Are Unhappy Christians a Poor Witness?


In a sense a depressed Christian is a contradiction in terms, and he is a very poor recommendation for the gospel. –Martyn LloydJones (Spiritual Depression)

I’ve labored over this quote for quite some time. I battle depression. So when I read statements like this from a pastor I revere it causes me to be a bit unsettled. Even more so when he says things like, “such people are very poor representatives of the Christian faith”. Now it’s possible that what Lloyd-Jones means by “depression” is different than what I mean by depression. It is a bit difficult to pin down exactly what he means by “spiritual depression” but he continued to use terms like “unhappy Christians” and “cast down” and “their souls are disquieted within them”. So, I think for the most part we have similar definitions of depression.

When I go through one of my seasons of darkness is it true that I’m a poor recommendation of the gospel?

I know in the midst of that darkness it certainly feels that way. And as I’ve given this some thought I have to admit that there won’t be depression in heaven. So whether it’s part of my finitude or fallenness it really doesn’t matter. It’ll be gone in the New Jerusalem. So depression isn’t the ideal state. If all Lloyd-Jones means is that the depressed Christian doesn’t accurately represent the full victory Christ has purchased for us, then I suppose I’d give him a thousand “Amen’s”.

I also know that some of the sinful responses which often accompany depression are definitely poor representations of Christ. Grumbling, being malcontent, and the like are certainly expressly forbidden in Scripture. This is not to mention that Scripture calls us to “be joyful always”. I suppose not being joyful is a poor witness to Christ.

But I’m not yet ready to concede.

I’m arguing that there is a type of robust faith that sits upon the ash heap of one like Job. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, was not a poor witness. Nor was King David and the other Psalmists of whom God used to give us a song book filled with lament. These are not miserable witnesses or poor recommendations of the gospel but beacons—though shrouded in darkness—of the redeeming Christ.

If Lloyd-Jones is saying what I believe he is saying then I disagree with him about the witness of those Christians battling depression.

First, I believe in this instance MLJ is reflecting a very pragmatic understanding of the gospel. He admits this much when he concedes that we live in a pragmatic age and such folks are drawn away from the gospel because of depressed Christians. Because “Christian people too often seem to be perpetually in the doldrums and too often give this appearance of unhappiness and a lack of freedom and of absence of joy” then “there is no question at all but that this is the main reason why large number of people have ceased to be interested in Christianity”.

What he is saying is that for many unbelievers Christianity simply does not work. But what did the gospel aim to do? Make people happy? Meet our unmet needs? Or did the gospel aim to set God’s children from death to life and begin the work of total redemption? If I believe the gospel is meant to make men happy here then I have to concede that in some instances it doesn’t work. We’d have to say the gospel only partially took in the life of someone like William Cowper. But I imagine we’ll sing a different tune in glory. The gospel is meant to get people to God. Mission accomplished. But until we reach glory we might still struggle with shaking off the remnants of our finitude and fallenness.

Sure, unhappy Christians are a poor witness if the gospel is that God makes men happy. But I believe (and believe MLJ also believed) the gospel is a bit more than this.

Secondly, I question whether or not Lloyd-Jones was a bit overly simplistic in his understanding of the causes of depression. That sounds ridiculous because it is MLJ who gave us great lines like this one:

Many Christian people, in fact, are in utter ignorance concerning this realm where the borderlines between the physical, psychological and spiritual meet. Frequently I have found that such [church] leaders had treated those whose trouble was obviously mainly physical or psychological, in a purely spiritual manner; and if you do so, you not only don’t help. You aggravate the problem. (Quoted from Murray, p31)

But in my mind MLJ undercuts what he said in this paragraph by his statement concerning unhappy Christians being a terrible witness. Certainly we would not say that a person who has cancer is a terrible witness. That’s the prosperity gospel. But if my unwelcome and unhappy condition isn’t simply the result of sin or a spiritual problem but a bit more complex then it is incredibly unhelpful and aggravating for Lloyd-Jones to then stack upon guilt for such a thing.

Lastly, it doesn’t leave much room for the sovereignty of God. I address this at length in Torn to Heal, but I’m convinced that on occasion these “fits of melancholy” are a divine help to us. Would I say that God is giving us something which will cause us to be a poor representation of Christ? Absolutely, not. Everything he gives is meant to bring us into conformity with Christ.

Conclusion

Where does this leave us? Certainly, we do not want to pursue misery and being an unhappy Christian. But if you find yourself in a season of darkness don’t fake it for the sake of not being a bad witness. (And Lloyd-Jones agrees with this). Don’t take the path of the stoic. Learn to use the bible’s language of lament when you need to.

I believe this quote by Christopher Wright is true because too many have taken Lloyd-Jones quips here to an unhealthy end:

…the language of lament is seriously neglected in the church.  Many Christians seem to feel that somehow it can’t be right to complain to God in the context of corporate worship when we should all feel happy.  There is an implicit pressure to stifle our real feelings because we are urged, by pious merchants of emotional denial, that we ought to have “faith” (as if the moaning psalmists didn’t).  So we end up giving external voice to pretended emotions we do not really feel, while hiding the real emotions we are struggling with deep inside.  Going to worship can become an exercise in pretence and concealment, neither of which can possibly be conducive for a real encounter with God.  So, in reaction to some appalling disaster or tragedy, rather than cry out our true feelings to God, we prefer other ways of responding to it.  –(Christopher J.H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand, 52)

I’m not attempting to defend misery. I’m simply hoping to encourage suffering Christians to not hide in these seasons of pain because of the mistaken belief that their struggle is a poor witness. Instead I’m hoping to encourage them…us….to use these seasons to display the beauty of the gospel and a Savior who clings to us even when we’ve got hands full of ashes. 

Photo source: here

5 Comments

  1. Yes, I felt very guilt ridden and ashamed on top of being depressed when my pastor taught this book. I agree with much (most?) of what he has to say, but that part made me want to crawl into a cave. I hid from people rather choose between being a bad witness and lying to cover up the bad witness. It left me with the deepest struggle over assurance, one I can’t seem to escape, even three years later.

  2. I think a distinction between a few different things is useful here: a sinful, self-centered “depression”; a real, physical ailment involving chemical imbalances, i.e., some type of clinical depression; and a sorrowful lament because a particular season of life in the surrounding environment impinges on God’s honor.

    Only the first one is sinful. The other two required medical expertise (in the middle case) or repentance by those who cause the sorrowful lament of faithful followers of Christ (in the last case).

    It’s this last item that I think is the most noticeable today. We live in an age that, spiritually, closely resembles the state of religion in the pre-reformation apostate Catholic church. We have professed evangelicals, even seemingly solid leaders, who blatantly violate basic commands in Scripture simply to maintain their John 11:48 culture, and true believers see this going on and it causes them to groan.

    Interestingly, where today’s culture condemns those Christians as being “unjoyful”, the Bible actually commends those who groan over the transgression of God’s Word by God’s supposed people (see Ezekiel 9).

    So, in summary, if you’re unhappy b/c of the first case, repent. If you’re “unhappy” b/c of a real, physical ailment that we call depression, get help and let us know what we can do and how we can pray for you.

    But if you’re one of the Christians who groan under the weight of sin displayed by those who claim to be God’s people, then know that you are commended in Scripture and you have nothing to feel guilty over at all. In fact, you’re the one doing it right!

  3. Mission accomplished. You have greatly encouraged me. This last depression cycle has been the darkest and longest ever. The strain of faking it had become unbearable. I feel hope now because of your insight and compassion. I thank God for your article, and for bringing it to me when I needed it most. May God bless and keep you and your family. May He bless your ministry as well. Amen.

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