Archive for January, 2023

The title intrigued me, and addresses some issues I’ve been thinking about for the last few years. I wasn’t sure if Michael Emlet had written the book I’m hoping to write.

He didn’t. But Saint, Sufferers & Saints: Loving Others as God Loves Us is a good book. It is succinct. He could have developed some of these themes more fully. What he does say is very helpful though.

Michael Emlet was a medical doctor who ended up making a career change. He went to Westminster Seminary and joined the staff of CCEF. At times his own experiences with a wife who suffers health issues and parenting kids who sin as one who sins. This is not just a counseling book though. He wants this to impact our daily life whether we are counselors or not.

He breaks the book up into 5 sections. The first lays out the “why” and “how” of the book. Here he makes clear that people don’t fit into only one of the three categories. All Christians are saints, and at times they suffer and at other times they struggle with sin. At times they can sin because they suffer or suffer when they sin. Got that?

In the first section he has a chapter on Jesus as the ultimate Saint, Suffering and “Sinner”. Don’t get worked up about the last one. He speaks of the imputation of our sin to Jesus as the Savior of Sinners. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5, He who was without sin became sin so we might become the righteousness of God.

Each of the thee main section includes chapters on how Scripture speaks to the group in focus, how God loves them, the priorities for ministry to them, examples of how to love them in everyday life and then in counseling. He also addresses barriers to living them.

The last section is about remaining balanced in our ministry.

We can become one-trick ponies in ministry. If you have a hammer, as they say, everything looks like a hammer. Emlet’s point. In as much as they are a saint, sufferer and sinner we address them as such. Saints are addressed differently than sufferers and both are addressed differently than sinners. You don’t love well, aren’t a good friend, are a lousy pastor or counselor if you don’t address them appropriately.

Scripture gives us a kind of trellis- a basic structure- on which love can flower in person-specific ways.” pp. 4

This book seeks to bring Scripture to bear on these issues, and not just on the chapters on what God says to that group. He gives lots of references to passages, and quotes quite a few passages as well.

Many of us struggle with questions of identity. It is important to remind Christians they are saints. Scripture is written to God’s people and primarily about God’s people. In Christ, we are saints: people set apart for God and His service. He spends time addressing the letters to the Corinthians. While Paul addresses plenty of sin and suffering, he addresses them as saints. They did not cease to be saints because they sinned. He speaks of our need to encourage and be encouraged. He does address “when not to start with the good” in ministry to saints. When patterns of sin or suffering are deep and present a danger to self or others you must act quickly and not wait to address the danger. That is not the moment to think the best of them and think of something positive to say.

We all suffer. We aren’t always suffering, but we all suffer at different times and in different ways. We want to listen to understand how they are suffering. We have many examples of lament to learn how to bring our suffering to God. He speaks of the importance of patience in caring for sufferers. Like battleships, they won’t turn on a dime. They can’t. Suffering isn’t a problem to be solved. It is an opportunity to trust. We want to help them entrust themselves and their problems into the hands of God.

We ant to avoid a “fix it” mentality, but we also want to avoid a detached “deal with it” mentality.” pp. 92

Too often we focus more on the sin than the suffering so we confront when we should comfort.

Our renewed obedience begins with our identity as saints. Our identity is on of the gospel indicatives that gives birth to gospel imperatives. Emlet notes that God moves toward His people but against their sin. This sets the pattern for us. We move toward people but do not embrace their sin, we confront it. Sometimes we have to help them see the suffering and/or idols behind or underneath the sin. He notes that sanctification includes both the putting off of sin and putting on of Christ and virtue.

I read this in about 2-3 days as I prepared for 2 sermons on loving one another. It is not a difficult book to read. It is not an overwhelming read. The chapters are very short and you don’t get bogged down. This is a helpful addition to pastoral practice, one another ministry and counseling ministry.

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Pastors deal with depression on a regular basis. They have congregants who suffer from depression. They often have family members that suffer from depression. And pastors themselves can suffer from this malady. Depression is no respecter of persons.

Well known pastors and church leaders such as Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon suffered from depression. In both cases, at least some of it was tied to tragic events during their ministry. In recent years there have been some high-profile pastors who committed suicide as a result of their battles with depression.

