promised tribulation in this world, and ministers may expect a larger share than others, that they may learn sympathy with the Lord’s suffering people, and so may be fitting shepherds of an ailing flock”. Indeed, the ability to sympathise with an “ailing flock” seems, to Spurgeon, to be a prerequisite for ministry the way that God ordained it to take place:

Disembodied spirits might have been sent to proclaim the word, but they could not have entered the feelings of those who, being in this body, do groan, being burdened; angels might have been ordained evangelists, but their celestial attributes would have disqualified them from having compassion on the ignorant; men of marble might have been fashioned, but their impassive natures would have been a sarcasm upon our feebleness, and a mockery of our wants. Men, and men subject to human passions, the all-wise God has chosen to be his vessels of grace; hence these tears, hence these perplexities and castings down.

It is curious, perhaps, that Spurgeon does not refer here to the very fact that God Himself chose not to despise the brokenness of human flesh, but was anguished to the point of sweating blood, making Him the Great High Priest who can sympathise with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). Yet, even without this strong Biblical justification, Spurgeon makes his point with almost irrefutable eloquence, and he is not alone among Christian writers in expressing the significance of personal brokenness in developing empathy. Had he lived in the same century as the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, he may have found an unexpected affinity with the sentiment Nouwen expresses in his seminal work The Wounded Healer:

Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a voice of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in their own heart and even losing their precious peace of mind? In short, ‘Who can take away suffering without entering it?’ It is an illusion to think that a person can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.

Spurgeon, like Nouwen, argues that experience of suffering is both necessary in order for ministers to empathise with those for whom they care and a consequence of dealing with human brokenness. Indeed, he paints a vivid picture of the struggles that the minister’s life entails: the intensity of the work, the lack of rest, the weariness of deep, persistent study, the struggles of consistently carrying the burdens of others. “Let no man who looks for ease of mind and seeks the quietude of life enter the ministry”, he warns; “if he does so, he will flee from it in disgust.” Yet he goes further to argue that depression provides a necessary antidote to more dangerous human weaknesses, noting the significance of depression in humbling great men and women of faith in the past, to keep them from what St. Paul described as “becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness” of their encounters with God (2 Corinthians 12:7). Spurgeon evokes the language of Paul’s account in 2 Corinthians when describing the life of Martin Luther as an example: “His great spirit was often in the seventh heaven of exultation, and as frequently on the borders of despair.” The same, he notes, is seen in the life of Elijah, whose ecstatic victory over the prophets of Baal was followed by one of the Bible’s most stark accounts of depression: “For him no notes of self-complacent music, no strutting like a conqueror in robes of triumph; he flees from Jezebel, and feeling the revulsion of his intense excitement, he prays that he may die”.

Spurgeon explains the need for this to happen by saying that “poor human nature cannot bear such strains as heavenly triumphs bring to it; there must come a reaction.” The heights of spiritual triumph need to be offset by despair at our own inadequacy so that we are saved from a greater danger: the dangers of besetting pride:

Men cannot bear unalloyed happiness; even good men are not yet fit to have “their brows with laurel and with myrtle bound,” without enduring secret humiliation to keep them in their proper place. Whirled from off our feet by a revival, carried aloft by popularity, exalted by success in soulwinning, we should be as the chaff which the wind driveth away, were it not that the gracious discipline of mercy breaks the ships of our vainglory with a strong east wind, and casts us shipwrecked, naked and forlorn, upon the Rock of Ages.

Spurgeon is famous for his highly florid metaphors, and this passage is no exception. At times, he tends perhaps towards the purple in his prose, yet the image here is quite an extraordinary one, whereby the rock upon which the ship is wrecked is not a danger at all but a source of salvation: the Rock of Ages. Depression, in Spurgeon’s view, is not always a curse; indeed, often it can even be a means of grace.

Speaking elsewhere of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, Spurgeon notes how Jesus, in “describing the saved”, begins with poverty of spirit in order to provide a “ladder” by which “feeble climbers” can hope to ascend. “Had the Savior said, ‘Blessed are the rich in Divine Grace’,” he notes, “he would have spoken a great Truth of God, but very few of us could have derived consolation from there.” Yet, in beginning with poverty of spirit, all may identify themselves in Christ’s blessing and from there ascend to grace. Indeed, Spurgeon argues that the first beatitude is even more central to our experience of grace in that it

is essential to the succeeding characters. It underlies each one of them and is the soil in which alone they can be produced. No man ever mourns before God until he is poor in spirit! Neither does he become meek towards others till he has humble views of himself. Hungering and thirsting after righteousness are not possible to those who have high views of their own excellence – and mercy to those who offend is also a Grace, difficult for those who are unconscious of their own spiritual need.

How, we might ask, can a minister hope to lead others to an understanding of grace which they themselves have never acquired? And how can they acquire it until they know themselves to be poor in spirit? Depression, Spurgeon seems to argue, is one of God’s primary means of bringing us face-to-face with our own poverty of spirit without Him.

Thus, “the lesson of wisdom” found from depression, Spurgeon notes, is to “be not dismayed by soul-trouble.” Indeed, it seems possible even to consider it an unexpected blessing. The economy of God’s grace is full of strange reversals like this, and the Beatitudes are based on them. Spurgeon writes:

If it be inquired why the Valley of the Shadow of Death must so often be traversed by the servants of King Jesus, the answer is not hard to find. All this is promotive of the Lord’s mode of working which is summed up in these words – ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord’”.

To confirm this, one has only to think of God’s unexpected ways of dealing with people all through scripture: deliberately choosing Gideon, seemingly the least likely warrior, and assembling for him an army of even less likely warriors, to overthrow Midian; choosing the younger usurper Jacob over the hunter Esau, rejected Leah over beloved Rachel, “the griefs of Hannah” over “the boastings of Penninah”; breaking Paul that he might better trust in the sufficiency of God’s grace. This grace has always used the unexpected and the painful, and has used them to work remarkable wonders in ways that show us that He can “do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

John Piper, a great admirer of Spurgeon, expresses a similar sentiment when writing a reflection on his experiences of cancer, provocatively entitled, Don’t Waste Your Cancer. According to Piper, “we waste our cancer if we do not believe it is designed for us by God” and “if we believe it is a curse and not a gift”. The greatest use of cancer, Piper argues, is “to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ”. Sometimes cancer, he contends, is the best way for us to do this: a “golden opportunity to show that [Christ] is worth more than life”.

