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!
Note: A helpful book on this subject is Spiritual Depression: It's Causes and Cures, by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones