Wesley wasn’t the only church reformer who believed in emotional problems among believers. In the early sixteenth century,
The great reformer Martin Luther espoused similar views. The average Free Methodist is quite familiar with John Wesley from
whom we trace our roots. We may not be as familiar with Martin Luther. Luther was born in 1483 and died in 1546. Some might
know him as the reformer who reintroduced the church to the concept of justification by faith. He set the reformation in motion
when in 1517 he pinned his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg castle. Others might have heard of him because of his
famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
Reality of Mental/Emotional Problems in the Life of the Believer
This great reformer evidently accepted mental and emotional
problems in believers. Given his pastoral heart, he sought to bring spiritual counsel to struggling souls. His approach to
pastoral care giving is evident in several places. We find pastoral concern in his sermons, lectures, commentaries on the
Bible and in his table talks.[i] Also, large sections “Letters of Spiritual Counsel”[ii] are devoted
to counseling persons struggling with a variety of mental problems. For this article, I have primarily drawn from the
latter work. These writings include letters to individuals as well as recorded table talks. Here one finds support for insanity
in general. For example, in August 1536, Luther interceded for Mrs. Kreuzbinder who he deemed insane. He described her as
“accustomed to rage” and sometimes angrily chasing her neighbor with a spear.[iii]
One also finds several other emotional disorders in
Luther’s work. From his writings, his wife Kate seems to have struggled with persistent worry. [iv] In one letter to
his son John, Luther wrote: “See to it that you conquer your tears manfully lest you add to your mother’s distress
and concern, for she is only too prone to worry and imagine things.”[v] The tenor of Luther’s words here and elsewhere
suggests Kate might have suffered from General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). GAD is a disorder characterized by excessive anxiety
and worry about a number of events or activities. The individual struggling with GAD is anxious most days than not, and find
it difficult to control the worry.
Elsewhere in the same work one finds evidence supporting
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Prince Joachim of Anhalt provides us with one example of this problem. [vi] The latter
seemed obsessed by the thought that he had betrayed or crucified Christ. Likewise, one finds examples of hypochrondriasis.
In this disorder one becomes preoccupied with fears of having a serious disease. This preoccupation is based on the person’s
misinterpretation of bodily symptoms. The belief tends to persist even in the face of medical evaluation and reassurance.
Conrad Cordatus, a pastor and one of Luther’s frequent table guests, evidently struggled in this area. Thus Luther wrote
to him: “But I pray you to curb your suspicion that you are assailed by who knows how many diseases.”[vii]
also saw several examples of depression. He used a variety of words to describe this problem. One finds words such as melancholy,
heaviness (remember Wesley’s use of this term?) downcast, sad, depression, downhearted and dejection of spirit. Forever
the pastoral caregiver, Luther sought to provide counsel to depressed souls. Several of his “Letters of Spiritual
Counsel,” address this problem. Many of these letters were to a variety of friends and acquaintances. For example,
Luther often wrote to Jerome Weller regarding his depression. Jerome Weller was quite close to Luther. In fact, he lived in
Luther’s household and served as tutor for the Luther's children.
Besides what he saw in others, Luther had even more
compelling reason to believe in problems of the mind. Luther had his own experience to draw on. He suffered from depression
much of his life. Apparently he did not believed depression was something shameful, to be hidden from others. In his work
he often revealed his own problems with depression. [viii]
A Complex Problem
believed illness in general involved the complex interplay of mental and physical factors. He went far beyond his time in
noting the role mental and emotional factors played part in physical illness. Thus, he wrote to Conrad Cordatus regarding
his fears of disease:
“You know the proverb, ‘imagination produces
misfortune.’ Therefore you ought to take the pains to divert rather than entertain such notions. I too must do this.
For our adversary, the devil, walks about, seeking not only to devour our souls but also to weaken our bodies with thoughts
of our soul in the hope that he might perhaps slay our bodies, for he knows our physical health depends in large measure
on the thoughts of our minds.”[ix] (italics mine)
Elsewhere, we find a similar statement. Luther noted: “Heavy thoughts brought on physical maladies; when the soul is
oppressed, so is the body. When cares, heavy cogitations, sorrows, and passions superabound, they weaken the body, which,
without the soul, is dead.”x]
other forms of illness Luther apparently viewed depression as a complex problem involving multiple factors. One finds in Luther
evidence supporting spiritual, social (familial), and cognitive factors. I discuss some of these connections below.