The same, I believe, could be said of depression. I have often thought of writing a book called Don’t Waste Your Depression, yet have not done so, both out of a reluctance to bring law-suits upon myself and an uncertainty that I have the wisdom necessary to write it properly. If, however, I ever write it, I suspect it will be most meaningful if it tells stories like the life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who accepted his depression as a painful yet wonderful way of God working His grace in him. Far from wasting his depression, Spurgeon used it as a way of learning humility before God, and from this starting-point of humility, to move on to deeper understandings of grace than health could ever afford.

My frustration with Spurgeon initially stemmed from his prolific work, which challenged my desire simply to hide from the world until I felt healed. Yet I was also frustrated by the fact that he seemed to write about far more than depression, and wrote in an exhortative style that I struggled with; surely, I thought, knowing depression himself he would recognise the ways in which depression clouds our every other perception of God? Not at all. For Spurgeon, depression should never be the final word on a life; nor was it for him ever the defining feature of a ministry. Instead, it brought him to an altogether essential understanding of his poverty of spirit: the sense of brokenness and mourning over self and pride without which no minister or believer can ever hope to rise from the ashes and praise. May we learn to mourn and praise like him.


Nouwen, H. (1979). The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York: Image Books.

Piper, J. (2011). Don’t Waste Your Cancer. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

Spurgeon, C.H. (1909). The First Beatitude: A Sermon Published on Thursday August 5th, 1909. Accessed online, 25th July, 2014.

Spurgeon, C.H. (n.d.). The Minister’s Fainting Fits. In Lectures to My Students, Vol.1. Accessed online, 24th July, 2014.

From Ashes 10: Søren Kierkegaard – Original Sin and the Fear of Possibility


“When you’re absolute beginners,” folk singer M. Ward tells us, “it’s a panoramic view, from her majesty Mount Zion, and the kingdom is for you.” What he seems to suggest here is that, at any beginning point, there appears an infinite potentiality to life, stretching out like a majestic panorama before us. W.H. Auden, in his poem “Horae Canonicae”, suggests something similar, harking back to the story of Adam and Eve when describing the beginning of the day before God:

…smiling to me is this instant while

Still the day is intact, and I

The Adam sinless in our beginning,

Adam still previous to any act.

This can, of course, be a joyful moment of possibility, yet Auden recognises that the moment of potential sinlessness is an illusion. The day holds another truth as it unfolds:

I draw breath; this is of course to wish

No matter what, to be wise,

To be different, to die and the cost,

No matter how, is Paradise

Lost of course and myself owing a death.

All action as we enter our day, Auden suggests, is somehow driven by the fact that, as humans, we have desired and chosen a wisdom in ourselves, apart from God; we have desired a paradise which would have been given to us had we trusted but which we sought by our own merit and our own means and thus lost.

This moment of decision, begun – and decided – for us in the Garden of Eden yet also enacted daily in every human choice, fascinated an anxious Danish philosopher-theologian to the extent that he used it as the very basis for his seminal – although at times nearly unreadable – thesis on anxiety. The philosopher was Søren Kierkegaard, a man whose name is nearly synonymous with anxiety or, as it is sometimes translated in his work, dread. The Danish word which he used, “Angest”, has a common root to our word “angst”, which is sometimes a synonym for anxiety yet often has something of a more metaphysical or existential connotation to it. Kierkegaard, often considered the father of modern existentialism, is no doubt also partly responsible for this fact. He did not write about anxiety that had a clear foundation in circumstances, though here it is helpful and important to distinguish anxiety from stress: Kierkegaard was not concerned with what we might call anxiety which is driven by something quite clear and located in circumstances. The kind of anxiety or dread about which Kierkegaard wrote had more to do with potentiality: with the possibilities which clouded the human mind, most of them to do with what we as humans were and are capable of. For Kierkegaard, this began in the Garden of Eden, with original sin.

We need to note that, in Kierkegaard’s early life, anxiety had a more immediate meaning and significance. Accounts of his life emphasise the anxiety that his own father passed onto him, begun with his father’s terrified belief that, in cursing God as a young man, he had subsequently cursed himself and his family. Peter Bolt notes in his essay on Kierkegaard that his father “had a rather dark and grim Christianity”, which was no doubt at least in part the result of his belief that he was living under the curse of God and therefore could only fear Him, not love Him. Whether this is the primary “barb of sorrow” in his early life to which Kierkegaard refers in his journals, we cannot know for sure. However, there is another story he tells in his diary, told – in the kinds of veiled terms quite typical of Kierkegaard – as if it were hypothetical, not autobiographical, yet which has more than a ring of familiarity to it when we have read also of his relationship with his father. The story he tells concerns a father and son, “both very gifted, both witty, especially the father”. They share a relationship which is surprisingly intimate and tender, but nonetheless characterised by mutual despair:

Once in a long while the father would look at his son and would see that he was troubled; then he would stand before him and say: Poor boy, you are going about in quiet despair; (but he never questioned him more closely; alas, he couldn’t, for he too went about in a state of quiet despair). Beyond that no word was ever breathed about the matter. But within the memory of man this father and son may have been two of the most melancholy beings that ever lived.

We cannot know for sure that Kierkegaard’s own father-son relationship had any direct bearing on this story, and certainly he used his journals not only for personal disclosure but also as testing-grounds for ideas and modes of expression which would later appear in his published works. This story itself appeared in a slightly different form in his book, Stages on Life’s Way. Yet what he tells us in this chillingly simple story is that fathers and sons can so often keep one another in states of “quiet despair”. Kierkegaard would later call despair “the sickness unto death”, describing it as such because it caused the despairing subject to be altogether unable to find hope of transformation in God. In this way we see that despair and anxiety can be two ends of the same spectrum: anxiety lies when we see the potential for destructive action within us, and despair when such destructive action, occurring against or within us, has led us to a point of hopelessness. Yet both are based on the invisible and the inward: there was nothing objective to tell Kierkegaard’s father that he was cursed, any more than could be said of any other family that experienced suffering. Both anxiety and despair therefore seem to deal with the realms of possibility: either negative possibility, or the apparent absence of any possible good. Kierkegaard’s father despaired because he believed himself and his family cursed; his actions and choices seemed then to determine their future, and that future was an altogether helpless one.

Significantly, Kierkegaard notes in The Sickness Unto Death that the human ability to despair is a positive thing; yet the actuality of despair is not. If humans can despair, they are able to anticipate a negative situation and stop it before it happens:

The possibility of this sickness [despair] is man’s advantage over the beast; to be aware of this sickness is the Christian’s advantage over natural man; to be cured of this sickness is the Christian’s blessedness.