I’ve battled depression off and on for decades. It has never been debilitating but it sure affected my relationships and my ministry.

On vacation I decided to read Depression: A Stubborn Darkness by Edward Welch. The subtitle to the subtile is Light for the Path. (There is a new revised edition as you can tell by the picture.) In the book he wants to describe depression and point a way forward. He is successful in both endeavors. He covers his material in fairly short chapters (important if the reader is depressed). He helps you eat this elephant one bite at a time.

Depression is often misunderstood by those who don’t experience it. It is not simply feeling sad for a few days. It is prolonged, a stubborn darkness. I recently described it to someone as drowning emotionally, the loss of hope that today will be better than yesterday and tomorrow better than today. You feel like you are slowly sinking and there is no foothold to stop the slide. Depression robs a person of hope: not intellectually but existentially.


The first 3 chapters focus on defining depression and expressing how it feels. Welch admits that there is often no one cause of depression. There are many potential causes, and in specific cases there are often more than one. That is part of why it is so difficult to deal with- there are multiple streams feeding the river you find yourself being swept away by. This means there isn’t any quick or easy fix. We can make significant choices, but there will be a significant amount of agnosticism on this side of the Jordan.

He provides how others have described depression. John of the Cross called it the “dark night of the soul”. Winston Churchill called it “the black dog”. Spurgeon spoke of weeping for hours but not knowing for what he wept. Some have called the deeply depressed the “walking waking dead”. Others a “malignant sadness”. It is a pain that seems meaningless. When it sets in decisions become monumental. Simple tasks like brushing your teeth or showering require a herculean effort. That people who haven’t suffered in this way don’t “get it” and frequently think you are making it up, adds to the pain.

Some feel very little. There is a flat affect. Others can have a rather volatile affect shifting between sadness and anger/irritation. There is little to no joy. I found that I laugh much less. But others will think there is a “dark cloud” about you, and can’t understand why you can’t get rid of it. As if you could change the climate by wishful thinking!

There are differences in degree and types. Dysthymia is a long-term, minor depression that isn’t really diagnosed unless you’ve had it for 2 years. It is persistent but not debilitating. There are also major depressive episodes of varying duration. Depression can be situational or clinical.

Causes can be physical, but are often emotional (loss, unending discontent, guilt) or the haunting echos of trauma (abuse, violence). Experiencing depression does not mean one has “lost faith”. You can still believe the good news of Jesus Christ and experience depression. Trusting won’t necessarily take it all away.

Depression is Suffering

The first part of this book explores the subject of depression as suffering over the course of 7 chapters. In Scripture you won’t find the word “depression” but we see words like “downcast” and see experiences that sure look like depression (Elijah wanting to die after fleeing Jezebel’s threats, Saul’s response to David’s growing popularity, Jonah’s response to God relenting from judgment when Ninevah repents).

Depression can be linked to difficult circumstances that you can’t fix. Often it is connected to suffering from the sins of others (abuse, oppression and exploitation). Our bodies can be the cause as well. Adam’s sin means that our bodies groan and don’t work properly. Hormonal changes are behind post-partum depression. Thyroid problems can produce depression, as can unrelenting physical pain. We can also affirm supernatural causes as God can send messengers of Satan to humble us or test us (see Job and Paul’s thorn in the flesh of 2 Corinthians 12). Far too often the causes are mysterious to us. We are wandering in the darkness and fog. But all this is designed for us to fix our eyes on Christ who alone can rescue us body and soul.

This profound suffering brings up many questions about God, and us in relation to Him. His goodness is not always displayed how we expect, hope or demand it be displayed. His holiness and justice are forgotten due to the deceitfulness of sin. We can shift allegiances rather quickly and easily. Life is largely about seeking or avoiding God. Too often we are trying to hide in the bushes like Adam.

Welch reminds us that Jesus shared in our sufferings. He was ‘sorrowful unto death’ and experienced the pain of betrayal, misunderstanding, loss, injustice and the pangs of death following abuse, mockery, beatings and crucifixion. If the Master endured this, surely we His servants shall as well.