Spiritual Factors in Depression
Luther believed sickness was largely due to natural
causes. However, he also placed a great deal of emphasis on spiritual factors in illnesses. Behind some natural causes, he
saw Satan’s activity.[xi] The same is apparent in his views on depression. In this regard, Luther saw Satan fulfilling
his role as accuser of believers. According to Luther, Satan caused Christians to dwell on their past sins and thereby induced
melancholy and despair. Specifically, he saw Satan as one who instilled depressive thoughts. In a letter to Matthias Weller,
Luther reflected this position. Speaking of Matthias’ distressing thoughts, he noted: “ Know that the devil is
tormenting you with them, and that they are not your thoughts but the cursed devil’s, who cannot bear to see us have
joyful thoughts.” Elsewhere in the same letter he warned: “In such fashion you must learn to oppose him and not
permit him to put thoughts in your mind. If you allow one thought to enter, and you pay attention to it, he will force ten
additional thoughts into your mind until at last he overpowers you.”[xii]
He seemed to draw a distinction between thoughts that
came directly from the believer and those which came from Satan. The latter were the devil’s means of vexing believers.
Moreover one should not expect that these attacks would readily subside: Rather, one should expect persistence from the devil.
Thus Luther could say: “if he (Satan) cannot break a person with the first attack, he tries by persevering to wear him
out and weaken him until the person falls and confesses himself beaten.”[xiii]
One surmises that Luther did not see depression as deriving
from sin in the believer. Rather, one might infer that attacks contributing to depression came because one was a
believer. Satanic attacks in the form of depressive thoughts were intended to destroy faith.
to Luther, depression may partly spring from Satan’s accusations but it also provides an occasion for God’s activity.
Thus, in his letters Luther emphasized the nearness of Christ and his love and esteem for believers. These emphases seemed
designed to counteract the very nature of Satan’s thoughts: Namely that Christ has forsaken the believer and no longer
loves or esteems the believer. For Luther, nothing could be further from the truth. In the midst of these struggles, God in
Christ is near us though we may not see him. He reveals his presence though his word. As a result Luther constantly advised
reading comforting scriptures like the Psalms. Luther also saw God’s invisible presence in visible people. Believers
became the bearers of God’s comforting and strengthening words to troubled souls.
A Cognitive-behavioral Emphasis
As implied above, one finds a heavy cognitive emphasis in Luther’s views of depression. By cognitive, I mean that Luther
saw depression as primarily related to one’s though life – whether proceeding from oneself or from the devil.
This emphasis continually punctuated his letters on the subject. We see this cognitive emphasis in his own experience with
depression. Speaking about his depression, Luther spoke about the “…horrible and terrible thoughts I had.”[xiv]
one table talk, Luther’s cognitive emphasis is especially evident. Luther noted:
“Solitude produces melancholy. When we are alone
the worst and saddest things come to mind. We reflect in detail upon all sorts of evils. And if we have encountered adversity
in our lives, we dwell upon it as much as possible, magnify it, think that no one is so unhappy as we are, and imagine the
worse possible consequences. In short, when we are alone, we think of one thing and another, we leap to conclusions, and we
interpret everything in the worse light. On the other hand, we imagine that other people are very happy, and it distresses
us that things go well with them and evil with us.>[xv]
In this statement, Luther makes a number of very astute observations
about the role of cognition in depression. One sees in this statement several cognitive errors. These are typically emphasized
in current literature by such authors as Aaron Beck and others of a cognitive persuasion. Here we find the following cognitive
Selective Abstraction – attending only to information that supports one’s assumptions. In this case, focusing
on worse, sad and evil things.
– making small problems much larger than they are.
Arbitrary Inference – coming to false conclusions from insufficient data. In this case, concluding that nobody else
is as unhappy.
4. Catastrophic thinking – where
the person anticipates the worse possible outcomes.
