Fighting Despondency with Faith

Note: The following is article #24 in a series reflecting on chapters in John Piper’s book Future Grace. More information on the book from Amazon.com is available here. A list of all the articles in this series so far is available here.

Chapter 24 of Future Grace is entitled “Faith in Future Grace vs. Despondency.” Studies show that half of all people experience what doctors term clinical depression at some time in their lives. For some it can be a lifelong struggle. As a family physician I am well acquainted with these matters of the soul; the tissue boxes in my exam room get used nearly every day.

There is much that can be profitably said about depression and faith, so in this short chapter Dr. Piper touches three main points: (1) The complexity of despondency (2) Preaching the promises of God to yourself in despondency and (3) Christ’s response to despondency.

First, he discusses that despondency and depression is rarely a simple matter, but rather a complex intertwining of genetic/biochemical factors, conditioning/social factors, and spiritual factors. But he correctly agrees with Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones that, “The ultimate cause of all spiritual depression is unbelief.” Many things press against us, but they all ultimately try to undo our belief in God’s grace and goodness in our lives. Ultimately we must see this as the central root in depression, and this is the root we must attack.

Next, Piper touches on a main theme in Jones’ book Spiritual Depression, that of realizing that re-orienting our thoughts with truth is a powerful weapon. He quotes the book:

I say that we must talk to ourselves instead of allowing “ourselves” to talk to us! Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now [the psalmist's] treament was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why are thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, “Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you… Why art thou cast down?— what business have you to be disquieted?… And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who He is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: “I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance.”

Anyone, Christian or not, can utilize such “positive self-talk” with benefit. But the child of God has more than mere wishful thinking at his disposal; he can call upon the promises of God with full confidence that what God has promised, that He will do. Knowing what God has promised His children is a vital reason to closely study the Bible. I have seen many who become disheartened because they are not aware of God’s promises, and others who become disheartened because they think God has promised them something which He has not.

The last area covered is an examination of how Jesus Himself dealt with despondency. In Matthew 26 Jesus is contemplating His imminent death:

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

Notice that Jesus was facing a real, horrible situation. On a human level he was emotionally in agony. How did He choose to face this crushing weight?

  1. He chose some close friends to be with Him (Matthew 26:37)
  2. He opened His soul to them (Matthew 26:38)
  3. He asked for their partnership and their prayers (Matthew 26:39)
  4. He poured out his heart to His Father in prayer (Matthew 26:39)
  5. He rested His soul in the sovereign wisdom of God (Matthew 26:39)
  6. He fixed his eyes on the glorious future grace that awaited Him on the other side of the cross (see Hebrews 12:2)

When faced with despondency, we can do the same. With the help of wise counsel we can search the various factors influencing our emotions, we can “tell ourselves the truth” with the promises of God, and we can emulate the steps of Jesus by actively involving good friends and our Father in our journey through the dark times.

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