Richard Baxter, the seventeenth-century English Puritan pastor and — for a time — lay physician, was well-acquainted with the trouble of his parishioners. His counsel to Christians suffering from anxiety and depression, acute or chronic, remains as relevant and useful today as when he penned his counsel nearly four hundred years ago.
Baxter knew that despair and anxiety may arise acutely due to circumstances, complications in important relationships, or other factors. These afflictions may also arise from physical conditions, which Baxter recognized to be bona fide medical disorders. He offers wide-ranging advice to depressed and anxious Christians, from mild cases to the most severe.
Baxter’s counsel focuses particularly on our thoughts about God, and how wrong thoughts about God can cause or deepen depression and anxiety. He also shows how correcting our thoughts and behaviors can help us to endure our trying conditions with more grace, and to find eventual relief from them. Consider just a few examples of Baxter’s specific advice to those in the midst of anxiety and depression.
1. Think much about mercy.
Think and speak as much about the mercy you have received as you do about the sin you have committed. Similarly, focus as much on the mercy offered as on the mercy you need. (Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life, 92)
“The Lord is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works,” says the psalmist (Psalm 145:13). Baxter argued that when we have an inverted appreciation of God’s gifts — forgetting his faithfulness and kindness — we see the amount of mercy we need as more significant than the amount of mercy God offers.
But the mercy God offers us in Christ is far greater than the mercy we need, and should dominate over our worries or griefs. Our imaginations will be constrained or distorted by worry and doubt, particularly in the midst of anxiety and depression, but will be enlarged by what God says about himself (Ephesians 3:20).
2. Dwell on God’s infinite friendliness.
When you pore over the contents of your heart to search whether or not the love of God is there, it would be wiser to think of the infinite friendliness of God. (90)
In Baxter’s day, an awareness of sin and its gravity was conspicuous among those who wished to live a Christian life. Genuine believers were often beset with grave doubts as to whether or not the promises of salvation extended to them personally, though they had much less difficulty in believing the tenets of the gospel generally.
“Think and speak as much about the mercy you have received as you do about the sin you have committed.”
Perhaps the most famous example of such doubt is expressed by Baxter’s contemporary John Bunyan in his autobiographical Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. On his path to eventual peace with God through Christ, Bunyan struggled intensely — not for merely hours, days, months, but for years — before he came to see that Christ’s work availed even for John Bunyan. It was an agonizing trial for him. But, at the risk of making too short a summary of Bunyan’s struggle, it might be said that he focused so much on his sin that he underrated the friendliness and generosity of God.
Twenty-first-century Christians seem to struggle less with a sense of sin’s gravity than Christians in Baxter’s day. As a culture, we seem prone to struggle more with our suffering than with our sinfulness. Adversity for Western Christianity does, nevertheless, call into question the same attributes of God with which Bunyan struggled. “If God is so good, why doesn’t he . . . ?” Baxter’s advice remains as applicable to our Western distortions of God’s character as it was to Bunyan’s.
Therefore, as Baxter writes, “When you do think of holy things, let it be of the best things: of God and grace, Christ, heaven, or your brethren or the church” (89). Think much of the friendliness of God in the gospel of his Son.
3. Praise and give thanks more than you confess.
Commit yourself to daily spending as great a part of your prayers in confessing mercy received as in confessing sin committed, and in praising God as in lamenting your own miseries. (92)
Baxter reminded his depressed and anxious parishioners that our duty to give thanks and praise for forgiveness outweighs our duty to confess our sin, misery, and complaints. Without neglecting the latter, we can enlarge upon the former, as doing so will tend to ease our worry and lift our spirits. “If you cannot mention mercy as thankfully as you would like or mention God’s excellencies with the degree of devotion and praise as you would,” Baxter continued, “nevertheless do what you can and mention them as you are able” (92).
4. Keep as busy as you can.
Be sure that you keep yourself constantly busy — as far as your strength will allow — in the diligent labors of a lawful calling, and don’t waste precious time in idleness. (97)
Idleness affords an opportunity for the devil, Baxter urges, and be sure he will exploit it if you provide it. Every one of us has a duty, which God calls us to discharge as well as we can. If we instead “insist on brooding in a corner and sin against God through idleness and wasting time,” we will only “contribute to [our] own misery” (98).
Anxiety and depression can seem to serve as valid excuses for neglecting our duty. While we may be excused from those matters which are genuinely beyond our present capacity, that is not to say that we have no obligations or that we need not engage in any we find unpleasant or distasteful. Baxter argues that doing the little we can do will enable us to do, subsequently, what we now cannot manage.
5. Remember what pleases the devil.
Note carefully how much the Devil delights in confining you to sad, despondent thoughts. You may then easily see that such a focus cannot be your duty or in your best interests if it is so helpful and pleasing to the Devil. (98)
“Are your sins ever before you? Why not also the pardoning grace of Christ?”