Yet to sink into the sickness leads to death. This moment of potentiality lies at the heart of much of what Kierkegaard writes about both anxiety and depression. Writing elsewhere on “the despair of possibility”, he says:

In possibility everything is possible. Hence in possibility one can go astray in all possible ways, but essentially in two. One is the wishful yearning form, the other is the melancholy fantastic – on the one hand hope; on the other, fear or anguished dread.

For Kierkegaard, the kind of “panoramic view” which M. Ward describes is not always positive. We can go astray when we think of possibility in too “wishful” and ungrounded a manner. Yet more importantly we can go astray when we fear possibility. The panoramic view could hold any number of things, both good and bad, much as an agoraphobic will fear an open space for the dangers or threatening crowds that might soon occupy it.

But why would we fear open possibility? Kierkegaard writes of such fear as the consequence of original sin. In a highly complex thesis, he explores how our sinful action now differs from original sin: “Adam’s sin”, he writes, “has sinfulness as its consequence”, whereas our sin “presupposes sinfulness as its condition”. That is to say, just like in Auden’s vision of waking to a new day, it has already been predetermined in humanity that sin will influence our actions and our decisions. Yet on-going human action perpetuates sin: “sinfulness is in the world only insofar as it enters through sin”’; that is, each time we sin, sin “enters the world”. It only exists in the world through sinful action, because, if it pre-existed human action, then it could only be said that Adam sinned because sin already existed, and thus he would not be culpable; nor would we.

This is a line of argument which is bound to make many people’s heads spin, and some may feel more anxious on reading Kierkegaard’s account of anxiety than before they began. Yet there seems to be a very helpful thread within his thesis onto which we can hold: just as humans have been able to take a “qualitative leap” into sin, so too can we take an equivalent, though infinitely more liberating, leap into repentance and freedom. We feel anxiety when we stand at the moment of decision, when we recognise in ourselves both the desire for goodness and the impulse towards sin. In this vein, Kierkegaard defines anxiety as “freedom’s self-disclosure before itself in possibility”: anxiety stems from the possibility that something destructive may happen, and invokes fear through the possibility and the tension that it brings before it turns into reality. Kierkegaard notes that, because of our conflicted and corrupted natures as humans, we can feel anxiety both about evil and about good; neither sits comfortably within us, at the moment of decision.

If we follow this line of argument, then anxiety, much like the ability to feel despair, can be a good rather than a negative force within us: “Whoever has learnt to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate” (emphasis added). While we may not agree wholly with Kierkegaard’s polemical language here, we can hopefully still see the merit in what he says: that, when we learn to listen to what anxiety tells us – much like when we listen to pain and know that we should act to remedy our physical distress – we can use that moment of anxiety to turn towards God and away from sin.

In this sense, Kierkegaard can take the rather radical step of describing anxiety as “saving through faith”. Making the clear distinction here that he is not speaking of anxiety which “is about something external” but rather in “the sense that it is the person himself who produces the anxiety”, he goes on to note that anxiety can in fact be seen to be “freedom’s possibility”. If sin is our preconditioned nature, then the fact that we feel anxiety over sin indicates that we have the potential still to turn from sin. Sin, however ingrained it may be within our natures, still remains a choice, so long as it has the potential to cause us anxiety. The man who can kill without any dread over the act he is about to perform has, in this sense, lost “freedom’s possibility”; there is nothing in his mind which enables him to recognise the moment of choice between sin and righteousness.

There is, no doubt, a more nuanced theological discussion needed here, about the two natures of man and about the extent to which sin hardens us to the possibility of righteousness. Yet we see, for instance, in Paul’s account of sin in Romans 7 that the human heart is capable of swinging between a desire to do good and an inability to do so. This, of course, remains an impasse, so long as human strength is our only enabling force. The means by which anxiety about sin can be transformed into a positive, Kierkegaard writes, is “saving through faith”. In a powerful closing statement to The Concept of Anxiety, he declares that “the person who, in respect of guilt, is educated by anxiety will rest only in the Atonement”. There is a firm theological message contained in this brief statement: if we are “educated by anxiety”, we learn of our potential to turn from sin, but also know that it is only Jesus’ sacrifice which can enable that turning to take place. Otherwise, we are stuck simply in the moment of anxious potential, like St. Paul without Christ, doing what we would not do and unable to do the good that we would do.

Kierkegaard, of course, knew very little about the science of the human brain. What we know now is still miniscule compared with what there is to know, yet we are still aware of facts which would, to some eyes, seem to negate Kierkegaard’s highly philosophical and theological thesis. Yet all that we say about the human brain, if we believe that we live in a fallen creation, can only be descriptive, not prescriptive. At best we can say, “Now the human brain appears to operate in this manner, and as a result we feel x in response to y.” We cannot say, “This is the way that humans were meant to be.” If sin, as Kierkegaard firmly believed, has corrupted our ability to choose between right and wrong and has left us anxious, then it seems perfectly plausible that scientists could still find evidence of this problem in a section of the brain – the amygdala, for instance, in matters of post-traumatic stress – which, broken by the cause of sin, now contains the effect. Anxiety which results from the sins of others, though different in its nature, has the same cause as the anxiety which Kierkegaard describes: we fear others, because we know what others can do to us, and our awareness of this has as much to do with our own ability to sin as it does the ability of others to do so. Bullies who become bullies themselves enact this fact daily: that the sin which occurs in another can equally occur in us, and lives on in acts of self-perpetuating, mutual culpability.

Kierkegaard’s life was, sadly, a troubled one to the end. Despite experiencing grace and forgiveness later in life in a way which seemed to transform him significantly, he nevertheless went on to attack the established church in a way which, however righteously motivated it may have been, was not especially gracious. It also remains unclear whether, in breaking off his engagement as a young man, he did a righteous and obedient act before God or made himself a needless martyr. Yet we can be thankful nevertheless that Kierkegaard helped us see a way for anxiety to be, harmful though it is, a pathway to repentance in showing us our own weakness and brokenness before God. If Kierkegaard was indeed “educated by anxiety”, then we can at least to some extent credit his experiences of anxiety with the profundity and beauty of his devotional writings and the many magnificent, God-focused prayers which, broken in himself, he penned as he turned himself and others towards God. This prayer, one of my favourites, is a perfect expression of this:

Father in Heaven! Thou hast loved us first, help us never to forget that Thou art love so that this sure conviction might triumph in our hearts over the seduction of the world, over the inquietude of the soul, over the anxiety for the future, over the fright of the past, over the distress of the moment. But grant also that this conviction might discipline our soul so that our heart might remain faithful and sincere in the love which we bear to all those whom Thou hast commanded us to love as we love ourselves.

