When Your Depressed Friend Twists God’s Word

He is wise in heart and mighty in strength —who has hardened himself against him, and succeeded?— he who removes mountains, and they know it not, when he overturns them in his anger, who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun, and it does not rise; who seals up the stars; who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea; who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south; who does great things beyond searching out, and marvelous things beyond number. (Job 9:4-10 ESV)

Job 9:4-10 is an absolutely beautiful passage about the greatness and majesty of God. It’s something that you would expect in the Psalms. In fact the Hebrew form that is used here is the same type that is used in psalms of praise. If you weren’t familiar with Job’s story you’d likely think that things must be going wonderful for him. Or perhaps you’d think that this was the Psalm of a guy hoping for better days and trusting in a majestic God to bring them about. You might assume this is the middle part of one of those Psalms which follows the “thing stink, God is big, stuff is going to get better” format.

Neither of those expectations would be true.

In Job’s sorrow-wracked and dark-mind these verses only serve to multiply his wound (9:17). For Job, the bigness of God does not provide hope it inspires terror. It’s one more piece of evidence that Job will never get to plead his case, never get to explain why he had to bury his children, or why he is in such agony.

This is what happens when a mind is overcome with sorrow, bitterness, and depression. The things which should bring comfort only bring more sorrow. Such was the case of William Cowper. Consider these painful words from Cowper to his friend John Newton:

Loaded as my life is with despair, I have no such comfort as would result from a supposed probability of better things to come, were it once ended … You will tell me that this cold gloom will be succeeded by a cheerful spring, and endeavour to encourage me to hope for a spiritual change resembling it—but it will be lost labour. Nature revives again; but a soul once slain lives no more … My friends, I now expect that I shall see yet again. They think it necessary to the existence of divine truth, that he who once had possession of it should never finally lose it. I admit the solidity of this reasoning in every case but my own. And why not in my own? … I forestall the answer:—God’s ways are mysterious, and He giveth no account of His matters:—an answer that would serve my purpose as well as theirs that use it. There is a mystery in my destruction, and in time it shall be explained.

What do you do when someone in your life makes a Cowper-like or a Job-like turn. For Job it was a host of outward circumstances which leveled him. For Cowper it was mental illness. Either way ministry to them will be difficult. So what do you do when the words you mean to be life giving end up being soul-crunching?

We Need More John Newton’s

Some would probably consider Newton’s soul care of Cowper a failure. After all he never really found healing. We like magic words that somehow fix everything. But Cowper wouldn’t be “fixed”; not on this side of Eden.

Newton couldn’t be Cowper’s savior. But he could be his friend. Though it’s a mystery and not something I would really want to write a theological dissertation on, it seems that at times the Lord calls people like John Newton to hold the hand of his friend while simultaneously holding the hand of Jesus. His dear friend was in such despair that he could no longer cry out for mercy. It seems that Newton interceded for Cowper when he was too weak to even plead for help.

Newton’s ministry to Cowper was a ministry where he continued to “sing the gospel to the deaf”. He did it as his friend not as his fixer. He loved William Cowper, madness and all. He was never a project but always a brother in Christ. To this end Newton never gave up on his friend. He pleaded for Cowper’s stake in Christ even when Cowper was confident that he had been forsaken.

Ministry success isn’t defined by the number of hands we heal but the hands we hold. Healing belongs to the Lord. Holding on is our sacred duty as fellow sojourners. We need more pastors like John Newton. Pastors that aren’t discouraged because their “projects” fail. But pastors that ache because their friends hurt. Pastors that stay and preach, and plod, and proclaim the excellencies of Christ even when it seems that we are only holding a symphony for the deaf.

Sometimes there really isn’t an answer or a set of magic words that make everything all better. Occasionally we have to wait for full redemption. In the mean time we hang on, love people, and keep proclaiming truth even if it ends up getting twisted. Because sometimes the Spirit uses those words and out of the whirlwind God Himself speaks to the heart and provides substantial healing even on this side of Eden.

Adapted from here.

Photo source here.

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