– Doing What We Can While We Wait for God—and Joy –
When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper
As this book comes to a close, I am aware that I have put my oar in
a very large sea. I rise from my desk and walk past a wall of books
that have spoken more wisely than I on the care and cure of sad
Christian souls. Just opening these volumes reminds me of how many
wise and valuable things remain to be said—and cannot be said in one
book. It will always be so. The Word of God is inexhaustible, and the
world he made holds countless treasures waiting to be found by clear
eyes in search of Christ-exalting joy. And the needs of embattled people
who fight for joy will always be as diverse as the people themselves. So
I content myself with rowing out into this sea as far as my limits allow,
and I pray that you will search out some of these great old books2 and
go farther in your quest for joy than I have been able to take you.
TO HELP THOSE FOR WHOM JOY STAYS OUT OF REACH
My aim in this last chapter is to give some guidance and hope to those
for whom joy seems to stay out of reach. Virtually all Biblesaturated
physicians of the soul have spoken about long seasons of
darkness and desolation. In the old days they called it melancholy.
Richard Baxter, for example, who died in 1691, wrote with astonishing
relevance about the complexities of dealing with Christians who seem
unable to enjoy God. “Delighting in God, and in his word and ways,”
he said, “is the flower and life of true religion. But these that I speak of
can delight in nothing—neither God, nor in his word, nor any duty.”3
How can we help Christians who seem unable to break out of darkness
into the light of joy? Yes, I call them Christians, and thus assume
that such things happen to genuine believers. It happens because of sin,
or because of Satanic assault, or because of distressing circumstances,
or because of hereditary or other physical causes. What makes these old
books so remarkable is the way they come to terms with all these causes
and their many combinations, and how they address each condition
appropriately. The Puritan pastor never seemed to give up on anyone
because of discouraging darkness.
Long before the rise of psychiatry and contemporary brain electrophysiology,
Bible-saturated Puritan pastors recognized the complexity
of causes behind the darkness of melancholy. In fact, the first
answer Baxter mentions to the question, “What are the causes and cure
of it?” is, “With very many there is a great part of the CAUSE in distemper,
weakness, and diseasedness of the body; and by it the soul is
greatly disabled to any comfortable sense. But the more it ariseth from
such natural necessity, it is the less sinful and less dangerous to the soul;
but never the less troublesome.”4
In his sermon on the causes and cures of melancholy he has an entire
section on “medicine and diet.” He says, in his quaint but remarkably
accurate language, “The disease called ‘melancholy’ is formally in the
spirits, whose distemper unfits them for their office, in serving the imagination,
understanding, memory, and affections; so by their distemper
the thinking faculty is diseased, and becomes like an inflamed eye, or a
foot that is sprained or out of joint, disabled for its proper work.”5
THE PHYSICAL SIDE OF SPIRITUAL DARKNESS
I will not go further discussing the physical treatment of melancholy—
and its severe form, depression—than I have gone in the previous chapter.
This is the work of a medical doctor, which I am not. What we
should be clear about, though, is that the condition of our bodies makes
a difference in the capacity of our minds to think clearly and of our
210 = When I Don’t Desire GOD
souls to see the beauty of hope-giving truth. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the
great preacher at Westminster Chapel in London in the mid-twentieth
century, began his helpful book Spiritual Depression by waving the flag
of warning that we not overlook the physical. It is significant that
Lloyd-Jones was a medical doctor before he was called to the ministry
Does someone hold the view that as long as you are a Christian it does
not matter what the condition of your body is? Well, you will soon be
disillusioned if you believe that. Physical conditions play their part in
all this. . . . There are certain physical ailments which tend to promote
depression. Thomas Carlyle, I suppose, is an outstanding illustration
of this. Or take that great preacher who preached in London for nearly
forty years in the last century—Charles Haddon Spurgeon—one of the
truly great preachers of all time. That great man was subject to spiritual
depression, and the main explanation in his case was undoubtedly
the fact that he suffered from a gouty condition which finally killed
him. He had to face this problem of spiritual depression often in a most
acute form. A tendency to acute depression is an unfailing accompaniment
of the gout which he inherited from his forebears. And there
are many, I find, who come to talk to me about these matters, in whose
case it seems quite clear to me that the cause of the trouble is mainly
physical. Into this group, speaking generally, you can put tiredness,
overstrain, illness, any form of illness. You cannot isolate the spiritual
from the physical for we are body, mind and spirit. The greatest and
the best Christians when they are physically weak are more prone to
an attack of spiritual depression than at any other time and there are
great illustrations of this in the scriptures.6
Gaius Davies, a psychiatrist in Britain who knew Lloyd-Jones well,
Before 1954, when the series of sermons on depression was completed,
no effective antidepressant had been on the market, though
some progress was made towards that in 1954. Later, in 1955-6 when
new forms of medication were available freely, I know how concerned
Dr. Lloyd-Jones was to know which kinds of antidepressants
were most effective, because he asked me about them a good deal
when I was beginning my medical career, and talked to other doctors
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in a similar way. He wanted to know enough to be able to advise
those who asked his opinion.7
THE PLACE OF MEDICATION IN THE FIGHT FOR JOY
I do not want to give the impression that medication should be the first
or main solution to spiritual darkness. Of course, by itself medicine is
never a solution to spiritual darkness. All the fundamental issues of life
remain to be brought into proper relation to Christ when the medicine
has done its work. Antidepressants are not the decisive savior. Christ is.