Or, in still more elegant simplicity, this perfect prayer for any anxious soul:

Teach me, O God, not to torture myself, not to make a martyr out of myself through stifling reflection, but rather teach me to breathe deeply in faith.

To that, we can only say: Amen.




Auden. W.H. (1972). Collected Poems, ed. E. Mendelson. London: Faber and Faber.

Auden, W.H. (1952). The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard. New York: New York Review Books.

Bolt, P. (2008). “Kierkegaard on Anxiety”. In B. Rosner, ed., The Consolations of Theology. Grand Rapids, Mi.: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Kierkegaard, S. (1993). The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, ed. P. Rohde. New York: Carol Publishing.

Kierkegaard, S. (1996). The Prayers of Kierkegaard, ed. Perry B. Lefevre. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Kierkegaard, S. (2004). The Sickness Unto Death, trans. A. Hannay. London: Penguin Books.

Kierkegaard, S. (2014). The Concept of Anxiety, trans. A. Hannay. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Ward, M. (2009). “For Beginners”. In Hold Time (Album). Merge Records.

From Ashes Part 9: The Philosopher’s Wretchedness


When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after…the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know thing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then? Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me?

(Blaise Pascal, Pensées)

If our condition were truly happy we should not need to diver ourselves from thinking about it.

(Blaise Pascal, Pensées)


There is little doubt that, were a teacher to have Blaise Pascal in their class today, they would be running for the gifted education co-ordinator – who may themselves have found themselves unable to help. Fortunately for the education systems of his day, the highly precocious child who was later to become one of the most influential philosophers and mathematicians of his day was – as we would say today – home-schooled. In her account of his childhood, Catharine Morris Cox writes that “when Blaise was 3, his father began to devote all of his time to the education of his children. The boy never attended school and had no other teacher than his parent”. His father famously refused to teach his son mathematics until he had mastered languages, a fact which perturbed young Blaise no end. Dismissing his son’s anxious requests for mathematics lessons, Pascal Senior described mathematics as merely “the means of making accurate figures and finding the relation they bear to each other”. This, the story goes, awoke in young Pascal such a desire to learn mathematics that, shut up in his own room, he developed almost all the axioms of mathematics, personally discovering Euclid’s thirty-second proposition with no assistance.

Interestingly, though Cox’s accounts of the “early mental traits of geniuses” often emphasise the melancholic tendencies of her subjects, Pascal – who, by Cox’s estimation, belongs to a group of geniuses above whom there is only one figure, John Stuart Mill, possessing an IQ between 180 and 190 – has no psychological distress in his childhood which Cox considers worth mentioning. What Cox does tell us, however, is that the child Pascal had an insatiable thirst for answers:

Pascal early showed much interest in his surroundings and ‘wanted to know a reason for everything.’ When the reason was not known or when his father could not tell him or told him theories which although generally accepted were not actually proved, he was not at all contented, for ‘he had an unusually keen eye for discerning falsity. To know the truth was the single aim of his mind.’

The thirst for knowledge at an early age drives many high-achieving children to independent enquiry or investigation. Such is certainly the case for young Blaise, seen particularly in his prodigious discovery of mathematical truth whilst shut up in his bedroom. Yet a closer look at his childhood suggests that there was more to it than a love of learning. In their psychoanalytic study of Pascal, as part of a broader psychological investigation into the connections between “high intellectual potential” and depression, Catherine Weismann-Arcache and Sylvie Tordjman note both the early trauma experienced by Pascal in losing his mother at age three and the signs of depression and anxiety in him from a young age. Of particular interest to Weismann-Arcache and Tordjman is Pascal’s two early phobias: “one concerning his parents’ expressions of love for each other” and “the other running water”. While their examination of his life seems overly interested in its potential for sexual divergence – a possibly over-affectionate relationship with his sister, for instance, or the Freudian potential in his fears of running water – they nonetheless identify what Cox does not: that young Pascal was arguably as anxious as he was intelligent. We may not entirely agree with the next step to which Weismann-Arcache and Tordjman take their speculation, but it is interesting nonetheless to wonder with them if Pascal’s thirst for intellectual certainty stemmed not only from a desire to know but also from a need for security, a fear of emptiness – expressed most powerfully in the time he spent testing Aristotle’s axiom that “nature abhors a vacuum”. They write:

We can speculate that the young Blaise had a constitutional hyperreactivity that rendered him particularly receptive [to emotional and physical stimuli], with the result that normal situations, such as the loving relationship between his parents, became wounding ones to him.

This tendency in highly intelligent children and adolescents towards “hyperreactivity” is at the heart of a number of theories about intellectual development, including the work of Kazimierz Dabrowski, cited in an earlier essay. Dabrowski termed “hyperreactive” individuals “psychoneurotics”, an unfortunate name which does little to take away potential stigma. Yet Dabrowski’s prose poem, “Be greeted psychoneurotics!”, first published as Paul Cienin in a book of “existential thoughts and aphorisms”, does much more to present a sympathetic, indeed empowering, view of what it means to be “hyperreactive”:

Be greeted psychoneurotics! For you see sensitivity in the insensitivity of the world, uncertainty among the world’s certainties. For you often feel others as you feel yourselves. For you feel the anxiety of the world, and its bottomless narrowness and self-assurance. For your phobia of washing your hands from the dirt of the world, for your fear of the absurdity of existence, for your fear of being locked in the world’s limitations. For your subtlety in not telling others what you see in them. For your awkwardness in dealing with practical things and practicalness in dealing with unknown things, for your transcendental realism and lack of everyday realism, for your exclusiveness and fear of losing close friends, for your creativity and ecstasy, for your maladjustment to that ‘which is’ and adjustment to that ‘which ought to be’, for your great but unutilized abilities. For the belated appreciation of the real value of your greatness which never allows the appreciation of the greatness of whose who will come after you. For your being treated instead of treating others, for your heavenly power being forever pushed down by brutal force; for that which is prescient, unsaid, infinite in you. For the loneliness and strangeness of your ways. Be greeted!

We can, I think, see something of Pascal in this description: his refusal to accept that which his society took for granted, his fervent challenges to axioms, his awareness of human sinfulness and brokenness which drove him to Jansenism – a controversial, semi-Calvinist group within the Catholic church of his day. Moreover, we see in this description the potential for genius wrapped up in tendencies which the world often does not understand. It is speculation, no doubt, yet it is tempting to wonder how Pascal’s life might have been different had he attended a regular school. I think of my own experiences as a school student, and now the things that I observe as a school teacher, and am sad to recognise that our world today is not, perhaps, as willing to weep “tears of joy” as Pascal’s father was over a young boy who personally discovers most of the principles of Euclidean geometry. Perhaps Pascal would have been given new, and more rational, fears had he had to face the kinds of attitudes with which highly intelligent “psychoneurotics” are more commonly “greeted”. Yet God’s grace no doubt was found in the fact that Pascal was raised in a highly intelligent family in which knowledge and learning were valued. This, at least, helped enable him to flourish rather than be destroyed in the process of intellectual development.

