Richard Baxter’s Balanced Approach to Depression and Anxiety

What happens if someone’s symptoms and behaviors and wrongly attributed to willful and sinful decisions?

“Are psychiatric illnesses the result of sin or not? Are individuals to blame, or are they not responsible for their fate?” Lundy insists, “For the most part, we are left with the much more general sense that sickness and suffering in the world are distributed in ways that defy our comprehension.” Lundy points to Richard Baxter’s treatment of depression as exemplary.

 

Depression, Anxiety, and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter by Michael S. Lundy with an introduction by J. I. Packer.


In his introductory essay, Michael Lundy argues that denial is a common response to mental illness and that this is often accompanied by peculiar assertions that attributed it either to sin or to the direct working of the Devil. But , he warns, “misdiagnosis leads to mistreatment, and that to a cascading set of problems.”

What happens if someone’s symptoms and behaviors and wrongly attributed to willful and sinful decisions?

1. “It absolves the observing community of the responsibility of coming alongside the individual in a supportive capacity” and it may serve to allow the community (i.e., local church), “to pressure the afflicted member until he has ‘repented’ or ‘gotten serious’ about his faith.”

2. It leads to the individual repenting of sins that can be identified but produces no relief, which then leads to the repenting of imaginary sins which is also ineffective in relieving mental and emotional distress.

While sin has a role in the general condition of mankind, there is not necessarily “a logical causality between a particular sin or patten of sinful behavior and a particular malady.” Lundy cautions:

“So this whole business of sin and sickness should make for a great deal of humility. We should be very hesitant either to blame others’ sickness on their particular sin or to hold them entirely blameless when we are short of the sort of vision allotted to Christ.”

So, in answer to the question, “Are psychiatric illnesses the result of sin or not? Are individuals to blame, or are they not responsible for their fate?” Lundy insists, “For the most part, we are left with the much more general sense that sickness and suffering in the world are distributed in ways that defy our comprehension.” Lundy points to Richard Baxter’s treatment of depression as exemplary:

Cognizant of the tension between loosely linked causes and effects, he seems to refuse to blame people for what they cannot help, while simultaneously refusing to acquit people of certain duties they can and must discharge. In the middle, he requires friends and family to do what the ailing souls cannot be expected to do themselves, yet demands of them what they alone can deliver. Baxter is at the same time gentle and difficult, generous and demanding.

Lundy encourages a similar balance in trying to repair broken humanity:

The rush for “the right medication” is just as overreaching as have been prior purely psychological formulations, or purely “spiritual” ones. A naïve optimism is unlikely to weather the difficulties of the repair work, and that can lead in turn to despair. An informed understanding of what must be attempted, and perhaps accomplished, better positions patients, physicians, pastors, family, and friends for what often proves to be “enduring to the end.”

This is what Lundy finds in Baxter. As such he paraphrases Baxter’s opening words in Advice to Depressed and Anxious Christians: “See to the condition of your own soul, and consult with your own pastor and your own physician, and apply their advice as appropriate.”

Having summarized Packer’s and Lundy’s introductory essays, we’ll look at Baxter’s own teaching over the next week or so.

David Murray is professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and this article is used with permission.