Deciding when to start a family can be complex. Pastor John shares how he and Noël decided, and what biblical truths should inform the process.
My dear Wormwood,
Your last letter reminds me of just how far you have to go in the science of tempting. Your whimpering and excuse-making at your patient’s growth in the virtue of compassion is unusually pathetic, even for you.
Of course, it is a setback and, of course, you’ll be reprimanded for it. But as a member of my department, I expect for you to respond to these new challenges with the same courage and resilience that I would in your situation. Not that I would ever be in your situation; as I told you in previous letters, you must be wary of any growth in sympathy in your patient and make efforts to divert him into more fruitful pursuits. But the young never regard the wisdom of their elders, and now you are paying for your negligence.
Even as you suffer the necessary consequences, however, do not lose your head. Compassion, like all of the Enemy’s qualities, is corruptible. In fact, the sheer intensity of its goodness means that, when corrupted, it becomes a most potent demon.
It is a strong feeling and retains its strength even after it has been diverted from the Enemy’s service. This in fact is one of Hell’s greatest triumphs: that we are able to steal the power and might of the Enemy’s works and turn them to better uses. Even if we are unable to injure him with his vile weapons, we may at least injure his pathetic little statues on earth.Cannibalizing Compassion
Your elders labor to hide whole systems of thievery in robes of compassion. As a lesser tempter, however, you must be content to corrupt compassion at the level of your individual patient. The simplest way to do so is to link compassion to another virtue such as truth-telling, and then have the second virtue swallow it up. The Enemy wants the humans to have “bowels of mercy”; he wants them to practically ooze with sympathy and pity, which, though guided by reason, are nonetheless animated by deep feeling and affection.
You must instead quench the flame of feeling and substitute right thinking in its place. Teach him to regard “speaking the truth in love” as a redundancy, as though any true thing he said is loving whether or not it is fitted to the occasion, and whether or not he is the proper messenger for it.
I had a patient once who lived by the mantra “The most loving thing we can do for people is to tell them the truth,” and was thereby constantly immunizing others against the Enemy’s warnings and promises. His demeanor was so off-putting that words which might have been a great comfort to others in his family and his church (and therefore a great threat to us) became a by-word and a mockery.All Things for Good?
This tactic is especially useful for statements like “God works all things together for good.” We, of course, deny the truth of this; it’s only blind luck that some of our greatest assaults have been foiled as if by some deeper plan. Our efforts to wipe out the Enemy’s chosen family a few millennia ago prove this all too well.
I remember when Scabface made his audacious proposal in the Infernal Council (I was a young tempter then, an aide to one of Scabface’s rivals). His team would stoke jealousy among the twelve brothers, provoking them to kill the patriarch’s favorite, using dreams that the Enemy sent the favorite as a pretext (another example of Hell corrupting the Enemy’s works). Meanwhile, while the holy family was thus in turmoil, Slubgob’s team would initiate a famine that would wreak havoc in the ancient world, with the aim of causing the entire company to starve. We had it all planned out. Send plenty and abundance first in order to lull the idiots into a false sense of security. Humans are notorious for thinking that the present state of affairs is permanent when all of their histories demonstrate that such a belief is absolutely ludicrous. Then, when they think the good times will never end, break all supply of bread and watch them wither away and perish.
It was simply unlucky that the favorite rose to prominence in the way he did; we threw everything we had at him: discouragement, sexual temptation, slander and false accusation, being forgotten by those whom he helped and who owed him their lives and livelihoods. But he was constantly surrounded by that piercing fog of brilliance that indicates the Enemy’s presence. Even then, we were not worried. Plans for the famine were proceeding apace. Who could have predicted that the favorite would rise so high in the pagan court? We had the Egyptian king and his whole household well in hand.
And how could we have foreseen that he would have the wisdom and wherewithal to prepare for the famine and save not only the Egyptians but his own ungrateful family? That he would have his own persecutors in his power, and simply forgive them, was so outlandish that none of Hell’s prognosticators could have ever predicted it. Luck, Wormwood, dumb luck was our downfall.Correction Thinly Veiled
But the worst of it is that the Enemy has made hay of such blind chance. He has the audacity to take credit for it! To claim that all things work together for good, that what we and the jealous brothers had intended for evil, he had always intended for good. The pretense to take credit for our work, as though we were merely his puppets. What propaganda! What froth and nonsense! Nevertheless, this “truth” has been great comfort to numerous of the Enemy’s pawns, even as we have ripped everything from them, and were it actually true, it would no doubt demoralize even our fiercest tempters.
We can neutralize even this advantage of the Enemy. Render the claim “All things work together for good” into a platitude, into a trite saying that is most at home on greeting cards and kitsch. Let it flow easily from the lips of those who live in comfort and ease so that rather than being a salve to the wounds of the afflicted, it further inflames their pain. The balm of Gilead becomes a source of resentment and bitterness.
Once you’ve trivialized the saying, you may use it to corrupt compassion. Use your patient’s belief in it as a tool which he wields against the suffering. When he comes face to face with real suffering, make him think that the first and most important act of compassion is to correct the thinking of the sufferer.
When a woman is weeping over the loss of her child, questioning the Enemy’s goodness, let him intrude with “All things work together for good.” And teach him to say it in such a tone of voice that communicates the obviousness of its truth. Let him offer it as a correction thinly veiled as a comfort. That way, when the platitude is resisted, you can nurse in him the self-pitying feeling, “I was only trying to help.”A Tempter’s Great Friend
Let him, however unintentionally, heap guilt and shame upon the grieving. Let him give the impression that the proper way to suffer is the Stoic way — unfeeling and confident in the face of loss. Build up the impression in his own mind; let him even practice it for himself and then turn his mode of suffering into a standard by which he evaluates others. In this way, you can even use his success in enduring affliction as a weapon against others.
Never let him suspect that his eagerness to insist upon this “truth” is actually owing to his (very reasonable) doubts about its truthfulness. His discomfort in the face of real suffering and sorrow leads him to turn the Enemy’s potent weapons into platitudes that not only fail to comfort the afflicted but actually further afflict them.
You must bring him to a place where he attempts to steer the emotional vehicle of every sufferer that he comes across. Make him think that real displays of lamentation are an assault on the Enemy’s character, and as a partisan of the Enemy, he must take up the cause and justify the ways of God to men, even to a grief-stricken mother.Silver Lining’s Playbook
Teach him to always look for the silver lining in other people’s troubles (though of course make sure that he never looks for it in his own; Hell forbid that he ever actually learn to give thanks in all circumstances, including the ones that he finds most discouraging, frustrating, and sorrowful).
Make him into the sort of false comforter who always begins with “At least.” “You’ve lost your job, but at least you have your health.” “Yes, your child may be disabled, but at least he’s alive.” “Yes, you may be walking through barrenness, but at least you’re married.”
The trick is for your patient to try to cultivate gratitude in others by comparing their sufferings to greater ones. The mindset we want to see is the one that starts from the premise “It could always be worse,” and then moves from that true but irrelevant statement to “And therefore you’ve no right to grieve as you are.” As I’ve told you a thousand times, Wormwood, comparison is always a tempter’s friend.Comfort That Kills Quietly
You may think that such errors would be easily avoided by the patient, but you’d be wrong. In the same way that they love to collapse virtues into each other (like they do with “speaking the truth” and “loving”), they equally love to abstract virtues from each other. Thus, it’s no trouble to teach him to “be compassionate” (that is, “Speak truth with no regard for timing or propriety”) while ignoring the Enemy’s demand for patience, long-suffering, wisdom, and fitness.
In fact, this is one of the more amusing ways to fuddle the humans: At the exact moment that he is urging patience and joy to the grieving mother, he himself is being impatient about the fact of her ongoing sorrow. He finds her continued grief unendurable at precisely the moment when he is exhorting her to endurance. The frustration resulting between two people on such occasions, especially if they are closely related, is one of the simple joys of a tempter’s life.
But there are other and more delicious ways to corrupt compassion. Next week I’ll teach you how to turn the virtue of compassion into the sin of empathy.
Your affectionate uncle,
Jesus has already paid the price to ransom a global people who live to praise him. And he wants to use you to spread the astoundingly good news. John Piper preached this message at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. (Isaiah 48:10)
Ten years ago, the furnace of affliction burned hotter than normal. Suddenly a single parent, my life became a waking nightmare. I cried myself to sleep every night. My daughters were living with sorrow that manifested itself in various destructive ways. My body was failing. Some days I struggled to even dress myself. I didn’t know who to confide in, and I doubted if talking would help anyway. No one could fix this for me. No one could fix any of it.
And today, though I’m not in a season of that kind of intense pain, people whom I love are suffering. How can they endure? How did I endure?
God refines us in the fire. The flames in our life sanctify us and draw us to God in ways that nothing else can. We emerge with a stronger faith and an unrivalled dependence on him. But the process isn’t easy.Struggling to Breathe
In the furnace of affliction, I often feel like I can’t go on. I wonder how I can keep going when I don’t see an end. I wonder how I can endure with grace when the heat is almost smothering me. What does the Christian life look like in the furnace?
I struggle to breathe. I wonder if I’m going to get air or if the smoke is going to suffocate me. It’s moment to moment. Breath to breath. I can’t think about the future in the furnace. All I can do is pray I’ll survive.
I know God is my only hope, so I need to engage with him. As I look around, no one else is inhaling thick smoky air, so they can’t understand how panicked I’m feeling. I wonder if I’ll ever breathe freely again. I’m not sure if God will ever deliver me.
So, I get up in the morning, pull out my Bible, and start talking to God, begging him to clear the smoke. To lower the heat. To let me out of the furnace. I talk to him about my fears. My anxiety. What I want him to do. I pore over the Scripture passage I am reading, looking for promises to claim. Something, anything, to cling to.Nothing Matters But God
When I do that, I notice that I’m breathing normally. My heart isn’t pounding. My mind isn’t flooded. It’s as if I’ve walked out of the furnace for a few minutes. It’s clear. I’m not choking. My lungs breathe deeply again.