Yet we also gain something of a warning from Pascal’s growth as an intellectual. What at first seems simply an insatiable desire for clear, logical reasoning could equally be seen as a need to find security in one’s own knowledge of the world. This can be a kind of obsessive or neurotic behaviour, seeking certainly almost without the possibility of genuine satisfaction. It is possible to see in Pascal’s incomplete apologetic system, published only in their note form as Pensées, a desire to make faith completely watertight – a quest which, arguably, does something to negate the very nature of faith.

This, however, is not the end of the story for Pascal, and here we learn another valuable lesson from his fascinating life of both mental illness and brilliance. It comes, unexpectedly, in statements from Pascal which seem almost to disavow the scientific discipline which he did so much to help develop. Malcolm Muggeridge notes that Pascal “reached the conclusion that what is now our great sacred cow – science – was a cul-de-sac”. Which is not to say that science is useless, rather that it has limits, and sometimes quite profound ones. For Pascal, the issue seems to lie in the limits of the human mind and the human capacity to offer its own remedy. According to Muggeridge, Pascal could only reach this conclusion through being broken in himself: “His proud, defiant mind had to be humbled before it could know anything at all.”

We are, perhaps, clutching at too many straws when we try to make sense of Pascal’s biography, the accounts being often sketchy or inconsistent, driven by competing agendas over his genius. Yet it is significant to note that a man whose life seemed driven by a desire for knowledge could also make poignant statements about the corruptions of the human mind, and it is arguably his awareness of this which makes Pascal still so significant for the world today: not solely for his scientific or logical genius, though few, if any, in the world today could be said to have surpassed him; nor is it because his arguments for Christianity cannot be faulted, because they can. Magnificent though the Pensées are, they are incomplete and flawed, and at times driven by cultural conditions and concerns which a modern reader simply cannot understand without careful further study. Yet Pascal, unlike many of his successors, had humility. We see this humility as it relates to intellectual endeavour in this passage from the Pensées:

It is vain, O men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for your miseries. All your insight only leads you to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you will discover the true and the good. The philosophers promised them to you, and have not been able to keep their promise…Your principal maladies are pride, which cuts you off from God; sensuality, which binds you to the earth; and they have done nothing but foster at least one of these maladies. If they had given you God for your object, it has only been to pander to your pride; they have made you think that you were like him and resembled him by your nature.

The philosophical quest – the project of loving knowledge – had failed, in Pascal’s eyes, simply because the human heart corrupted all it took and turned it into an object of pride. True knowledge, knowledge with the power to liberate could only occur when we began with a healthy awareness of what we were before God. The wisdom writers of the Old Testament would put this quite simply: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Muggeridge notes that Pascal’s words caused French poet Paul Valery to consider them the “intimations of a sick mind”, adding in response, “If so, let me be sick!” I must agree with him. If a healthy mind is convinced of its own sufficiency and a sick mind recognises its brokenness before an all-knowing God, I think we had all rather be sick.

Scripture would make quite the opposite pronouncement, however, of sickness and health. True mental health before an all-righteous God, it would say, begins with remedying the fundamental lie of the serpent in the Garden of Eden: “God knows that when you eat from [the tree of knowledge] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” No, Pascal would agree: such is not the case. At that very moment, when we posit our own intellects as the final measure of all things, we cease to know anything meaningful at all. We begin, at that moment, to die.

Positioned at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, and continuing to rebuke the intellectual pride of our own age, Blaise Pascal stands: an anxious boy with a phobia of running water and a desperate desire to know all things, who reminds us as broken humans that we cannot possibly know everything but that we can trust and know a God who does.


Cienin, P. (1972). Existential Thoughts and Aphorisms. London: Gryff Publications.

Cox, C.M. (1926). Genetic Studies of Genius Vol.II: The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press.

Muggeridge, M. (1969). “Pascal”, in Jesus Rediscovered. London: Fontana, pp.119-122.

Weismann-Arcache, C., and Tordjman, S. (2012). “Relationship between Depression and High Intellectual Potential”, in Depression Research and Treatment, Hindawi Publishing Corporation.

Pascal, B. (1966). Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin Books.

From Ashes: Sturm und Drang

Rembrandt - Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee
Rembrandt – Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee
Out of the storm, He comes,
                        He comes,
clearly, speaking victory –
            comes with calmness in His step
                        and silence for each dread.
Watching mountains quake,
                        they quake
to see such sureness step upon
            these waves of doubting fury; all
                        trembling piques stand still.
And from the storm, He brings,
                        He brings
the resting peace of endlessness,
            the answer which no peace could know,
                        borne here upon the sea.
On through the storm, He reigns,
                        He reigns,
and, sovereign, knows the ebbing tide.
            No wave is wasted in His rule,
                        no feeble vessel lost.

J.S. Bach, Cantata BWV 81, “Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?” (Sigiswald Kuljken) – Read text

From Ashes: No glitch


No glitch in the creation plan and yet

my mind skips and repeats over old tracks

as though, as though in early days a scratch

a fleck of dust crept in, crept in, upset

the balance of it all. With every beat

the tension in these ancient grooves – this wax –

threatens now to jump, to echo back.

What function is at fault? What needle head

was broken at the start? What plan, what plan

has bred this error in the early heart?

Unglitch, unglitch; return, reboot, play true;

the data will cohere when they are scanned

beneath the eyes that made your every part

and never will the glitching past win you.


From Ashes Part 8: No work for tinkers

William Blake, "Christian Reading in His Book" Wikimedia Commons
William Blake, “Christian Reading in His Book”
Wikimedia Commons

It is autumn in my home town of Melbourne as I write these words, and outside the University library the streets are bathed in orange, golden and golden-brown leaves. It is a glorious sight, one of those moments where something seemingly hopeless – the dying of leaves – can be simultaneously so beautiful.

I was having to reflect on the converse of this today while teaching my Year 9 Creative Writing class about Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia”. We were discussing the strange juxtaposition of hopeful and hopeless imagery: an angel looking like a baby yet helplessly motionless; a rainbow framing a magnificent sunrise that looks like a shower of stars, while a flying rodent carries a banner bearing the picture’s title. What does it all mean, this fusing of beauty and tragedy? Teenage minds, strangely rigid, struggle to grasp the concept. Adult minds struggle too, yet nonetheless know it to be all too often true.