In fact, the almost automatic use of pills for child misbehavior and adult
sorrows is probably going to hurt us as a society.
David Powlison, who edits The Journal of Biblical Counseling,
counsels at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, and
lectures at Westminster Seminary, wrote of a sea change in the mental
sciences in the mid-1990s:
Have no doubt, the world did change in the mid-90s. The action is
now in your body. It’s what you got from Mom and Dad, not what
they did to you. The excitement is about brain functions, not family
dysfunctions. The cutting edge is in hard science medical
research and psychiatry, not squishy soft, philosophy-of-life, feelyour-
pain psychologies. . . . Biology is suddenly hot. Psychiatry has
broken forth, a blitzkrieg sweeping away all opposition. . . .
Medicine is poised to claim the human personality. . . . The biopsychologizing
of human life is having a huge effect, both in culture
and the church.8
His conclusion is that this preoccupation with biopsychiatry will pass,
and as it does,
biopsychiatry will cure a few things, for which we should praise the
God of common grace. But in the long run, unwanted and unforeseen
side effects will combine with vast disillusionment. The gains
will never live up to the promises. And the lives of countless people,
whose normal life problems are now being medicated, will not
be qualitatively changed and redirected. Only intelligent repentance,
living faith, and tangible obedience turn the world upside
Powlison refers sympathetically to Ed Welch’s book, Blame It on the
Brain?—where Welch is willing to employ medication in cases of persistent
debilitating depression. Welch says:
If the person is not taking medication but is considering it, I typically
suggest that he or she postpone that decision for a period of time.
During that time, I consider possible causes, and together we ask God
to teach us about both ourselves and him so that we can grow in faith
in the midst of hardship. If the depression persists, I might let the person
know that medication is an option to deal with some of the physical
To many, this may seem excessively cautious. But widespread scientific
evidence is already reigning in the initial enthusiasm about the unique
effectiveness of antidepressants. One summary article in TheWashington
Post in May 2002 put the situation starkly like this:
After thousands of studies, hundreds of millions of prescriptions and
tens of billions of dollars in sales, two things are certain about pills
that treat depression: Antidepressants like Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft
work. And so do sugar pills. A new analysis has found that in the
majority of trials conducted by drug companies in recent decades,
sugar pills have done as well as—or better than—antidepressants.11
The point of Welch’s caution and the Post’s skepticism is not that depression
or spiritual darkness is disconnected with our physical condition.
They are deeply connected. The point is that the relationship between
the soul and the brain is beyond human comprehension and should be
handled with the greatest care and with profound attention to the moral
and spiritual realities of human personhood that may exert as much
influence on the brain as vice versa.
In other words, if someone reading this book is on medication, or
is thinking about it, I do not condemn you for that, nor does the Bible.
It may or may not be the best course of action. I commend you to the
wisdom of a God-centered, Bible-saturated medical doctor. If there was
imperfection in the choice to use medication, the imputed righteousness
of Christ will swallow it up as you rest in him. Don’t forget the lesson
of “gutsy guilt” from Chapter Six.
WAITING IN DARKNESS WE ARE NOT LOST AND NOT ALONE
With or without medication there are other things that can be done in
the midst of prolonged darkness. And I would love to encourage you
in some of these. It will be of great advantage to the struggling Christian
to remember that seasons of darkness are normal in the Christian life.
I don’t mean that we should not try to live above them. I mean that if
we do not succeed, we are not lost, and we are not alone, as the fragment
of our faith cleaves to Christ. Consider the experience of David
in Psalm 40:1-3.
I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and
set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song
in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the LORD.
The king of Israel is in “the pit of destruction” and “the miry bog”—
descriptions of his spiritual condition. The song of praise is coming,
he says, but it is not now on his lips. It is as if David had fallen into a
deep, dark well and plunged into life-threatening mud. There was one
other time when David wrote about this kind of experience. He combined
the images of mud and flood: “Save me, O God! For the waters
have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no
foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me”
In this pit of mud and destruction there is a sense of helplessness
and desperation. Suddenly air, just air, is worth a million dollars.
Helplessness, desperation, apparent hopelessness, the breaking point
for the overworked businessman, the outer limits of exasperation for
the mother of three constantly crying children, the impossible expectations
of too many classes in school, the grinding stress of a lingering
illness, the imminent attack of a powerful enemy. It is good that we
don’t know what the experience was. It makes it easier to see ourselves
in the pits with the king. Anything that causes a sense of helplessness
and desperation and threatens to ruin life or take it away—that is the
HOW LONG, O LORD, HOW LONG!
Then comes the king’s cry: “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined
to me and heard my cry.” One of the reasons God loved David so much
was because he cried so much. “I am weary with my moaning; every
night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping”
(Ps. 6:6). “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?” (Ps. 56:8). Indeed they are! “Blessed are
those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4). It is a beautiful thing when a broken
man genuinely cries out to God.