In this context Welch quotes the “Puritan” William Cowper who suffered from mental illness. Cowper seems to have been a bit late to be called a Puritan. He, like his friend John Newton, did not align himself with the Non-Conformists. But I’ll cut Welch some slack since the quote is great:

It is possible to be a child of God, without consciousness of the blessing, to have title to a crown, and yet feel to be immured in the depths of a dungeon.William Cowper

Depression, like sin, curves us inward. We become self-obsessed. We need to look out, particularly to God. This is one of the battles of depression: not getting lost in ourselves and our suffering but reaching out to Christ for help. The Psalms provide us with words to express all this, and to cry out to Him.

Part of our “self-obsession” is the self-criticism and condemnation. One senses that they have failed, are a failure, and this feeds the depression. People who are hard on themselves are prone to depression, and in depression people are hard on themselves.

Satan is all too willing to join in the pig pile. He will join the chorus of condemnation: sinner, loser, failure, pervert, coward… We need to see that depression involves us with spiritual warfare and fight rather than give up and give in. We have to recognize lies that we have embraced and reject them. It’s not “all our fault”. We are not simply “victims”.

This suffering has come that we might learn obedience as Jesus did. Newton paraphrased Romans 8:28 to indicate that all God gives us in needful and nothing withheld is needful. The suffering He has chosen for you is the best way for Him to make you like Jesus (8:29). It is necessary for your sanctification (and sometimes our conversion as well). He’s not wasting our lives with depression, but purifying our hearts through depression. Yeah, I sure feel blessed. But it is needful.

In depression we often experience spiritual amnesia. One way we battle it is to “force feed” ourselves the truth. Depression will make you passive. You will want the very things you need even less. You won’t want to read the Scriptures. You won’t want to make the effort to go to corporate worship. These are the things you need most to re-frame your life, to see the bigger picture and remember that your life is part of His Story.

One thing it will remind us of is our purpose as image bearers. He quotes from the Westminster Standards, but errs in noting they were commissioned by the King. Nope, Parliament called the Assembly during what we call the English Civil War which resulted in the execution of King Charles for treason. I nitpick. But we were made to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, including now. So, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, let’s “fear God and keep His commandments” even while we struggle.

Welch also calls us to persevere. He echos Paul and James who remind us that perseverance produces character which produces maturity and hope. Hope and purpose feed our perseverance.

Listening to Depression

The second part of the book is comprised of 10 chapters. The first chapter focuses on Adam, others and Satan as possible reasons for our depression. He reduces depression to an event(s) and our beliefs and interpretation of the event(s). This is the basic time line. God provides the grace we need to investigate our lives and beliefs to better understand our depression.

It all begins with Adam whose sin brought the curse which brings physical problems, misery in work, and death. We are then under the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2) until rescued by Christ, but he still harasses Christians. We aren’t sure when he is involved. These are necessary but insufficient for depression. The events in our lives interact with our interpretive of belief system. He is not ruling out brain chemistry, but is ruling out brain chemistry as a singularly sufficient cause. Often it is our pride and idols that create the false interpretation that we deserve better than this, or that God can’t be trusted …. which lead us into depression.

He next shifts to culture and its effects on depression. Welch notes that those born after 1950 have an incidence rate higher than those born before 1910. There have been cultural changes galore. We have shaped culture and it shapes us in an interactive relationship. Culture is the lens through which we look at the world and ourselves. Culture includes the rituals and patterns of society, unspoken expectations, manners and how relationships are conducted.

The “world” is highly influential in culture. The fallen structures of society are unavoidable. It flows out of the corruption inherited by Adam that leads to sensuality, oppression and self-centeredness that mark every culture. Culture is not neutral.

One of the cultural changes has the rapid increases in decisions to be made. Fewer decisions are made for you by family or community as we shift toward increasingly radical individualism. We have to pick a career before you pick a college, pick a spouse, if you buy a new house there are a billion decisions about flooring, cabinets, paint etc. We are overwhelmed by choices.