For Luther, cognitive errors are magnified through solitude.
Thus, Luther repeatedly encouraged a variety of behaviors to combat solitude and the poison of one’s thoughts. Here
we see behavioral activity wedded to his cognitive emphasis. Repeatedly he exhorted the depressed to seek the company of others.
For example, in a letter to Jerome Weller, Luther advised him to [xvi] To Prince Joachim of Anhalt Luther wrote: “Seek
the company of others. Rejoice in a godly, honorable way. Avoid solitude and melancholy.[xvii]
emphasis on cognition and behavior fits nicely with modern understandings of depression. Like Luther, authors like Aaron Beck
emphasize similar cognitive bases for depression. However, I am yet to see a cognitive approach that is purely cognitive.
All of these approaches tend to have behavioral emphases like Luther.
Links to Other mental Disorders
Luther apparently believed that prolonged depression
could lead to other kind of emotional problems. This was apparently true of Prince Joachim. The latter evidently struggled
with depression. Overtime, he seemed to have developed obsessive-compulsive problems.[xviii] This should not be surprising:
Depression tends to be accompanied with inappropriate guilt. Such guilt can lead to negative self-evaluations. It can also
lead to an individual becoming preoccupied with a sense of having done wrong (whether real or imagined). Additionally, one
often finds obsessive ruminations accompanying depression. All of these problems seem true of Prince Joachim. One is likely
to see similar accompanying problems among the depressed. Sometimes, one also finds depression coexisting with or leading
to problems like alcoholism or other substance use disorders.
Links to Depression
Luther was quite aware that
depression ran in families. For example, he counseled the brothers Jerome and Matthias Weller who both struggled with depression.
Likewise, Luther saw similar family links in some royalty. In his letter to Prince Joachim, Luther reminded the latter that
other family members had been “…of a retiring, quiet, and sober nature.” He then used those family traits
to conclude that Prince Joachim’s illness derived from “melancholy and dejection of spirit.” Evidently,
he implied that other members of the family had struggled in this area.
The Potential for Suicide
Luther knew that depression was a deadly serious disorder:
Depressed persons sometimes became weary of life and preoccupied with a longing for death. He made this clear in his letter
to Jonas Von Stockhausen. [xix] In such cases one must take every precaution to ensure their safety. Thus, Luther wrote a
follow-up letter to Mrs. Jonas Von Stockhausen to inform her how to ensure her husband’s safety.[xx] Luther gave her
the following specific advice:
1. Ensure that
his surroundings are not so quiet that he sinks into his own thoughts.
2. Do not to leave him alone for a single moment. For Luther, solitude is poison for such a person.
3. Leave nothing around with which he might harm himself.
The third statement above is clearly related to suicide prevention.
The other two also seem related to his concern for safety. In the first, Luther very well might have been concerned that too
much solitude would heighten his suicide ideation. The second statement might have a two-fold intention. Depressed people
need company to counter their negative mood. At the same time, to the severely depressed, the presence of others helps to
protect the depressed from themselves. In the word about solitude being poison, Luther may also have in mind the ultimate
consequence of ingesting poison – death.
Conclusions on Luther’s Understanding of Depression
In many regards Luther's views on depression presented
above are consistent with modern understanding of depression. I particularly marvel at his insights into the role cognition
plays. He possessed an excellent grasp of the variety of cognitive distortions maintaining depressive states. And why not!
Given his own struggles in this area, he was very familiar with the internal mechanisms feeding depression.
Luther did not only look within to account for or address depression. He also looked within their environments. What were
they doing or not doing that contributed to depression? Thus, we find heavy emphasis on behaviors necessary to combating depression:
Playing games, having fun, getting involved with others and similar overt behaviors.
critical difference between Luther's views and modern therapy approaches involves the former's emphasis on spiritual
factors in depression. Luther carved out a place for both the activity of God and Satan's activity. Most therapists are
likely to dismiss such views as archaic and out of touch with modern notions. Yet the serious Christian cannot readily dismiss
activity is likely to be troubling for both the Christian and non-christian for different reasons. Luther reminds us that
we cannot ignore Satan. We have ample biblical evidence that there is a tempter who desires to destroy believers. The biblical
accounts of Job and Jesus’ temptation show such activity. According to Luther, one way Satan seeks our destruction is
through tormenting believers with thoughts. Such activity is designed to destroy faith in Jesus Christ.
