“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” II Corinthians 1:3-4
An avalanche of memories flooded my heart and mind as I recently looked through old photos. It would have been my younger brother’s sixty-first birthday had he not passed away at the age of twenty. Almost exactly six years later my baby brother took his life just weeks before his twenty-fifth birthday. Those days are indelibly etched on my mind; the disbelief, overwhelming sadness, and lots of unanswered questions.
Another incident contributed to the deluge of reflections that week as I learned of friends who, after the death of their thirty year old son, were treading through those same waters. What immense despair would cause a person to end their life, and wasn’t there anyone to whom they could reach out? Through many hours of counseling, I’ve observed that depression can mask itself well. Some of the least likely people are imperceptibly carrying incredibly heavy burdens. Like my little brother, they are often the class clowns, life of the party, or the ones who always have a listening ear and a shoulder for others to cry on.
Years ago, I heard a well-known ladies’ speaker encourage her listeners to “walk slowly through the crowd”. I was touched, and those five simple words frequently ring in my ears.
Nearly every day we come in contact with people who are suffering in some way. I often ask myself how I can become more sensitive to the needs of others. One obvious way is to be accessible…I mean really accessible. Like many of you, I am busy…often too busy. When a friend or family member says they didn’t want to bother me because they know how busy I am, I always feel a tinge of sorrow. I’m striving to never communicate that my schedule, deadlines, nor responsibilities are more important than people. I realize there is balance in this. Important tasks can’t be neglected as I sit around waiting for loved ones to open up about their struggles. But there are times when I need to stop what I’m doing, put my phone down, look up from the work at hand, and listen. Not a very perceptive person by nature, I regret the times I have failed to detect cries for aid. After numerous missed opportunities, I am learning to ask questions. There have been instances when a relative or friend, trying to test the waters, has attempted to let me know they were desperately struggling with debilitating anxiety, serious problems in their marriage, or other difficult circumstances. Often their veiled pleas for help have gone completely over my head. Being a black and white kind of woman, I’m usually pretty even keeled. But I must regularly remind myself that every one isn’t that way. Many times those who are more laid back need to learn to listen not just to the words, but to the hearts of those who don’t quite know how to ask for assistance.
Another way we can grow in sensitivity is to learn to emulate our Father in the art of showing mercy. The Bible tells us “The Lord is abundant in mercy” (Numbers 14:18); “His mercy endures forever” (I Chronicles 16:34); and “God is rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4). In II Corinthians 1: 3, the Apostle Paul writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” Our God is not only majestic, glorious, and omnipotent; He is the “Father of all mercies, and the God of all comfort”! And do you know why He comforts us in our trials? The next verse answers that question, “…who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves were comforted by God.” The Lord doesn’t just comfort us so we’ll feel better. Yes, He loves us deeply, but He also wants us to share the comfort we have received with others. Over and over again in the pages of Scripture we read of His unfailing mercy and compassion; and I long to be more like Him.
There are numerous ways we can express love and concern to those who are hurting. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make a phone call or send an encouraging text, but it can make someone’s day just to know that somebody cares. It is amazing how a bouquet of flowers, a home cooked meal, a good book, or just a simple card can lift a downcast spirit.
One of the greatest things you can do for someone who is battling depression is to give them hope. The Lord is not only a merciful God; He is also a God of hope. One of my favorite verses is Romans 15:13, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” This great God of hope doesn’t want His children to barely get by. He desires that we abound in hope! And sometimes He is pleased to use us to help others do just that!
Occasionally, as I listen to someone who is battling melancholy my first instinct is to respond, “You just need to get a grip!” But, I’m thankful the Holy Spirit doesn’t allow those unloving words to pass through my lips. That kind of counsel rarely helps anyone; it offers no hope; and it certainly isn’t comforting others the way I have been comforted by my merciful Father. We can offer hope by letting others know we care in tangible ways, praying for them and with them, and quoting the promises of God to them. Of course, true and lasting hope is only found in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. So, we must consistently point them to the Savior who took our sin upon Himself so we might “lay hold of the hope set before us.” (Hebrews 6:18b).
I love the account of the relationship between William Cowper and John Newton. At the age of twenty-one Cowper began to battle paralyzing depression and despair. After being admitted to an insane asylum, a doctor who loved Christ repeatedly shared the hope of the gospel with him. William was moved as he read the Scripture and recorded that in a moment he believed and received the gospel.
Sadly, William Cowper’s struggle with depression was not eradicated at the time of his conversion. He attempted suicide multiple times, but God providentially spared him, and sent a man who would become the most important influence of his life. John Newton, Cowper’s pastor for thirteen years, would take long walks with him, and in 1769 he persuaded William to work with him in publishing a hymnal. Newton wrote over 200 hymns including such greats as, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” and his most well-known, “Amazing Grace”; while Cowper wrote 68 including “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood”, and one that often quiets my spirit and redirects my focus, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”. Even after leaving Olney to pastor in London, Newton never abandoned his friendship with Cowper. For twenty more years they exchanged letters, and William continued to pour out his soul as he could with no one else. Newton was a faithful pastor and friend to Cowper for the remainder of his life, not only writing many letters, but frequently visiting him. Ministering to someone who is severely depressed is mentally, physically, and emotionally draining, but as John Piper writes, Newton “did not despair of the despairing”. After one of John’s visits, Cowper wrote to him, “I found those comforts in your visit, which have formerly sweetened all our interviews, in part restored. I knew you; knew you for the same shepherd who was sent to lead me out of the wilderness into the pasture where the Chief Shepherd feeds His flock, and felt my sentiments of affectionate friendship for you the same as ever.”
We owe John Newton a debt of gratitude for the many hours he invested in the life of William Cowper. Thanks goes to him in part for Cowper’s beautiful hymns which still strengthen and edify Christ’s Church. We can learn much from John Newton. Although a busy pastor, he took time to pour into a hurting brother; and he didn’t just do it for a few weeks or months. For decades he listened, cared, sacrificed, offered hope, and pointed him to Christ again and again. John Piper writes, “We have good reason to hope that if we nourish the love and patience of John Newton in our church and the sufficiency of Jesus’ atonement, the William Cowpers among us will not be given over to the enemy in the end.” May the Lord be pleased to grow that kind of love, patience, mercy, and confidence in His gospel in us, and use us to comfort and encourage His wounded sheep as we determine to walk slowly through the crowd.
Soli Deo Gloria