The Word from Outside

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What I desperately needed was not to preach to myself, but to listen to a preacher—not to take myself in hand, but to be taken in the hands of the Almighty.

This article was written by guest contributor, Amy Mantravadi.

I have struggled with depression and anxiety throughout my adult life. As such, I have sought assistance from various persons: some helpful, others less so. My experiences with two Christian counselors have been a study in contrasts.

The first we will call Jenna. Because I was caring for my little boy full-time, I reached out to her through a virtual program to help me work through my feelings of rejection and abandonment by the church. [1] In my sessions with Jenna, she invited me to share my troubles. She sat in silence for long periods, listening carefully, but rarely giving verbal responses. 

I quickly grew frustrated. Jenna seemed to think that if I simply talked enough, I would solve my problems on my own. I finally asked her, “Are there any resources you would recommend or Scripture passages that are especially relevant?” She offered none. At the end of the month, I canceled my subscription.

The second Christian counselor was named Bob. When I began seeing him, I was suffering from terrible panic attacks. Bob was a great listener, but he also offered frequent responses, confronting my problematic thoughts and offering reassurance. He once asked me, “Do you see God as primarily loving or primarily judging?” We then discussed the implications of my answer. 

In short, Bob spoke truth to me. Since he could not always be at my physical location, he gave me a handout titled, “The Ten Commandments of Panic Attacks.” Among the so-called commandments were things like, “You are not going to fall, faint, or fail. You are not dying. It will pass.”

Why was Bob a better counselor to me than Jenna? Because he gave me a word. Indeed, he gave me the Word of God. 

If you spend much time reading websites or articles dedicated to psychological well-being, you have likely come across the concept of “self-talk” and strategies to make your self-talk better. Recently, I passed a church where the flashing signage out front asked, “Bad Self-Talk?” The implication was that if your internal monologue was negative, you should come into the church and get it sorted out so that you could boost your inner confidence.

Perhaps improved self-talk can solve certain everyday problems, but in my experience, practically the worst thing a severely depressed person can do is sit around thinking, talking to themselves, attempting to cure what ails them. In depression, the mind turns in on itself, the spirit is emptied of joy, and darkness seems far more real than light. 

The film A Beautiful Mind portrays the brilliant mathematician John Nash’s descent into schizophrenic hallucinations. At one point, faced with the prospect of being committed to a psychiatric hospital, he assures his wife that he can fix himself. “All I have to do is apply my mind,” he insists, but the doctor overseeing his psychiatric care says, “You can’t reason your way out of this.” “Why not? Why can’t I?” Nash demands to know. “Because your mind is where the problem is in the first place,” the doctor replies.

Depression is vastly different from schizophrenia, but it is true of both conditions that a sufferer cannot simply reason their way out of what ails them. Even as John Nash required extensive outside assistance, so every person suffering from severe depression needs a voice from the outside speaking truth to them. 

In my worst depression and anxiety, I have often been comforted by the voice of a loved one assuring me that everything would be ok, reminding me of the truths of Scripture, and restoring order to the chaos of my emotions. I recall my freshman year of college, when I was first affected by these conditions to such a degree that normal life functioning became difficult. My father, a physician, would call me between classes. The sound of his voice, speaking both medical and spiritual truth, seemed so much stronger than the voice within my own head.

In my worst depression and anxiety, I have often been comforted by the voice of a loved one assuring me that everything would be ok, reminding me of the truths of Scripture, and restoring order to the chaos of my emotions.

Many years later, I entered a new period of severe depression that was profoundly spiritual. Looking at it in hindsight, I would describe it as an Anfechtung, the word favored by Martin Luther. My faith seemed terribly frail. I was crushed by feelings of guilt and shame. All day long, I would hear the accusations in my mind, painting me as the worst of sinners. I feared I was destined for hell. 

I read several books at that time, and one was a volume of sermons by Martyn Lloyd-Jones called Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure. As a trained medical doctor with a pastor’s heart, Lloyd-Jones had many helpful insights, but there was something near the beginning of the book that, while well intended, struck me poorly.

The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’—what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’—instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do (Lloyd-Jones, 21).

Again and again, he seemed to repeat these phrases: “Take yourself in hand,” “Talk to yourself,” et cetera. On a positive note, he was not advocating the simple self-talk of the secular world, but Scriptural admonitions. Nevertheless, his exhortations for me to preach to myself were a bridge too far when I felt crushed by my inability. What I desperately needed was not to preach to myself, but to listen to a preacher—not to take myself in hand, but to be taken in the hands of the Almighty. 

What no one suggested to me in that period of spiritual trial was that I should seek absolution from a minister of the gospel. I cannot help wondering, as I think back on that horrific period, if I might have benefited greatly from having someone place their hand on my head and assure me in the words of Scripture that my sins were forgiven. Such a word from another would have been far more powerful than my feeble attempts to reassure myself.

My difficulties with depression mirror every person’s struggle through life. We are all sinners in need of absolution, our faith is frail, and we have no natural ability to perform works of righteousness. Telling a sinner to take themselves in hand and talk themselves out of their malaise is rather like if someone told me, “You don’t need a surgeon to perform your appendectomy. Here’s a scalpel. Get to it!” Reader, I would be dead.

We need help from the outside, and that help comes in the form of the Word: the gospel preached to us, the sacraments given to us, the Scriptures available for our perusal. “In his world, God continues the creative speech begun in Eden, preserving and providing for his human creatures and everything else he has made,” Robert Kolb writes in his book, Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God (pg. 43). “God’s Word is particularly important for sustaining Christians in daily life. The Word functions as manna, upholding believers, as it upheld Christ, in dueling with Satan.” (Kolb, pg. 48). 

One of my favorite quotes on this topic comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great consideration of Christian community, Life Together.

God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, but his brother’s is sure (pg. 23).

God knew that even a person already united to Christ and regenerated by the Spirit would need those sustaining words from the outside. That is why he gives us the church, where we can hear the Word of God preached, partake of the sacraments, and fellowship with our brothers and sisters. He never intended for us to drag ourselves out of pits of despair by our own feeble power. He knew that words spoken to us would be more powerful than those we produce on our own.

When you are struggling, do speak biblical truth to yourself. Claim the promises of God for you, but also know the value and importance of those words that come from outside. For God created us through speech, and he re-creates us through speech, both in his written and preached Word and the words of faithful Christian friends.

Amy Mantravadi lives in Dayton, Ohio with her husband, Jai, and their son, Thomas. She holds a B.A. in biblical literature and political science from Taylor University and received her M.A. in international security from King's College London. In addition to writing essays on theological topics, she has published three historical fiction novels and hopes to publish two more set during the early years of the Reformation.  She also previously hosted the (A)Millennial podcast.  Amy enjoys geeking out about history, geeking out about theology, and playing with her son. 

[1]  I did not feel this in relation to my own church congregation, but a certain portion of the global church.