I can laugh. I have hope. I feel weightless. Nothing matters but God. He shows me things I’ve never seen before. I start underlining my Bible everywhere — God is talking to me. I sit and listen. Sometimes I am still, taking in the holiness of the moment. Other times I scribble furiously in my journal, trying to capture all that God is saying. All of Scripture is alive with promises and hope. Passages I’ve read before, that I’ve passed by in my hurry to get through my “quiet time,” take on new meaning. Now, I linger over them. Savor them. They are as honey in my mouth — the sweetest things I will taste all day. They sustain me.
I begin to understand Jeremiah 15:16 in ways I never have before: “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart.” When I wasn’t in the furnace of affliction, those words had little meaning. But now those words are life. God-breathed. Bursting with joy. God is giving me “the treasures of darkness” (Isaiah 45:3). My everyday life feels almost devoid of sunshine, but now the light is breaking through the clouds.More Alive in the Fire
I cannot adequately describe those moments. Time almost stands still. I feel more alive here than anywhere else. I want to stay here forever, beholding the beauty of the Lord. But I need to start my day, so eventually I close the Bible, push my chair back, and prepare for what the day holds.
Getting dressed I start worrying about the concerns of the day. The heaviness of life envelops me, and I feel the air getting thick again. The future seems dark and shrouded. My mind races with all I have to do. Fear grips me. I can’t even button my clothes. How am I ever going to make it?
Overwhelmed, I stop and pray. I ask God for peace. When I do, it’s as if I’m sticking my head out of the furnace where I can breathe again. This is the only way I’m going to survive. I whisper, “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word” (Psalm 119:25). And peace washes over me. The Spirit comforts me, assuring me I’m not alone.More Connected to God
As I go about my day, sometimes I forget God is with me. When I do, the furnace can grow so hot that I’m afraid I’ll lose consciousness. I listen to what people are telling me. I listen to the negative things I’m telling myself. I listen to the voices that tell me my situation is hopeless. But then the Spirit gently reminds me that I can breathe if I poke my head out of the furnace. So I call out to God and begin to breathe freely again.
I finally understand what it means to be connected to God all day long. When I wasn’t desperate, I didn’t talk to God continually. Now, in the furnace, I am ever aware of his presence. Calling out to him is the only way to breathe deeply. Otherwise the heat of the furnace becomes unbearable.
I remember God’s promises. When I walk through the fire, I will not be burned. The flames will not consume me (Isaiah 43:2). Before the furnace of affliction, I didn’t know what that meant. Now I know. I am in the fire. Flames almost engulf me. It’s stifling and suffocating.
But when I thrust my head out of the furnace, I realize the fire has no power over me. It will not overwhelm me. And while I may long to be outside, like everyone else, the water and food and air I get when I poke my head out of the furnace is better than any water or food or air I’ve ever experienced. My thirst is satisfied by “rivers of living water” (John 7:38). I’m eating honey sweeter than I’ve ever tasted (Psalm 19:10). And the air is fresh and pure, the breath of life from God himself (Ezekiel 37:5).Deeper Portion of Christ
The furnace contains treasures I can’t find elsewhere. As Samuel Rutherford said, “If the Lord calls you to suffering, do not be dismayed. For with it he will provide a deeper portion of Christ.”
Only those who have suffered can understand those gifts fully. A deeper portion of Christ. Life-giving water. The honey of the word. While the furnace of affliction can be unspeakably hot, what we gain through it is indescribably sweet. In it, God refines us, turning our pain into gold that will last throughout eternity. Even in the midst of my struggles, in the white heat of the furnace, I am grateful.
It’s better for us that Jesus is gone. He said so when he left. But why is Christ’s physical absence from us better for us than his physical presence?
The apostle Paul thought and spoke of Christian ministry as labor. He abhorred laziness in the pastorate.
Paul did not see the office of pastor as a nice fit for guys with soft hands who prefer an indoor job. Pastoral work, and good teaching in particular, is hard labor — labor that is not only cursed and opposed, but specifically targeted by Satan, who loves to focus his attack on opposing lieutenants. If he can cut off the supply lines and defenses, he will soon overwhelm and defeat the ground troops.
Good pastors, Paul makes plain, must be laborers (1 Timothy 5:18), hard workers, in particular in their labor of preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 4:13–16; 5:17). Such is the ministry of pastor-elders in the local church: to teach and exercise authority (1 Timothy 2:12). To labor in, and lead through, teaching the words of the risen Christ in the inspired writings of the apostles. “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13).
Christ calls pastors to labor in their feeding of the flock through sound teaching. And diligent word-work — both in preparation and presentation — is not easy work, not when it is done well.Honor Men Who Work Hard
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). Not merely “especially those who preach and teach,” as it is often paraphrased, but “especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”
Doubtless some pastors will labor more in preaching and teaching than others. All pastors are to be skilled teachers (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24; Titus 1:9), but inevitably some will have abilities and proclivities to preach and teach more than others. But it’s not gifting that Paul highlights, but “labor” that he says is especially deserving of appreciation.
The labor of preaching and teaching is the central labor of pastoral ministry, and while churches should stand ready to provide financial support for all good pastors, we should have a special concern — the especially — for those who bear the burden, and do the hard work, of the central pastoral labor: preaching and teaching.
A pastor who doesn’t emotionally sweat and strain over his words is a pastor falling short of his calling. God means for pastors to be workers at their teaching. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Good teaching doesn’t just spill over. It requires diligence and vigilance. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16).Teaching with a Tether
Part of what makes pastoring hard work is that we teach with a tether. We don’t just sit down with a blank piece of paper, or show up to address an attentive church, and speak off the top of our heads. Unashamed workers “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Week after week, day after day, the words we breathe out to feed the church are not our own thoughts on the matter.
Christians have a Book. And good pastors are happily tethered to this Book — which is the most powerful, proven, life-changing Book in the history of the world. Good pastors are unavoidably Book-men.
Being men of the Book demands head-work and sustained mental effort. We study. Many of us learn and reference the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Before making applications, we first wrestle with what the text means and does not mean. And being men of the Book requires heart-work. Before turning to tell others what the Book says, we first put ourselves under its teaching, for repentance and faith.Most Solemn Charge
Then, when we craft words in writing, or say words in speaking, we inevitably put ourselves out there for criticism — with preaching being even more taxing than writing because you can’t edit what you say in public. Survey after survey reports modern man fears public speaking more than anything else, including death. Add to that the weight of speaking, in the context of worship, on behalf of God. There is no more solemn charge in all the Bible than this:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:1–2)
Christian preachers may make every effort to “hide behind the cross,” but we cannot long hide behind the pulpit. Preaching exposes a man. In time, even when he tries to hide, a preacher inevitably reveals his own heart and life, borne witness in what he’s willing, and unwilling, to address. And in addition to what happens in the moments before our hearers, we anticipate the final day, when “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).Heart Behind Hard Work
So, good pastors are not lazy. They are hard workers — even in the face of a modern society freshly primed to criticize a leaders’ workism and encourage what amounts to laziness. Outward hard work, however, can come from a sinful inward disposition. All of us, pastors included, can work hard for the wrong reasons. For selfish ambition. For mere kudos and applause. From deep emotional insecurity. What, then, are the right reasons for hard work in pastoral ministry?
First and foremost, we work not for God’s acceptance but from his full embrace in Christ. We first own, in our own souls the Christian gospel, not another. We aim to labor from fullness of soul, not from emptiness. Such is the heart of the Protestant work ethic, noticeably distinct from the prevailing medieval ethic, which came before it and challenged it at every turn.
The first word to every pastor, as to every Christian, is not, Work, but, He worked. It is finished. Look to the labors of Christ. Look how he rose early to meditate and pray, how he navigated intrusive crowds, and had patience with maturing disciples, and untiringly did the works of his Father, and fielded inconvenient pleas from the sick and disabled and disadvantaged.Free to Work Hard
The Reformation recovery of such ultimate rest for the soul produced a different kind of people — and a different kind of pastor. Not a lazy and apathetic people. But the kind of people with new energy and freedom, new vision and hope, fresh initiatives, fresh freedom from self, and new desires to expend self for the good of others. The kind of people who have the Spirit of God at work in and through them.
Those who best know the grace of God in Christ — and pastors should know him well, if not best — are the freest people on the planet to give themselves to work hard. The gospel has liberated us with Christ’s full righteousness in our place and Christ’s own Spirit now dwelling in us. In him, we have been freed from self-protection to pour out our energy and give our time and skill and creativity to blessing others, rather than serving self. Good pastors lead with and model, as examples to the church, a new ethic for all those who are in Christ (Ephesians 4:28) — inwardly first, and then unavoidably outward.
With such a heart, then, we receive the mantle of preaching and teaching not mainly as a privilege but as a call to self-sacrifice. Not mainly as an honor, but as a summons to gladly bear a burden for others. Not mainly as comfort, but as a calling to hard work.Work for More Joy
As we labor in preaching and teaching, as we work hard at good words, whether written or spoken, we learn the lesson that a hard day’s work makes for a happier evening than a day of laziness and distraction. And for a happier soul. Which makes us a better vessel for the joy of the church.
When we do not eat the bread of anxious toil but enjoy the soul-sustaining food of Christ himself, we see hard work as an opportunity, not a burden. Hard work is more satisfying than laziness, both in the moment (if we have eyes to see) and, without a doubt, on the other side of our labors. “Christians will work hard,” writes John Piper, “but they will work more for the joy of all the good their work can bring to others than they will out of fear at what men will think if they fail.”
You will not find the happiest people in the world lying on couches. Pastors, let’s show that world that one of the most reliable places to find them is in pulpits.
Pursue, strain forward, press on. God wants us to put all energy into making it to the end, not revisiting the life we had before we started the race.
My beloved Toviel,
The Almighty has seen fit to reassign you to the department of soul care. Praise be to God! You have been handed the unspeakable privilege to serve those who are to inherit eternal life (Hebrews 1:14). At present, the Master bids you to help a man who has piqued the interest of demons. I will be assisting you in our mission to bring him home.
