April 29, 2011 by Tony Reinke
John Newton wrote a number of valuable letters on the high marks and the low points of the Christian life. One of those letters was originally to a pastor. But as you will soon see, it has application for every Christian, especially on the topic of spiritual depression (see Psalm 42:1–11).
For this entry in the series I’ve chosen to reformat one letter into an interview. We’ll see how it goes.
Rev. Newton, thanks for your time today. Let’s begin discussing the topic of how spiritual depression affects pastors. You have many years of pastoral experience yourself. Does God preserve pastors from undergoing spiritual valleys? Do pastors get a special divine favor and higher proportion of comforts in life to better serve their local churches?
Give me leave to ask pastors: What would you do if you did not find yourself occasionally poor, insufficient, and stupid?
Are you aware of what might be the possible, the probable, the almost certain consequences, if you always found your spirit enlarged, and your frames lively and comfortable?
Would you not be in great danger of being puffed up with spiritual pride?
Would you not be less sensible of your absolute dependence upon the power of Christ, and of your continual need of his blood, pardon, and intercession?
Would you not be quite at a loss to speak suitably and feelingly to the case of many gracious souls, who are groaning under those effects of a depraved nature, from which, upon that supposition, you would be exempted?
How could you speak properly upon the deceitfulness of the heart, if you did not feel the deceitfulness of your own; or adapt yourself to the changing experiences through which your hearers pass, if you yourself were always alike, or nearly so?
Or how could you speak pertinently of the inward warfare, the contrary principles of flesh and spirit fighting one against another, if your own spiritual desires were always vigorous and successful, and met with little opposition or control?
The angel who appeared to Cornelius did not preach the Gospel to him, but directed him to send for Peter: for though the glory and grace of the Saviour seems a fitter subject for an angel’s powers than for the poor stammering tongues of sinful men, yet an angel could not preach experimentally, nor describe the warfare between grace and sin from his own feelings (Acts 10:1–8).
And if we could suppose a minister as full of comforts and as free from failings as an angel, though he would be a good and happy man, I cannot conceive that he would be a good or useful preacher; for he would not know how to sympathize with the weak and afflicted of the flock, or to comfort them under their difficulties with the consolations wherewith he himself, in similar circumstances, had been comforted of God.
So what’s behind this spiritual depression in the pastor’s experience?
We may extend the subject so as to make it applicable to believers in general.
First, let me say that resting in the recollection of past comforts, without a continual thirst for fresh communications from the Fountain of life, is, I am afraid, the canker which eats away the beauty and fruitfulness of many professors in the present day; and which, if it does not prove them to be absolutely dead, is at least a sufficient evidence that they are lamentably sick.
But on the other hand, if we are conscious of the desire, if we seek it carefully in the use of all appointed means, if we willingly allow in ourselves nothing which grieves the Spirit of God, and to damp our sense of divine things—if the Lord is pleased to keep us short of those comforts which he has taught us to prize, instead of lively sensations of joy and praise we feel a languor and deadness of spirit.
In other words, you say that spiritual depression stems from an appropriate thirst for communion with God. So how do we respond when we feel this languor and deadness of spirit?
Provided we do indeed feel it, and are humbled for it, we have no need to give way to despondency or excessive sorrow.
Still the foundation of our hope, and the ground of our abiding joys, is the same; and the heart may be as really alive to God, and grace as truly in exercise, when we walk in comparative darkness and see little light, as when the frame of our spirits is more comfortable. Neither the reality nor the measure of grace can be properly estimated by the degree of our sensible comforts.
So you seem to say that grace is at work in the Christian’s life whether the experience is bright or dark. That’s an important point. So when the darkness descends, when a Christian walks through a dark valley and the soul is cast down, what should be his posture?
The Apostle exhorts believers to rejoice in the Lord always (Philippians 4:4). He well knew that they were exposed to trials and temptations, and to much trouble from an evil heart of unbelief; and he prevents the objections we might be ready to make, by adding, “And again I say, Rejoice”—as if he had said, I call upon you to rejoice, not at some times only, but at all times.
Not only when upon the mount, but when in the valley.
Not only when you conquer, but while you are fighting.
Not only when the Lord shines upon you, but when he seems to hide his face.
When he enables you to do all things, you are no better in yourselves than you were before; and when you feel you can do nothing, you are no worse. Your experiences will vary, but his love and promises are always unchangeable.