Then after the cry you wait. “I waited patiently for the LORD.” This
is crucial to know: Saints who cry to the Lord for deliverance from pits
of darkness must learn to wait patiently for the Lord. There is no statement
about how long David waited. I have known saints who walked
through eight years of debilitating depression and came out into glorious
light. Only God knows how long we must wait. We saw this in
Micah’s experience in Chapter Six. “I sit in darkness . . . until [the Lord]
pleads my cause and . . . will bring me out to the light” (see Micah 7:8-
9). We can draw no deadlines for God. He hastens or he delays as he
sees fit. And his timing is all-loving toward his children. Oh, that we
might learn to be patient in the hour of darkness. I don’t mean that we
make peace with darkness. We fight for joy. But we fight as those who
are saved by grace and held by Christ. We say with Paul Gerhardt that
our night will soon—in God’s good timing—turn to day:
Give to the winds thy fears,
Hope and be undismayed.
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears,
God shall lift up thy head.
Through waves and clouds and storms,
He gently clears thy way;
Wait thou His time; so shall this night
Soon end in joyous day.
Far, far above thy thought,
His counsel shall appear,
When fully He the work hath wrought,
That caused thy needless fear.
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Leave to His sovereign sway
To choose and to command;
So shalt thou, wondering, own that way,
How wise, how strong this hand.12
THE GROUND OF OUR ASSURANCE13 WHEN WE CANNOT SEE OUR FAITH
It is utterly crucial that in our darkness we affirm the wise, strong hand
of God to hold us, even when we have no strength to hold him. This is
the way Paul thought of his own strivings. He said, “Not that I have
already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my
own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12). The key
thing to see in this verse is that all Paul’s efforts to grasp the fullness of
joy in Christ are secured by Christ’s grasp of him. Never forget that your
security rests on Christ’s faithfulness first.
Our faith rises and falls. It has degrees. But our security does not
rise and fall. It has no degrees. We must persevere in faith. That’s true.
But there are times when our faith is the size of a mustard seed and
barely visible. In fact the darkest experience for the child of God is when
his faith sinks out of his own sight. Not out of God’s sight, but his. Yes,
it is possible to be so overwhelmed with darkness that you do not know
if you are a Christian—and yet still be one.
All the great doctors of the soul have distinguished between faith
and its full assurance. The reason for this is that we are saved by the
work of God causing us to be born again and bringing us to faith. “The
wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not
know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who
is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). We are not saved by producing faith on
our own and then making that the basis of our new birth. It is the other
way around. Which means that God is at the bottom of my faith, and
when it disappears for a season from my own view, God may yet be
there sustaining its root in the new birth and protecting the seed from
destruction. This was crucial in Richard Baxter’s soul care.
Certainty of our faith and sincerity is not necessary to salvation, but
the sincerity of faith itself is necessary. He shall be saved that giveth
up himself to Christ, though he know not that he is sincere in doing
it. Christ knoweth his own grace, when they that have it know not
that it is sound.
An abundance are cast down by ignorance of themselves, not
knowing the sincerity which God hath given them. Grace is weak in
the best of us here; and little and weak grace is not very easily perceived,
for it acteth weakly and unconstantly, and it is known but
by its acts; and weak grace is always joined with too strong corruption;
and all sins in heart and life is contrary to grace, and doth
obscure it; . . . And how can any under all these hindrances, yet keep
any full assurance of their own sincerity?14
Baxter’s aim here is not to destroy a Christian’s comfort. On the contrary,
he wants to help us in the times of our darkness to know that
we can be safe in Jesus, even when we have lost sight of our own sincerity.
The witness of the Holy Spirit that we are the children of God
(Rom. 8:16) may be clear or faint. But the reality is unshakable.
“God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows
those who are his’” (2 Tim. 2:19). “God is faithful, by whom you were
called” (1 Cor. 1:9). “He who began a good work in you will bring it
to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Baxter’s words
are crucial counsels if we are to survive the dark night of the soul. And
that night will come for almost every Christian. And when it comes,
we must wait for the Lord, cry to him, and know that our own selfindictment,
rendered in the darkness, is not as sure as God’s Word
spoken in the light.
WHEN A CHILD OF GOD IS PERSUADED THAT HE IS NOT
Christians in the darkness of depression may ask desperately, How can
I know that I am truly a child of God? They are not usually asking to
be reminded that we are saved by grace through faith. They know that.
They are asking how they can know that their faith is real. God must
guide us in how we answer, and knowing the person will help us know
what to say.15
The first and best thing to say may be, “I love you. And I am not
letting you go.” In those words a person may feel God’s keeping presence
that they may not feel in any other way. Or, second, we might say,
“Stop looking at your faith, and rivet your attention on Christ. Faith is
sustained by looking at Christ, crucified and risen, not by turning from
Christ to analyze your faith. Let me help you look to Christ. Let’s read
Luke 22—24 together.” Paradoxically, if we would experience the joy
of faith, we must not focus much on it. We must focus on the greatness
of our Savior.
Third, we might call attention to the evidences of grace in their life.
We might recount our own sense of their authenticity when we were
loved by them, and then remind them of their own strong affirmations
of the lordship of Christ. Then say, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’
except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). This approach is not usually
successful in the short run, because a depressed person is prone to discount
all good assessments of his own condition; but it can be valuable
in the long run, because it stands as an objective hope and act of love
over against his own subjective darkness.
Fourth, we might remind the sufferer that his demand for a kind of
absolute, mathematical certainty about his right standing with God is
asking for too much. None of us lives with that kind of certainty about
any relationships in life, and this does not destroy our comfort. As
Baxter says, “No wife or child is certain that the husband or father will
not murder them; and yet they may live comfortably, and not fear it.”16
In other words, there is a kind of certainty that we live by, and it is
enough. It is, in the end, a gift of God.