Dürer’s picture came at a time when scientific understanding of mental illness was speculative and theological understandings were vexed. Yet melancholy and attendant disorders of the soul (the Greek word for soul, “psyche”, is the source of our word “psychology”) were a particular focus during the Renaissance; either they were more prevalent, or were more openly discussed. Ian Osborn in his book Can Christianity Cure Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? (2008) makes a case for OCD in particular increasing through the heightened emphasis during the Renaissance on the significance of the individual. Certainly, present-day emphases on self-actualisation stemmed first from the Renaissance and then from the Enlightenment. First the individual became a figure of intellectual or cultural development, then he or she became the “measure of all things”. OCD, with its peculiar emphasis on responsibility, was more likely to be an issue in a society where the individual had power over his or her own circumstances; and so the Renaissance gave rise to heightened “scrupulosity” and, later, to anxieties over one’s ability to impact one’s own salvation. In this respect, Osborn takes a similarly critical view of the increased emphasis in Roman Catholicism on confession and penance and of the Calvinist need to “make your election sure”, criticising each not so much for its theological merits as much as for the impact it had upon tender consciences. It is within this changing and complex religious world that Osborn introduces the story of John Bunyan, the village boy and son of a local tinker who became one of the most famous and widely published authors in the English language.

Writing of the common tendency in this period towards “scrupulosity” – a Renaissance term for compulsive and unnecessary confession or mortification of indwelling sin – Osborn notes that, despite the Reformation, such unhealthy delicacy of conscience persisted sometimes within Protestant groups. He quotes Puritan writer Richard Baxter as saying of such “scrupulous” types:

They are endless with their scruples, afraid lest they sin in every word and thought. They ensnare themselves in many vows, touch not, taste not, handle not; and in self imposed tasks, spending so many hours in this or that act of devotion. They think against their will that which they are most afraid of thinking. They are troubled with hideous blasphemous temptations, against God or Christ, or the scripture.

Theologically speaking, many may be troubled by Baxter’s words, implying as they seem to do that the Reformation, with its striking emphasis on salvation by grace through faith, did nothing to help people of this temperament. This is not necessarily the case. Many today still come to faith in contexts which teach saving grace explicitly yet themselves take long to come to grips with it at a personal, heart-felt level. Nor do we need to dismiss the entire Reformation project in order to acknowledge that, in its attempt to avoid the false teachings over which it broke from the Catholic church, the Protestant church sometimes strayed into its own forms of legalism.

Yet we also need to think for a moment about the implications of the term “tender conscience” which has often been applied to a number of key religious leaders. There are significant temperamental differences that exist within Christians of the same denomination and theological persuasion, and it is possible for two Puritans, for instance, to have the same theology yet strikingly different ways of embodying this in their own personal devotional lives. When these tendencies of personality become damaging or detrimental, we label this as a “mental illnesses”, a term which, for all its weaknesses, at least acknowledges that there is a problem requiring a unique solution. Scrupulosity during the Renaissance was considered a problem for which many solutions, medical, practical and spiritual, were tried; yet it is not difficult for a modern reader to look at Baxter’s description of the scrupulous type and see a striking case study of an obsessive-compulsive.

The most cursory descriptions of John Bunyan’s life show symptoms of mental illness from an early age. Catharine Morris Cox, in her 1926 study of the “early mental traits of three hundred geniuses”, writes:

When he was 9 or 10 Bunyan’s spiritual interest was first awakened; his tender conscience became oppressed by a conviction of sin, and yet he continued to enjoy the usual pleasures of the village.

Later, Cox comments also on Bunyan’s “second spiritual awakening” after which he experienced “several years of severe mental struggle and frequent periods of despondency”. This period of despondency is the primary focus of Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), which Osborn has termed “the most fearless account of obsessive-compulsive disorder ever composed”. My first reading of this work, when I was teaching in Malaysian Borneo and experiencing a period of intense spiritual struggle myself, was somewhat like looking into a mirror which showed not the outward things but what Bunyan termed the “unfolding of my secret things”. My own secret things unfolded as I read it; I was reading a description of my own mind.

I did not know when I read Bunyan’s autobiography that either he or I suffered from OCD. Yet his description of childhood and adult obsessions rang frighteningly true of my own experience. The key difference, perhaps, between my life and Bunyan’s was that as a child he acted frequently in a way which offended his own conscience, while my conscience was simply offended by the potentials of my mind. Despite these differences, Bunyan’s description of guilt and torment as a child is remarkably similar to my own:

Being filled with all unrighteousness, the which did also so strongly work and put forth itself, both in my heart and life…Yea, so settled and rooted was I in these things, that they became as a second nature to me; the which, as I also have with soberness considered since, did so offend the Lord, that even in my childhood He did scare and affright me with fearful dreams, and did terrify me with dreadful visions; for often, after I had spent this and the other day in sin, I have in my bed been greatly afflicted, while asleep, with the apprehensions of devils and wicked spirits, who still, as I then thought, laboured to draw me away with them, of which I could never be rid.
Also I should, at these years, be greatly afflicted and troubled with the thoughts of the day of judgment, and that both night and day, and should tremble at the thoughts of the fearful torments of hell fire; still fearing that it would be my lot to be found at last amongst those devils and hellish fiends, who are there bound down with the chains and bonds of eternal darkness, ‘unto the judgment of the great day.’

Some of what Bunyan has written here may seem problematic to our eyes today. Did God, we may ask, truly send those torments upon Bunyan as a child, or were they simply the workings of his troubled mind? Given perhaps that Bunyan knew he was sinning yet persisted in this sin, it is possible to see the torments he knew as a conviction of sin, albeit of a particularly vehement kind. Yet the story of this kind of torment continued into Bunyan’s adult life, after his “second spiritual awakening”. Indeed, Bunyan describes, in painful detail, a number of experiences of intense doubt and fear over his own salvation, and repeated periods of searching through the Bible in a way which is frightening to read, so intense was his search for truth and so intricate the webs of doubt and self-condemnation in his mind.

It is tempting, while reading Bunyan’s account, to want to shake him out of the circuits of his mind. Yet anyone familiar with OCD will know that what Bunyan is describing of his faith is a common experience for OCD-sufferers, whatever the specifics of their obsessions and compulsions. Bunyan’s particular fear was that, if those who were to be saved were elected by God, then how could he know if he was one of the elect? And, if he was not, then was “the day of grace…past and gone?” The circuitous ways in which Bunyan read and second-guessed scripture in response to his doubts is particularly difficult to read, so intricate is the detail with which he describes it and so honest is he about the ways in which “by these things” he was “driven to [his] wits’ end”.

