Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Birthday Fast

I was reading again in the Diary of David Brainerd, and I found this entry for April 20, 1743:

Set apart this day for fasting and prayer, to bow my soul before God for the bestowment of divine grace; especially that all my spiritual afflictions, and inward distresses, might be sanctified to my soul.  And endeavored also to remember the goodness of God to me the year past, this day being my birthday.  Having obtained help of God, I have hitherto lived, and am now arrived at the age of twenty-five years.  My soul was pained to think of my barrenness and deadness; that I have lived so little to the glory of the eternal God.  I spent the day in the woods alone, and there poured out my complaint to God.  O that God would enable me to live to his glory for the future!
Most of us prefer a birthday feast, not a fast!  But it was quite consistent with the temperament and holy aspirations of David Brainerd to spend his birthday fasting.  The greatest birthday gift Brainerd could ever have hoped and prayed for was a closer walk with God.  Is that our greatest desire?  Is that our birthday wish when we blow out the candles?

Brainerd would live only four more years, but he would see at least 130 of his beloved Indians come to faith in Christ, and his diary would travel the globe and influence countless Christians for the service of the Lord.  Among those greatly moved by the life and writings of Brainerd were the missionary Henry Martyn and the godly Scottish pastor, Robert Murray M'Cheyne.

Brainerd has also had a profound effect on my life, especially in times of deepest distress.  I am greatly comforted to know that the godly David Brainerd suffered spiritual struggles much like mine, and that God brought him through and used him greatly. 

Lord, renew my resolve to serve You with single-hearted devotion.  Amen.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


            The first man born into this world was a murderer.  His mother, Eve, had higher hopes for him: she thought that Cain might be the promised savior who would crush the serpent’s, Satan’s, head.  Instead he manifested a violent, jealous, and vindictive nature that drove him to murder his brother, Abel.

            Of Cain’s direct descendants, one stands out as more evil than Cain himself.  His name was Lamech, and he prided himself in his murderous ways:

Lamech said to his wives,
"Adah and Zillah,
Listen to my voice,
You wives of Lamech, Give heed to my speech,
For I have killed a man for wounding me;
And a boy for striking me;
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold."
(Genesis 4:23-24)

            In the New Testament book of Jude, we read that there are people who have chosen the way of Cain:

Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain . . .”  (Jude 1:11)

             As Charles R. Erdman pointed out, Adam’s sin was disobedience to God, but Cain’s and Lamech’s sins were “utter disregard and defiance of God.”  It has been noted that often what parents excuse in moderation, their children indulge in in excess. 

            The root of violence in our world is sin.  That’s the reality that is never acknowledged, and therefore is never addressed.  It is a hypocritical society that decries violence in schools and yet forbids students to carry a Bible to school, that stops students from praying over their lunch, or mentioning God in a valedictory speech.  When a society pursues the way of Cain, disregard for God and His Word, God will give that society over to its desires and it will suffer the natural consequences.  (See Romans 1:18-32)

            There is, thankfully, another way!  Adam and Eve had another son, Seth.  Of the line of Seth we read:

To Seth, to him also a son was born; and he called his name Enosh. Then men began to call upon the name of the LORD. (Genesis 4:26, emphasis added.)

The one who stands out in the line of Seth is a man named Enoch.

Enoch lived sixty-five years, and became the father of Methuselah. Then Enoch walked with God three hundred years after he became the father of Methuselah, and he had other sons and daughters. So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him. (Genesis 5:21-24)

            Twice in the space of just four verses, the Bible calls attention to what set Enoch apart: Enoch walked with God!  And the only way to walk with God is by faith in God’s Word, and that’s why the writer to the Hebrews states: 

By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death; AND HE WAS NOT FOUND BECAUSE GOD TOOK HIM UP; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God. (Hebrews 11:5, emphasis added.)

            Erdman noted that Enoch had the same inherited genes as the murderers Cain and Lamech, yet he walked with God by faith, and as a consequence, he was pleasing to God!

            God’s judgment at last came down upon that progressively wicked world, but He would preserve mankind and begin to form a special people of God through Enoch’s great-grandson, another man God calls “righteous” – Noah.

            The Beloved Disciple, John, urged Christians to shun the way of Cain, but to pursue genuine, biblical love:

For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother.  And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother's were righteous.  (1 John 3:11-12)

            As long as our secular society chooses to shut God and His Word out of public life, we can only expect more violent manifestations of the way of Cain.

Monday, January 7, 2013


There are plenty of preachers, Christian writers, and professors who are quick to say that depression and holiness are totally incompatible.  They look at depression as sin, or at least the result of personal sin.