One can imagine a wife obsessed with fear that her husband will kill
her, or that during the night one of her children will kill another one.
No amount of arguing may bring her away from the fear of this possibility.
Rationally and mathematically it is possible. But millions of people
live in complete peace about these things, even though there is no
absolute 2 + 2 = 4 kind of certainty. The certainty is rooted in good experience
and the God-given stability of nature. It is a sweet assurance—
and a gift of God. So we say to our suffering friend, don’t demand the
kind of certainty about your own relationship to God that you don’t
require about the other relationships in your life.
It follows from this that we should all fortify ourselves against the
dark hours of depression by cultivating a deep distrust of the certainties
of despair. Despair is relentless in the certainties of its pessimism. But we
have seen again and again, from our own experience and others’, that
absolute statements of hopelessness that we make in the dark are notoriously
unreliable. Our dark certainties were not sureties. While we have
the light, let us cultivate distrust of the certainties of despair.
FOLD NOT THE ARMS OF ACTION
Waiting for the Lord in a season of darkness should not be a time of inactivity.
We should do what we can do. And doing is often God’s
appointed remedy for despair. Wise Christian counselors, ancient and
modern, have given this advice. George MacDonald, whom C. S. Lewis
called “his master,”17 wrote:
He changes not because you changest. Nay, He has an especial tenderness
of love towards thee for that thou art in the dark and hast no
light, and His heart is glad when thou dost arise and say, “I will go
to my Father.” . . . Fold the arms of thy faith, and wait in the quietness
until light goes up in thy darkness. Fold the arms of thy Faith I
say, but not of thy Action: bethink thee of something that thou oughtest
to do, and go to do it, if it be but the sweeping of a room, or the
preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend. Heed not thy feelings: Do
Richard Baxter gave the same counsel three hundred years earlier
than MacDonald and traced it back to the Bible.
Be sure that you live not idly, but in some constant business of a lawful
calling, so far as you have bodily strength. Idleness is a constant
sin, and labour is a duty. Idleness is but the devil’s home for temptation,
and for unprofitable, distracting musings. Labour profiteth others
and ourselves; both soul and body need it. Six days must thou
labour, and must not eat “The bread of idleness.” (Prov. xxxi. 13-
27.) God hath made it our duty, and will bless us in his appointed
way. I have known grievous, despairing melancholy cured and turned
into a life of godly cheerfulness, principally by setting upon constancy
and diligence in the business of families and callings.19
WHAT MATTERS IS YOUR DUTY, NOT YOUR JOY?
This counsel from MacDonald and Baxter raises a critical question:
They both seem to make feelings negligible. They seem to say: What
When the Darkness Does Not Lift < 219
matters is that you do your duty, not that you feel joy. But that may not
be what they mean, and if it were, I would strongly disagree. When
MacDonald says, “Heed not thy feelings, do thy work,” he means:
Don’t let wrong feelings govern you. Act against them. If your feelings
are telling you that staying in bed is the best thing today, preach to your
feelings and tell them how foolish they are. Don’t lose sight of the
gospel in this preaching! Don’t forget that defeating these wrong feelings
and getting out of bed is enabled by the Spirit and is becoming
what you are in Christ. But then exert your will and get up! I certainly
agree with this.
But the question is deeper: If joy in God is the fountain of love and
the root of right living—as I believe it is—can behavior that proceeds
without joy be virtuous? I will answer the question at two levels.
First, I would say that a Christian, no matter how dark the season
of his sadness, never is completely without joy in God. I mean that there
remains in his heart the seed of joy in the form, perhaps only of a remembered
taste of goodness and an unwillingness to let the goodness go. This
is not the “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Pet. 1:8).
It’s not the joy that we have known at times and fight to regain. But it
is a fragment of such joy—like a man who sits in prison and pulls out a
tattered picture of his wife, or a paralyzed victim of a car accident who
watches a video of the day he could dance. Or even more fragmentary,
the joy may only lie there in the cellar of our soul in the form of penitent
sadness that we cannot desire God as we ought. Inside that sadness
is the seed of what we once knew of joy.
DUTY INCLUDES THE DUTY OF JOY
The other answer I would give is that we should never say to ourselves
or another person in the season of darkness, “Just do your work. Just
do your duty. Just act like a Christian, even if you don’t feel like one.”
That’s almost good advice. But the problem is in the word just. Instead
of only saying, “just do your duty,” we must say four other things as
First, we must say that joy is part of your duty. The Bible says,
“Rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16). And in regard to the duty of giving,
it says, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). In regard to the duty
of service, it says, “Serve the LORD with gladness” (Ps. 100:2). In regard
to the duty of mercy it says do it “with cheerfulness” (Rom. 12:8). In
regard to the duty of afflictions, it says, “Count it all joy” (Jas. 1:2). We
simply water down the divine command when we call someone to half
The second thing we must say when we tell a disconsolate person
to “do their job” is that while they do their job, they should probably
be repenting and confessing the sin of gloomy faith. I say “probably”
because even in cases where the main cause is physical, there is probably
some element of sinful pride or self-pity mingled with it. I am aware
that this may sound like an added burden to the one who is in spiritual
darkness. But it is not an added burden. If it is a burden at all, it is
already there and not added by calling it what it is. Failing to rejoice in
God when we are commanded to rejoice is sin. False comforts lead to
artificial healing. But the truest diagnoses lead to the deepest cures. So,
yes, we tell the disconsolate: “If you can, get up from your bed and make
a meal, or sweep a room, or take a walk, or visit a friend, or go to work.