It is difficult also to understand why a committed believer should be allowed to get so inextricably stuck within their own labyrinthine obsessions. I am tempted to think, Was it necessary? Did Bunyan need to go through such excruciating doubts and fears in order to arrive at the level of faith which he later displayed? Such a question, however, is impossible to answer. There is something profound, however, which Bunyan’s agonies achieved – or, more accurately, which God’s grace achieved in these agonies. He, like others in his situation, reminds believers of how deeply they are dependant upon God’s grace.

Many Christians operate with a propositional kind of faith in God’s grace yet live day-to-day out of faith in themselves. Many believers could be the target of Paul’s vehement rebuke in his letter to the Galatians:

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing – if it really was for nothing? (Galatians 3:3-4)

Believers who suffer from OCD can remind the church of this truth: that, as we began in grace and the Spirit, so we continue in this grace. Osborn writes:

All that is needed [for sanctification] is unconditional trust in God. What happens, unfortunately, is that in the Christian church this truth keeps on getting overshadowed by others. When this has happened, it has taken obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers – theological canaries who can sense when individual responsibility has become choking – to take Christianity back to its pure source.

I remember being particularly comforted by reading these words when I first encountered Osborn’s book and the stories it told of Luther, Bunyan and Therese of Lisieux whose struggles, like mine, had led them to a far deeper understanding of salvation by grace through faith than they could have ever found through calm, untroubled lives. The term “theological canaries” is particularly apt. Believers who rely on themselves at an implicit level may take a long time to recognise this fact; believers whose self-reliance begins to attack itself will be forced to deal with it much sooner, and much more decisively. All believers swing between complacency over sin and legalistic striving for righteousness in oneself. OCD-sufferers cannot handle the swing of the pendulum; it either drives them to self-destruction or to broken humility before the only one who can save them from their thoughts.

Bunyan’s experience of this kind of grace is a particularly striking one. It is possible to be discouraged by the failure of all his attempts to salvage his faith by searching the Bible frantically for truth. Yet we can see even in this an attempt to self-sanctify, to fix himself through spiritual discipline rather than broken humility before God. There is none of this in the story of how he was finally delivered:

[O]ne day, as I was passing in a field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience, fearing lest yet all was not yet right, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, Thy righteousness is in heaven; and methought withal, I saw, with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, is my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was a-doing, God could not say of me, He wants my righteousness, for that was just before Him…Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed[.]

Osborn notes that Bunyan’s vision of Christ as his righteousness was unusually mystical for a Renaissance Puritan, concluding from this that his mental illness drove him to an encounter with God of an intensity that his religious upbringing would never have prepared him for. Regardless of how true this observation is, there are few accounts of God’s saving grace more beautiful and comforting, outside of scripture, than this one.

We can speculate about how Bunyan’s life may have looked had he never experienced OCD. We can wish that he had been delivered sooner, that he might have been spared the agonies of obsessive doubt and compulsive spiritual discipline. We can certainly wish that he had never suffered so much that the goodness of faith should feel like such torture to him for so long. Yet the goodness which God brought out of this circumstance stands nonetheless, and has gone on to bless many.

My grandfather had a saying which seems strangely apt for Bunyan, the tinker-turned-writer/preacher: If ifs and ands were pots and pans there’d be no work for tinkers. The saying, in its archaic charm, reminds us that there is little or no point wondering what could have been. This, in a human sense, is true and wise: what has happened is not erasable; we cannot see how our lives or how the world may have turned out, had this or that tragedy or trial not occurred. Yet it is all the truer in the light of God’s grace, which turns our every tragedy to His glory, if we trust in Him. Just is an autumn beauty is seen even as things die, God is working in the dead and broken things to give them a life and a beauty which they would never have had of their own accord.


Bunyan, J., 1666. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Christian Classics Ethereal Library

Cox, C.M., 1926. Genetic Studies of Genius Vol. II: The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses, ed. Lewis Terman. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press.

Osborn, I., 2008. Can Christianity Cure Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? Grand Rapids, Mi.: Brazos Press.

From Ashes: Sonnet

Though fearfully and wonderfully made,

There are abscesses where my dirt is stored:

See here, the time I learnt to cry, to wade

In mud and mire, and hurt of my own accord.

Though Grace has breathed its breath in me, I still

Retain the sick fruit of Adam’s broken soil;

In pain, in guilt, in deeds of death I till

What many days will buckle at my toil.

Distorted are the instincts of my breath;

Upended are the ways I read my years.

Reorder, Grace, and open up what death

Has stultified, now brackish from these tears.

Take heart, poor soul; the future comes in flood,

Revivifies the past with mercy’s blood.

From Ashes Part 7: Weariness

James McNeill Whistler, "Weary" Wikimedia Commons
James McNeill Whistler, “Weary”
Wikimedia Commons


Living Vapour
Drag your heels –
the ground sinks beneath your thudding feet
and dunes defy your constancy.


Watch the sun –
it rises and sets,
then runs to the place from whence it has set
while your heavy feet echo.


And is there a thing
of which it is said,
Here is something new?
What eye has forgotten
and ear can’t contain,
what heart rejects as vanity:
it has all been, it already slips
and sublimates as vapour.


I have made great works and built
houses, planted vineyards and
swum in pools and watered trees,
but I could not build the clouds.


And though I put it in my heart
to test all madness and all folly,
all my flesh was quicksilver
and all my mettle, vapour.


But after the sand-castles, what could we build
that kings had not built before us?
And after the storm-clouds, what could the wind
blow that had not yet fallen?


And after the sun had already seen
all wisdom and all my folly –


who could still stand
who could stand tall
what worth were all of my towers?


My father gave me silver cords;
they have all been cut.
He gave me bowls of gold and they
now lie broken on the floor.
I have cast my bread upon
the water’s edge; the sea retreats.
He has shown me how it comes
back to bring my bread to me.
We skimmed our stones across the sea;
they left, not to return.
But I have cast my bread upon
my Father’s sea. It stays.


The wind holds us still
and our hearts beat with awe
and the hand that draws closed
the blinds of the day
pulls the day’s strands
together and seeks
once again all
that is lost.


Wisdom, Study and the Weariness of the Flesh

The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
(Ecclesiastes 12:11-12 KJV)

The teacher searched to know and understand all wisdom and folly. In all his studies, he saw history repeating and the goodness of the wise being thwarted by foolishness and by the pervasiveness of evil under the sun. The same fate overcame both the wise man and the fool. And so, he asked, what profit was there in all this toil? Why did the wise man labour when he suffered the same fate as the fool?

