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Faith’s Response to Melancholy: When Sorrow is Excessive
by Richard Baxter
It is too notorious that excessive sorrow for sin is not the ordinary case of the world. A stupid, blockish disposition is the common cause of men’s perdition. The plague of a hard heart, and a seared conscience, keeps most from all due sense of sin, or danger, or misery, and all the great and everlasting concerns of their guilty souls. A dead sleep in sin deprives most of the use of sense and understanding; they do some of the outward acts of religion as in a dream; they are vowed to God in baptism by others, and they profess to stand to it themselves; they go to church, and say over the words of the creed, and Lord’s Prayer, and commandments, they receive the Lord’s Supper, and all as in a dream. They take on them to believe that sin is the most hateful thing to God, and hurtful to man, and yet they live in it with delight and obstinacy; they dream that they repent of it, when no persuasion will draw them to forsake it, and while they hate them that would cure them, and will not be as bad and mad as they who feel in them any effectual sorrow for what is past, or an effectual sense of their present badness, or an effectual resolution for a new and holy life. They dream that there is a judgment, a heaven, and a hell, but would they not be more affected with things of such unspeakable consequence if they were awake? Would they be wholly taken up with the matters of the flesh and the world, and scarce have a serious thought or word of eternity, if they were awake? Oh how sleepily and senselessly do they think, and talk, and hear of the great work of man’s redemption by Christ, and of the need of justifying and sanctifying grace, and of the joys and miseries of the next life; and yet they say that they believe them! When we preach or talk to them of the greatest things, with the greatest evidence, and plainness, and earnestness that we can, we speak as to the dead, or to men asleep; they have ears, but hear not, – nothing goes to their hearts.
One would think that a man that reads in Scripture, and believes the everlasting glory offered, and the dreadful punishment threatened, and the necessity of holiness to salvation, and of a Saviour to deliver us from sin and hell, and how sure and near such a passage into the unseen world is to us all, would find it hard to moderate and bear the sense of such overwhelming things. But most men so little regard or feel them, that they have neither time nor heart to think of them as their concern, but hear of them as of some foreign land, where they have no interest, and which they never think to see. Indeed, one would think by their senseless neglect of preparation, and their worldly minds and lives, that they were asleep, or in jest, when they confess that they must die; and that when they lay their friends in the grave, and see the skulls and bones cast up, they were but all this while in a dream, or did not believe that their turn is near. If we knew how to awaken sinners, they would come to themselves, and have other thoughts of these great things, and show it quickly by another kind of life. Awakened reason could never be so befooled and besotted as we see the wicked world to be. But God has an awakening day for all, and he will make the most senseless soul to feel, by grace or punishment.
And because a hardened heart is so great a part of the malady and misery of the unregenerate, and a soft and tender heart is much of the new nature promised by Christ, many awakened souls under the work of conversion think they can never have sorrow enough, and that their danger lies in hard-heartedness, and they never fear excessive sorrow until it has swallowed them up; indeed, though there be too much of other causes in it, yet if any of it is for sin, they then cherish it as a necessary duty, or at least do not perceive the danger of excess: and some think those to be the best Christians who are most in doubts, and fears, and sorrows, and speak almost nothing but uncomfortable complaints; but this is a great mistake.
1. Sorrow is excessive when it is fed by a mistaken cause. All is too much where none is due, and great sorrow is too much when the cause requires less.
If a man thinks that something is a duty, which is no duty, and then sorrows for omitting it, such sorrow is all too much, because it is undue, and caused by error. Many I have known who have been greatly troubled, because they could not bring themselves to that length or order of meditation, for which they had neither ability nor time; and many, because they could not reprove sin in others, when prudent instruction and gentle direction was more suitable than reproof. And many are troubled, because in their shops and callings they think of anything but God, as if our outward business must have no thoughts.
Superstition always breeds such sorrows, when men make themselves religious duties which God never commanded them, and then come short in the performance of them. Many dark souls are assaulted by those in error, and told that they are in a wrong way; and they must take up some error as a necessary truth, and so are cast into perplexing difficulties, and perhaps repent of the truth which they before owned. Many fearful Christians are troubled about every meal that they eat, about their clothes, their thoughts, and words, thinking or fearing that all is sinful which is lawful, and that unavoidable infirmities are heinous sins. All such as these are troubles and sorrows without cause, and therefore excessive.
2. Sorrow is excessive when it hurts and overwhelms nature itself, and destroys bodily health or understanding. Grace is the due qualification of nature, and duty is the right employment of it, but neither of them must destroy it. As civil, and ecclesiastic, and domestic government are for edification and not for destruction, so also is personal self-government. God will have mercy and not sacrifice; and he that would not have us kill or hurt our neighbour on pretence of religion, would not have us destroy or hurt ourselves, being bound to love our neighbour but as ourselves. As fasting is a duty no further than it tends to some good, as to express or exercise true humiliation, or to mortify some fleshly lust, and so on, so is it with sorrow for sin: it is too much when it does more hurt than good. But of this next.
Originally published in 1682 entitled The Cure of Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow, by Faith. Baxter carefully distinguishes between the different categories of sadness and depression and outlines their spiritual, environmental and physical causes. Clear sympathy with the sufferer is tempered by a firm directness in addressing wrong, inappropriate and harmful thinking. The place of faith in the believer’s response to feelings of melancholy is carefully drawn out – redirecting the focus to the greatness and benevolence of God, the compassion of the Saviour, and the truthfulness of the Word of God. The necessity of taking practical action with the help of others is also covered. Baxter is keenly aware of the part that illness plays in melancholy. His advice regarding medical help, though at times perceptive, is outdated now and has been omitted from this edition of the book, in which the language has also been carefully updated. Vital reading for pastors from a true shepherd of souls.
Contents Introduction 7 1.
When Sorrow is Excessive 9 2.
How Excessive Sorrow Swallows Someone Up 13 3.
The Causes of Excessive Sorrow 19 4.
The Cure of Melancholy 37
Used with Permission. This book is available at Trinity Book Service
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