But it is not a matter of indifference whether you do this with joy in God,
and if you can’t, then tell him so, and that you are sorry. He will hear
you mercifully and forgive.”
WILL YOU BE A HYPOCRITE IF YOU OBEY WITHOUT JOY?
Which leads to the third thing we say along with “Do your duty.” We
say: As you are able to do some of your duty, ask God that the joy be
restored. That is, don’t sit and wait for the joy, saying, “I will be a hypocrite
if I do an act of mercy today, since I do not feel the joy of mercy.”
No, you will not be a hypocrite, if you know that joy is your duty, and
repent that you don’t have it, and ask God earnestly to restore the joy
even as you do the deed. That is not the way a hypocrite thinks. That is
the way a true Christian thinks in the fight for joy.
And the fourth thing we say, when we counsel the depressed
Christian to be up and doing something good, is, “Be sure to thank God
as you work that he has given you at least the will to work.” Do not say,
“But it is hypocritical to thank God with my tongue when I don’t feel
thankful in my heart.” There is such a thing as hypocritical thanksgiving.
Its aim is to conceal ingratitude and get the praise of men. That is
not your aim. Your aim in loosing your tongue with words of gratitude
is that God would be merciful and fill your words with the emotion of
true gratitude. You are not seeking the praise of men; you are seeing the
mercy of God. You are not hiding the hardness of ingratitude, but hoping
for the inbreaking of the Spirit.
THANKSGIVING WITH THE MOUTH STIRS UP THANKFULNESS IN THE HEART
Moreover, we should probably ask the despairing saint, “Do you know
your heart so well that you are sure the words of thanks have no trace
of gratitude in them?” I, for one, distrust my own assessment of my
motives. I doubt that I know my good ones well enough to see all the
traces of contamination. And I doubt that I know my bad ones well
enough to see the traces of grace. Therefore, it is not folly for a Christian
to assume that there is a residue of gratitude in his heart when he speaks
and sings of God’s goodness even though he feels little or nothing.
To this should be added that experience shows that doing the right
thing, in the way I have described, is often the way toward being in the
right frame. Hence Baxter gives this wise counsel to the oppressed
Resolve to spend most of your time in thanksgiving and praising God.
If you cannot do it with the joy that you should, yet do it as you can.
You have not the power of your comforts: but have you no power of
your tongues? Say not, that you are unfit for thanks and praises unless
you have a praising heart and were the children of God: for every
man, good and bad, is bound to praise God, and to be thankful for
all that he hath received, and to do it as well as he can, rather than
leave it undone. . . . Doing it as you can is the way to be able to do it
better. Thanksgiving stirreth up thankfulness in the heart.20
DOES UNCONFESSED SIN CLOG OUR JOY?
It may be that part of the cause of spiritual darkness is cherished sin that
we are unwilling to let go. I have assumed all along in this book that the
pursuit of joy implies hatred for sin. Sin destroys joy. It offers deceptive
delights, but it kills in the end. In dealing with our sin we can make two
mistakes. One is to make light of it. The other is to be overwhelmed by
it. In the fight for joy we must take it seriously, hate it, renounce it, and
trust Christ as our only Savior from its guilt and power.
One of the reasons that some people suffer from extended times of
darkness is the unwillingness to renounce some cherished sin. Jesus and
the apostle Peter and King David all spoke of how unconfessed sin hinders
our joy in God. Jesus said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar
and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave
your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your
brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). We quench
the joy of fellowship with God while we refuse to confess our offenses
to man. Peter related this to marriage and said that if a husband sins
against his wife, his prayers will be hindered (1 Pet. 3:7). If we want the
joy of seeing and savoring God in Christ, we must not make peace with
our sins. We must make war.
Listen to the experience of David that comes from unconfessed and
unforsaken sin in his life: “Blessed is the man against whom the LORD
counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept
silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long” (Ps.
32:2-3). These words are full of hope. We can hold fast to our sin, keep
it secret, and “groan all day long” in darkness—or we can confess it and
experience the stunning experience of “the man against whom the
LORD counts no iniquity.”
The almost incredible hope of confessing and renouncing sin is that
the Lord does not then rub it in our face but cancels it. He does not count
it against us. From this side of Calvary, we know how God can do that
with justice. Christ bore the wrath of God for that sin (Gal. 3:13). We
don’t have to. The accounts are settled. Therefore, we should not fear
to confess and let go of any cherished sin. The shame will not haunt us.
Christ clothes us with his own righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21).
CONFESSING TO GOD AND TO MAN IS SWEET FREEDOM
As we ponder both the deep, unconscious depravity of our souls and the
presumptuous sins of our wills, we should pray the words of Psalm
19:12-13: “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden
faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let
them not have dominion over me!” We have hidden faults that we cannot
even confess, because we don’t know what they are. And we have
sins that we know about. It is good news to realize there is a biblical
prayer that covers both. “Declare me innocent” of the ones I don’t know
about (because of Christ’s blood), and “keep back your servant” from
the ones I do know about (by Christ’s power). If you hold fast to sin
instead of renouncing it and fighting it, the darkness will remain as a
severe, but merciful witness to the outcome of cherishing idols.