Can you remember, dear nephew, when we first laid eyes upon them? I can’t get passed it. The sheer brilliance of our happy Creator — who could have guessed his mind? We all stood by and watched him paint. He opened earth’s chapters with light. New sentences soon followed filled with breathing forests, towering mountains, budding flowers, roaring waters, and all sorts of wonderful creatures. The eagle soared, the gazelle pranced, the dolphin swam, waves crashed. Thunder clapped and shook the earth (even Michael grabbed at the hilt of his sword, startled at the sound).
Can you remember shouting for days on end in pure ecstasy? I know the Master does (Job 38:7). Each new day (as he then named it) contained new reasons for happiness.Divinity’s Mirror
Yet, the brush stayed in hand. He continued.
Can you not still feel the hush that fell as the Almighty knelt down (to speak in a human way) and breathed into the dust? What happened then, even I, “the preaching angel,” hesitate to speak. He made a creature, distinct from himself, and yet, in a real sense, a reflection of himself. A creature, fashioned specially into the image of its Creator. For months, I simply stared. Our awe doubled as he made her, similar to the first in imaging his Majesty, yet, different from the first as the moon differs from the sun. Eve, that first man named her.
But heaven’s poison found paradise. Our cursed brethren — violently thrust from above — attacked these beings God called children below.
Outside of the Holy One himself, they despised his image-creatures most — even above Michael’s sword, I wager. The vicious one slithered in and tempted the couple. We watched in horror as all once colorful became dark. The mirrors turned dim. Weeds began to grow in the celestial garden. The Creator clothed them in animal skins and expelled them. With drawn sword, our kin protected entrance from its former rulers.Grand Announcement
For centuries we inquired into what our Master had planned. We witnessed death and rebellion, murder and rape. And just when all seemed lost, he himself entered his own creation; the Author wrote himself into the play. I, Gabriel, still remember when he sent me to the humans to make the announcement. (I have not moved that fast since.) I still recount my lines, as an actor recalls the grand performance of his youth:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:30–33)
The Son, who would open the door to the locked kingdom, went. He himself, we soon realized, was destined to fulfill the ancient prophecy and crush the serpent’s skull (Genesis 3:15). Our Master, the King we spent countless ages praising upon his throne, took on the form of his servants. He became man. Man who would die. But of course, you know all of this already. I cannot but help it. What else should we discuss, if not this? Do we not long to look into such things?Will Humans Recognize Us?
Ah yes, I nearly forgot. Now to your question. As you consider your new line of work, you ask whether the human you assist and strengthen, whose spiritual good is your mission and whose salvation is your glory, will he, who you serve out of sight and out of mind, recognize you in glory? On that day when our Master will chariot the clouds and make all things new, will your man — assuming that he is one of the chosen — know you?
When they meet us, beloved Toviel, I imagine that, like everything else in our Master’s kingdom, they will greet us with a sense of familiar wonder. All will be new, yet not that type of new which is just out of place — not that new which, when met, completely surprises. Rather, the tune that they have hummed the whole journey, the song they learned from they know not where, the melody which played in their hearts as the only comfort on darkened nights, will meet them at last. And on that day, when faith shall turn to sight, they will not merely hear the song; they will join it, as raindrops finally reaching the ocean’s surface.
I believe when you see each other as you both are, he will embrace you as a lifelong friend, with whom he only now had the pleasure of a proper introduction. Of course, we do not mean to distract him from our Lord — the dirt beneath must not seize one’s gaze from the flower’s petals — but he will see in your face a necessary ally who he only finally found at that moment. Perhaps, dear nephew, it shall be similar to how they will greet the saints of other generations whose stories and writings played their part in guiding them home.Still Work to Do
This, dear Toviel, is the type of kinsmanship in which locked eyes and a gentle smile suffice to say all that is needed. And as he goes to shake our hand (I speak again in a human way) you will humbly bow before him — for he will be a king. (In one man, the kingdom was lost; in another, crowns are gained.) As a servant to his king, yet, as a friend to his friend, you will finally usher him home with great joy.
That day, dear Toviel, that day, when the host of heaven will swell with completeness, when the last voice shall be present to sing the Great King’s praises, when the last narrator is in attendance to tell their part of the Great Story, when the last king and queen finally take their seat alongside his Highness, all will conclude, and yet, all will begin at long last. Creation groans. Heaven groans. We groan. For that day.
But until then, we have work to do.
Your Fellow Servant of His Glory,
In The Gabriel Letters, a senior angel (Gabriel) counsels a junior angel (Toviel) on how to assist a human against the temptations of demons and how to bring him home to heaven. This series is inspired by the classic work of C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.
Sex in marriage, just like other physical gifts from God, is not an absolute cure for lust, but it can be a great help in the battle.
If we are in Christ, God is remaking our minds.
Once, we were “darkened in [our] understanding” (Ephesians 4:18). We may have been smart, even brilliant, but we shut the doors and windows of our minds against the knowledge of God. We preferred illusions over truth (Romans 1:18). We crafted alternative realities where God was not glorious, Christ not worthy, sin not damnable, and holiness not desirable. Our minds, created to be like a garden of the Lord, became a field of thorns, a scorched land.
But in Christ, God is reclaiming his garden. He’s opening the doors and windows and letting the light back in. He has told us that one of the great tasks of the Christian life is “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Ephesians 4:23). Pluck weeds and plant trees. Gather rocks and plow fields. Prune vines and build walls. Purify your mind.Purify Your Mind
The purifying of our minds happens, in part, as we learn to habitually set our minds in certain directions — as we turn our mind’s eye from the worthless to the beautiful, from the defiled to the pure, from the false to the true. Like all repentance, such turning is not a onetime work, but a daily one, an hourly one, even a moment-by-moment one. Nor is it easy: changing our habits of thought is like carving new ruts in old roads. It will not happen spontaneously.
As we do set our minds in certain directions, and make holy thinking a habit, the effect will be like gradually opening the curtains: light and warmth from the God of glory will come in, making our thoughts bloom like flowers and rise like oaks of righteousness.
God tells us, in the book of Phillipians, to consistently set our minds in three directions: on glory above, on beauty below, and on people around.1. Set your mind on glory above.
Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:19–20)
Paul reminds the Philippians of their heavenly citizenship directly after he warns them not to be like “enemies of the cross of Christ,” people who have “minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18–19). By earthly things, Paul does not mean the gifts in God’s good creation, but rather sinful pleasures (see Colossians 3:5). Those who set their minds on earthly things have scrubbed heaven from the horizon of their minds, preferring to fill their heads with dark pleasures.
The antidote is to look up: lift your eyes to glory above, and walk often in the fields of heaven. But Paul will not let us speak vaguely of “glory above.” A mind set on high is not filled with a spiritual haze, but with a Person: Jesus Christ. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior.” “Set your mind on glory above,” then, mainly means, “Set your mind on Christ and all that is yours in him.”
Think much of the Lord Jesus. Consider how he left his Father’s side and took the form of a servant. Ponder how he relinquished his rights in order to die for desperate sinners. Remember how he is now clothed in a glorified body, bearing the scars of our redemption and crowned with the highest name. Meditate on how he will one day “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body,” and make everything broken about us whole (Philippians 2:6–11; 3:21). Only then will we know something of what it means to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
Search for this Jesus as you read your Bible day by day. Cast your mind in the mold of his goodness. Carry his promises with you in all the chambers of your head. Return often throughout the day to think of glory above.2. Set your mind on beauty below.
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
A mind set on heaven does not cease to think of earth. No: heaven sends us hunting through creation for all the marks of our Father’s handiwork. Thinking on beauty below is a matter of Christian obedience.
Too often, however, I substitute “whatever is lovely” for “whatever gives immediate gratification.” Many of us are content to set our minds on pleasures that sprint through our souls without leaving a trace. We need heaven to recalibrate our earthly tastes, so we move past snap delights to “approve what is excellent” — truly, enduringly excellent (Philippians 1:10).
Those with minds set on glory above will not ultimately be satisfied with trivialities below. We will search to find a deeper echo of the tune, something that sends us past the crust of life to the core. We will look for something to awaken us to the wonder of being image-bearers of the high God, in a broken but beautiful world, with the gospel on our lips and glory in our hearts (Philippians 1:27). We want something that will absorb us, that will take us outside ourselves and send us into Reality, with all its hard edges and bracing air, all its grand and intricate glory, all its raw and cultivated splendor.
We might, as our Savior was prone to do, regularly get out beneath a big sky and look at the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, the movement of clouds, and the habits of sheep. We might lose ourselves in some story that rekindles in us the glory of everyday life. We might find some hobby that rivets us and, for a few moments at least, makes us forget about ourselves as we run, hike, play, fix, write, craft, cook, and then kneel down to give thanks to the Giver of it all.3. Set your mind on people around.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4)
As we go on the hunt for beauty here below, we would be blind if we passed over those walking wonders all around us — those children of Adam, destined for immortality in either heaven or hell, whose interests Paul tells us to look to (Philippians 2:4).
This command to “look . . . to the interests of others” means more than “consider meeting others’ needs if they’re in your path and you have time.” This looking is, rather, proactive looking, attentive looking, the kind that would not happen apart from serious, creative thought. Look to means “Think, dream, plan, and study how to do the most good to those around you — and then get to it.”
We know this because Paul gives Jesus as our model of looking to the interests of others (Philippians 2:5–11). The cross was not a good work Jesus stumbled across, but one dreamt up in the merciful imagination of the triune God, and executed at extreme cost to himself. We are looking to the interests of others only if we reflect something of Jesus’s initiating, creative, and costly love, and are “genuinely concerned for [the] welfare” of those around us (Philippians 2:20).
The most well-balanced people in this world are those whose heads are so full of God and others that they have little time to circle around their own misfortunes. For many of us, then, perhaps the healthiest thing we could do with our minds is to absorb ourselves in the hopes, struggles, successes, and heartbreaks of another.Think About These Things
The call to purify our minds is one we only begin in this life. Even the saintliest among us must stand guard over their mental garden, continually shooing away the crows of corrupt thoughts. Our thinking will bloom as it ought to only when we sink our minds into the soil of Mount Zion.
