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Publications: Songs of Experience

An excerpt from Chapter One entitled Depression

Why are you so downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?

(Psalm 42 and 43)

I wonder if you would consider yourself to be temperamental? One way or another, I suppose, all of us are. The ancient Greeks said it was to do with our glands. Hippocrates and Galen, whom some consider to be the founders of modern medicine, believed that there were four secretions, or ‘humours’ which ought to be present in balanced quantities in the human body. They were unpleasantly named as—blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. When one or other of these component fluids in our human physiology predominated over the others, they believed that you got what we call, temperament.

The man with too much blood, for instance, was an optimistic type, a resilient sort of fellow. We still use the word ‘sanguine’ today, coming from the Latin word for blood. The man with too much phlegm was an unemotional, lethargic individual; ‘phlegmatic’, as we say. The man with too much yellow bile or choler, to use the Greek word, had an irascible, excitable temperament—he was ‘choleric’. The poor fellow with too much black bile was the most unfortunate of all, because he was a gloomy, despondent sort of person, the archetypal victim of depression, or as the Greeks called black bile, ‘melancholia’.

It is interesting that, after two and half millennia of scientific advance, that old Greek theory still holds water to some degree. Many psychiatrists today would assert that there is a physical disposition to certain kinds of emotional maladjustment. Undoubtedly the body chemistry is more complicated than the Greeks thought; modern medics would probably talk more about hormones than humours. But it is generally accepted today that the roots of some sorts of depression are organic in origin. Some of us, it seems, are naturally more inclined to feel down in the dumps than others. Whether it is built into the ‘hard-wiring’ of our genes, or it has been programmed into our memory-banks by our upbringing, a melancholy temperament is something that some of us are stuck with—like freckles, or a stutter. We just have to learn to cope with it. That is one reason, of course, why it is so thoroughly misguided and cruel to say, as some super-spiritual types do, ‘Oh, well, Christians should never get depressed’.

Such pontificating, no doubt, comes easily to those of us who are blessed with a sanguine personality. We find it easy to look on the bright side. But we must beware of attributing our emotional equilibrium to spiritual factors. There is such a thing as natural temperament. Some Christians are melancholics just as there are non-Christian melancholics and both have a tendency to get depressed. Indeed many of the great saints that we meet, both in the Bible and down through Christian history have had a melancholic trait to their personality. Take prophets like Jeremiah or Elijah; think of poets like William Cowper who wrote many hymns that are still sung today; even C. H. Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher. It is no denigration of the spirituality of these men that they knew unhappy moods. On the contrary, it is a tribute to their spirituality that in spite of such emotional handicaps, they nevertheless achieved so much. I suspect some of them, in fact, would have testified that the unusual intimacy of their personal walk with God was in some measure the result of the temperament which God, in his providence, had assigned them. Depression is not necessarily a sign of spiritual weakness. It can be an opportunity for extraordinary spiritual growth.

I doubt if there is any portion of the Bible that demonstrates that point more dramatically than Psalms 42 and 43.

An excerpt from Chapter One entitled Depression from Songs of Experience by Roy Clements (copyright 1993)

published by Christian Focus Publications in UK;

also published by Baker in USA - ISBN 1 85792 019.

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