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I was thankful to read Paxson Jeancake’s meditation on how depression—even insanity—was used by God to to produce words of gospel hope and insights from the pen of William Cowper (pronounced like Cooper), who lived from 1731-1800 and was friends with John Newton (the slavetrader turned pastor who wrote “Amazing Grace”). Paxson writes:

Art is not birthed in a vacuum, nor is it produced solely from a life of blissful devotion and ongoing prayer and song. Art is often brought forth from hardship and struggle, turmoil and tears. There is something about a troubled soul that taps into both the reality of our fallen condition and the hope of something greater than ourselves. Such is the life of William Cowper, the troubled but gifted artist whose hymns have been sung in many different languages for more than two centuries.

You can read the original poem he goes on to reference here, which they turned into a contemporary worship song.

Cowper's room in Olney: the place of much pain, and beauty.

You can get a 3-minute intro to Cowper from this video produced by Mars Hill in Seattle:

Seeing this sent me back to John Piper’s 1992 talk on Cowper: “Insanity and Spiritual Songs in the Soul of a Saint.” Piper asks at one point in the talk, “What are we to make of this man’s life long battle with depression, and indeed his apparent surrender to despair and hopelessness in his own life?”

At the end of the talk, he draws several lessons. For those who might be tempted in a melancholy direction, this counsel is priceless:

We all [must] fortify ourselves against the dark hours of depression by cultivating a deep distrust of the certainties of despair. Despair is relentless in the certainties of his pessimism. But we have seen that Cowper is not consistent. Some years after his absolute statements of being cut off from God, he is again expressing some hope in being heard. His certainties were not sureties. So it will always be with the deceptions of darkness. Let us now, while we have the light, cultivate distrust of the certainties of despair.

And pastors, make note of this lesson in particular:

The first version of this lecture was given in an evening service at Bethlehem Baptist Church. It proved to be one of the most encouraging things I have done in a long time. This bleak life was felt by many as hope-giving. There are not doubt different reasons for this in the cases of different people. But the lesson is surely that those of us who teach and preach and want to encourage our people to press on in hope and faith must not limit ourselves to success stories. The life of William Cowper had a hope-giving effect on my people. That is a very important lesson.

For those suffering from depression, tempted toward it, or ministering those in this situation, here are some resources to consider:

For those in ministry, the writings by and about Charles Spurgeon on depression may be particularly valuable:

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3 thoughts on “Cultivating Distrust of the Certainties of Despair”

  1. Truth is the key factor. This plays out a couple of ways:

    First, during the lighter times one must saturate one’s soul with the scriptures. Dark times will use facts to distort truth by weighting the facts unreasonably. Knowing the truth can help counter this.

    Second, it may be temporarily helpful for others to feign deeper concern for a brother than they actually have. But the truth must come out. The reason is that depression is perpetuated in part by a discrepancy between one’s perceived self-value and the value that one perceives others to hold of him. That is to say that if one recognizes a need for friendship that one does not possess and sees that others share that kind of friendship, one might consider that he is just as worthy of the friendship he lacks as anyone else who has it. It’s helpful when no one really cares deeply enough to be a close friend that acting like it on the surface over the long run may only fuel further episodes. So we need to be honest enough to quickly admit that while we might not want someone to commit suicide, we really don’t care enough to do what it really takes. That will help the person realize that he really isn’t worth the attention that he needs thus minimizing the discrepancy and subsequent downward spirals into despair, and lessening his need.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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