But much of our peace in this life, and much of the fruit we bear for God’s glory, comes as we heed the call to “think about these things” — to set our minds on glory above, on beauty below, and on people around. These are the windows that bring light and warmth to our minds, until the day Light himself will purify our minds completely.
Have you ever caught yourself looking past Sunday morning? Has the promise of the week ahead ever begun to eclipse the wonder of gathering with God’s people?
You probably don’t despise church, but you might still quietly pine for the extra rest that afternoon and evening. You might long for another week to start. A temptation arises, at times, to take Sundays for granted and start looking forward, instead, to what comes on Monday: to routines, relationships, events or activities, maybe even to work. Church slowly, even imperceptibly becomes an interruption in the week, instead of the culmination.
How does the awe-inspiring weekly gathering of God’s chosen people devolve into a stoplight — an inconvenient intrusion in the flow of our lives? Often, it’s because we’ve started worshiping something else the rest of the week.Wishing Worship Would End
The temptation to look past corporate worship (and just go through the motions) is not new. While God’s old-covenant people revolted against him, adoring their money and plundering the poor, the prophet Amos overheard their plotting. He writes,
Hear this, you who trample on the needy
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale?” (Amos 8:4–5)
When will corporate worship be over, so that we can do what we really want? They were caught looking past worship to what they really loved. They grumbled while they waited and waited at the stoplight. The last words of every gathering had become the sweetest — because it meant they were finally dismissed.
Do you see how their hearts worked? They didn’t skip worship. God forbid! They rigorously observed the new moon and Sabbath rituals — likely as rigorously as anyone. But even before the call to worship, they wanted it to be over. They wanted to get on with their real lives. More specifically, they wanted to get back to making money (and at whatever cost).
Their words betray their piety, showing that, in reality, their worship happened on any day but the Sabbath. Money was their god, and corporate worship was simply another detour.Commanded to Enjoy God
The new moon refers to monthly worship that took place in Israel (Numbers 28:11–15). God commanded Moses to mark the beginning of each month with a sacrifice. “You shall offer it as a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Numbers 28:8). Essentially, Israel held a monthly meal for Almighty God, to atone for sin, and to announce again their delight in and devotion to him.
The Sabbath offering took place every week (Numbers 28:9–10), beginning while Israel wandered in the wilderness (Exodus 16:23–29). God said to Moses, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8–10). Those who ignored the command were put to death (Numbers 15:32–36). God himself set this day aside for God — and for the joy of his people. They were commanded by God to cease from their daily labors and pause to worship him.
Because God commands our worship, it can subtly begin to feel like just another obligation rather than an unprecedented and immeasurable privilege. Make no mistake, it is an obligation. The God of heaven and earth orders us to come, but in ordering us, he does not burden us. He bids us into true glory and lasting joy. Has any law fallen more sweetly?
When God commands us to worship, he commands what will make us happiest, like forcing us to spend an extra summer day along the shore of our favorite beach. This commandment is not burdensome; it is unbelievably beautiful.Warning for Them
As irresistible as the promise is, the warning is every bit as severe. If we begin, subtly or overtly, to despise the corporate worship of our God for the greener, more profitable grasses of the week, God notices. Israel was as healthy, wealthy, and prosperous as ever, giving them a false sense of security and independence. Worship had become just the icing on the cake — and they were considering cutting the extra calories.
When Israel started overlooking the Sabbath, God warned them,
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God,
“when I will send a famine on the land —
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.” (Amos 8:11–12)
This famine will not be of food or water, but of God. God will take away their food and water, even their homes, but this will be far more serious. Devastatingly serious. He will withdraw himself. Because they took worship for granted, they would soon find themselves searching the whole earth for his voice. And they would search, however relentlessly, in vain.
Having struck gold as a people, without having done anything to deserve to have the true God as their God, they had deserted the mines. To make a few extra pennies. Now, their eyes and ears had been closed for good.Warning for Us
The warning and promise are no less serious for us today: Any of us who despises worship, subtly or overtly, invites the horror of a world without God.
If that world doesn’t sound all that horrible to us, we are the most vulnerable of all. We may never say it out loud, but some of us wouldn’t mind a heaven without God, as long as it was a better, safer, more secure version of what we’ve got going right now. That’s why Sundays feel inconvenient, and a little intrusive. We have started to treat God like a nice addition to the good life, instead of seeing him as the one who makes life worth having.
Sadly, many won’t realize how awful it is to be forever apart from God until they hunt high and low for him to no avail. Some will go to the grave assuming he has a room for them (Matthew 7:21), and then be left desperately holding up their church attendance (Matthew 7:22).
When will this service be over? If the thought persists, imagine God starving you, your family, and your church of his word. Imagine him holding you out of the new heaven and new earth, where his Word will replace the sun (Isaiah 60:19). Then remember the wonder that God has given us himself and his word, adopted us into his family, and lovingly commanded us to cease from work long enough to see and enjoy him again in worship.Incomparable Gathering
How do we avoid falling into such a temptation, folly, and judgment? By prizing the God of worship above all else — and seeing Sundays like we will from heaven one day. As John Piper writes of worship in the New Testament,
There was no gathering like this in the world: a people of God’s own possession, chosen before the foundation of the world, destined to be like the Son of God, bought with divine blood, acquitted and accepted before the court of heaven, a new creation on the earth, indwelt by the Creator of the universe, sanctified by the body of Jesus, called to eternal glory, heirs of the world, destined to rule with Christ and judge angels. Never had there been a gathering like this. It was incomparable on earth. (Expository Exultation, 69)
We are invited into that gathering every weekend. How can we overlook Sunday mornings unless we’ve grown dull to the constellation of incomparable beauties that come together in those ninety precious minutes? In some real sense, what we experience in worship together is the closest to heaven we come in this life. No matter how familiar or mundane it may feel in any given week, what happens on Sunday morning is a wonder to anticipate, behold, and enjoy.
Devote your whole life to this one pursuit: attaining the fullest possible experience of Christ imaginable.
Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe. (John 20:27)
We know precious few details about Jesus’s resurrection body.
It was the same body in which he died, and yet it was not only restored to life but changed. He was still human, but now glorified. What was sown perishable was raised imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:42). He could pass through doors and walls (John 20:26), yet eat solid food (Luke 24:42–43). His “natural body,” which died at Calvary, was raised and transformed into a “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44), new enough that those who knew him best didn’t recognize him at first (Luke 24:16, 37; John 20:14; 21:4), but also, soon enough, knew it was indeed him (Luke 24:31; John 20:16, 20; 21:7).
Among the fascinating few details we have, one of the most intriguing is his scars.See My Hands
The scars were the main way he confirmed to his disciples that it was truly him, in the same body, now risen and transformed. When Jesus first appeared to them, according to Luke, “they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit” (Luke 24:37). Then he showed them the scars.
“See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. (Luke 24:39–40)
The apostle John reports that Jesus “showed them his hands and his side” (John 20:20) and includes the account of doubting Thomas, who “was not with them when Jesus came” (John 20:24). Thomas insisted he must see Jesus’s scars for himself, to confirm it was in fact him. In divine patience, Jesus waited eight days to answer Thomas’s prayer, and when he finally visited, he offered him the scars. “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).Treasure in the Scars
If Luke and John didn’t tell us about the scars, we likely would assume that a glorified, resurrected body wouldn’t have any. At first thought, scars seem like a surprising feature of perfected, new-world humanity. In fact, they sound initially like a defect. Would we not expect that such an upgrade — from a perishable body designed for this world to an imperishable body designed for the next — would mean he would no longer bear the marks of suffering in this world?
We might assume the Father would have chosen to remove the scars from his Son’s eternal glorified flesh, but scars were God’s idea to begin with. He made human skin to heal like this from significant injury. Some of our scars carry little meaning, but some have a lot to say, whether to our shame or to our glory, depending on the injury. That Luke and John testify so plainly to Jesus’s resurrection scars must mean they are not a defect, but a glory. What is the treasure that awaits us for all eternity in the visible, glorious scars of Christ?Behold His Hands and Side
First, Jesus’s scars tell us that he knows our pain. He became fully human, “made like [us] in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17), that, as one of us, he could suffer with us, and for us, as he carried our human sins to die in our place. His scars remind us that he knows human pain. Pastor and poet Edward Shillito (1872–1948), who witnessed the horrors of World War I, found comfort in the “Jesus of the Scars” who knew what it was like to suffer in human flesh.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.
Because he chose to suffer for us, Jesus’s scars also tell us of his love, and his Father’s. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Hymn-writer Matthew Bridges saw love in the scars and crowned him “the Lord of love” in his 1851 hymn:
Crown him the Lord of love!
Behold his hands and side —
Rich wounds, yet visible above,
In beauty glorified.
Finally, Jesus’s scars — as healed wounds — forever tell us of our final victory in him. As the book of Revelation unfolds to us that ultimate triumph, it is our scarred Savior — “the Lamb who was slain” — who stands at the center of heaven and sits, with his Father, on the very throne of the universe (Revelation 7:9–10, 17; 22:1, 3).
From that first introduction as “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6), Jesus is referred to (27 more times) as “the Lamb.” Heaven’s worshipers fall down before him, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!” (Revelation 5:12), and the book of life is said to be “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8; also 21:27).
Far from forgetting his suffering and shed blood, it is a glory beyond compare that his people forever celebrate him as the Lamb who was slain, the sheep with the scars, in whose blood they have been washed (Revelation 7:14), and by whose blood, once shed through his still visible scars, they have conquered (Revelation 12:11).
We will worship him forever with the beauty of his scars in view. They are no defect to eyes of the redeemed but a glory for saved sinners beyond compare.
Tolkien, a biopic by Finnish director Dome Karukoski, focuses on the early life of famed author J.R.R. Tolkien. Heavily intercut, chronologically it begins with his late childhood in the idyllic village of Sarehole, and ends with his undergraduate years at Oxford and his experiences as a newly commissioned officer in the horror and mud of the Battle of the Somme. A brief final scene jumps to show Tolkien, now married and the father of four, writing the famous opening line to The Hobbit.
