Which do you think would most help you live a more purposeful and active life – focusing on the conditions, problems, and hopes of this world, or on heaven and hell, along with its realities of eternal joy and eternal torment? Sometimes you’ll hear the non-religious person say something like, if only Christians (and people of other faiths) focused more on the “here and now,” think of all that they could accomplish.
Yet countless examples of Christians show the reverse – the British lawmaker William Wilberforce comes to mind, who, even as he often meditated on eternal realities, passionately threw himself into myriad social causes, most famously the abolition of the slave trade, as I showed here. And though he didn’t have nearly the same kind of political impact on society, we also find a life of purpose and achievement in the great American pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards. From Owen Strachan’s brief and delightfully instructive Lover of God (Moody, 2010):
“Though it seems strange to say in this age, we should think about hell. We should not direct our minds only to pleasant things and passing diversions. We need to take the spiritual world seriously, and to meditate on it and think about it in the course of our daily lives.
“… He [Edwards] studied hell and often remembered what God had saved him from. He did not simply think about where he was going after death; he though about where, but for the grace of God, he would sure have gone. This contemplation fueled his passion for the Lord and drove him to live a serious and purposeful life. Because Edwards looked deeply into the reality of eternal torment, he was equipped to live a life of great spiritual intensity that pointed countless people away from hell and toward heaven” (107-108).
I absolutely loved this description of Jonathan Edwards as a devoted, generous, and tender father, and the lasting effects this attention had on his children. From Owen Strachan’s Lover of God (Moody, 2010):
“Once the day began, Edwards took up his pen and dove into the life of the mind, writing sermons and treatises and reading books. He frequently interrupted his work, though, for interaction with his children, ‘to treat with them in his Study, singly and particularly about their…Soul’s Concerns,’ always being ‘careful and thorough in the Government of his Children.’ In response, his children ‘reverenced, esteemed and loved him.’ Edwards was not a perfect father, but the record of his family life shows that he did not selfishly shut himself off from his loved ones. As important as his work was to the pastor, it seems that his children took first priority. Their later flowering testifies to this. The girls married well and had numerous children who became Christian leaders and important social figures. The boys distinguished themselves as pillars of their communities and the broader New England region. The lives of successive generations suggest that the Lord blessed the Edwards home for its fidelity to Him” (70).
Considered by many to be America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a pastor, husband, father, the first president of what today is Princeton University, and credited with the First Great Awakening.
On Monday it was like Christmas in the spring for me, because I opened up our mail box to find the Essential Edwards Collection, written and edited by Edwards scholars Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney. The following quote is from the first book of this neat volume – Lover of God, a short, introductory biography.
“He loved to study and to think about his life and world. But he was not lost in the clouds. Jonathan excelled at putting his contemplative faith to practice. His deep thinking did not weaken his decision-making and his capacity to act – it fueled it” (37).
I love how the authors make a clear connection between thinking and action. One ought to lead to the other, and this was no exception for the brilliant Edwards. So if it’s true that if you want to feel deeply, you must think deeply, as my previous pastor Joshua Harris once put it, then I believe one can also say, if you want to act vigorously, energetically, then you must first think deeply.
In Chasing the Flame (Penguin, 2008) Samantha Power, who is now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, gives us the enthralling, inspiring, and maddening story of Sergio Vieira de Mello. An international crisis man sometimes described as a humanitarian James Bond, Vieira de Mello was a brilliant and deeply humane UN diplomat whose combination of passionate idealism with hard-nosed pragmatism was repeatedly frustrated by forces larger than himself, including the shortcomings of his own organization, the UN. His was a thrilling life prematurely ended in 2003 by a bomb in Baghdad while he served as the UN chief of mission in Iraq.
This diplomat, who shuttled from one conflict zone to another to defuse international crises, was not only a man of action, but also a man of deep thought, a man after philosophy. A brief statement from early in his career reveals that for Vieira de Mello, philosophy not only provided the internal grounding for the bold pursuit of justice to which he devoted his life, but was also at the core of what makes us human. In his words below, he also echoes the ancients’ (was it Plato? It was probably Plato) insight that just as those who are most gifted have the greatest potential for good, they also have the greatest potential for evil. We’re reminded that this applies to the realm of thought and ideas as well.
After receiving the highest grades in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, Vieira de Mello wrote to his ex-girlfriend:
“‘But for what?’…if he had studied economics or marketing instead, ‘some American company would have assured me a “happy future” strewn with dollars.’ He would never sell out, he told her, and ‘just short of dying of hunger,’ he would ‘never abandon philosophy.’ The philosopher, he wrote, could become either ‘the most just man’ or the ‘the most radical bandit.’ Either way, he insisted, ‘to do philosophy is to have it in your blood and to do what very few will do – to both be a man and to think everywhere and always.'” (21)
My last post on Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006), offered a brief preview of how Lincoln embodied mental illness and mental wellness (and even greatness) at the same time.