Do not be content with whispering your sin to God. That is good.
Very good. But he offers us something more: “Confess your sins to one
another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jas. 5:16).
There is a release and healing that flows from confessing not only to God
in the secret place of your heart, but also to a trusted friend, or to the
person you have offended. The tender words, “I’m sorry, will you forgive
me?” are one of the surest paths to joy.
GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE, BUT NO MORE
If you ask about the devil’s role in your darkness, I answer: Give him his
due, but no more. He and his demons are always at work, not just sometimes.
There is nothing extraordinary about the fact of his harassment.
Paul considers it a normal part of Christian warfare to “take up the
shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of
the evil one” (Eph. 6:16). Peter counsels us, “Be sober-minded; be watchful.
Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking
someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Pet. 5:8-9). All this
is normal. But the quality of his harassment varies from mild temptation
to murder. Jesus calls him “a murderer from the beginning” (John
8:44). He has the power to inspire painful persecution and even kill
Christians (Rev. 2:10).
But there are three great comforts in the face of Satan’s attacks. One
is that Satan cannot do anything apart from God’s sovereign permission
(Job 1:12; 2:6), which is governed by God’s infinite wisdom and
covenant love. Thus Satan’s servants become God’s sanctifying envoys
(2 Cor. 12:7-10). So even if Satan has a hand in your darkness, he is not
free to do more than your loving Father permits, and God will turn it
for your good (Luke 22:31-32).
224 = When I Don’t Desire GOD
Second, the decisive blow against Satan’s destructive power was
delivered by the death of Jesus for our sins (Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14). This
means that Satan can harass us and even kill us, but he cannot destroy
us. Only unforgiven sin can damn the human soul. If Christ has covered
all our sin by his blood, and if God imputes to us the perfect righteousness
of Christ, then Satan has no grounds for any damning accusation,
and his case against us fails in the court of heaven. “Who shall bring any
charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?
Christ Jesus is the one who died” (Rom. 8:33-34).
THE DEVIL CANNOT ABIDE WITH THE LIGHT OF CHERISHED TRUTH
Third, deliverance from Satan’s oppressing, darkening, and deceiving
work in the life of the Christian comes most often by the power of truth,
and only rarely by exorcism. I have seen demon-possession and have
been a part of one very dramatic exorcism. I don’t believe the person was
a Christian till after the deliverance. The complete takeover of the personality
by a demon is not something the Holy Spirit would allow in the
Christ-indwelt heart. But that distinction may not matter much to the
Christian who is being attacked and harassed from without on every
side. The battle can be fierce. What is called for usually is the ministry
of 2 Timothy 2:24-26.
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone,
able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with
gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a
knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the
devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
Gentle, loving, teaching of the truth is the process in which God himself
grants repentance and a knowledge of the truth, which results in an
escape from the captivity of the devil. The devil cannot abide truth and
light. He is by nature a liar and deceiver. He thrives in darkness.
Therefore, if, by God’s grace we can bring the full force of truth to shine
in the believer’s darkness, the devil will not survive the light. Good, solid
Bible teaching is a crucial part of deliverance from the darkening power
of the devil.21
THE DARKNESS THAT FEEDS ON SELF-ABSORPTION
Sometimes the darkness of our souls is owing in part to the fact that we
have drifted into patterns of life that are not blatantly sinful but are constricted
and uncaring. Our world has shrunk down to mere prudential
concerns about ourselves and our families. Ethics has diminished from
global concerns of justice and mercy and missions down to little lists of
bad things to avoid. We find ourselves not energized for any great cause,
but always thinking about the way to maximize our leisure and escape
pressure. Unconsciously we have become very self-absorbed and oblivious
and uncaring toward the pain and suffering in the world that is far
worse than our own.
Paradoxically, depressed persons may say that they must care for
themselves and cannot take on the problems of the world, when in fact
part of the truth may be that their depression is feeding on the ingrown
quality of their lives. This hit home to me when Bill Leslie came to
Minneapolis some years ago and told his story. Bill Leslie was the pastor
of LaSalle Street Church in Chicago, Illinois, from 1961 to 1989.
He died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-one in 1993. His ministry
was marked by concern for the whole person in the context of Chicago
urban life. In an article on “Compassionate Evangelicalism,”
Christianity Today listed Leslie among the “early holistic ministry
HOW BILL LESLIE BECAME A WATERED GARDEN AND A SPRING
He told of a near breakdown that he had, and how a spiritual mentor
directed him to Isaiah 58. He said it was verses 10-11 that rescued him
from a season of darkness marked by feelings of exhaustion, burnout,
and a dead-end ministry. The text says:
If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the
afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be
as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy
your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you
shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters
do not fail.
What struck Pastor Leslie so powerfully was the fact that if we pour ourselves
out for others, God promises to make us like “a watered garden”—
that is, we will receive the water we need for refreshment and joy.
But even more, we will thus be “a spring of water” that does not fail—
for others, for the demanding, exhausting, draining ministry of urban
self-giving. He saw that God’s way of lifting gloom and turning it into
light was to “pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of
the afflicted.” This gave him a pattern of divine life that got him through
his crisis and kept him going for the rest of his days.
God has made us to flourish by being spent for others. Jesus said,
“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Most of us do
not choose against this life of outpouring; we drift away from it. We confuse
pressured family life and stresses at work with Christian sacrifice,
when in fact much of it has little to do with meeting the needs of the hungry
and afflicted and perishing.