Having read a number of disparaging reviews, I was prepared for a mix of frustration and disappointment but instead found that I enjoyed Tolkien a good deal more than I had expected.Stories That Stick with Us
It’s been said that when it comes to Middle-Earth, there is no middle ground. Readers are either great admirers of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings or they dislike them greatly. Those who admire them greatly are likely to have read several, perhaps many, reviews before this one, so I will not spend much time covering the usual ground.
Anyone looking for an extensive plot summary, a thorough evaluation of the cinematic elements, or a detailed account of the film’s historic accuracy can easily find these things elsewhere. My brief take is that the cinematic elements in Tolkien are quite impressive — particularly the casting, acting, and period design — and that the film is, for the most part, historically accurate, although these kinds of movies are usually intended to capture the emotional truth of events rather than the actual facts. For example, in the film we see Tolkien about to be shipped off to France just moments after he and Edith have been reunited. While this makes for great cinema, in reality they had been reunited for three years, and married for two months, before he was sent to the front.
Tolkien foresaw such embellishments. In chapter three of The Hobbit, the narrator points out, “Things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to.” Some good lives are not worth watching on the big screen, and yet, people tend to think authors of particularly interesting fiction must have led particularly interesting lives. If Tolkien’s life was not exactly the stuff Hollywood movies are made of, where is the appeal of a film that sets out to depict it? While there are a number of possible answers, I would suggest that the best one has to do with the unique quality of Tolkien’s fiction.
Daniel Taylor has written that there are certain, special stories that “receive us at birth, accompany us through the stages of life, and prepare us for death,” giving pattern to “otherwise chaotic experience, making it memorable and meaningful.” For countless readers, The Lord of the Rings is this kind of story, and for them seeing the author’s early years brought lovingly to life will be a rare delight. For others, Tolkien may serve merely as a moving tribute to the way that art — whether fiction, poetry, music, or painting — has the power, as we are told in the film, to change the world. And, of course, the power to change one person’s life as well.The Glaring Absence
Notably missing from the film is much about Tolkien’s Christian faith, and it is missing in a certain way — not like a piece of a puzzle or a slice cut from a cake, but missing like an element that is, or would have been, part of everything.
We meet the Catholic priest who became Tolkien’s guardian, but we are never given much indication that Tolkien possessed a faith of his own — one that was a profound source of comfort in the trenches and later a critical factor in his writing. The film tries to show other elements that went into the creative formation of one of the world’s most beloved authors — Tolkien’s lifelong enchantment with language, the short-lived fellowship of his friends in the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, and Tolkien’s devotion to his first and only romantic love. We never see, however, the devotion that would later lead him to tell a correspondent seeking the really significant facts about him, “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories).”
Early in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is told, “Courage is found in unlikely places.” Tolkien is filled with many moments of courage, the kind found on the battlefield as well as the kind found in the living of an ordinary life. It is clear that the makers of Tolkien approached their subject with a great deal of affection, understanding, and reverence. Although they extracted the heart from the man, we who have eyes to see can still benefit from the film.
One other point should be made. In a manner that fails to do justice to the creative process, the filmmakers take pains to show us Tolkien’s hallucinations of monsters, fire-breathing dragons, and knights on horseback who appear on the battlefield as well as a soldier named Sam who looks after the young Lieutenant — as though this is the way authors get their ideas.
In Sarehole we almost expect to see a birthday party taking place under a giant tree or, later as the bullets and shells begin flying, to hear someone repeat the words Gandalf says to Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”A Magic Greater Than Grief
In The Fellowship of the Ring as the members of the quest approach the boundaries of Lothlorien, their guide, an elf named Haldir, observes that although the world is full of peril and many dark places, “Still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
As we travel through our own dark places, we take heart knowing that, as candles shine brightest in the darkness, the fireplace warms best on cold nights — love’s rays pierce the more beautifully through shadows of grief. “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” said the apostle (2 Corinthians 6:10), and rejoicing the more heartily because of the sorrows, replies the Christian. Our laughter comes from deeper wells — wells Tolkien depicted well.
In Tolkien we also see this fallen world with its mingling of love and grief, joy and sorrow. Companionship, sacrifice, loss and heartache, laughter and tears take residence here where dragons aren’t wont to dwell. And yet, though no Morgul-blades stab or Nazgul roam, here too love grows beyond grief and becomes the greater of the two.
Letting the truth of election deter evangelism isn’t only illogical, but unbiblical. Pastor John shows how election moves us to action, not inaction.
Class of 2019, to graduate from high school is an achievement requiring a significant mixture of effort and circumstances, and millions have not experienced that. You have both worked and been given a gift. Let one of the themes of your upcoming summer be gratitude to God.
In the same breath, I would advise you to make another focus of this summer to prepare yourself for the transformative season of life to come.
As a veteran college minister, I watch students like you roll onto campus each fall, and I am reminded that the educational system you are leaving has shaped your view of the world.
You have given yourself to the establishment of a reputation in academics, athletics, and extracurriculars, all while building a sparkling resumé. Your parents, teachers, and friends likely have played their part in upholding that pattern of life. Your identity in that world inevitably runs deep.
It’s time to die to that reputation. All of it.
The apostle Paul was an unbelievable student. He was born into a tradition of high-achieving scholars, and he took the opportunity to dominate the classroom, leaving his classmates in his wake (Galatians 1:14). But when God intervened, Paul died a beautiful death. He died to every boast he had previously carried — every line of his resumé. He was presented in Christ with a superior righteousness, one offered outside of himself, and he took it gladly (Philippians 3:4–9). I beg you to do the same.
And I beg you to mean it. I can only assume most people are like me in this, but I am a sly smuggler of alternative identities. I give lip service to “all I have is Christ,” but my anxious thoughts after interacting with people betray the smuggle struggle. I want them to know my resumé. I’m not convinced in those moments that I am perfect in the eyes of my heavenly Father and adopted into his family. The real death to reputation hurts like crazy (all deaths do), but the result is freedom like you’ve never known.
As you die to what has defined you and find your life in Christ, here are six other pieces of counsel I regularly give to any freshman heading to college.1. Arrogance is not a sign of maturity.
Ministering at the college campus, I am regularly struck by two contradictory truths about rising freshmen. On the one hand, they are starting arguably the most formative season of their lives, at least as far as spiritual development is concerned. On the other hand, they are regularly convinced that their convictions are fully formed.
So, I have some advice for you, high-school graduate: learn to learn. To be led. Remind yourself that you’re eighteen. Try not to believe every voice that has seen you attend youth group or read your Bible through high school, the voice that says you’re ready to pastor your home church. I would contend that, almost without exception, every college freshman believer is a toddler in the faith, whether they prayed a prayer at four years old or accepted Christ on a Young Life retreat after their senior summer.
Arrival is not a reality for the Christian anyway. If you can learn the depth of your sin and need, Jesus will become a greater treasure than your own maturity, and you will become humble, teachable, and relatable.2. Beware the allure of the 4.0.
(I know, moms and dads everywhere are cringing.) “Be excellent in your studies” may have been your comprehensive framework for a Christian student’s life in high school, but there is a raging perfectionist in some of you that needs to die. That 4.0 will whisper to some of you constantly, but often at the cost of your peace, your sleep, and your relationships with God and others.
Unless you have some massive kingdom vision that requires perfect grades (cue rampant rationalizing), they really aren’t that big a deal. The point of college is to teach you what you need to know so that you might contribute to society (and in the case of every believer, to bring the gospel to whatever area of society that is). So, go to class, learn the material, wonder at God as he reveals himself in every subject, and calm your hyper-focus on grades.3. Make future wealth less of a priority.
As God led me through my own experience in college, I realized that I needed two big deaths. The first was to the aforementioned reputation, but the second was to financial security as a primary factor in my vocational decision-making.
God showed me that if I was going to step toward him in my major, and eventually, my career, I wasn’t going to do so because I loved money. No one can serve two masters. He tells us clearly, “Keep yourself free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for [I] have said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).4. Make your future decisions as a missionary.
I meet so many freshmen who have already established a ten-year plan. They’re quick to mention their pre-med or pre-law major during orientation week. They typically don’t understand their own gifting or desires yet, though, much less their overarching kingdom purpose.
Prestige and money are powerful motivators, but the joy of showing the living Christ to those who desperately need him whips them cold. Ask God and your fellow believers to show you how you might best be used to help people taste and see the goodness of the gospel. I’m thinking here of a swath of vocations, sacred and secular alike, but all in the spirit of Philippians 1:21–22:
To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.
Figure out how to get equipped for that vocation, and get cracking.5. Make your present decisions as a missionary.
The people who need Jesus aren’t only waiting for you in the far reaches of the world or out in the secular workforce. They are your roommates, classmates, and teammates. They lie in bed worrying about their reputations. They question the goodness of God because of their experiences with “Christians” or loss of loved ones. They grasp and claw for life. Don’t be so consumed by your personal pursuits toward the future, academic and otherwise, that you forget to look up and notice the gospel opportunities on campus.6. Enjoy freedom from the pattern of the world.
From time to time, I briefly entertain the thought of walking away from Christ into a full embrace of sin and self. I let myself run down that road for a moment, considering all its ramifications. I perform this counterintuitive exercise to cement what my time on the college campus has clearly demonstrated: following Christ is sanity. A “normal college life,” beholden to the approval of others, laden with anxious perfectionism, and insatiably pursuing worldly satisfaction, is insanity. There is no clarity like biblical clarity, no security like gospel security, no friendship like Christian friendship, no freedom like that of the saved sinner.
So, you have much to look forward to in the days ahead. May it be more Christ-filled than anything you’ve experienced yet, and may many know his glory through you.
My fitness-class instructor was doing her best to keep us holding our planks for a few seconds longer. “C’mon, ladies! Who’s going to have a smaller waist size than their neighbor? June is coming! Are you ready?”