Thus, it makes sense that we can always rejoice. But that takes faith. So what gets in the way of our rejoicing? Why is it so hard to rejoice in the valley?
Sinful principles may, and too often do, mix with and defile our best desires. I have often detected the two vile abominations, self-will and self-righteousness insinuating themselves into this concern. Like Satan, who works by them, they can occasionally assume the appearance of an angel of light.
I have felt impatience in my spirit, utterly unsuitable to my state as a sinner and a beggar, and to my profession of yielding myself and all my concerns to the Lord’s disposal.
He has mercifully convinced me that I labor under a complication of disorders, summed up in the word sin. He has graciously revealed himself to me as the infallible physician. And has enabled me, as such, to commit myself to him, and to expect my cure from his hand alone.
Yet how often, instead of thankfully accepting his prescriptions, have I foolishly and presumptuously ventured to prescribe to him, and to point out how I would have him deal with me! How often have I thought something was necessary which he saw best to deny, and that I could have done better without those dispensations which his wisdom appointed to work for my good!
He is God, and not man, or else he would have been weary of me, and left me to my own management long ago.
It has cost me something to bring me to confess that he is wiser than I; but I trust, through his blessing, I have not suffered wholly in vain.
My sensible comforts have not been great. The proofs I have had of the evils of my sinful nature, my incapacity and aversion to good, have neither been few nor small. But by these unpromising means I hope he has made his grace and salvation precious to my soul, and in some measure weaned me from leaning to my own understanding.
So because we are sinners we will find it especially difficult to rejoice in moments when our personal weakness is exposed. Can you explain further how self-righteousness gets in the way of our joy in God?
Self-righteousness has had a considerable hand in dictating many of my desires for an increase of comfort and spiritual strength. I have wanted some stock of my own. I have been wearied of being so perpetually beholden to him, necessitated to come to him always in the same strain, as a poor miserable sinner. I could have liked to do something for myself, and to depend upon him chiefly upon extraordinary occasions.
I have found indeed, that I could do nothing without his assistance, nor any thing even with it, but what I have reason to be ashamed of. If this had only humbled me, and led me to rejoice in his all-sufficiency, it would have been well. But it has often had a different effect, to make me sullen, angry, and discontented, as if it was not best and most desirable that he should have all the glory of his own work, and I should have nothing to boast of, but that in the Lord I have righteousness and strength.
I am now learning to glory only in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me; to be content to be nothing, that he may be All in All (2 Corinthians 12:7–13).
But I find this a hard lesson; and when I seem to have made some proficiency, a slight turn in my spirit throws me back, and I have to begin all again.
In conclusion, what have you learned that you can share with us from your own experience in the valley?
First: There is an inseparable connection between causes and effects. Indwelling sin is an active cause; and therefore, while it remains in our nature, it will produce effects according to its strength.
So why should I wonder that I can feel no lively exercise of grace, no power to raise my heart to God, any farther than he is pleased to work in me mightily; any more than wonder that I do not find fire in the bottom of a well, or that it should not be day when the sun is withdrawn from the earth?
Second: Humbled I ought to be to find I am so totally depraved—but not discouraged, since Jesus is appointed to me of God, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; and since I find that, in the midst of all this darkness and deadness, he keeps alive the principle of grace which he has implanted in my heart.
These are wonderful reminders of God’s sustaining grace. Thank you Rev. Newton. May our valleys remind us of our absolute dependence upon Christ’s power, blood, pardon, and intercession.
And for further insight on these important topics, see C.J.’s practical post: “The Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Spiritual Dehydration.”
Tony Reinke serves as the editorial and research assistant to C.J. Mahaney. Reading Newton’s Mail is a series of blog posts reflecting on various published letters written by John Newton (1725–1807), the onetime captain of a slave trading ship—a self-described apostate, blasphemer, and infidel, who was eventually converted by grace. Newton is most famous for authoring the hymn “Amazing Grace,” or maybe for helping William Wilberforce put an end to the African slave trade in Britain. Less legendarily, Newton faithfully pastored two churches for 43 years, a fruitful period of his life when a majority of his letters were written. Reading Newton’s Mail is published on Fridays here on the Cheap Seats blog.
Primary source: The Works of John Newton (London: 1820), 1:253–261.