Please hear me carefully. This is not the diagnosis for all depression
or discouragement. If it were, such self-giving servants would never be
depressed. But they are. My point is that one of the causes of some people’s
darkness is a slowly creeping self-absorption and small-mindedness.
And the cure may be the gradual embrace of a vision of life that is far
greater than our present concerns. Some things may have to be taken out
of our schedule. But as health and joy return, we may be capable of more
than we ever dreamed.
WHAT MY EIGHTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD FATHER SAID
I would mention in particular the life-giving, joy-producing effect of
sharing your faith with unbelievers by word and deed. A few days ago
I called my eighty-five-year-old father and said, “Daddy, I am writing a
book on how to fight for joy. What one thing comes to your mind from
sixty years of ministry as to what Christians could do to increase their
joy?” Almost without hesitation he said, “Share their faith.” Joy in
Christ thrives on being shared. That is the essence of Christian joy: It
overflows or dies.
Millions of Christians live with a low-grade feeling of guilt for not
openly commending Christ by their words. They try to persuade them-
selves that keeping their noses morally clean is a witness to Christ. The
problem with this notion is that millions of unbelievers keep their noses
morally clean. Christians will—and should—continue to feel bad for not
sharing their faith. Christ is the most glorious person in the world. His
salvation is infinitely valuable. Everyone in the world needs it. Horrific
consequences await those who do not believe on Jesus. By grace alone
we have seen him, believed on him, and now love him. Therefore, not
to speak of Christ to unbelievers, and not to care about our city or the
unreached peoples of the world is so contradictory to Christ’s worth,
people’s plight, and our joy that it sends the quiet message to our souls
day after day, this Savior and this salvation do not mean to you what
you say they do. To maintain great joy in Christ in the face of that persistent
message is impossible.
THE AIM IS THAT OUR WORDS WOULD BE THE OVERFLOW OF JOY IN CHRIST
I am aware, again, that this will feel like added guilt for the depressed person.
It is not added. It is already there. Hiding it is like hiding part of the
diagnosis of a person’s disease. Jesus said shocking things, and hiding them
will serve no one well in the long run. “Everyone who acknowledges me
before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven,
but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who
is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33). This is not meant by Jesus as a heavy burden
or a hard yoke. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and
I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am
gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my
yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
What makes the gospel good news is not that Christ can be buried
in our TV-saturated lives without the loss of joy. What makes it good
news is that God is long-suffering and willing to forgive and start over
with us again and again. The depressed person cannot simply go out and
proclaim the joy of the Lord. But little by little a life can be built on grace
and forgiveness that comes to the point where to be an advocate and a
witness to Jesus is like breathing—and just as life-giving. The fight is to
enjoy Christ so much that speaking of him is the overflow and increase
of that enjoyment.23
IS THE CAUSE YOU LIVE FOR LARGE ENOUGH FOR YOUR CHRIST-EXALTING HEART?
J. Campbell White, secretary of the Laymen’s Missionary Movement,
said in 1909:
Most men are not satisfied with the permanent output of their lives.
Nothing can wholly satisfy the life of Christ within his followers except
the adoption of Christ’s purpose toward the world he came to redeem.
Fame, pleasure and riches are but husks and ashes in contrast with the
boundless and abiding joy of working with God for the fulfillment of his
eternal plans. The men who are putting everything into Christ’s undertaking
are getting out of life its sweetest and most priceless rewards.24
In the midst of darkness saints may have no strength to pursue such
global dreams. But it may be, in the mercy of God, that as we wait for
the light to go up, we can do poorly what we would love to do well.
Perhaps we can read a short article about the church in China. Or listen
to a tape about a missionary who suffered much for the gospel. Or
write a note to a missionary family with a few lines about how we are
hanging on to grace, and include a brief prayer for them.
LOVING THOSE WHO CANNOT SEE THE LIGHT
For most people who are passing through the dark night of the soul, the
turnaround will come because God brings unwavering lovers of Christ
into their lives who do not give up on them. Throughout Richard
Baxter’s sermon on the causes and cures of melancholy are strewn counsels
to the church on how to carry the burdens of the depressed. He says
things like, “Often set before them the great truths of the gospel which
are fittest to comfort them; and read them informing, comforting books;
and live in a loving, cheerful manner with them.”25 If depressed saints
cannot read the Bible or a good book, we should read it to them.
THE AMAZING GRACE OF JOHN NEWTON’S CARE
One great example of persevering love for a depressed friend is John
Newton,26 the English pastor who wrote “Amazing Grace.” He was one
of the healthiest, happiest pastors in the eighteenth century. This proved
to be life-giving—to a point—for a suicidal poet named William
Cowper, who wrote some of our best-known hymns. Newton had
drunk deeply at the fountain of grace, the cross of Jesus Christ. He was
filled with joy and overflowing for those who weren’t. To taste the kind
of person Newton was, listen to this testimony he wrote about how he
lived his days.
Two heaps of human happiness and misery; now if I can take but the
smallest bit from one heap and add to the other, I carry a point. If, as
I go home, a child has dropped a halfpenny, and if, by giving it
another, I can wipe away its tears, I feel I have done something. I
should be glad to do greater things, but I will not neglect this. When
I hear a knock on my study door, I hear a message from God; it may
be a lesson of instruction; perhaps a lesson of penitence; but, since it
is his message, it must be interesting.27
In 1767, at the age of thirty-six, William Cowper entered Newton’s
life while Newton was pastor at Olney. Cowper had already had a total
mental breakdown and had attempted suicide three different times. He
had been institutionalized at St. Alban’s Insane Asylum, where God met
him in a powerful way through the loving care of Dr. Nathaniel Cotton,
and by a converting encounter with the gospel in Romans 3:25.
Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams
of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of
the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all
the fullness and completeness of His justification. In a moment I
believed, and received the gospel.28
After his release from St. Alban’s, Cowper moved in with the Unwin
family in a parish near Olney. When the father of the family died,
Newton came to console them. Cowper was so helped by what he heard
that he and Mrs. Unwin moved to Olney to be a part of Newton’s
church. For the next thirteen years Newton tended the tangled garden
of Cowper’s soul. Cowper said, “A sincerer or more affectionate friend
no man ever had.”29
While there, Cowper entered a time of spiritual despair that made
him feel utterly God-forsaken and lost. This lasted most of the rest of
his life until he died in 1800. Again there were repeated attempts at suicide,
and each time God providentially prevented him. Newton stood
by him all the way through this, even sacrificing at least one vacation so
as not to leave Cowper alone.
In 1780, Newton left Olney for a new pastorate in London, where
he served for the next twenty-seven years. It is a great tribute to him that
he did not abandon his friendship with Cowper, though this would, no
doubt, have been emotionally easy to do. Instead there was an earnest
exchange of letters for twenty years. Cowper poured out his soul to
Newton as he did to no one else.
The last days of Cowper’s life brought no relief. There was no happy
ending. In March 1800, Cowper said to the visiting doctor, “I feel unutterable
despair.” On April 24 Miss Perowne offered some refreshment
to him, to which he replied, “What can it signify?” He never spoke again
and died the next afternoon.30
To the end Newton remained Cowper’s pastor and friend, writing
and visiting him again and again. He did not despair of the despairing.
After one of these visits in 1788 Cowper wrote:
I found those comforts in your visit, which have formerly sweetened
all our interviews, in part restored. I knew you; knew you for the
same shepherd who was sent to lead me out of the wilderness into the
pasture where the Chief Shepherd feeds His flock, and felt my sentiments
of affectionate friendship for you the same as ever.31
THERE IS NO WASTED WORK IN LOVING THOSE WITHOUT LIGHT
You cannot persuade a depressed person that he is not reprobate if he is
utterly persuaded that he is. But you can stand by him. And you can keep
soaking him, as Newton did for Cowper, in the “benevolence, mercy,
goodness, and sympathy” of Jesus, and “the sufficiency of the atonement,”
and “the fullness and completeness of Christ’s justification.”32
He may say that they are wonderful, but that they do not belong to
him—as Cowper did. But in God’s time these truths may yet be given
the power to awaken hope and beget a spirit of adoption. Or, even in
the absence of evidence that peace is given, they may be used in some
When the Darkness Does Not Lift < 231
mysterious way to sustain the mustard seed of faith that is so small it
cannot be seen.
I do not know the outcome of Cowper’s fight for joy. But I do know
that true saints enter dark seasons, and should they die in the midst of
one, it is no sure sign that they were not born again, nor that they were
not sustained in their darkness by the sovereign hand of grace. God has
his reasons why he would leave one of his children feeling so forsaken—
just as he has his reasons for martyrdom (John 21:19). Sometimes we
can see these reasons, and sometimes we can’t.
Gaius Davies tells the following story:
Winston Churchill used to speak of his “black dog”: he survived
though he was dogged by depression for much of his life. It is said
that only because Churchill had faced his own black periods was he
able, at sixty years of age, to rally those who felt overwhelmed by the
Nazi threat. His own experience of adversity enabled him to be a
leader who helped to save the world from the darkness of tyranny.33
But Cowper did not live to lead a nation into triumphant war. He
died miserable. What was his “black dog” good for? It is not for us to
render this final judgment. But I bear one small testimony. Without his
struggles he probably would not have written, “There Is a Fountain
Filled with Blood” and brought hope to thousands of sinners who fear
they have sinned their lives away:
The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.
Washed all my sins away, washed all my sins away;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.34
And he would not have written “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” and
by it helped me and many others through a hundred thickets of discouragement.
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 mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs
And works his sovereign will.
You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
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.35
There is a legacy of severe mercy in writings such as these. The
words are costly. And so they prove precious. So it is with everyone who
stands beside a melancholy saint and helps him fight for joy.
William Cowper testified that the legacy had been left to him by
another embattled poet and pastor, George Herbert, who had died at the
age of thirty-nine in 1633. Cowper said, “This was the only author I had
any delight reading. I pored over him all day long; and though I found not
here what I might have found—a cure for my malady, yet it never seemed
so much alleviated as while I was reading him.”36 Not surprisingly, therefore,
a poem by Herbert wonderfully sums up this chapter and this book.
It’s called “Bitter-Sweet.” I hope you will read it twice, once to get the flow,
and once aloud (as poetry is meant to be read) for the beauty and the
meaning. Please don’t stumble over the old-fashioned spelling. Herbert
would be very happy if you were encouraged in your fight for joy.
Ah my deare angrie Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.37
Or as the apostle Paul put it for all the saints who fight for joy in
this fallen world of pain and suffering, we live and minister “as sorrowful,
yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).