I cringed at her motivational tactics — using competition with other women and having a beach-ready body as the primary reasons to exercise. Our Western culture mainly focuses the benefits of exercise on our outward appearance, along with the perk of living free from sickness. But as Christians, our motivation to steward our bodies well should run far deeper than wearing a smaller dress size. The answer isn’t to forgo exercise altogether, but to focus on the purposes behind physical training. Exercise can be a good and healthy discipline to invest in when done for the right reasons.Is Exercise a Luxury?
In our fast-paced society, it can be easy to feel like we don’t have time to exercise. Work deadlines, household chores, the kids’ activity schedules, and ministry commitments can make us feel like there isn’t an inch of room left for working out. We can become so busy with the tyranny of the urgent or with caring for others that it seems impossible to care for ourselves.
Exercise can seem like a luxury we can’t afford, something routinely listed in our New Year’s resolutions but then crossed off the list the third week in January. Or, by the time we feel like we have a small window of opportunity, our energy has plummeted, and we’d much rather sit on the couch with a bowl of ice cream and Netflix. Recognizing the various blessings of exercise can provide the motivation we need to create space in our busy lives.Benefits of Exercise
Exercise offers a mountain of benefits, from keeping our hearts pumping and muscles strong, to increasing our energy levels, to providing emotional highs that come from the release of endorphins. In Shona Murray’s book Refresh, she comments on the medical studies that validate exercise even as a means of fighting depression: “Exercise and proper rest patterns generate about a 20 percent energy increase in an average day, while exercising three to five times a week is about as effective as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression” (72).
Personally, I exercise as much for the emotional benefits as for the physical benefits. Throughout my adult life, I’ve been prone to emotional highs and lows, and sometimes the lows are pretty deep. Some days, I need to pray for strength to get out of bed and do the next thing, exercise being one of them. I’ve learned that as I keep the discipline of heading to the gym or going out for a jog, I’m rewarded with a happier spirit and an increase in energy. God often uses exercise as a means to turn my sullen mood toward a joyful one.
And when my body is not dragging me down, I find it less difficult to delight myself in the Lord. Exercise has a way of clearing the cobwebs from my brain and helping to hold my focus on the promises of Scripture. It wakes me up to more readily hear the sound of God’s voice through Bible reading and meditation. It can help me to focus on memorizing a particular section of Scripture and keep me engaged as I pray for the needs around me.
The world tells us exercise is primarily a tool for our vanity and for living longer. Here are five reasons to pursue a regular exercise plan — not related to looking your best in your bathing suit.1. Exercise in order to steward the earthly tent God has given you.
Keeping our hearts pumping and our bodies strong will enable us to keep going, even as we age. Just as God gives us money to use wisely, relationships to invest in diligently, and time to use efficiently, so he gives us a body to steward well.
We honor our Creator when we care for the bodies entrusted to us through exercise and eating nutritious food. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).2. Exercise in order to serve others.
Jesus redeemed us from sin in order that we might be zealous for good works (Titus 2:14). Surely a life spent pouring ourselves out for the sake of others will come more easily with a strong and healthy body.
We use the strength of our arms to lift babies or children we care for, or to shovel snow for an elderly neighbor. We use our legs to travel to places that need to hear the good news of Jesus, whether at your friend’s house across the street or an unreached people group on the other side of the world.3. Exercise in order to keep your brain awake and alert.
Murray writes, “Research has shown that walking just two miles a day reduces the risk of cognitive decline and dementia by 60 percent and increases problem-solving abilities and efficiency” (Refresh, 72).
Regular exercise can help us continue to be students of God’s word as we grow and learn through regular study and meditation, unpack the promises of Scripture, and apply it all to our daily lives. “Preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).4. Exercise in order to evangelize.
Regular exercise programs give us easy ways to meet people, establish relationships, and share our faith. In the midst of my tightly scheduled workout between school drop-offs, I’m tempted to be laser focused on accomplishing my goals. But when I’m willing to take my earbuds out, I’ve had the pleasure of forming new relationships, sharing my faith, and inviting a new friend to Bible study, all while on the elliptical.
Unexpected spiritual conversations can happen when we keep our eyes and ears open to those around us. “Always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).5. Exercise in order to delight yourself in God.
George Müller once said,
The first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not, how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man may be nourished. (A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings with George Müller, 1:271)
For some of us, getting our souls happy in Christ might mean we start our day with exercise in order to better focus on the truths of God’s word. Pray yourself out of bed and to the gym as a means of waking yourself up to ready your mind and heart for the intake of Scripture.
The stress that can result from difficult circumstances in our lives or the brokenness of the world around us can be consuming. Use exercise as a secondary means of fighting to keep the right perspective in life. As some of the haze disappears through a brisk walk or bike ride, meditate on the promises of God’s word. Fight to believe that his ways are a thousand times better than the ways of the world, the riches of heaven so much better than the riches of the world.
“A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalm 84:10).Train Yourself
“Train yourself for godliness,” Paul writes, “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7–8).
Whether you carve out twenty minutes each day or an hour a few days each week, make a habit of fighting for joy in Christ through the habit of exercise. Regular exercise is worth so much more than a flat stomach or a smaller waist size. It can be a pathway toward deeper love and joy in our heavenly Father.
Twenty-five years ago, my world fell apart.
I had just turned 39, was happily married with five kids, and served as the associate pastor of a growing two-year-old church plant. My health was good, I enjoyed an active life, and ministry opportunities abounded. Everything looked good from the outside.
But on the inside, it was a different story. Starting in January of 1994, fear, hopelessness, depression, detachment, anxiety, and emptiness became my daily companions. All my life, I had taken pride in my ability to think clearly, but suddenly, thoughts began racing through my mind that I couldn’t stop. Panic attacks came regularly. I imagined I would be dead within months.
And then there were the physical effects. Most days, I found it hard to catch my breath. My arms itched incessantly, and no amount of scratching relieved the sensation. When it didn’t seem like a 200-pound weight pressed against my chest, I often felt an eerie hollowness. My face buzzed. I was light-headed. I spent many nights pacing and trying to pray.‘This Doesn’t Happen to Pastors’
Other than the normal pressures of a church planting pastor, there were no obvious reasons why I seemed to be going crazy. In an effort to rule out potential causes, I made an appointment with my doctor for a complete checkup. The results came back. I was “fine.”
Nothing had prepared me for what I was going through. My internal accusations that “this doesn’t happen to pastors” only made me more frantic. I looked fruitlessly for something that would give me victory over whatever it was I was battling. Scripture. Prayer. Worship music. A retreat. A vacation. Even a trip to Canada during the “Toronto blessing.” Nothing helped.
Early on, I thought about seeing a counselor, maybe even a psychiatrist. I was aware of occasions when people with hormonal imbalances, an inability to sleep, or traumatic personal histories benefited from medical intervention. I wondered if drugs might help me get back on my feet to deal with what I was experiencing.
I also identified with various labels I had read about. Nervous breakdown. Burnout. Anxiety disorder. Depression. Whatever was going on was affecting me emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. The symptoms were too numerous and intense to think this was only a “sin” problem.
But no label I assigned to my condition identified root causes. If what I was experiencing originated in my own heart (as it seemed), I wanted to explore that first. I wanted to press in to the gospel to see what I might be missing.
The next two and a half years were the hardest of my life. But knowing what I learned from them, they were, without a doubt, the best years.
Many people, most significantly my wife, Julie, were invaluable means of grace during that time. I hope to be a means of grace to you or others you might know who have been through something similar to what I’ve been describing. These are a few of the lessons God taught me during that time.We Might Not Be Hopeless Enough
About a year into my dark season, I told my good friend, Gary, that I felt dead inside. Life didn’t make sense. I felt completely hopeless. Gary’s response was one I’ll never forget and have passed on to countless people, “I don’t think you’re hopeless enough. If you were completely hopeless, you’d stop trusting in what you can do and trust in what Jesus has already done for you on the cross.”
Our problem isn’t that we have no hope. We just hope in things that aren’t God. Our own abilities. A preferred outcome. Our reputation. Financial security. You fill in the blank. And when the idols we’ve hoped in don’t deliver as promised, we panic. We despair. We lash out. We go numb.
That’s why the psalmists speak of hoping in the Lord and his word at least twenty-five times, and why David tells us to “hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 131:3). It’s easy and common to hope in something other than God.Blessed are Those Who Know Their Need
For most of my life up until that point, my heart agressively served the idols of credit and control. Those idols revealed a selfish ambition that desired not only people’s approval but their applause, even their adoration. I wanted to receive the praise only God deserves.
When I couldn’t get everyone to think I was as great as I thought I was, or when I realized the world didn’t bow to my desires, my idols punished me: mentally, emotionally, and physically. I thought I was a victim. I thought depression was “coming on me” from “out there.” Actually, I was the one producing it, through my own fears, unbelief, and false worship. I was forsaking my only hope of steadfast love (Jonah 2:8).
Over time I came to see God was guiding the whole process in order to turn my heart to him. He wanted to wean me from my self-centered idolatry so I could find the greater joy of pursuing his glory instead of mine.Benefits We Don’t Think We Need
In the first year of my trial, I was often unaffected by normal spiritual disciplines like reading Scripture, gathering with the church on Sundays, and prayer. The promises of the Bible seemed like empty platitudes, meant for those who were doing well. In reality, I didn’t see the depths of my need clearly enough.
A friend introduced me to John Owen’s Sin and Temptation and God used it to show me how deceived my heart could be. Rather than wondering why I felt so hopeless and fearful, I started to own those feelings as the effect of functionally seeing myself as my own savior. Apart from Jesus, I was completely hopeless and had every reason to fear. But Jesus died on the cross to save hopeless and fearful people. And I was one of them.
That thought process, repeated a thousand times, pointed me again and again to the Savior I needed more than I had ever realized.Feelings Are Unreliable Proofs
The Psalms teach us that a relationship with God involves our emotions. God’s presence brings joy, God’s promises bring comfort, God’s provision brings satisfaction (Psalm 16:11; Psalm 119:50; Psalm 145:16). But I was trying to root my faith in my experiences rather than in God’s Word. I was looking to sustained peace as evidence that the Bible was true, and found myself chasing experiences rather than Jesus.