I have a daughter who just turned 18. I basically had one thing to do when I turned 18: register for selective service. She feels overwhelmed at times because she needs to get a new license, register to vote, get a checking account and a number of things I didn’t worry about yet. New parents feel the burden to make decisions immediately they are convinced will make or break their kid’s future (the right pre-school, play groups etc.).

Individuality also means that relationships are expendable. If one doesn’t work for you, you just move on. Now, think of the flip side: you are expendable to others. Yeah, if that doesn’t move you toward depression I’m not sure what is wrong with you. It is a world without love but you are a person made in the image of the God who is love.

Our culture is focused on self-indulgence and self-fulfillment. It tells us we must be happy. We must also avoid boredom. All of this sets people up for depression because they aren’t happy, fulfilled and are over-indulged (we are a culture of overweight substance abusers seek to be happy but finding misery).

Welch then shifts us back to the heart or inner person which has been corrupted by Adam’s disobedience. It provides a significant portion of the interpretive lens. Its desires shape our quest for self-fulfillment and happiness. The heart includes our spiritual allegiences, desires, motives and imaginations, thoughts and feelings and actions.

The heart is unveiled in suffering of various kinds. Pressure reveals what is inside us. Under pressure our sinful hearts are revealed, and that can move us toward depression both in terms of the suffering, the sin it reveals and the sinful methods of coping with our suffering. That can lead to the further suffering of depression. Depression is often anger stuffed inside so one implodes. It can also be unresolved grief as we hide from loss. Some families, like mine, don’t know how to grieve.

Welch then moves into the way fear and anger contribute of depression. Depression creates fear as well. It can run wild in paranoia during a depression. Our hearts are idol factories and that means fear since our idols can’t be satisfied. He points us to the Good Shepherd who promises to be with us always to address our fears.

Our fears are often more obvious than our anger. Most people know when they are afraid. They aren’t aware when they are angry. Anger is about blocked desires and when people break our commandments. Our anger is usually about our kingdom, rather than God’s. There is a call to trust God and seek His kingdom rather than ours. Humility is important in dealing with our anger.

Connected to but not identical to our anger is “dashed hopes”. When our dreams don’t come true, depression can flood in. Hope is a dangerous thing because things don’t often turn out like we want them to. This is behind Red’s warning to Andy in The Shawshank Redemption. But without hope, we will die.

Hopelessness will kill. We need to engage our hearts with the promises of God. Those aren’t for the short-term, but the long-term. They can act like a life preserver, bringing us back to the surface when the waters seem overwhelming.

Depression will also tell you about failure and shame. Our failures and shame can drive it. Everyone fails. Everyone. But some begin to see themselves as failures, like Marty McFly’s dad. We begin to see our identity as “failure”. It is connected to a loss of hope because all you are going to be is a failure in business, love, finances etc. Similar is shame which is connected with your self-identity. Instead of “failure” shame cries out “dirty” or “broken to never be fixed”. It can be connected to the big sins we’ve committed or the big sins committed against us. Shame over sexual or physical abuse feeds many a depression.

We will also learn about guilt and legalism if we pay attention. We fail to keep the law and feel guilty. We fail to keep men’s traditions and experience false guilt. We move toward legalism to keep that pain away but we just keep breaking the rules. The cycle of guilt, trying harder and failure can drive depression. We need the hope of justification.

The last subject in this section is death. Depression dallies with death. Death offers to end the pain (lying about the possibility of eternal suffering). Too many have thought this an escape. I know too many for whom the darkness became too great and they took their own lives. They were like marathoners who were just “done” (to borrow a metaphor from a funeral sermon).

Most of us know taking our own lives is wrong. But we want to die anyway. It shifts to fantasies about being run over by a truck or killed by someone else. It is similar to the “rape fantasy” which isn’t about rape. It is about wanting a sexual experience you know is immoral but if you are forced to do it in your fantasy, you are off the moral hook (in your imagination). You get yourself off the moral hook but imagining that truck or train, the odd accident or someone else choosing to kill you. You feel the longing for death but fortunately lack the fortitude to kill yourself because you know it is wrong. But depression blinds us to our only hope in life and death, that we belong to Christ who died to bring us back to God.

