Today, Pastor Lutzer introduces us to three people who struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. If you face these same struggles—or know someone who does—we pray that these stories will be a source of great encouragement to you.
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Transcript: Welcome to Five Minutes With Pastor Lutzer. I’m so glad that you’ve joined us today. And I need to tell you that today the five minutes will be much longer, because of the topic that we are going to cover. Today I want to speak to you on the topic of suicide and depression.
I remember when I was in high school, I met a young man who was gloriously converted, but he struggled with depression. Later on, I was so surprised that he committed suicide. I didn’t realize at that time that Christians can sometimes be led down that road.
Today I want to introduce to you three people who struggled with depression, one of whom tried to commit suicide on numerous occasions. And I think that his story is going to be a great encouragement.
But I begin with Martin Luther, the man who wrote “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” In 1537, he wrote, “For more than a week, I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost.” Later on, he would go on to write that he struggled with depression repeatedly, and he said each time, “It was because of loss of faith that God is good, and that He is good to me.”
Let me introduce you to Charles Haddon Spurgeon. You’ve heard of him—the great 19th century preacher in England. He had severe depression. He said, “I am the subject of depression of spirit, so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go through.” In one of his memoirs, he actually wrote that he contemplated, or at least had to resist the temptation, of taking his own life.
But the third person I want to introduce to you is William Cowper. Cowper was born in London in the year 1731. His mother died when he was young. His father was very cold and distant, and sent him to a boarding school at the age of 10. There are those who believe that it was there that he may have been sexually abused. But at any rate, he struggled with depression.
Later on, his father put him under a lot of pressure to become a lawyer and to study law. But he was in such fear, such a sense of self-loathing, that he could not bring himself to it. And he tried to commit suicide on several different occasions, but somehow it never worked. For example, one time he took a penknife and struck it into his chest, but then the blade of the knife broke. And he tried to hang himself, and the rope broke.
Let me describe to you the way in which he felt by his biographer, who said, “He felt for himself a contempt not to be expressed or imagined. Whenever he went into the street, it was as if there flashed upon him the indignation and scorn that he had offended God very deeply, and he could never be forgiven; and his whole heart was so filled with pangs of despair. Madness was near him. In fact, madness had already come.” As a result of this, Cowper was sent to a mental institution by his father.
There he encountered a man who was a Christian, who introduced him to Christ, who explained the Gospel to him. And Cowper said this: “Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full assurance that the Son of righteousness shone. I also saw that the suffering and the atonement He had made for my pardon, sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and the completeness of His justification. In a moment I believed, and received the Gospel, and my eyes filled with tears; my voice choked with transport. I could only look up to heaven, and in silence be overwhelmed by God’s love and wonder.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could tell you that after that, Cowper no longer suffered from depression? But he did. Two times after that, at least two times after that, he committed—or tried to commit, I should say—tried to commit suicide. Imagine that.
Now during these periods of time of great darkness, he met a man whose name you may recognize: John Newton. Newton, of course, was the author of the song “Amazing Grace, How Sweet The Sound.” Newton was a pastor, and Cowper was one of his congregation. Newton spent an awful a lot of time with him. As a matter of fact, he had him work in his garden, Newton believing that the physical work would be of some benefit to Cowper. They had long talks together.
And how did Newton help Cowper? Did he try to enhance his self-image, and say to himself, “You have to think of yourself much better”? No, he didn’t go that route. What he did was continually explain the love of God, and all that God had done for him. Because as far as Newton was concerned, it was not that important as to what Cowper thought of himself. What was really important is whether or not he could grasp the wonder of God’s forgiveness and grace.
And by the way, that’s the kind of counseling that Martin Luther did also. He had a friend by the name of Spalatin, who committed a sin by giving some wrong advice. And Spalatin couldn’t forgive himself. And Luther said—and I’m paraphrasing here—”Spalatin! You think you’ve committed a great sin? Oh, come over to us! Because we are hard-boiled sinners! Oh, Spalatin. You have to understand that Jesus just didn’t die for childish, nominal sins. Oh, no, Spalatin. Jesus died for damnable inequities!” The way we help people with forgiveness, the way in which we help them with their depression, is to help them to grasp the wonder of all that God has done on their behalf.
Well, a number of years ago I was in London, and I wanted to go to Spurgeon’s grave. Our guide was actually an atheist, and she let us know that, but she was a little hesitant. But of course she took us there. And as I stood at Spurgeon’s grave, I noticed that on the grave, engraved, were the words of his favorite hymn. And you know, and looking back, I think to myself, “What an interesting juxtaposition of events.” Here’s Spurgeon, who struggled with depression; and on his tombstone is a hymn written by a man who also struggled with depression, and who tried to commit suicide at least six times.
The hymn is this: “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins; and sinners plunged beneath that flood to lose all of their guilty stains. The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day; and there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away.” The words of William Cowper.
There’s another poem that Cowper wrote that perhaps you’ve heard about.
“God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable minds of never-failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessing on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning Providence, He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain.”
Cowper actually wrote 67 hymns.
Isn’t it wonderful to know that you don’t have to be emotionally whole to be mightily used of God? After all, God does work in mysterious ways, His wonders to proclaim.
Thanks so much for joining us today, hope that you join us next time. And as for today, go with God.