Light and Momentary

True – but the wait weighs heavily now.
So many delays, and you can expect
more road blocks through the coming weeks
as rolling closures right across the north-west
make violent signs of little worth.

Light and momentary?
Perhaps; so, at least, we trust,
yet faith not sight must rule the game
if there’s to be more than witches’ hats
and traffic jams to show.

Yet think: soon, one day soon,
when the barriers roll back
and new lanes are revealed – then,
perhaps, we will say it was worth the wait.
Better by far the day when all roads,
all stones, will give way
to say, Make way.

Make eternal the way;
light now is momentary, yet when it dawns
none of our roadblocks will stand.

Lent: Enough 4

Praise Him that all our rags have failed:
      more longing then for Heaven’s clothes.
And praise Him too that faces fall
      so that we seek His more.

Enough that we now dimly see,
      and in ourselves feel death’s sentence.
Enough that we have glimpsed this sight
       and die to know its light.

Evening Collect: The Horn is Lifted (Cornucopia of Heaven)

Adriaen van Ostade - A Baker Sounding His Horn (Wikimedia Commons)
Adriaen van Ostade – A Baker Sounding His Horn (Wikimedia Commons)

Evening Collect: The Horn is Lifted

After Hammock, “Tres Dominé

 

O God –

the empty horn is lifted;

the hollow shell is given voice;

the broken branch is whittled out

and sings.

 

Three persons,

my emptiness becomes Your fullness;

my earthen jar becomes Your vessel;

my bruised reed hums with Your song

in praise.

 

My soul

is empty, yet Your table flows with plenty.

The thrum in my heart resounds in Your space.

O God, to You this broken shell is lifted:

let it fill.

 

 

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.

References

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. http://spurgeongems.org/vols55-57/chs3156.pdf

Spurgeon, C.H. (n.d.). The Minister’s Fainting Fits. In Lectures to My Students, Vol.1. Accessed online, 24th July, 2014. http://www.onthewing.org/user/Spur_Lectures1.pdf

From Ashes Part 2: Black Bile and Tears

Charles le Brun-Grande, "Les Quatre Temperaments" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_temperaments
Charles le Brun-Grande, “Les Quatre Temperaments”
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_temperaments
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
(William Shakespeare, Macbeth)
Melancholy, though it so weakens and disorders the mind, as to render a person unable, to enjoy the comforts, and to perform the duties of life, is, nevertheless, seated in the body. But the state of body which accompanies this disease, is acknowledged by the best Physicians, to be in general beyond the reach of their investigation.
(John Colquhoun, “Of the Nature and the Signs of Melancholy”)

Art, literature, philosophy and science have for a long time dealt with the question of mental illness. Modern audiences may be baffled or confused by discussions about excesses in bodily humours, or the distinctions between body and mind which often appear in the literature on the subject. These do, however, demonstrate that, for a long time, humans have wrestled with a variety of ways to answer the ever-complex question of how seemingly disproportionate emotional or mental distress could be understood or remedied. Whether it was Hamlet’s mother and stepfather chastising him for his “obstinate condolement”, and his “heart unfortified”, or Hippocrates and later physical scientists speculating about the destructive powers of black bile, we have long struggled to understand why some people seem to be controlled by emotions or mental battles which cannot be externally explained.

For a long time, humans have wrestled with a variety of ways to answer the ever-complex question of how seemingly disproportionate emotional or mental distress could be understood or remedied.

When speaking of depression – once called “melancholy”, from the ancient Greek concept of black bile – modern-day psychologists and psychiatrists will now distinguish between exogenous and endogenous depression, the former seemingly stemming from external factors, the latter from internal. Yet even this does not fully tell the story. Exogenous depression might seize upon a traumatic life event, for instance, yet the “unprevailing woe” which results from it can still appear disproportionate to others. Indeed, it may seem so to the sufferer themselves.

Church father John Cassian wrote in the first century that “of dejection there are two kinds; one, that which springs up when anger has died down, or as the result of some loss we have incurred or of some purpose which has been hindered or interfered with: the other, which comes from unreasonable anxiety of mind or despair”. Certainly, it is helpful to distinguish between the two. Yet for many it can be nearly impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Hamlet, speaking to his childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, perfectly expresses the “unreasonable anxiety of mind or despair” which can stem from seemingly reasonable causes:

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

Having recently lost his father and seeing his mother hastily remarrying to his father’s brother, it is not to our eyes altogether unusual that Hamlet should feel deep grief. Nor are we convinced by his stepfather Claudius’ criticisms of his “unmanly grief”: Claudius, after all, has just killed Hamlet’s father and seduced his mother. Yet even Hamlet speaks of his own grief as if he does not fully understand it, as though even for him it goes beyond what might be expected of his circumstances. Nor is his grief confined to the circumstances themselves: all of life, it seems, has become meaningless, and humanity has revealed itself to him as merely “this quintessence of dust”.