Other Help and Advice

Welch begins with medical treatments. Just as we are to love God with all our heart, mind and soul, depression affects heart, mind and soul. And body. It affects all that we are. He reminds us that depression, and other forms of suffering, engage our hearts. While medicine can alleviate symptoms, it doesn’t change the heart. They may make us less miserable, but they won’t motivate us to engage God with what ails us. Keep in mind that there are other medical reasons for depression: hypo-thyroidism, vitamin D deficiency for example. You can test for these and treat them.

He confesses that we don’t really understand why the medicines work, and why they don’t. There is still much we don’t know about the body when it comes to depression. You may not want to jump to medication first in order to see if other treatments can work. You don’t want to wait until you are in a deep depression with suicidal thoughts.

There is a great little chapter for family and friends. They often don’t know how to help. The depressed person is often conflicted about receiving help. The negativity that accompanies depression can lead you to discard any advice. This will frustrate those in relationship with the depressed person. Those who are depressed need to resist the temptation to isolate, and bring themselves and their depression into relationships.

Relationships will be stretched. It can feel like talking to a brick wall. You may think that it just isn’t worth it anymore. Love includes being stretched however. You will be forced to face your own neediness as a result. As a friend, continue to speak truth to them to provide a gospel-centered hope that they lack. If the depressed person is a family member, help provide some structure. Welch reminds us that we can’t expect their progress to happen on our schedule (the same for sanctification by the way). But we do need to interrupt and correct their negative interpretations of life. Family and friends stick to it, and with them, when others move off into the distance.

He then lists a number of things that people found helped them. Some that he included were: talking to yourself instead of listening to yourself (Martyn Lloyd-Jones recommended this), care for another person in need or get a pet, forgive those who sinned against you, repent of a sense of entitlement driven by pride, take responsibility for yourself, dive into the Psalms, and more.

He also lists things people didn’t find helpful. Some of these were: looking only for the superficial sins instead of the deeper sins that drive them, not understanding their anger and repenting of unrighteous anger, lowering expectations, people giving advice without listening.

He then provides some specific strategies like continuing to meditate on a passage of Scripture, write out positive things about a friend and let them know, ponder the goodness of creation (I love to behold Arizona sunsets), watch out for grumbling and complaining, and ask what (if anything) you get out of being depressed (what’s the pay off?).

He then lays out some expectations. Depression will come and go in waves. If you have been depressed before pay attention to patterns for warning signs. You should expect to learn about God and yourself in the process.

Hope and Joy: Thinking God’s Thoughts

He talks about the difference between a comedy and a tragedy in literature: the ending. Instead of a tragedy, we need to see it as a comedy because when Jesus is in the picture everything ends well. Jesus gets the last laugh. It doesn’t remove the sorrow but helps put the sorrow in a larger context where we who have suffered with Him will share the inheritance with Him too. We need to see this as part of God’s Story.

“… modernity was defined by the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller.” In post-modernity, there is neither universal story nor storyteller.” Welch quotes Jerry Walls, pp. 252

Humility is important with depression, just as it is with anger. We desperately need to grow in humility. God gives a promise to lift up those who humble themselves. It should be easy to humble yourself in the face of a depression you can’t shake off in a day or month. We need hope and hope comes from believing God’s promises. Hope comes from enduring suffering and growing in character. Hope is about setting our hearts on the world to come instead of this one. Suffering, like depression, weans us from this world. Hope, Welch reminds us, is a community project. We need to worship with others and hear the old, old Story.

Lack of hope reveals that we don’t really believe what God has said. Therefore, it is sin.” pp. 260

The joy of the Lord is our strength. Depression weans us from worldly joys and opens our hearts to eternal joy in the presence of the Lord. Depression can challenge us to be thankful, forcing us to find reasons for gratitude.

