Six Spiritual Causes of Depression

Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter by Michael S. Lundy with an introduction by J. I. Packer.


As we’ve already noted, Richard Baxter understood that there was often a physical cause in depression and recommended medicine in such cases. But he also recognized that there were often spiritual causes of depression. For example, he mentions:

1. Most commonly some temporal loss, suffering, grief, or worry that has affected them too deeply.

2. An excessive fear of common if nevertheless dangerous situations.

3. Too strenuous and unremitting intellectual work or thought, which has confused and strained the imagination too intensely.

4. Fears, too deep or too constant, and serious, passionate thoughts and cares about the danger of the soul.

5. The major predispositions to it are a frailness of faculty and reason, joined with strong emotions .

6. In some cases, melancholy is ushered in by some heinous sin, the sight of which those guilty of it cannot bear, once their consciences are finally awakened.

Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter by Michael S. Lundy with an introduction by J. I. Packer.


35 Spiritual Symptoms of Depression

Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter by Michael S. Lundy with an introduction by J. I. Packer.


After introductory essays by J. I. Packer and Michael Lundy, this book the presents modernized text of Richard Baxter’s writings on depression. The first is “Directions to the Melancholy about Their Thoughts,” the second is “The Cure of Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow, by Faith,” and the third is on “The Duty of Physicians.”

In the first, Baxter lists no less than 35 symptoms of depression, all of which are related to the spiritual aspect of depression. It’s an astonishingly detailed and accurate insight into the spiritual dimension of depression. I’ve never come across a more insightful x-ray of the depressed mind and soul of the depressed Christian.

Some of the most striking are:

19. Their perplexed thoughts are like unraveled yarn or silk, or like a man in a maze or wilderness, or one who has lost his way in the night. He is looking and groping about, and can make little of anything. He is bewildered, confused, and entangled even more, filled with doubts and difficulties, out of which he cannot find the   way.

22. [Depressed] individuals have lost the power of controlling their thoughts by reason. If you convince them that they should reject their self-perplexing, unprofitable thoughts and turn their thoughts to other subjects or simply be at rest, they cannot obey you. They are under a compulsion or constraint. They cannot push out their troublesome thoughts; they cannot redirect their minds; they cannot think about love and mercy. They can think of nothing but that on which they do think, as a man with a toothache can think only of his pain.

34. Few of them respond positively to any reason, persuasion, or counsel. If it does seem to satisfy, quiet, and cheer them for the moment, the next day they are just as bad as before. It is the nature of their illness to think the way they do. Their thoughts are not cured, because the underlying disease itself remains uncured.

35. Yet in all this distress, few of them will believe that they are depressed, and they hate being told that they are. They insist it is merely a rational sense of unhappiness from being forsaken and under the heavy wrath of God. Therefore, they can hardly be persuaded to take any medication or use other means for the cure of their bodies. They maintain that they are well, being confident that it is only their souls that are distressed.

What’s so helpful about Baxter’s list is that depressed Christians can so readily identify with it. It rings true in their experience. They read it and say, “He gets it. He understands me,” thus making them willing to consider his prescriptions and directions. He obviously had sat with many depressed people and listened so long and so carefully that he could eventually articulate their experience even better than they could. What a door-opener to the reception of his counsel!

How should we respond to Christians with depression? Baxter urges pity and sympathy.

This is the miserable case of these unfortunate people, greatly to be pitied and not to be despised by anyone. I have spoken here only what I myself have frequently observed and known. Let no one look down on these individuals; persons of all sorts fall into this misery: educated and illiterate, high and low, good and bad, as well as some who previously lived in decadent self-seeking and sensuality until God made them aware of their foolishness.

Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter by Michael S. Lundy with an introduction by J. I. Packer.


Expedition 34: Wonders of the World

Here’s the video for Expedition 34 in Exploring the Bible. If you want to bookmark a page where all the videos are posted, you can find them on my blog, on YouTube, or the Facebook page for Exploring the Bible.

If you haven’t started your kids on the book yet, you can begin anytime and use it with any Bible version. Here are some sample pages.

You can get it at RHBWestminster BooksCrossway, or Amazon. If you’re in Canada use Reformed Book Services. Some of these retailers have good discounts for bulk purchases by churches and schools.


Richard Baxter’s Balanced Approach to Depression and Anxiety

Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter by Michael S. Lundy with an introduction by J. I. Packer.


In his introductory essay, Michael Lundy argues that denial is a common response to mental illness and that this is often accompanied by peculiar assertions that attributed it either to sin or to the direct working of the Devil. But , he warns, “misdiagnosis leads to mistreatment, and that to a cascading set of problems.”

What happens if someone’s symptoms and behaviors and wrongly attributed to willful and sinful decisions?

1. “It absolves the observing community of the responsibility of coming alongside the individual in a supportive capacity” and it may serve to allow the community (i.e., local church), “to pressure the afflicted member until he has ‘repented’ or ‘gotten serious’ about his faith.”

2. It leads to the individual repenting of sins that can be identified but produces no relief, which then leads to the repenting of imaginary sins which is also ineffective in relieving mental and emotional distress.

While sin has a role in the general condition of mankind, there is not necessarily “a logical causality between a particular sin or patten of sinful behavior and a particular malady.” Lundy cautions:

“So this whole business of sin and sickness should make for a great deal of humility. We should be very hesitant either to blame others’ sickness on their particular sin or to hold them entirely blameless when we are short of the sort of vision allotted to Christ.”

