Martin Luther’s Shelter Amid the Flood of Depression

For Martin Luther (1483–1546), there was always a clear connection between Scripture and congregational song. The Psalter was Israel’s songbook, not simply David’s. Paul twice commended singing Scripture as part of the ordinary Christian life (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Jesus and his disciples sang together after the Passover meal (Mark 14:26).

Even (perhaps, especially) in the darkest hours, God’s people coupled prayer and Scripture with singing (Acts 16:25). But, like Scripture, vernacular song had been largely absent among the laity in the late medieval church. While chant survived in German monasteries and choral pieces in the Latin processionals and mystery plays, congregational singing was increasingly rare.

Luther not only thought this was unbiblical, he also recognized it removed a major weapon against the enemy. Music was a grace of God because it linked biblical truth with cordial affection. Luther commented:

Music is a fair and lovely gift of God. . . . Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. I would not exchange what little I know of music for something great. Experience proves that, next to the Word of God, only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart. We know that to the devils, music is distasteful and insufferable.

At least as early as 1523, Luther had begun the practice of turning his biblical meditations into congregational hymns. Singing was a way to meditate on Scripture, driving it afresh into the cold recesses of the heart. His reflections on Psalm 130 resulted in “From Trouble Deep I Cry to Thee” (or “From the Depths of Woe”), a song that was sung at the burials of Frederick the Wise (d. 1525), John of Saxony (d. 1532), and of Luther himself (d. 1546), It has never since been out of print. Hymns based on Psalms 12, 14, 67, 128, and 124 soon followed.

“My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music,” Luther wrote in 1539, “which has so often refreshed me and delivered me from dire plagues.”

Some years earlier, singing had literally done just that.

Plague, Sickness, Depression

In the summer of 1527, plague struck Wittenberg. Luther was one of its first victims. Sickness spread with such speed that Elector John of Saxony closed the university in Wittenberg and ordered Luther and his family to leave the city. Luther refused, insisting on the church’s responsibility to care for the sick and dying. Even more threatening was the melancholy that assaulted the Reformer. Spiritual depression and anxiety were familiar nemeses: Luther’s earliest battles with doubt and temptation in the monastery had nearly driven him mad. His discovery of justification by faith alone saved his life. 

Luther’s depression was always marked by the same features: a feeling of profound aloneness, a sense that God was singling him out for suffering, a loss of faith that God is good and good to me, and a resulting inward self-reliance. Luther’s depression only intensified under the burden of the Reformation’s unforeseen fruit. The more that regularly hurting Christians sought him as a physician of souls, the more acutely he felt the weight of responsibility for his teaching and writing. He couldn’t shake the notion that the reforms he advocated might destroy—rather than revive—the church. Sickness, unbelief, and anxiety conspired and drove him to the brink of despair. In a letter to his friend Melanchthon on August 2, 1527, Luther wrote: 

I spent more than a week in death and hell. My entire body was in pain, and I still tremble. Completely abandoned by Christ, I labored under the vacillations and storms of desperation and blasphemy against God. But through the prayers of the saints (his friends), God began to have mercy on me and pulled my soul from the inferno below.

Luther understood this to be more than simple temptation. He referred to it as anfechtung, “assault.” Hell, the Devil, the shadow of death, and the forces arrayed against gospel progress all combined in an insidious assault, reducing Luther to unbelief, depression, and despair.

His response is instructive. He didn’t attempt to decipher the causes of the depression or the source of the attacks. While he recognized emotions were powerful catalysts for reflection, repentance, and resolve, he also acknowledged they were sometimes disproportionate responses to terrifying circumstances.

The Devil, he remarked, was in the habit of turning an insect into a camel:

It would be neither good nor useful for man to know what great blessings lie hidden under such trials. Some have wanted to fathom this and have thereby done themselves much harm. Therefore, we should willingly endure the hand of God in this and in all suffering.

His exhortation, however, wasn’t to simply endure, but to “thank God diligently for deeming him worthy of such a visitation.” “Do not be worried,” Luther insisted. “Indeed, such a trial is the very best sign of God’s grace and love for man.” His advice? “At such a time it is well to pray, read, or sing.”Lightstock

Pray, Read, Sing

That terrible summer, Luther focused on battling unbelief by bringing his fears and anxieties to God in prayer, an act he connected to meditation on Scripture. “I dispute much with God with great impatience,” he wrote, “and I hold on to his promises.” He turned again and again to the Scriptures, meditating on the faith and persistence of the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:22–28) as paradigmatic for his own response.

Amid his turmoil, Luther practiced the discipline at the Reformation’s heart: meditation on Scripture. His focus fell on Psalm 46. Luther seized on God’s promises, appealing to him for their fulfillment, and applying Scripture’s comfort to his troubled soul. As his depression lifted, Luther used prayerful meditation to benefit others, capturing biblical truth in song. Out of this crucible came the famous Reformation hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Our Helper Amid the Flood

What, then, should we do in times of opposition, pestilence, and personal depression? Turn to Scripture. Luther took the psalmist’s words seriously and applied them to his present trouble. Psalm 46 reminded Luther of the trials through which God already had safely delivered his people. He trusted God would again be their helper “amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

We too ought to plead with God on the basis of his promises. The “man of God’s own choosing” is on our side, pleading for us before the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16). We should boldly call on the Lord of hosts to unveil Satan’s lies and destroy the works of his emissaries (Eph. 6:10–20).

Finally, we too should sing. Singing does more than raise our hearts’ affection for the triune God; it steels us with confidence to stand defiant against our enemy. It’s not the prince of darkness grim for whom we tremble. No, we tremble in the presence of our Lord Jesus, whose gospel is the declaration of our enemy’s demise (Col. 2:13–15). His kingdom is forever (Heb. 1:8; John 16:33). 

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