Here, in his summation of all that he has found, the writer of Ecclesiastes declares the study of books to be a weariness of the flesh. The Hebrew word for “weariness” which he uses – yegi’ah (יְגִיעָה) – has an interesting context to it. The word itself appears only here in Hebrew scripture, and its Greek equivalent – κόπωσις or koptó, used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and in a number of New Testament passages – denotes lament, mourning, or cutting off. Yegi’ah, however, is related to a group of Hebrew words which can variously be used in relation to toil, labour or weariness. The root word, yaga, appears for instance in Ecclesiastes 10:15 when the writer declares that “a fool’s work wearies him”. The same word is used when Job laments, “Since I am already found guilty, why should I struggle in vain?” (Job 9:29). David uses the word when he declares that he is “worn out” from his “groaning” (Psalm 6:6) and elsewhere when he is “worn out calling for help” (Psalm 69:3). Isaiah uses it repeatedly when he tells Israel that God will not “grow tired or weary”, that He “gives strength to the weary” and that “those who hope in the Lord…will run and not grow weary” (Isaiah 40:28-31). Yet, when Israel does not seek out God, they are said to be have not “wearied” themselves for Him, and God is later said to be “wearied” by their “offences” (Isaiah 43:22, 24).

Most interesting, perhaps, is the use of the word yegi’ah outside of the Bible. It appears in extra-biblical Jewish writings as one of the ways in which the Torah can be read or studied: formal, intensive study, as opposed to cursory reading. Some Hebrew and Christian commentators have interpreted Ecclesiastes 12:12 to be a warning against the reading on non-scriptural texts. Amos Bitzan, in his dissertation on pleasurable reading in Jewish thought, quotes a passage from the Talmud Yerushalmi which refers to the often-cited statement by Rabbi Akiva warning that “one who reads in external [ie. non-Biblical] books” shall not “inherit the land” as per Isaiah 60:21. Yet the rabbinical injunction against external books was not universal: some noted that such books “were given for recitation not for tiring study [yegi’ah]”. In this sense, exhaustive study of Biblical books was not wrong, but it was when such study was exercised with non-Biblical books.

My mother, I remember, used to remind me of Ecclesiastes 12:12 when I was completing my Honours thesis in Literature. She was not, I suspect, viewing the passage in light of this school of Jewish thought, yet was warning that too much study could be an exhausting experience. This view is not, I suspect, altogether separate from what the writer of Ecclesiastes was saying. A book which has been famously hard to locate comfortably within the flow of Hebrew scripture, Ecclesiastes is not perhaps as opposed to non-Biblical learning as some try to make it to be. Indeed, some view the book as a kind of thought experiment – an examination of the world through secular eyes – a process which is given an inexplicably large space in the Bible if its only conclusion is that secular wisdom is destructive and to be avoided at all costs. Yet such “wisdom”, apart from God, is clearly not liberating. If the toil that is placed in studying scripture gives life, the toil of studying the many books which the world produces is only going to be like the other forms of toil which the Teacher decries:

What does man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever. (Ecclesiastes 1:3-4)

The word for “toil” used here is a different Hebrew word, yet it has similar connotations, also used throughout the Old Testament to denote both toil and weariness. The weariness that comes from the mind studying may not be the same as that which comes from physical toil, yet each leads to the same end: the futility, the vapour or vanity which the Teacher finds everywhere he looks. 


A former student of mine, now studying at University, asked me a few years ago why so many academics seem depressed. The reasons, of course, could be many, but Ecclesiastes’ Teacher could tell us some of the reason why. New theories are developed, new ideologies and epistemologies circulated, yet they fail to transform or change the fundamental hardships of this life. Academic endeavour, the accumulation of knowledge, the development of theories: all of these are, in the end, wearisome, if they cannot push beyond the entropy of the human state.

Some in this world believe that, if God exists, He should be understandable and accessible via human reason. That may be. Yet the end-point of the weariness discussed in Ecclesiastes is not our arrival at some transcendent epiphany but one of broken humility before a transcendent God. This is something which is arguably aided, not prevented, by mental illness. Some of the most intelligent people throughout human history have been beset by deep sadness, weariness or anxiety – sometimes because of their great learning. Some have reached an intense point of crisis precisely because their learning only brings them ever more profoundly to its own impasse; and some of the world’s most significant changes have been accomplished at this point of crisis.

Yet what is accomplished on a large scale in some cases can occur in a smaller day-to-day sense in each life, when we recognise that, for all we know, we are not God and our knowledge can only perpetuate and re-interpret what already is until we encounter and humble ourselves before the God who Is.

Intellectual endeavour may enable us to understand the workings of the human mind, and many have been blessed by what psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience have taught us. When I read the stories of significant believers in the past who experienced mental illness, some cry out for the kind of care which they would have received had they lived today. William Cowper’s story, for instance, might have been a far happier one had his particularly intense form of paranoid depression been properly diagnosed and treated; yet perhaps his hymns would not have impacted as many lives with their raw emotional faith if that had happened. Martin Luther would perhaps have been better able to manage his guilt complex with the help of modern psychotherapy, or reduced his compulsive confessions if he had received Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy; yet perhaps the European Reformation would not have happened, or would have taken a very different direction, if this had been so. John Bunyan might have wrestled less with thoughts of intense blasphemy and destructiveness had he learnt better strategies for confronting and resisting them; yet the world would not now have Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners or, more significantly, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

We cannot know how these figures’ contributions might have changed had their mental illnesses been treated by twenty-first century standards, and in some ways it is futile to consider what might have been. The key truths that we can learn from these lives are not techniques for reducing mental distress but for knowing how to take such distress and the deep sense of futility in human endeavour that it brings and present it before God.


I vividly remember the night that a friend told me I no longer needed to comfort myself with my own mind, that God wanted to be my comfort. I lay in bed and prayed Psalm 131 to myself: My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes not haughty. I do not concern myself with things too great or wonderful for me…That, I remember, was the start of a significant change in my mental health.

In a world which values intellectual toil so highly, to accept that such toil is, in the end, weariness of flesh without God is humbling and counter-cultural to say the least. Yet it may be the only way that we can escape the cycle of toil and weariness which fills this world. For many in the past, it was the only way to escape from the terror of sin and death which consumed them; and we will turn to some of their stories now.


Bitzan, A. 2011. The Problem of Pleasure: Disciplining the German Jewish Reading Revolution, 1770-1870. Doctoral Dissertation, The University of California, Berkeley.