To best appreciate Lincoln’s greatness – his strength of character and mental fortitude – it helps to see him at his darkest, most desperate moments – in the valley of depression. This is the picture I want to offer here.
Lincoln once confided about his depression to a colleague, a fellow politician, who didn’t suspect that he suffered from depression. This man recalled, “He told me that he was so overcome with mental depression, that he never dare carry a knife in his pocket” (23).
His second episode of major depression was triggered by a “long period of intense work,” “profound personal stress,” and “a stretch of bleak weather.” He “spoke openly about his misery, hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide. He was unable to work. His friends feared that he might kill himself, and that if he lived, he might go insane” (23).
“By the time he was in his early thirties, he faced a lifetime of depression…The acute fits of his young manhood gave way to less histrionic, but more pervasive, spells of deep gloom. Dramatic public avowals of his misery gave way to a private but persistent effort to endure and transcend his suffering. Yet the suffering did not go away…And even when he began to do the work for which he is remembered…he continued to suffer” (23).
These passages describe a turbulent, and pitiable, emotional and mental state. Because of these episodes and his behaviors, some even thought Lincoln was crazy. Yet at this very point, it is worth remembering that this man, who couldn’t carry a knife from fear of hurting himself and at times believed that he would go insane, went on to become president of the United States and steer this nation through the Civil War and take the first major step toward freeing the nation’s slaves.
Lincoln not only carried the enormous burden of leading the Union through the Civil War, he carried the personal burden of clinical depression. He experienced his first severe episode in his 20s, and from then suffered through a “lifetime of depression.”
Many people don’t know this about Lincoln, whose strength of character and ability to cope with adversity commanded the respect of his contemporaries and continues to capture the attention of historical observers. In Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006), Joshua Wolf Shenk shows us Lincoln’s experience of depression and argues that his response to this suffering was one of the roots of his greatness. (This book was one of my top reads of 2013, which you can see here.)
Read this and see how it might challenge your view of terms such as “mental illness,” “success” and “healthy”:
“Can we say that Lincoln was ‘mentally ill’? Without question, he meets the U.S. surgeon general’s definition of mental illness, since he experienced ‘alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior’ that were associated with ‘distress and/or impaired functioning.’ Yet Lincoln also meets the surgeon general’s criteria for mental health: ‘the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive facilities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity.’ By this standard, few historical figures led such a healthy life” (25).
Indeed. Few historical figures led such a healthy life.
Happy birthday, Mr. President.
Before David the shepherd boy became David King of Israel, he was ruthlessly persecuted by King Saul, who sought to kill the “anointed one” who would take his throne. Yet despite this enmity, David enjoyed an intimate friendship with Jonathan, the son of Saul. Jonathan was exceedingly kind to David during this difficult period, and, knowing that David would ascend to the throne, he made him promise to be kind to his descendants.
In David: Man of Prayer, Man of War (Banner of Truth, 2011), Walter Chantry explains what would normally have happened to one of Saul’s descendants once someone like David came to power: “It was common in the Middle East for a newly-crowned ruler to exterminate the males of the former ruler’s household. Any prominence of one who survived this carnage would give rise to whispers that he was a rival for the throne. Then ordinary citizens might kill him to gain special favor with the present king.”
But David remembered the promise he made to his beloved friend Jonathan, and he would fulfill this promise to one of Jonathan’s sons, who was also the grandson of the man who turned him into an outlaw and sought to kill him. This person was Mephibosheth, who was dropped by his nurse at at young age, leaving him lame and dependent on others’ kindness for the rest of his life.
Chantry describes David’s proactive kindness: “David was not content to wait until someone from the household of Saul appealed to him for aid. He searched out the relatives of Jonathan” for someone to show kindness to (187).
Now watch this:
When Mephibosheth appeared before David, anxious and uncertain before the new King, he was met with gentle words and given gifts, the large estate formerly held by King Saul, and a position of honor in the King’s court. For the rest of his days he would be fed at the King’s table and all would know that he “enjoyed the special favor of David” (189).
Chantry then turns to the reader:
“Do you show kindness to others as God has showered undeserved blessings on you? Too many say, ‘I’m not aware of those who have needs’! But we must search out opportunities to do good…There are widows, the infirm, and prisoners in great need of attention in their sufferings” (188).
I was moved and inspired by this example, and I couldn’t agree with Chantry’s point more. We shouldn’t wait for the needy to come knocking at our door to be kind and generous. Rather, just as we’ve been shown extravagant grace and kindness, we too should look for opportunities to show mercy and kindness. If we do, we won’t be disappointed: they are all around us.