Luther’s letters of spiritual counsel have long been a favorite resource of mine. I often use them before turning in at night as a devotion. Luther’s letters and table talk comments, most of which were written in his later years, are full of down-to-earth advice and Gospel insights that are often surprisingly still relevant to the troubles of our day.
One of the prominent themes that Luther takes up in these letters is that of depression, or melancholy, as they called it in his day. Though depression as a clinical diagnosis is a rather recent phenomenon, and the relationship between melancholia and depression is not uncomplicated, there is still substantial congruence between the two as Pietsch points out in his investigation of Luther's letters and what they might offer us today (Of Good Comfort, pg. xx).
It seems depression was as common an issue in Luther’s day as it is in ours and often for the same reasons related to ascetic spirituality. Asceticism is the practice of deprivation and isolation that was common among monastics. It was a system of self-salvation that most of society bought into and practiced to one degree or another in the 16th century, whether or not they joined a monastery. In fact, the inability to join a monastery due to societal positions could engender even more guilt and depression from the devout as was the case of Joachim Anhalt (Pietsch, 45). Today we see this same sort of asceticism, compounded by the isolation of modern culture in the pursuit of limitless self-realization; a pursuit which we see time and time again lead into depression. David Zahl has recently explored these same themes in his book, Seculosity.
Luther saw a profound spiritual component to suffering and affliction.
Luther links monasticism to the recurrent bouts of depression and melancholy he often faced and which made him a popular and sympathetic ear to those who sought his advice concerning how to cope.
"When I first entered the monastery it came to pass that I was sad and downcast, nor could I lay aside my melancholy. On this account I made confession to and took counsel with Dr. Staupitz (a man I gladly remember) and opened to him what horrible and terrible thoughts I had. Then said he: 'Don't you know, Martin, that this temptation is useful and necessary to you? God does not exercise you thus without reason. You will see that he intends to use you as his servant to accomplish great things" (Luther’s Letters of Spiritual Counsel, Tappert, 85-86).
Indeed, it was from these experiences that Luther came to realize a theologian is made by use of a threefold strand of prayer, meditation, and temptation or suffering.
Luther often viewed afflictions of melancholy as the humbling work of God whose "strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). Yet these afflictions could either be loved or hated by God depending on the outcome of them. "God both loves and hates our afflictions. He loves them when they provoke us to prayer. He hates them when we are driven to despair by them. But it is written whoso offereth praise glorifieth me, for the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a contrite heart." (Tappert, 87). Luther argues here that even afflictions could be accepted as gifts from God just as Paul accepted what he deemed “a thorn in the flesh” (either harassment from the devil or a malady that God refused to remove) as a gift that would keep him from becoming so boastful he no longer felt a need for God (2 Cor. 12: 7-9).
Luther also counseled against solitude in times of depression knowing that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion and often seeks us in solitude to bring about the worse sins (Tappert, 85). He reasons that, "God created man for society and not for solitude. This may be supported by the argument that he created two sexes, male and female. Likewise God [Founded the Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, and] instituted the Sacraments preaching and consolations of the church" (Tappert, 95). He would recommend those caring for the depressed or in their company to engage them in small talk and excite them to laughter and jesting, but most of all to read or recite comforting verses from the Scriptures (Tappert, 91).
Small talk and exciting people to laughter and jesting were almost as central to Luther's advice for those suffering depression as the reading of Scripture. Though Luther knew God could use depression and melancholy for His purposes, he never discounted the devil's work in it. This was the temptation that Luther would address in his explanation to the Lord's Prayer when he expounded upon the petition, "lead us not into temptation." He saw a profound spiritual component to suffering and affliction. His advice was to mock the devil with laughter and jesting:
"By all means flee solitude, for the devil watches and lies in wait for you most of all when you are alone. This devil is conquered by mocking and despising him not by resisting and arguing with him…. Whenever the devil pesters you with these thoughts, at once seek out the company of men, drink more, joke and jest, or engage in some other form of merriment. Sometimes it is necessary to drink a little more, play, jest or even commit some sin in defiance and contempt of the devil in order not to give him an opportunity to make us scrupulous about trifles" (Tappert, 85-86).
“At the core of Luther’s advice is the proclamation that we are free to hand over our pain, our sin, and our inabilities to our Savior.”
This sort of earthy advice is just as shocking today as it was in the world of Luther because such advice flies in the face of conquering depression and sin on your own. Rather than a turn further inward, Luther reminds us that true freedom lies outside of ourselves. At the core of Luther’s advice is the proclamation that we are free to hand over our pain, our sin, and our inabilities to our Savior. Such a gift calls for merriment, celebration, and brevity, even as we acknowledge the reality of pain we have and will face in this life.
It is precisely to church and the Word of God that Luther would first and foremost counsel those who are suffering depression to turn. His letters show a rich study of God's word and a dynamic use of Law and Gospel: sometimes he rebukes the victim of depression for his despair, knowing that those he was counseling were sinners in need of rebuke. However, these words were always followed by a word of Grace promising the love of Christ who suffered far more for us than we will ever suffer for Him. Luther understood that only the freedom that comes with the Gospel, Christ's victory over death for you, could allow one to truly enjoy life and cherish it as a gift from God.