November 11, 2013

"Earthen vessels" - Hope for the Mentally Ill

One of God’s great gifts to the English-speaking world has been the Christian publishing trust known as The Banner of Truth. For over fifty years, they have been achieving their goal of “Biblical Christianity through literature.” One of their trademarks has been the attractive re-issue of old, otherwise hard-to-find books by men that the contemporary world has largely forgotten (but shouldn’t have!). Because of the Banner’s hard work and commitment to the wisdom of the former ages, modern readers can bathe in the wisdom of the Puritans, benefit from the beautiful simplicity of J.C. Ryle, read the sermons of Whitefield and M’Cheyne, get to know Spurgeon, set sail with John Newton, and so on!

One of Banner’s recent re-issues is a classic book called The Atonement, originally published in 1870 by a Scotsman called Hugh Martin. In the foreward (written by John and Sinclair Ferguson, and printed as a separate article in the October 2013 issue of The Banner of Truth magazine), one can read about Martin as “a thinker of extraordinary penetration and great power”; one “whose works … every Christian should possess and read carefully.” His writing is described as “a powerful, original, compelling, sometimes blazing light and gospel logic.” He is lauded for the interpretive freshness with which he approached the Bible, never leaving his readers bored! I wish those things were said of my preaching and writing!

In short, Hugh Martin was a great man, a gifted thinker, and a tremendous blessing to the Christian church!

But then, in the midst of the Fergusons’ foreward, one also reads this startling fact: Some time in his late 30’s (just maybe 2-3 years older than me), Martin “became mentally incapacitated for the duties of his office.”* We then learn that, in 1865 (only in his early 40’s), Martin’s struggles finally necessitated permanent retirement from his pastorate … and that he died 20 years later, having spent his final two years in an asylum.

O, how sad it made me to read of this marvelous man being so mentally debilitated! My heart aches to think of the great theologian, bent double by fears, or delusions, or anxieties, or whatever it may have been that he just could not fully overcome. But Martin’s story also gives me hope! Because Martin published his classic book on The Atonement in 1870 – five years after he had to retire from his pulpit due to mental illness! I suspect that he was probably, in many ways, still a broken man. Perhaps the clouds had cleared for a season, but the mental struggles evidently weren’t completely gone (since he didn’t go back to a pastorate, and eventually died in an asylum). But in the midst of whatever it was that plagued his mind so heavily, Hugh Martin was yet able, by God’s grace, to be useful in the Lord’s work … and even to continue writing “powerful, original, compelling, sometimes blazing light” kinds of words about his Lord Jesus! And that gives me great hope that God can use me, with all my foibles and quirks.

I’ve recently had occasion to hear the stories of several Christian men (a few of them in the ministry) who have suffered significant mental or emotional breakdowns. And it seems (and is!) so tragic in so many ways. The world, and mankind in God’s image, were not intended for this kind of suffering. And yet, fallen and cursed as we and our planet are, there will always be Hugh Martin’s in this life, even among God’s elect – those who struggle mightily to keep their sanity together. And yet God can use them! Through the brokenness of the “earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4.7), the light of Christ can and does still shine through! And therefore our modern-day Hugh Martins are not finished yet! And, if you are reading this, having struggled with mental or emotional breakdown, you are not finished yet!

Incapacitated for his work as a gospel minister, Hugh Martin was still ministering the gospel; still sitting in his study, glorying in Christ … and writing gloriously about Him! I don’t know the details of his struggle, but I wonder if there may have been many days when Martin was fretful, paranoid, or just incredibly fearful of the kinds of who-knows-what that plagues many people in his shoes. But he still reveled in Jesus! In fact, maybe it was the reveling in (and writing about) Jesus which kept him sane enough to keep doing so! But whatever the case, God was not finished with Mr. Martin, even when he came to the end of his own rope!

In 2005, John Piper wrote an excellent piece on Alexander Cruden, another mentally sick man whom God used extraordinarily. And here is what Piper says by way of lesson from Cruden’s life:
What encourages me about this is to realize that God’s ways are strange. And in this strangeness, sinful and sick and broken people fit into God’s designs. He has purposes for the mentally ill and for the emotionally unstable and for the socially maladjusted. And he has purposes for you.^
So take heart, you who cannot seem to hold yourself together. And take heart, you who love those who can’t. As the Fergusons remind us, “The glory of the gospel is indeed contained in jars of clay.”#


*Quoted by the Fergusons from the Proceedings and debates of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland (1881), p.46, under the heading ‘Dr Hugh Martin.’
^From the “The Good, Insane Concordance Maker” at
#For "jars of clay" see 2 Corinthians 4.7 (ESV).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

O my! What a glimpse of reality you have given for us to think about, dear brother. I am currently reading about William Carey, whose first wife (of over twenty years and mother of his six children)struggled with emotional instability and finally spent the last several years of her life--in India--'wholly insane', according to biographers. I have thought much as I've read of what this woman-and her family--endured. Indeed, mental 'conditions' stare me in the face daily--and I oft wonder if AnnMarie will not prove 'in that DAY' to be more 'mentally stable' than I!