That grief can sometimes take such a disproportionately powerful hold upon us is testified to in the Bible. In Psalm 42, the psalmist asks, “Why are you so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” Many consider the psalmist here to be “preaching to himself”, to be declaring that deep sorrow in light of God’s mercy is never entirely justified. Such a reading, however, fails to recognise that the Bible so often gives full voice to grief, whether rational or not. Psalm 88 is perhaps the clearest example of this, with not the smallest sign of the psalmist “preaching to himself”; and the book of Lamentations famously refuses the “happy ending” which many people wish it would offer. Grief, even in light of God’s goodness, is part of human life and it has the power to take hold of our pre-existing brokenness in ways which the most comprehensive of scientific theories still cannot fully explain.

The church, however, has perhaps struggled more than other areas of society to grapple with mental illness. Perhaps this is in part because we resist reductionist views of things like emotions; if our emotions are more than mere chemical responses – which surely a Christian view must argue – then it seems overly simplistic to say that a correction in neurochemistry is all that is needed to fix the deep agonies of the heart. Yet it must also be equally reductionist to say that, in creatures who are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, our brain’s chemistry has nothing to do with how we feel. We continue to make distinctions between “heart” and “mind”, for instance, which, though they may be helpful to a point, are more metaphorical than we recognise. Emotions no more come from our hearts than they do from our “humours”; what happens in our brains (significantly, not the same as our “minds”) affects our entire bodies, in a complex relationship which only our Creator can truly understand.

But, complex and confusing though the subject itself is, it remains worth asking: why does the church struggle so much to accept the existence of mental illness? Perhaps it is a lingering scepticism about the scientific method of psychology. Few Christians today deny that physical illness is real and that medical help is a gift from God in dealing with it. Yet the thought that adjustments in our brain’s chemistry could help our emotions seems strangely discomforting to many still, as though it constituted a kind of “lack of faith” of which we would never accuse someone if they took antibiotics for their throat infection.

…complex and confusing though the subject itself is, it remains worth asking: why does the church struggle so much to accept the existence of mental illness?

Perhaps it also results from the fact that, while we now view our bodies in medical terms, we still think of our minds and our emotions mystically, distinguishing between facets of how we are created in ways which are neither helpful nor accurate. Look at the Biblical texts which deal with suffering and you see there a connection between the physical, the spiritual and the mental that is highly informative for even modern readers. In Psalm 42, the psalmist speaks to his soul – that is, he gives intellectual instruction to it, suggesting a mental process used to help in a spiritual one. He also describes the physical effects of his mental and emotional malaise. Or, to consider another type of example, Jesus often sought to cure not only the physical distress but also the spiritual needs of those who came to Him; think of the times he said, “Your sins are forgiven”, when surely only a “medical” cure was required.

If the connection between physical and emotional or mental illness is stronger than we might instinctively think, then we have a helpful way forward, perhaps, in dealing with our discomfort about the latter. While some Christians struggle to understand how physical illness can continue for those who pray against it in faith, the majority have had to find ways of acknowledging that, while sickness is not God’s will, it persists in a fallen creation, and that healing is not always forthcoming, for reasons only God can fully know. Many who have wrestled for long periods of time with physical illness have also had to consider the ways in which God uses illness to strengthen His people and to teach them things which they would never have otherwise learned. And, if this can be true for physical illness, then also why not for mental illness?

Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski – although not himself a Christian, heavily influenced by Christian writer and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard – once gave a definition of mental illness which, though many would question it, makes a challenging point which I believe can be quite informative for how we think about this question. For Dabrowski, “disintegration” – that is, the breaking down of simple, neat structures of thinking, feeling and interacting – is necessary for personal growth, and often it is a painful process while it is happening. Yet this process in itself is not necessarily an “illness”. It is an illness, he argued, when it fails to result in positive growth.

While for a variety of reasons I believe it is still helpful to use the term “mental illness” to denote conditions such as depression, OCD, bipolar or schizophrenia, Dabrowski’s point is a fascinating one, because it suggests that what we often consider an ailment can under the right circumstances be a productive force, even – hard though it may be to comprehend – a gift.