When I was unaffected by the gospel, I began to see that other desires were at work in my heart. Selfish ambition. Self-atonement. Works-righteousness. A love of ease.
Feelings tell me something is happening in my soul, but they don’t necessarily tell me why I feel (or don’t feel) a certain way. We discover that through patiently and consistently trusting and pursuing God (Proverbs 2:1–5). When I insist on finding relief from my emotional distress before I believe God, I’m living by sight, not by faith.Self-Focus Won’t Ultimately Defeat Self-Sins
In March of 1995, I went on a personal retreat. After 24 hours, I determined my problem was that I had been depending too much on my own righteousness and needed to trust in the righteousness of Christ.
When I got home, I committed myself to a rigid discipline of Scripture memorization. Julie told me I came back more bound up than when I had left. One reason my dark season lasted so long was my belief that both the problem and solution ended in me. It was my lack of faith, my legalism, my poor choices. I needed to memorize more Scripture, do more, do less, do nothing, do everything.
Over time, God graciously showed me that putting sin to death involves me but doesn’t depend on me. God’s grace comes to humble, needy people, never to those who think they deserve or can earn it. Robert Murry M’Cheyne’s counsel is still wise: “For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ!” His perfect life, substitutionary sacrifice, and glorious resurrection are a never-ending stream of delight, hope, and transformation (2 Corinthians 3:18).Take Every Temptation to Christ
Maturity isn’t freedom from temptation, but responding to temptation more often with what God has said and done for us in Christ. I often thought I was backsliding when the temptations of anxiety, fear, hopelessness, and depression reappeared (or even increased). In those moments, I was tempted to think what I had been doing and believing “didn’t work.”
But John Owen observed, “Your state is not at all to be measured by the opposition that sin makes to you, but by the opposition you make to it.” In my discouragement, I was tempted to run to something other than God’s word and the gospel as my refuge. I started to doubt that hearing the Bible preached on Sundays could do any good. But God’s promises remain true no matter how many times we forget or neglect them. Jesus will always be the only Savior who died for my sins to bear my punishment and reconcile me to God (1 Peter 3:18). In him I am truly forgiven, justified, adopted, and eternally secure in God’s love and care.
As I continued to confess my inadequacy with phrases like, “You are God, and I am not,” I saw more clearly how God alone will always be my rock, steadfast love, fortress, stronghold, deliverer, and refuge (Psalm 144:1–2).Traveling Through the Valley
The lessons I learned during my those years have shaped my walk with God to this day. I still battle many of the same sins I fought twenty-five years ago, but I fight with greater clarity and trust in the one who has won the war. Temptations are less frequent and less intense. I’ve been able to point others who have been going through similar seasons to the life-transforming hope we have in the gospel.
Removing difficulties, problems, and trials isn’t the only way God shows he is good. Instead of superficial solutions, Jesus actually delivers us from our false hopes of ultimate salvation, satisfaction, and comfort. We want relief from the pain — God wants to make us like his Son. We want a change in our circumstances — God wants a change in our hearts. A crucified and risen Savior proves once and for all he’s actually able to bring that change about.
I’ve learned that the goal of the battle against emotional turmoil isn’t simply emotional peace. The goal is to know Christ. That realization led me to pray at one point, “If being like this for the rest of my life means that I will know you better, then leave me like this.” Thankfully, God didn’t leave me like I was. He gave me a deeper trust in the care of my heavenly Father, a more passionate love for Jesus and the gospel, and a greater awareness of his Spirit’s presence.
I know better now what Paul meant when he said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Which is why I thank God that, in his abundant mercy, he caused my world to fall apart twenty-five years ago.
The union of two men or women is not “gay marriage.” It’s no marriage. When they come to Christ, that former relationship has no binding authority.
ABSTRACT: The world of clinical depression is dark and complex, a tangle of biological, emotional, and spiritual troubles that leaves someone feeling trapped in the shadows. In the most severe cases, full recovery involves a holistic approach that blends counseling, spiritual exercises, and the wise use of antidepressant medication. Christians afflicted with clinical depression can receive medication, like God’s other gifts of common kindness, as one means, among others, to help us rest our hope in God.
We asked medical doctor Kathryn Butler to guide Christians in the complexities of recovering from clinical depression in our series of feature articles by scholars for pastors, leaders, and teachers. You can also download and print a PDF of the article.
An acquaintance of mine, Becky, is a grandmother who cites her chief joy in life as “pleasing the Lord and walking faithfully with him.” She delves into Scripture daily, and for decades has shepherded others through Bible studies. Christ has claimed her heart, and daily stirs her mind. Yet seasons of guilt and uncertainty have punctuated Becky’s walk with her Lord, because while she remains steadfastly devoted to Christ, she also struggles with clinical depression. To maintain her clarity and focus on God’s word, she needs help from an antidepressant medication.
As is often the case, depression runs in Becky’s family. When despair first gripped her in her twenties, Becky had already watched her mother slide through the deep darkness into a mental breakdown. She’d witnessed firsthand how depression can ravage a life, as well as the critical roles that medication and counseling can play in drawing sufferers back into the world again.
But even these experiences didn’t banish Becky’s concerns about taking antidepressants herself. She wondered if she were right to take medication for an issue that seemed spiritual. Her guilt only deepened when someone in authority at church claimed, “It’s rare for someone to really need antidepressants, because usually things can be solved biblically.”
“Hearing that from the pulpit sent me into the depths of guilt,” she relates. “I feel so guilty that I must take this medication that has kept me well for years.”A Troubling Subject
The doubts swamping Becky trouble so many of us who suffer from depression. Some of us worry that reliance upon medications implies a paltry faith. Others confuse antidepressants with opioids, and fear addiction. In an opposing scenario, our pain-averse culture, which prioritizes comfort and instant gratification, can mislead us toward chemical prescriptions for normal, refining grief. Throughout, questions churn: Are antidepressants permissible? Or sufficient? Does our need for them reflect a deficit in faith? How do they factor into other means of grace with which God has blessed us, such as prayer, study of the word, and counseling?
After a careful exploration of depression, its treatment, and how the Bible guides us in suffering, these questions should give way to discernment and gratitude. No medication can sponge away the blackness in our hearts. But in his steadfast love and mercy toward us, God has gifted us with medical science as a means of common kindness. In the right circumstances, when carefully combined with counseling and spiritual disciplines, antidepressants can ease some of us back into daylight. While we should never rely on medication exclusively, neither should we demonize those who use it as part of a comprehensive approach.More Than Sadness
At this point in the discussion, we need to define terms. In the undulating course of life, seasons of grief, tears, and bleakness can trouble all of us. In most cases, these valleys have limits. We may sink low, but we retain our capacity to climb, and eventually we crest into the bright air again.
Clinical depression, also called major depressive disorder, falls outside these usual variations in emotion. The fact that depression increases the suicide rate by 27 times that of the general population should alert us to something gone terribly awry.1 In major depression, hopelessness, despair, and lack of motivation persist long after wounds have healed, for reasons even the victim can’t always pinpoint. Sufferers can’t control their descent into darkness, nor can they wrench themselves from its clutches by sheer will, because the social, spiritual, and practical factors we can easily see interact with changes deep in the brain, hidden from view. The ramifications are not only spiritual, but also physical (see the table below),2 hampering engagement in even the most basic stuff of living. Laughter, conversation, and interaction feel impossible, even with those we love.3 Routine self-care overwhelms, and some of us find ourselves bed-bound, too bereft of joy to drag ourselves into the world. In many ways, living through depression resembles dying.
It’s crucial to distinguish this affliction from appropriate sadness or grief, because God works through our suffering to refine us (Genesis 50:20; Jonah 2; Romans 5:2–5). We should never seek chemical means to buttress ourselves through the typical peaks and valleys of our emotions. Not only can melancholy and anguish be worthy responses to the travails of a sinful world, but God also disciplines us, shapes us, and draws us closer to himself through our ordeals. Even Jesus wept in the face of loss (John 11:34–36).
Depression, however, isn’t typical grief. It can persist even when our days unfold free from catastrophe. It’s a complex beast, whose sufferers desperately need prayer, Christian love, and professional help.A Complicated Problem
Too few sufferers of major depression actually receive the help they need. Guilt — which is a feature of the disorder (see the table) — and stigma discourage many with depression from seeking assistance.4 In a survey of 5.4 million adults in the US reporting an unmet need for mental-health services, 8.2% did not seek mental-health treatment because they did not want others to find out, 9.5% because “it might cause neighbors/community to have a negative opinion,” and 9.6% due to concerns about confidentiality. Some 28% believed that they could handle the problem without treatment, and 22.8% did not know where to go to receive treatment.5 Such statistics reveal that the road to healing slouches uphill. Many tread it alone.
Yet even those who seek help embark upon a tortuous path, without easy remedies. We have no quick-fix cures for depression, because the neurobiological underpinnings that fuel our despondency are much more elaborate than a simple chemical imbalance. Regions of the brain responsible for memory and executive function shrink in depression, as do the pathways connecting these areas to sites controlling mood, fear, and drives.6 Brain cell loss is accelerated among the depressed.7 The actions of chemical signals between nerve cells are disrupted, especially serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, sleep, appetite, and pain.8 While we don’t know in all cases whether these changes cause depression or arise as a result of the disorder, they hint at why sufferers struggle to recover. In depression, the architecture of our own brains traps us in the dark.
And yet, while neurological changes abound in depression, even biology doesn’t tell the entire story. While some individuals are genetically prone to major depression,9 a first episode requires the intermingling of this risk with social, psychological, and spiritual triggers. Medical illnesses contribute in up to 15% of cases, and depression increases the risk of a future heart attack by two to threefold among people with heart disease.10 People with seasonal affective disorder, who struggle with depression during the winter months, respond well to bright-light therapy, while others without this temporal pattern don’t. Some sufferers struggle with anxiety in depression, others with melancholy, and still others with catatonia or psychosis. This variability hints that the current diagnosis we call major depression is probably an umbrella term, a catchall phrase encompassing multiple related syndromes with similar effects, but distinct causative mechanisms.
