August 8, 2018

Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: a book review

In the book Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life published by Crossway, who kindly sent me a copy to review, present-day psychiatrist Michael S. Lundy updated the 17th century writings of Rev. Richard Baxter, who was well-known for his godly counsel on depression.

Theologian J.I. Packer began the Preface by letting us know that:

“Sooner or later most of us experience some form of this, maybe fleetingly as the product of trauma, strain, overwork, or something of the kind, maybe in a more long-term, habitual, deeper-rooted way, and we are told to expect that two-thirds of North Americans will at some stage need and seek treatment for depression.”

But what does that mean? What occurs? As Dr. Packer explains:

“Still generalizing, we say: fretful heaviness seizes the mind, sometimes slowing it down to a point of virtual paralysis where thought ceases, sometimes driving it into unfruitful randomness, or a fixed attitude of gloom, or an incessant harping on things felt to be incurably wrong. Depressed persons feel themselves isolated and distant from others - even their nearest and dearest - and from projects in which hitherto their hearts had been fully engaged. Conduct may become eccentric, randomness or inaction may set in, focused creativity may fade away, or sadness may become habitual. Feelings of anxiety, worthlessness, and hopelessness develop, and defensive pessimism takes over.”

These symptoms have not really changed since Rev. Baxter first wrote about depression, but in the chapter that summarizes that ministry and perspective, Dr. Michael S. Lundy writes:

“What has fundamentally changed is how we live our lives….”

“...Belief and behavior were inextricably linked for Baxter…. What you believed determined how you thought about matters and predetermined how you would respond to possible choices along the path of life. Distorted beliefs would inevitably lead to wrong interpretations of circumstances and so to wrong choices and unethical behavior.”

In the chapter, “Advice to Depressed and Anxious Christians,” Rev. Baxter provides tremendous insight into “melancholy” as it was known in his day. I especially recommend that caretakers read his interpretations of these “signs” associated with depression to get a better understanding of where the person is coming from and the thought processes typically encountered.

Later, in the same chapter, Rev. Baxter offers a number of “Directions” for the person in crisis, beginning with, “Be sure that a theological error is not the root of your distress,” followed by a list of mindsets to consider and, hopefully, replace any erroneous thoughts that hinder healing.

As a lifelong student of the Bible, I found Rev. Baxter’s words to be very wise and aligned with scripture. However, I also found it regrettable and highly offensive that the current producers of this book saw fit to leave in a comment dating back to the aftermath of the Reformation!

In Chapter 4 page 131, under “6. Unskilled teachers (of Scripture) cause grief and perplexity for many,” the paragraph retained these words:

“Being wicked deceivers themselves, they blur the distinction between good and bad, and may even take the best for the worst. Others, again, unskilled in matters spiritual, put inordinate emphasis on things that are not even duties, as the Roman Catholics do in their many inventions and superstitions, and as do many sects through their unsound opinions.”

Perhaps the prejudices of the time blinded the Puritan pastor to the fact that the Bible initially came to us through the Roman Catholic Church, and - then as now - many misunderstandings occur through assumption, hearsay, and, frankly, ignorance. The same, of course, could be said in reverse, but the point is that 500 years have given us time to “reform” our thinking and get over ourselves! Unless we accept that all who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are Members of One Body - the Body of Christ - we’re dis-Membering and dishonoring Him.

One of the many things I find of special value in this book is the author’s acknowledgement of individual limitations and the need to respect that for healing to occur. For example, he writes (with bold-type my emphasis),

To the degree that you can, direct your thoughts toward these four matters:

a.the infinite goodness of God, who is more full of love than is the sum of light;
b.the immeasurable love of Christ in redeeming mankind, and the sufficiency of his sacrifice and merits;
c.the free covenant and offer of grace, which give pardon and life to all who neither prefer sin nor obstinately refuse them to the end;
d.the inconceivable glory and joy that the blessed have with Christ, and that God has promised with his oath and seal to everyone who consents to the covenant of grace and are willing to be saved and ruled by Christ.”

Although, as Baxter, says, those thoughts will alleviate depression, the reverend also reminds us:

“When the disease itself keeps them
(depressed persons) from helping themselves, then most of their help from God will come through others.”

Besides an Appendix on“The Duty of Physicians, the last chapter offers excellent suggestions for caretakers, ending with this thought:

“All said, holy faith, hope, and joy are the best medicine of all.”


Mary Sayler, ©2018, poet-writer, reviewer

Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom From Richard Baxter, paperback

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