We need only look at the many significant people throughout the ages whom we would consider to have had mental illnesses in order to see how this can be the case. Sometimes great artists or thinkers managed to contribute much while still themselves falling prey to their own mental malaise. Figures like Ernest Hemingway, Gilles Deleuze, William Cowper or Sylvia Plath come to mind, whose lives ended either in suicide or despair, or artists like Brian Wilson whose genius and mental illnesses have existed in such an uneasy balance that the latter has often destroyed the former. Yet few can imagine a world without Beethoven, Mozart, Isaac Newton or the countless others who, at the very least, managed to achieve greatness in spite of their mental illnesses. So much so, that it seems worth asking if their mental illnesses in fact helped contribute to their greatness.

…what we often consider an ailment can under the right circumstances be a productive force, even – hard though it may be to comprehend – a gift.

In the realm of Christian faith, we should arguably have a particularly strong capacity for understanding how this can be so. Christians believe all humanity to have been created well by a loving God; we believe that illness exists in this world, yet we also believe that God can use all things in His redemption plan. We know that He never allows suffering to persist in the lives of His children without a good reason for doing so. We also know that He often chooses to work redemption through suffering rather than in spite of it or against it. The many testimonies in the Bible of God working good through trials and despair should surely convince us of this, few more compellingly than St Paul’s in his second letter to the Corinthians:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)

A similar testimony is given by pastor and writer John Newton, in his hymn “Prayers Answered by Crosses”. Newton knew much about mental illness, though not entirely from personal experience. He was in many respects a happy and contented man himself, yet his wife suffered from a variety of ailments and his closest friend, William Cowper, was severely depressed – and at times psychotic – for many years of their friendship. “Prayers Answered by Crosses” was believed to be written around the time that Cowper entered a period of prolonged mental illness, believing God to be demanding that he sacrifice his own life much like Abraham nearly sacrificed the life of his son Isaac. The Olney Hymnal which Newton and Cowper had been writing together hit a dramatic standstill because of Cowper’s breakdown, and for some time it seemed that it would never be completed. Yet Newton was able, through remarkable perseverance and a prodigious amount of writing, to complete the hymnal which has given the world the most ubiquitous worship song, “Amazing Grace”, and numerous others. Remarkably, when Newton reflects on his trials in “Prayers Answered by Crosses”, he does not suggest that God simply delivered him out of these trials, but that God used these trials to teach him what he could not otherwise have learnt.

As we reflect on the ways in which mental illness can in fact be a gift to the world, we would do well to begin by considering the God who makes such things possible.

 

I ask’d the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and ev’ry grace,
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek more earnestly his face.
 
’Twas he who taught me thus to pray,
And he, I trust has answer’d pray’r;
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
 
I hop’d that in some favour’d hour,
At once he’d answer my request:
And by his love’s constraining pow’r
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
 
Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in ev’ry part.
 
Yea more, with his own hand he seem’d
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Cross’d all the fair designs I schem’d
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
 
Lord, why is this, I trembling cry’d,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way,” the Lord reply’d,
“I answer pray’r for grace and faith.
 
These inward trials I employ,
From self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou mayst seek thy all in me.”

 

References

Colquhoun, J. 1814. A Treatise on Spiritual Comfort. Edinburgh: J. Ogle.

Dabrowski, K. 1964. Positive Disintegration. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Newton, J., and Cowper, W. 1779. Olney Hymns.

Winter, R. 1986. The Roots of Sorrow: Reflections on Depression and Hope. Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books.

 

Power Perfected in Weakness (After William Cowper’s “Light Shining Out of Darkness”)

Perhaps the most influential poem that William Cowper wrote was this hymn, “Light Shining Out of Darkness”, which contributed the phrase “God moves in a mysterious way” to the English language. The poem has a very simple, consistent rhythm and rhyme to it not found commonly in poetry today, but it also contains some of the most magnificent and comforting imagery of God’s power found outside of the Bible. My interpretation of Cowper’s poem was inspired by a recent post on A Devoted Life based on 2 Corinthians 12:9, one of my favourite verses in the Bible.
 
Power Perfected in Weakness
(After William Cowper’s “Light Shining Out of Darkness”)
 
God shakes the footprints of the sea,
            The oceans of the clouds;
Darkness trembles, hailstones flee
            At his resounding sound.
 
He carves crevasses into earth
            And tree-trunks slowly bleed;
He weaves the seasons to new birth
            First with a dying seed.
 
A spear has pierced through his own soul,
            A crown of thorns his brow;
He breaks apart to make the whole
            And he shall show me how.
 
And so he plants thorns in my side
            To teach sufficient grace
And rips away the shame of pride
            To shine his radiant face.
 
Deep darkness is his canopy
            Yet he is thick with light;
He spreads the vast, dense galaxy
            That he might shine more bright.