Having said that, I must issue a caution regarding the degree
to which we emphasize Satan's activity. In my opinion some believers carry this to an extreme and see a demon behind every
case of depression. Language suggesting the Christian "has a spirit of depression" is not Luther's intent. Can
the Christian be oppressed by depressive thoughts? Luther answers with a resounding yes. Can the Christian be possessed by
some demon that stimulates depression? His answer would be a resounding no. We Christians must steer this delicate middle
ground: On the one hand we must affirm spiritual activity (Both God's and Satan's) in the many things that touch human
lives. On the other hand we must avoid those extreme positions that culminate in heaping heavier burdens on sincere Christians
caught in the grips of depression.
Having laid this groundwork we now turn to the critical
question: How did Luther address the problem of depression? One finds in Luther a multi-faceted approach that matches its
complex nature. For starters, Luther seemed to normalize the experience of depression: Luther helped sufferers to understand
that they were not alone in this suffering. Depression was to some degree a universal occurrence afflicting even the people
of God. [xxi]
The Use of Spiritual Disciplines
Earlier I spoke
about the role of spiritual factors in depression. Namely, that depression was partly precipitated through thoughts instilled
by Satan. Thus, one should not be surprised to find an emphasis on spiritual strategies for combating depression. That spiritual
emphasis is apparent in every letter Luther wrote to depressed persons who sought his comfort. I highlight some of these strategies
Remember Christ loves and esteems you
and foremost, Luther assured his “clients” that Christ loved and esteemed them and was near to them. Christ not
only cared but would help believers carry their burden. Believers must also trust in Christ’s atonement for sin
as a buttress against Satan’s accusations.
Make use of comforting scriptures and spiritual songs.
Luther recommended the use
of a variety of spiritual disciplines: He counseled prayer and the use of scripture passages. Depressed persons should read
or have read to them comforting words from scripture. Luther also knew that music had a soothing quality. Therefore, he advised
believers to make use of spiritual songs. They should sing and play songs unto the Lord until their sad thoughts vanished.
as God Speaks through others
Luther emphasized God’s work through others. He
saw that God used the words of others to strengthen and comfort struggling persons. [xxii] Depressed persons need to listen
to such words. To one severely depressed person, Luther advised: “…cease relying on and pursuing your own thoughts.
Listen to other people who are not subject to this temptation. Give the closest attention to what we say, and let our words
penetrate to your heart. Thus God will strengthen and comfort you by means of our words.” [xxiii]
In this emphasis, Luther espoused a concept similar
to one found in Larry Crabb and others. Crabb has used the concept of eldering. By this emphasis, he suggests that
other godly believers have the capacity to help one another. He also believes that the church need to take the role of godly
men and women more seriously. According to him, “They have a lot more power to deeply affect the souls of other people
than they generally are given credit for.” [xxiv]b I agree. However, I do not think this discounts the role of professional counselors as some would suggest. However, it does
suggest that there are multiple resources within the body of Christ to address the healing needs of his people.
Seek the Company of Others
Besides bringing comforting
words, believers play an additional role in the lives of the depressed. They provide company to pull the depressed away from
solitude. For Luther, solitude fostered depression. Thus, he constantly counseled the depressed to seek the company of others.
It is evident from his words that Luther envisioned company with those who were not suffering from depression. For him, community
with believers served several purposes in combating depression.
company afforded the depressed person an opportunity to receive a perspective on life different than their own. Second, company
with believers was a necessary precaution against suicide. The reader would remember that this was Luther’s recommendation
to Mrs. Jonas Von Stockhausen when her husband was severely depressed and thinking about suicide.
Remember “merriment is not sin.”
