World Health Day, Depression, and Luther

Today is World Health Day and the focus this year is on depression.  Luther knew a bit about that subject so it might be worth sharing this observation of his:

“And after I had made the profession [of obedience to the Augustinian Order] I was congratulated by the Prior, convent, and Father-confessor on the ground of being now an innocent child, returning pure from baptism. And certainly I could most willingly have rejoiced in the glorious fact that I was such an excellent man, who by his own works (so that was the popular view in spite of all the dogmatic warnings against it), without Christ’s blood, had made himself so beautiful and holy, and that so easily too, and in such a short time.

But although I listened readily to such sweet praise and splendid language about my own deeds, and let myself be taken for a wonderworker, who in such an easy-going way could make himself holy and could devour death and the devil to boot, etc., nevertheless there was no power in it all to sustain me. For when even a small temptation came from death or sin I succumbed, and found there was neither baptism nor monkery that could help me; thus I had now long lost Christ and His baptism. I was then the most miserable man on earth; day and night there was nothing but wailing and despair, so that no one could keep me under restraint.…

God be praised that I did not sweat myself to death, otherwise I should have been long ago in the depths of hell with my monk’s baptism. For what I knew of Christ was nothing more than that He was a stern judge, from whom I would have fled, and yet could not escape.”

Accordingly, then, after his departure from Papistry, he could remark to his dinner companions-

“When I was in spiritual distress a gentle word would restore my spirit. Sometimes my confessor said to me when I repeatedly discussed silly sins with him, ‘You are a fool. God is not incensed against you, but you are incensed against God. God is not angry, with you, but you are angry with God.’ This was magnificently said, although it was before the light of the gospel.

“Right here at this table, when the rest of you were in Jena, Pomeranus sometimes consoled me when I was sad by saying, ‘No doubt God is thinking: What more can I do with this man? I have given him so many excellent gifts, and yet he despairs of my grace!’ These words were a great comfort to me. As a voice from heaven they struck me in my heart, although I think Pomeranus did not realize at the time what he had said and that it was so well said.

“Those who are troubled with melancholy,” he [Martin Luther] said, “ought to be very careful not to be alone, for God created the fellowship of the church and commanded brotherliness, as the Scriptures testify, ‘Woe to him who is alone when he falls.’ etc. [Eccles. 4:10]. To be gloomy before God is not pleasing to him, although he would permit us to be depressed before the world. He does not wish me to have a long face in his presence, as he says, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked’ [Ezek. 33:11] and ‘Rejoice in the Lord’ [Phil. 4:4]. He desires not a servant who does not expect good things of him.

“Although I know this, I am of a different mind ten times in the course of a day. But I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away. When he tempts me with silly sins I say, ‘Devil, yesterday I broke wind too. Have you written it down on your list?’ When I say to him, ‘You have been put to shame,’ he believes it, for he does not want to be despised. Afterward, if I engage him in further conversation, I upbraid him with the pope and say, ‘If you do the same as he does, who is your pope that I should celebrate him? Look what an abomination he has prepared, and it continues to this day!’ Thus I remind myself of the forgiveness of sin and of Christ and I remind Satan of the abomination of the pope. This abomination is so great that I am of good cheer and rejoice, and I confess that the abomination of the papacy after the time of Christ is a great consolation to me. Consequently those who say that one should not rebuke the pope are dreadful scolds. Go right ahead and inveigh against the pope, especially if the devil disturbs you about justification. He often troubles me with trivialities. I don’t notice this when I’m depressed, but when I feel better I recognize it easily.

“Well, then, our furious foe has done us much harm. I know that I shall see him and his flaming missiles in the last day. As long as we have pure teaching he will not harm us, but if the teaching is wrong we are done for. But praise be to God, who gave us the Word and also allowed his only Son to die for us! He did not do this in vain. Accordingly we should entertain the hope that we are saints, that we are saved, and that this will be manifest when it is revealed. Since Christ accepted the thief on the cross just as he was and received Paul after all his blasphemies and persecutions,38 we have no reason to despair. As a matter of fact, all of us must be saved just as the thief and Paul were. Good God, what do you think it means that he has given his only Son? It means that he also offers whatever else he possesses. We have no reason, therefore, to fear his wrath, although we must continue to fear on account of the old Adam, who is still unable to understand this as it ought to be understood.

If we had only the first three words of the Creed, ‘I believe in God the Father,’ they would still be far beyond our understanding and reason. In short, it does not occur to man that God is Father. If it did, man could not live for a single moment. Accordingly in this infirm flesh we must have faith, for if we were capable of fully believing, heaven would already be here. There is therefore no reason to fear, in so far as the object of fear is concerned, and yet we cannot understand and are compelled on account of the weakness of our flesh to suffer assaults of fear and desperation.

Thus the catechism remains lord, and there is nobody who understands it. I am accordingly compelled to pray it every day, even aloud, and whenever I happen to be prevented by the press of duties from observing my hour of prayer, the entire day is bad for me. Prayer helps us very much and gives us a cheerful heart, not on account of any merit in the work, but because we have spoken with God and found everything to be in order.

“Having been taught by experience I can say how you ought to restore your spirit when you suffer from spiritual depression. When you are assailed by gloom, despair, or a troubled conscience you should eat, drink, and talk with others. If you can find help for yourself by thinking of a girl, do so.

“There was a bishop who had a sister in a convent. She was disturbed by various dreams about her brother. She betook herself to her brother and complained to him that she was again and again agitated by bad dreams. He at once prepared a sumptuous dinner and urged his sister to eat and drink. The following day he asked her whether she had been annoyed by dreams during the night. ‘No,’ she responded. ‘I slept well and had no dreams at all.’ ‘Go, then,’ he said. ‘Take care of your body in defiance of Satan, and the bad dreams will stop.’

“But this you ought to know, that other remedies are suitable for other persons. Copious drinking benefits me when I am in this condition. But I would not advise a young person to drink more because this might stimulate his sexual desire. In short, abstinence is beneficial for some and a drinking bout for others. Augustine says wisely in his rule, ‘Not equally for all because you are not all equally strong.’ So he speaks about the body and so we can speak about illnesses of the spirit.”

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