So, in answer to the question, “Are psychiatric illnesses the result of sin or not? Are individuals to blame, or are they not responsible for their fate?” Lundy insists, “For the most part, we are left with the much more general sense that sickness and suffering in the world are distributed in ways that defy our comprehension.” Lundy points to Richard Baxter’s treatment of depression as exemplary:

Cognizant of the tension between loosely linked causes and effects, he seems to refuse to blame people for what they cannot help, while simultaneously refusing to acquit people of certain duties they can and must discharge. In the middle, he requires friends and family to do what the ailing souls cannot be expected to do themselves, yet demands of them what they alone can deliver. Baxter is at the same time gentle and difficult, generous and demanding.

Lundy encourages a similar balance in trying to repair broken humanity:

The rush for “the right medication” is just as overreaching as have been prior purely psychological formulations, or purely “spiritual” ones. A naïve optimism is unlikely to weather the difficulties of the repair work, and that can lead in turn to despair. An informed understanding of what must be attempted, and perhaps accomplished, better positions patients, physicians, pastors, family, and friends for what often proves to be “enduring to the end.”

This is what Lundy finds in Baxter. As such he paraphrases Baxter’s opening words in Advice to Depressed and Anxious Christians: “See to the condition of your own soul, and consult with your own pastor and your own physician, and apply their advice as appropriate.”

Having summarized Packer’s and Lundy’s introductory essays, we’ll look at Baxter’s own teaching over the next week or so.

Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter by Michael S. Lundy with an introduction by J. I. Packer.


Puritan CBT

Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter by Michael S. Lundy with an introduction by J. I. Packer.


The past couple of days I’ve highlighted some of the Puritans’ teaching on depression that J. I. Packer and Michael Lundy explore in their introductory chapters of Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: Practical WisdomBut where did they get this wisdom, asks Lundy, wisdom that is remarkably accurate when compared with modern knowledge.

On the basis of his research he identifies three general sources of Baxter’s wisdom in these issues: an undergirding biblical theology, his metaphysical philosophy, and his personal and professional experience. Lundy goes on to explain the details of Baxter’s holistic approach

The Puritans Borrowed Widely

While the Bible is the absolute, carefully examined basis for faith and life among Baxter and his many colleagues, in practical terms he and they borrowed widely from many sources, and used Aristotelian principles of logic, which they made to conform to Christian theology.

The Puritans held all truth was God’s Truth

The Puritans unabashedly took what they could from a variety of sources, holding that all truth was ultimately from God, and that such truth as was revealed to ancient pagans through general revelation could be legitimately recycled, with care, and applied in an explicitly Christian context.

The Puritans found truth in anti-christian sources

What emerges in Baxter’s material is a curious and compelling mixture of sound Christian doctrines and general holistic medical principles, applying reframed Stoic concepts to those doctrines and principles, and formulated as irrefutable logic. Baxter’s use of logic was characteristic of the highly educated clergy of his day. The Stoics had numerous ideas that were antithetical to Christian belief and practice, such as suicide; that did not keep the Puritans from appreciating those elements of the Stoics’ philosophy which were general and adaptable to Christian thought.

The Puritans saw that distorted beliefs led to wrong actions

Belief and behavior were inextricably linked for Baxter, as they were for the Stoics. 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.

The Puritans addressed Depression and Anxiety with early CBT and medication

What Baxter employed was a clear forerunner of what we now call cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). His version of CBT would be deemed rudimentary and highly tailored to his relatively homogenous clinical population. Yet, it must still be recognized as a forerunner of a very powerful and highly respected tool for dealing with many otherwise intractable clinical problems, particularly those of a severe and chronic nature, including the aforementioned ones. Baxter begins by advising his readers to get their personal theology straight, goes on to tell them how practically to do that using his own antecedent to CBT, and makes sure that his readers understand that their problems have somatic as well as emotional and spiritual dimensions. Then he concludes by telling his readers to trust their physicians and to take their medicines! Describing this as a confluence of belief, behavior, and medicine oversimplifies Baxter’s approach but is a good synopsis for those willing to explore the sort of advice he so freely gives.

Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter by Michael S. Lundy with an introduction by J. I. Packer.


What can the Puritans Teach us About Depression?

Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter by Michael S. Lundy with an introduction by J. I. Packer.


The Causes of Depression

In his introductory essay to this book, J. I. Packer discusses how the Puritans understood the body-soul connection in depression and how problems in one can lead to problems in the other. Referring to Richard Baxter in particular, he viewed depression as “a psychophysical reality, a ‘diseased craziness . . . of the imagination’ that might be caused by the body being out of sorts (“sorrows that come from your spleen”), or by overload or overstrain on the mind, or perhaps both together.”

The Condition of Depression

In addition to spiritual symptoms such as terrors of hell and temptations to blaspheme and commit suicide, “Melancholics characteristically could not control their thoughts; they were unable to stop despairing about everything, or to begin a discipline of thanksgiving and rejoicing in Christ, or to concentrate on anything but their own hopelessness and felt certainty of damnation. They would cultivate solitariness and idleness; they would spend hours doing nothing. They would insist that others did not understand them, and that they were not sick but only realistic about themselves, and they would prove perversely obstinate in the matter of taking medication.”

The Cure of Depression

Baxter’s prescription included

1. “Never letting melancholics lose sight of the redeeming love of God, the free offer of life in Christ, and the greatness of grace at every point in the gospel.”

2. “Not attempting to practice the secret duty of meditation and prayer on one’s own, but praying aloud in company.”

4. Cultivating cheerful Christian community.

5. Avoiding idleness.

6. “Making good use of a skilled physician, a discerning pastor, and other faithful Christian mentors and friends, for support, guidance, and hopefully a cure.”

“Baxter wrote about the care of the soul and the care of the body as if they were indivisible if not indistinguishable components of the same person.”

Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter by Michael S. Lundy with an introduction by J. I. Packer.