 Well, every human malady is ultimately a result of what happened in Genesis 3.  We are fallen creatures.  Each genuine Christian has his or her share of faults that distort the perfect image of Christ that we show to the world.  But before we jump to the conclusion that a person who is suffering depression cannot possibly be also holy, we should consider the cases of some of the most conspicuously holy men in Church history.

The first that comes to my mind is the godly David Brainerd (1718-1747).   Brainerd was a pioneer missionary to the North American Indians, and was known for his intense devotion to Christ and his long, early morning seasons of prayer.  Brainerd suffered from what was then called “consumption,” which took his life at age 29.  Brainerd also suffered from depression.  His diaries, edited at Brainerd’s request and published by Jonathan Edwards, reveal frequent bouts with depression during which he felt himself an unworthy servant of Christ.  We might theorize that his physical disease predisposed him to a depressed mental state, but the history of the Brainerd family reveals a similar temperament through generations.  Though Brainerd did not live to marry and have children, a relative some generations later commented that a “dark cloud” seems to hover over the Brainerd family.  Yet David Brainerd’s Journal is a devotional classic that has inspired generations of missionaries on both sides of the Atlantic!

 Upon my return from missionary work in Italy, I got into a discussion of David Brainerd with a very godly seminary professor I had studied under.  “Tom,” he said, “my students today say that David Brainerd was wrong in not taking better care of his health.  What do you think?”  I answered, “I’m not worried about there being too many David Brainerds in the ministry!”

 Another conspicuously godly missionary who suffered from bouts of depression was Henry Martyn (1781-1812), who translated the New Testament into Hindustani, Arabic, and Persian before his untimely death.  He lived long enough, however, to present the Persian New Testament to the shah of Iran in the palace.  The shah was so impressed that he ordered that a passage from the book be read in his court every morning!  One historian wrote that there was “no more heroic figure in 400 years of English history than Henry Martyn.”  And who inspired Henry Martyn to pursue such holy devotion to the cause of Christ?  Martyn’s biographer writes:  ". . . in the autumn of 1802 he read the life of David Brainerd and found his hero.  He who would know Martyn must ask what manner of man was that Brainerd who called out his depths of admiration."  (Henry Martyn, Constance E. Padwick)

Brainerd’s influence also reached the heart of the godly Robert Murray M’Cheyne, of who it is written, “To know him was the best interpretation of many texts” (The Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Andrew A. Bonar).  M’Cheyne’s journal entry for June 27, 1834, reads, “Life of David Brainerd.  Most wonderful man!  What conflicts, what depressions, desertions, strength, advancement, victories, within thy torn bosom!  I cannot express what I feel when I think of thee.  Tonight, more set upon missionary enterprise than ever.”  Henry Martyn also had his impact on M’Cheyne:  “November 12 (1834).  Reading H. Martyn’s Memoirs.  Would I could imitate him, giving up father, mother, country, house, health, life, all for Christ.  And yet, what hinders?  Lord, purify me, and give me strength to dedicate myself, my all to thee!”

The last example I would like to offer (though the examples could go on and on, and include even the great preacher Charles Spurgeon) is the poet and hymn writer William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) (1731-1800).   Cowper’s episodes with depression were by far the worst of any discussed here.  More than once he had to be hospitalized because of his emotional condition.  Cowper was a good friend of John Newton, the former slave ship captain who gave us the beloved hymn Amazing Grace.  Newton and Cowper collaborated on the volume of hymns titled, Olney Hymns.  One of Cowper’s hymns in that collection reveals his deep longing for the heavenly peace that he knew only God’s Holy Spirit could supply:

O for a closer walk with God,
            A calm and heavenly frame,
            A light to shine upon the road
            That leads me to the Lamb.

Return, O holy Dove,
            Return, Sweet messenger of rest;
            I hate the sins that made Thee mourn,
            And drove Thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known,
            Whate’er that idol be,
            Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
            And worship only Thee.

So shall my walk be close with God,
            Calm and serene my frame;
            So purer light shall mark the road
            That leads me to the Lamb.

Cowper also wrote There Is A Fountain, that speaks of the cleansing power of the blood of Christ, as the Apostle John promised in 1 John 1:7, 9.

 Cowper’s case reminds us that it is not unusual for highly creative, artistic people to suffer severe depression.  The cause or causes of chronic depression are still largely a mystery.  From a biblical perspective, we know it is one consequence of our fallen condition, and we know that God’s Word and God’s Spirit can bring relief.  But we must never conclude that because someone suffers periodic bouts of depression, they are not holy.  Brainerd, Martyn, and Cowper, among many others, contradict that conclusion!