I’m sure that all seems like a lot. This was a challenging book at points. The challenge wasn’t in understanding what he said but applying it. It confronted my compromises with depression. This makes the book helpful for those who suffer and those who love people who suffer from depression. Some don’t understand depression and think people should be able to just shake it off. This will help them to understand something of the stubborn nature of this darkness. Welch provides some examples from his practice to help the reader. The strength is that it is not an either/or approach. While there are necessarily spiritual dimensions, he is not anti-medicine. He just thinks that medicine alone isn’t the answer. As my former professor used to say “meds help so you can do talk therapy” (I’m paraphrasing). They can help those who are deeply depressed to function and benefit from therapy. Those who are all about the medicine may be (wrongly) put off by his calls to engage God with your heart. The Christian life is about faith and repentance, depression is no different. Good biblical counseling can help us discover the patterns of our lives and depression so we can repent of sinful patterns, put on more godly ones and rediscover hope. Don’t let the darkness win.

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Steve McQueen was one of the biggest stars of the 1960’s. He was known as the King of Cool, one of the early anti-heroes that paved the way for Clint Eastwood.

The height of his popularity was before I was born and into the first few years of my life. I enjoyed a number of his movies on TV, and a few on The Movie Channel when we finally got cable and Tom Horn and The Hunter were on often.

Last Christmas, my brother-in-law gave me Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon by Greg Laurie with Marshall Terrill. This is the story of how Steve became a Christian in the days before he was diagnosed with cancer.

It is also the story of Laurie’s road trips in his Bullitt mustang to interview people who knew McQueen. In many ways this is the focus on the story: Laurie’s quest to get the bigger picture of his hero Steve McQueen.

Their lives were very similar. Both men came from broken homes and didn’t know their fathers. Their mothers were alcoholics and an endless stream of men entered their lives, causing varying amounts of damage. Both men ended up in a military academy of sorts in an attempt to save them from their rebellion. Laurie was much younger when he became a Christian. As an evangelist, he’d mentioned McQueen’s conversion and felt like he wanted to investigate this more deeply.

At times there was too much of Laurie’s story for my liking. I’m interested in Steve McQueen, not him. One other feature that I struggled with was the repeated phrase that he became a Christian “at the height of his popularity.” No, he didn’t. It was the late 70’s and he had been eclipsed by Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. This was okay with McQueen who took breaks in his career in the early 70’s and again in the late 70’s after re-emerging for the hit The Towering Inferno with contemporary Paul Newman who had a similar reputation and personae. His last major movies, the aforementioned Tom Horn and The Hunter were completed before his diagnosis and were not very popular. He still had the trappings of fame, so maybe we are interpreting this in different ways.

Yet, this is an interesting book. You will learn about McQueen’s life (perhaps I’ll pick up a biography). In many ways he reminds me of Ted Williams, another alpha male from a broken home who excelled in many areas, just not in relationships (both had multiple divorces). McQueen was not only a popular actor, but raced cars and motorcycles (winning races and considering a career change. Williams was not only the greatest hitter who every lived (in my opinion), but a world class fisherman and a good enough pilot to be John Glenn’s wing man in the Korean conflict. Near the end of his life McQueen got his pilot’s license. Both men sought to excel at all they did. But both were damaged relationally.

One of the things that Christians should appreciate and remember is that at least 3 other men had shared the gospel with McQueen earlier in his life. They included producer Russell Doughten, stuntman Stan Barrett and actor Mel Novak. The man who taught him to fly, Sammy Mason, was famous in his own right. He had a calm that Steve found attractive. While flying they would spend hours talking about the Lord. Steve would ask questions and Mason would answer them. Eventually Steve and his live-in girlfriend and future wife, Barbi, began to attend the church Mason did.

Too often we grow discouraged because we share the gospel and people don’t repent and believe. It can take a number of gospel exposures to bring about conversion. It takes time for these seeds to grow.

We also so that the gentle and quiet spirit of Sammy Mason would adorn the gospel and make it attractive. He was ready to share the reason for the hope he had (see 1 Peter 3). McQueen seemed like an unlikely convert. He had enjoyed all that fame had to offer (money, women) and yet, unknown to others, like Tom Brady he wondered “Is this all there is?”.

You don’t know whether or not you will lead someone to Christ, nor who is actually ready to hear the gospel. God will provide unexpected opportunities, and you may see unexpected “success” as well as disappointment.

This may be an easy reading book to give to fans of McQueen that need to know Jesus. There is enough gospel here to sow some seeds.

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