While Paul assumes his readers “not ignorant” of Satan’s tactics (2 Corinthians 2:11), we are not always as aware as was his original readership. In fact, we may leave the devil quite out of our calculations. While there are inherent dangers in focusing too much on the devil, there are different but still significant ones in ignoring him. If we find ourselves saying or doing things that could please only the enemy, we should pause and turn to examples of self-exhortation in the midst of adversity.
David, for example, seeks to reassure himself of what must not have been entirely self-evident — namely, that he had continuing reason to hope in God, and could expect, at some future point, to “again praise him” (Psalm 42:5, 11; 43:5). Sometimes filling our mouths with the right words will keep the wrong thoughts from entering our heads.
6. Leave behind low thoughts of God’s love.
Your low thoughts of God prevent you from loving him and incline you to hate him or to flee from him as from an enemy. Meanwhile, the Devil misrepresents him as hating you. (98)
While few Christians are nowadays tempted to apply Malachi 1:3 (“Esau I have hated”) to themselves, there are more subtle ways of questioning God’s sincerity regarding the promises extended in the gospel. To imagine that God intends us harm rather than good is a frequent temptation, and is more commonly yielded to than we might think. It is regularly cloaked in slightly displaced anger, perhaps at God’s representative or our circumstances (his providence). God’s depressed and anxious people regularly imagine God to be an enemy, not a friend.
Remembering and recounting God’s wondrous works is one antidote to such an attitude. Asaph, that marvelous counselor for the discouraged, speaks from his own discouragement. He worries, “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased?” (Psalm 77:7–8). But then he determines to reflect on the past goodness of the Lord: “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds” (Psalm 77:11–12). This is a very intentional act on the part of Asaph: he wills himself to remember, and thus does so. And, immediately, the tone of this psalm changes to a hopeful one (Psalm 77:13–20). We can and should do likewise, and expect to recover hope in a similar fashion.
7. Pursue a thorough healing.
Strive for the cure of your disease, and commit yourself to the care of your physician and obey him. Don’t be like most depressed persons, who will not believe that medication will do them good, but who think it is only their soul that is troubled. (100)
Persistent and deep depression and anxiety often represent somatic (i.e., physical) maladies. A comprehensive approach will seek to correct distorted thoughts about God and of self, and it will also recommend referral to a qualified physician when necessary. Often, a combination of sound spiritual counsel and appropriate medication are needed to recover from anxiety and depression.
Jesus’s invitation, “Bring him to me” (Mark 9:19) is his call for us to bring ourselves and our loved ones to him, and to then be prepared to do what he may then command. For one, it was “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (John 9:7). For others, it was “Go and show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14). Many of the healings happened instantaneously, but other healings happened after someone left Jesus’s presence in obedience to his command. “And as they went they were cleansed” (Luke 17:14).
The point here is that the means God chooses to bring about healing are up to him. Sometimes, he uses other people, including physicians, pastors, and friends. God can and does heal without any human or pharmacological intermediaries. But we should not demand that he provide healing on our terms or timetable.
8. Steep your soul in wonders of mercy.
Do not overlook the miracle of love that God has shown us in the wonderful incarnation, office, life, death, and resurrection, ascension, and reign of our Redeemer. Rather, steep your thoughts most of all in these wonders of mercy, ordained by God to be the primary substance of your thoughts. (91)
Jesus was happy to be known as the “friend of . . . sinners” (Matthew 11:19). Claim his friendship, impose upon it, and seek comfort in it. It is to be found where most needed, as we are told: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).
“Commit yourself to daily spending as great a part of your prayers in praising God as in lamenting your own miseries.”
This reveals my Presbyterian roots, but I confess that I have tended to view God’s attributes more along the lines of those made famous in the Westminster Shorter Catechism answer to “What is God?” The catechism answers, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” Love is conspicuously absent from this careful formulation of God’s attributes, as is friendliness. Baxter, a contemporary of the Westminster Assembly divines who composed the catechism, chose, rightly I think, to speak of friendliness as he offers encouragement to anxious and discouraged believers.
As we are able, then, we should labor to bring alongside all our depressed and anxious thoughts to this friendly Redeemer. “Never think of sin and hell alone,” Baxter writes, “but as the way to thoughts of Christ and grace. . . . Are your sins ever before you? Why not also the pardoning grace of Christ? Is hell open before you? Why is not the Redeemer also before you?” (91).
We can recover perspective by a renewed vision of God as good, kind, loving, and yes, friendly. We can counter discouragement and depression, and avoid despair by reflecting on the many and good reasons we have been given for hope and faith. “Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the Lord” (Psalm 107:43).