Company with believers served a third purpose. It represented
an opportunity for good, clean fun. Thus, Luther repeatedly recommended playing games, joking, jesting and other forms of
merriment. To Mrs. Von Stockhausen Luther advised that she read or tell stories which lead to laughter and jesting. Luther
especially insisted on pleasurable diversions to young persons like Jerome Weller and Prince Joachim of Anhalt. For example,
to the youthful Jerome Weller he advised: “Seek out company of men, drink more, joke and jest and engage in some other
forms of merriment.” [xxv]
should not be surprised by this emphasis on merriment in Luther. He likely knew that the depressed tended to give up pleasurable
activities. Thus they lived their lives in more and more confining limits. In a sense, they sapped the life, vigor and fun
out of their lives. What else but depression can one expect when joy is sucked from one’s life?
But Luther emphasized merriment for another reason.
Luther saw that some Christians avoided pleasurable activities because they saw these as sinful. It was their Christian scruples
that posed a threat to defeating depression. For example, Luther saw the over-scrupulous Prince Joachim as “…reluctant
to be merry, as if this were sinful.” You might remember from an earlier comment that this same Prince Joachim believed
he had betrayed or crucified Christ. Luther further noted that “… proper and honorable pleasure with good and
God-fearing people is pleasing to God.”[xxvi] Thus one should strive to be merry in two ways: First, one should rejoice
inwardly in Christ. Second, one should take pleasure outwardly in God’s gifts and in the good things of life.
Dealing with Cognitive Distortions
Earlier I noted that Luther emphasized the role of cognition
in depression. Therefore, one should not be surprised to find strategies designed to address these cognitive distortions.
In Luther, one finds this problem addressed on at least four levels; grappling with one’s own cognitive biases; listening
to the thoughts and words of others; disputation with and disregard for the devil; and through scripture’s promises.
Much of these strategies are implicit in earlier statements.
evidently believed that there are times we should not trust our own thoughts. This is especially true during depression when
we tend to distort reality. It’s during these times that we need to rely on the others. Christian persons who are not
depressed represent a reality check for the depressed. Their words and thoughts pull us away from our distortions and back
The reader might remember that Luther saw some depressive
thoughts as proceeding from Satan. How is the believer to deal with this problem? Should the believer quickly capitulate?
Certainly not! The believer must resist the devil. How does one do this? Sometimes believers must avoid disputation with the
Devil. It seems Luther believed this was one method to avoid dwelling on the deadly thoughts from Satan. [xxvii]At other times
Luther seemed to endorse some disputation with the devil. In one table talk, drawn from his personal experience, Luther noted:
“I discovered that a person who is well fed is better fitted for disputation with the devil than a person who is fasting.”[xxviii]
It would seem from these examples
that Luther did not have a hard and fast rule about when to combat depressive thoughts from the enemy. From the latter statement
one might surmise that the timing largely depended on personal factors. Thus, when one is fasting is not a good time to indulge
in disputation. In general, one might conclude that disputation is unwise any time one is overly vulnerable, whether in body
or mind. At those times, believers should draw strength from spiritual persons and from scripture.
also emphasized the role of scripture in combating deadly thoughts. This makes sense since scripture presents the ultimate
reality, an antidote to our distorted view of our circumstances. Scripture especially reminds us that God loves us, esteems
us and is with us in the midst of our struggles. The very opposite of what Satan would have us believe; namely that we are
unloved, worthless and abandoned.
Suicide Prevention Strategies
However, Luther was also a realist. Sometimes depressed persons plunge into so much
despair that they need to be protected from themselves. At those times, caring persons need to take every precaution. We saw
this approach in his advice to Mrs. Jonas Von Stockhausen. Essentially his advice indicated that she needed to provide a safe
environment for her husband. She needed to have someone with him constantly and rid the home of things with which he could
harm himself. This is indeed sound advice consistent with modern understanding of suicide prevention. For the modern reader,
providing a safe environment for their loved one may sometimes mean hospitalization until the threat passes. Such actions
when necessary do not represent callousness. They represent genuine Christian love in action.
common sense advice for the depressed
Finally, I am impressed with what I term “common-sense”
advice to persons wrestling with depression. I cite three examples that illustrate this side of Luther.