This diversity in depression creates treatment challenges, as one person’s struggle doesn’t resemble another’s. Promising research suggests that MRI scans of the brain may differentiate between depressive subtypes and allow for more precise, targeted treatments.11 But this research is preliminary. In the meantime, depression continues to wreak havoc upon its victims, earning the eleventh spot on the World Health Organization’s list of conditions causing the greatest disability and mortality.12 Treatment of such a highly convoluted, variable, and debilitating disorder doesn’t proceed simply.Imperfect Options
The two mainstays of treatment for clinical depression are antidepressant medications and psychotherapy or counseling. While both these avenues can provide life-giving support, neither offers a quick fix. And while both play vital roles in recovery, neither diminishes the importance of spiritual disciplines as we strive to reclaim our joy.
Most antidepressants work by increasing the concentration of serotonin in the brain. Given strong evidence for reduced serotonin transmission in depression, for decades we hoped that replenishing serotonin would reverse the disorder. Given what we now know about brain structure and circuitry in depression, it’s no surprise that antidepressants produce modest effects. Although these medications can promote crucial improvements in symptoms, when used alone they facilitate full remission in only about 50% of cases.13 While this effect can be life-giving for half of sufferers, it’s disappointing for a class of medications we hoped would definitively treat the illness. (Imagine our predicament if insulin reduced blood sugar in only half of diabetics, or if antibiotics eradicated the most common bacterial infections only half the time.) Research also reveals only a small benefit of antidepressant therapy over a placebo pill. Just meeting with a health care provider to receive a placebo constitutes personal connection and care, and ameliorates symptoms in up to 35% of cases.14
Such research, coupled with criticism that studies supporting antidepressants often suffer from publication bias, has sparked debate about whether antidepressants work at all. Last year, a research group attempted to put the issue to rest by conducting a large meta-analysis of FDA data on antidepressants, and found that all twenty-one agents studied were more effective than placebo. The study garnered significant media attention, with exuberant headlines proclaiming, “The Debate Is Over!” But the data warrant a more restrained response. We can confidently glean from the review that antidepressants can lessen symptoms of depression after eight weeks of therapy. That’s good news for those clambering in the gloom, for whom even a minor improvement can provide stability to engage with the world. But it still doesn’t mean antidepressants have earned a reputation as a miracle cure.15
Taken in total, research on antidepressants supports their use as one component of a comprehensive approach. Antidepressants are often necessary to equip us for the hard work of recovery, but they are not typically sufficient. While antidepressants can lift our darkened mood, full recovery also requires attention to elements that pharmacology cannot penetrate: our social support, our patterns of thinking, our habits and histories, and especially our walk with Christ. While antidepressants improve serotonin signaling, psychotherapy and counseling can help us navigate the social and cognitive barriers to recovery. And a rich life of prayer and Bible intake, with support from the body of Christ, is essential to usher us through the storm.Non-Pharmacological Support
The term psychotherapy often scares Christians, as they automatically associate it with the atheist Sigmund Freud. The term, however, refers to multiple approaches in clinical psychology, many quite different from Freudian psychodynamics. According to the medical literature, cognitive-behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy are most effective in depression, but other methods also garner favor.16
Psychotherapy and counseling can be crucial to keeping depression at bay. Studies show that antidepressants and psychotherapy have similar efficacy in treating acute depression, but after treatment ends, those who discontinue antidepressants commonly relapse.17 By contrast, the benefits of psychotherapy persist long after treatment stops. Dr. Karen Mason, associate professor of counseling and psychology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. “There’s a biological vulnerability that antidepressants address, but people are also dealing with social and behavioral issues that reinforce their depression,” she relates in personal correspondence. “You might be on antidepressants alone for six months, and they help, but as soon as you stop them you become depressed again because patterns of thinking are still there.”
In Dr. Mason’s experience, spiritual support can also be crucial to recovery. “People struggle through the lens of their faith,” she remarks. “In depression, usually the person has a low sense of self-worth, and faith can influence this.” For the believer, our value in Christ, and as God’s image-bearers, helps us sift past the shadows and cling to life. Whether we enroll in psychotherapy or use an antidepressant, our identity in Christ, and what God has done for us through the cross, remain central.A Multifaceted Approach
For those of us with mild cases of major depression (as determined by a professional using validated instruments), it’s reasonable to begin with a trial of therapy or counseling alone, and to consider an antidepressant after several months if there’s no improvement. But those with severe cases are at high risk for suicide. In such harrowing circumstances, the precaution of an antidepressant in addition to counseling can be lifesaving. Indeed, given the benefits of psychotherapy and antidepressants together, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) recommends combination therapy in moderate to severe cases of major depression.18
The APA further recommends that sufferers who improve with antidepressants continue these medications for four to nine months after a first episode, as the risk of recurrence is high before this period. For those who have endured three or more major depressive episodes, the APA recommends continuing an antidepressant for life. Such recommendations can unnerve us. We might worry about addiction, and question the strength of our faith. We read headlines announcing that primary care physicians now prescribe 40% of antidepressants, often without documenting a psychiatric diagnosis, and we wonder if we’re aiding an epidemic of self-medication to numb the ordinary ripples of life.19
Before we chastise one another, consider that while half of people recover from a first episode of depression without further issues, after three episodes the risk of recurrence approaches 100%.20 In chronic and recurrent depression, maintenance antidepressants don’t imply addiction, but rather a vital precaution to safeguard against future episodes. Addictive drugs produce euphoria, sedation, or other states that veer from reality and dishonor God (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Our craving for such substances never abates as long as we continue taking them. Few people, by contrast, covet antidepressants. About 60% of people who take an antidepressant complain of uncomfortable side effects, including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, drowsiness, weight gain, sexual dysfunction, and anxiety.21 Given these unpleasant effects, the dropout rate for antidepressant therapy is high, with many stopping the medications before their depressive symptoms resolve.22 Addiction isn’t even an appropriate consideration.
When used wisely in severe depression, antidepressants don’t offer an escape from suffering, but rather equip us to contend with it. When used with discernment, these medications can root us in reality, and help us to focus with clarity on our risen Lord. Becky, who shared her experiences at the start of this article, emphasizes their role with this point: “This issue has kept a short tether between the Lord and me as I seek him and stay in his word — I know I must!”Depression and Christian Suffering
Even when we grasp that major depression isn’t normal sadness, we can still struggle with misconceptions that depression is somehow “un-Christian.” “How can a believer like me struggle with depression when I have the gospel?” one sufferer asked me. Another admitted, “I feel like there must be something wrong with me and my alleged ‘faith.’ I end up chastising myself for not having the kind of faith that would lead me out of this depression.” Such comments echo those of Dr. Beverly Yahnke, executive director of The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel:
Far too many well-intentioned Christians are imbued with the conviction that strong people of faith simply don’t become depressed. Some have come to believe that by virtue of one’s baptism, one ought to be insulated from perils of mind and mood. Others whisper unkindly that those who cast their cares upon the Lord simply wouldn’t fall prey to a disease that leaves its victims emotionally desolate, despairing and regarding suicide as a refuge and comfort — a certain means to stopping relentless pain.23
An assumption common to such doubts is that gospel hope should guard us against maladies of the mind. But such assertions lack both empathy and biblical grounding. Christ has triumphed over death (1 Corinthians 15:55; 2 Timothy 1:10), and when he returns, all its wretched manifestations will wash away (Isaiah 25:7–8; Revelation 21:4). But for now, we still live in the wake of the fall. We must never mistake the Christian life for a prance through a garden path. Jesus warns that persecution will follow us into the world that has rejected him (Matthew 16:24–25; John 1:10–11; 15:20). All creation groans (Romans 8:22–28). Sin still seethes across the globe, stirring up calamity, infiltrating the synapses in our brains to tangle our thoughts and feelings. Our Savior himself was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3), even though he shared perfect communion with the Father. While sin stains the world, even those most devoted to Christ can sink into despondency.
The gospel doesn’t promise us freedom from pain, but an abundantly more precious gift: the assurance of God’s love, which prevails over sin and buoys us through the tempests. Christ offers us hope that transcends the crooked wantonness of this broken world. Suffering can bear down on us. Depression can crush even the most faithful among us. But in Christ, nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38–39).The Source of Our Hope
Christians should feel empowered to consider medical treatments — whether antidepressants or otherwise — as blessings, given by God as evidence of his mercy. We clearly see from Jesus’s ministry that healing displays the Father’s love for us (Mark 1:40–41; 3:1–5; Matthew 8:1–3; John 9:1–7). Prophets and apostles also mention physical means of healing as instruments to nurture the hurting (Isaiah 38:21; 1 Timothy 5:23). Perhaps the best example is the parable of the good Samaritan, when the passerby stops to tend to an injured man’s wounds with bandages, oil, and wine (Luke 10:25–37). Such passages should chase away our guilt if we require antidepressant medications as part of a multifaceted, prayerful approach to depression.
And yet, while we partake of these ordinary means of grace, they cannot offer us the renewal we find in Christ. We quench our parched souls only from the living water that springs from the gospel. We’re right to accept medical advances for what they are — blessings from God, gifts to help us heal and prosper. While we seek treatment, however, we must still turn our eyes toward God (2 Chronicles 16:12). The need for a heavenward gaze does not limit itself to depression, but to any ailment of mind, body, or soul. As Christians we cleave to a hope that far exceeds any protocol or prescription.
Whether we use medications or not, a vital response when we sink into despair is to pray and to meditate as best as our clouded minds permit on his living and active word (Philippians 4:6; James 1:5; Hebrews 4:12). When we kneel before our Lord in humility and supplication, and with palms open lift our burdens to him, he draws us near (Psalm 34:18), even as we struggle through the avenues of medications and counseling. In the coming age, our Savior will chase away the specters that loom over creation (Revelation 21:4). In the meantime, we take comfort that he too has walked in darkness. He too has endured deep suffering, not from brain circuitry gone awry, but willingly, for our sake, out of abundant love for us (John 3:16). And to that truth we cling, even when the shadows descend, even as we labor through medications and therapy, and breathlessly scramble for the light.
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