First, Luther believed that in certain cases some spiritual
disciplines worked against victory over Satan (and overcoming depression). As noted earlier, he once noted that those who
disputed with the devil should be well-fed rather than fasting. This may initially sound rather unspiritual but makes good
sense. Such advice makes sense for depressed persons who need sustenance. Another example where spiritual disciplines may
work against defeating depression comes readily to mind: Unlike Luther, I believe there’s a place for solitude in the
Christian life. Jesus evidently agreed as he constantly found a place for solitude and retreat in his life. In this sense,
solitude and retreat certainly are spiritual disciplines. But for the deeply depressed individual, retreating alone doesn’t
make good sense. Rather, the better decision might be to go out with a friend. Again, this may sound unspiritual but it is
not. There’s a time and place for everything, even in regards to legitimate spiritual disciplines.
Be realistic – Improvement may be slow
While remaining optimistic and encouraging dogged determination
to overcome depression, Luther kept a realistic perspective. Luther reminded depressed persons that improvement may sometimes
be slow. [xxix] At first this sounds discouraging. I don’t believe it need be. Improvement may be slow but it’s
still improvement. I find that persons struggling with various emotional problems often focus too much on what’s not
right and what hasn’t changed. Most of the times, they need to focus on what’s right and even small changes made.
These incremental improvements, though slow, represent hope for a better day.
is a great healer.
Luther also saw that time was a great healer. This does
not mean that he advocated inactivity and just waiting around for depression to blow over. We have already seen that he actively
combated depression and advised sufferers to do the same. Nonetheless, he had a place for the role of time. This is especially
evident in one statement where he noted: “… old age and other circumstances will in time render present depression
and melancholy superfluous…”[xxx] I believe there is some truth in this statement. I have found that in some
emotional problems such as stress, age and maturity tends to bring new perspectives and sometimes healing.
This may be partly evident in the testimony of one depression
sufferer, Matilda Nordtveldt. She wrote: “At age 71 I still struggle with my desire to bolster my self-image as well
as my reputation by overworking…Even if I have not learned my lesson perfectly yet, I am on my way. I know that my
value in His sight is not determined by what I accomplish but by my relationship to Him, and I have learned that giving thanks
in every circumstance brings joy and peace.”>[xxxi] Through time, Nordtveldt has learned some vital lessons about
Evidently, I believe that Luther has something to say to today’s
church. Others hold the same view. A few years ago, one of my friends and colleagues, Dr. Donald Demaray wrote a paraphrase
of Luther ‘s table talk called “Listen to Luther.” Dr. Demaray believed Luther had a valuable message
for modern believers. I agree. Listen to Luther as he counsels on how to defeat depression.
Also see Wesley and Depression by Tony Headley
[i] The table talks are recorded accounts of discussions that took place in
Luther’s home. Luther entertained guests, students and friends at his table. With these persons he discussed a number
of topics and concerns brought to his attention. Many of these persons made written records of these conversations known to
us as his table talks. See Preserved Smith, Luther’s Table Talk, New York: Ams Press, 1907 for a critical study
of the table talks.
[ii] Martin Luther, Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Translated
by Theodore G. Tappert, Philadelphia: the Westminster Press, 1955
One piece of evidence is found in his letter to Francis Burkhard in which Luther affirmed the insanity of one Mrs. Kreuzbinder,
Letters of Spiritual Counsel p. 182.
[iv] See Luther’s letter
to his wife on February 7, and February 10, 1546, in Letters of Spiritual Counsel, pp. 105-108.
See Luther’s letter to his son John Luther, December 27, 1542, Letters of Spiritual Counsel p. 166.
of Spiritual Counsel, p. 98
[vii] To Conrad Cordatus, May 21, 1537, Letters
of Spiritual Counsel p. 99. Another example of this problem is found in his letter to Mrs. P, p 103
[viii] Letters of Spiritual Counsel, pp. 93, 115
and 117 where he refers to his problems. Other authors cite some of Luther’s difficulties. For example, Erik Erickson
grapple with Luther’s difficulties in his work Young Man Luther,New York: Norton & Company, 1958.
To Conrad Cordatus, Letters of Spiritual Counsel p. 99
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