WHAT ARE THE BEST PRESERVATIVES AGAINST MELANCHOLY AND OVERMUCH SORROW?
Lest perhaps such an one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.—2 Corinthians 2:7.
THE brevity of a sermon not allowing me time for any unnecessary work, I shall not stay to open the context…these three doctrines which I shall handle all together; namely,—
I. That sorrow, even for sin, may be overmuch.
II. That overmuch sorrow swalloweth one up.
III. Therefore it must be resisted and assuaged by necessary comfort, both by others, and by ourselves.
In handling these, I shall observe this order: I. I shall show you when sorrow is overmuch. II. How overmuch sorrow doth swallow a man up. III. What are the causes of it. IV. What is the cure.
I. It is too notorious that overmuch sorrow for sin is not the ordinary case of the world.
A. A stupid, blockish disposition is the common cause of men’s perdition. The plague of a hard heart and seared conscience keeps most from all due sense of sin, or danger, or misery, and of all the great and everlasting concerns of their guilty souls. A dead sleep in sin doth deprive most of the use of sense and understanding… But most men so little regard or feel them, that they have neither time nor heart to think of them as their concern, but hear of them as of some foreign land, where they have no interest, and which they never think to see.
B. Sorrow is overmuch when it is fed by a mistaken cause.—All is too much where none is due; and great sorrow is too much when the cause requireth but less.
Superstition always breeds such sorrows, when men make themselves religious duties which God never made them, and then come short in the performance of them.
C. Sorrow is overmuch when it hurteth and overwhelmeth nature itself, and destroyeth bodily health or understanding.—… God will have mercy, and not sacrifice; and he that would not have us kill or hurt our neighbour on pretence of religion, would not have us destroy or hurt ourselves; being bound to love our neighbour but as ourselves.
II. When sorrow swalloweth-up the sinner, it is overmuch, and to be restrained: as,
A. The passions of grief and trouble of mind do oft overthrow the sober and sound use of reason.—
B. Overmuch sorrow disableth a man to govern his thoughts; and ungoverned thoughts must needs be both sinful and very troublesome.—
C. Overmuch sorrow would swallow-up faith itself, and greatly hindereth its exercise.—
D. Overmuch sorrow yet more hindereth hope.—When men think that they do believe God’s word, and that his promises are all true to others, yet cannot they hope for the promised blessings to themselves. Hope is that grace by which a soul that believeth the gospel to be true, doth comfortably expect that the benefits promised shall be its own; it is an applying act. The first act of faith saith, “The gospel is true, which promiseth grace and glory through Christ.” The next act of faith saith, “I will trust my soul and all upon it, and take Christ for my Saviour and Help.” And then hope saith, “I hope for this salvation by him.” But melancholy, overwhelming sorrow and trouble, is as great an adversary to this hope, as water is to fire, or snow to heat. Despair is its very pulse and breath. Fain such would have hope, but they cannot. All their thoughts are suspicious and misgiving, and they can see nothing but danger and misery, and a helpless state. And when hope, which is the anchor of the soul, is gone, what wonder if they be continually tossed with storms?
E. Overmuch sorrow swalloweth-up all comfortable sense of the infinite goodness and love of God, and thereby hindereth the soul from loving him.—And in this it is an adversary to the very life of holiness. It is exceeding hard
F. And then it must needs follow, that this distemper is a false and injurious judge of all the word and works of God, and of all his mercies and corrections.—
G. And by this you see that it is an enemy to thankfulness.—It rather reproacheth God for his mercies, as if they were injuries, than giveth him any hearty thanks.
H. And by this you may see, that this distemper is quite contrary to the joy in the Holy Ghost.—
I. And all this showeth us, that this disease is much contrary to the very tenor of the gospel.—
J. Yea, it is a distemper which greatly advantageth Satan to cast-in blasphemous thoughts of God, as if he were bad, and a hater and destroyer even of such as fain would please him.—
K. This overmuch sorrow doth unfit men for all profitable meditation.—
L. And it is a distemper which maketh all sufferings more heavy
III. QUESTION. “What are the causes and cure of it?”
A. ANSWER I. With very many there is a great part of the CAUSE in distemper, weakness, and diseasedness of the body; and by it the soul is greatly disabled to any comfortable sense. But the more it ariseth from such natural necessity, it is the less sinful and less dangerous to the soul; but never the less troublesome, but the more.
Three diseases cause overmuch sorrow:—
1. Those that consist in such violent pain as natural strength is unable to bear. But this, being usually not very long, is not now to be chiefly spoken of.
2. A natural passionateness, and weakness of that reason that should quiet passion. …. Even many that fear God, and that have very sound understandings and quick wits, have almost no more power against troubling passions, anger and grief, but especially fear, than they have of any other persons.
3. But when the brain and imagination are crazed, and reason partly overthrown, by the disease called “melancholy,” this maketh the cure yet more difficult; for commonly it is the foresaid persons, whose natural temper is timorous and passionate, and apt to discontent and grief, who fall into crazedness and melancholy: and the conjunction of both, the natural temper and the disease, doth increase the misery. The signs of such diseasing melancholy, I have often elsewhere described. As,
a. The trouble and disquiet of the mind doth then become a settled habit.
b. If you convince them, that they have some evidences of sincerity, and that their fears are causeless and injurious to themselves and unto God, and they have nothing to say against it; yet either it takes off none of their trouble, or else it returneth the next day: for the cause remaineth in their bodily disease; quiet them a hundred times, and their fears a hundred times return.
c. Their misery is, that what they think they cannot choose but think.
d. And, when they are grown to this, usually they seem to feel something beside themselves, as it were, speaking in them, and saying this and that to them, and bidding them do this or that; and they will tell you, “Now it saith this or that,” and tell you when and what it hath said to them; and they will hardly believe how much of it is the disease of their own imagination.
e. In this case they are exceeding prone to think they have revelations. ….And many of them turn heretics,
f. But the sadder, better sort, feeling this talk and stir within them, are oft apt to be confident that they are possessed by the devil, or at least bewitched, of which I will say more anon.
g. And most of them are violently haunted with blasphemous injections, at which they tremble; and yet cannot keep them out of their minds. Either they are tempted and haunted to doubt of the scripture, or Christianity, or the life to come, or to think some ill of God; and oft-times they are strangely urged, as by something in them, to speak some blasphemous word of God, or to renounce him; and they tremble at the suggestion, and yet it still followeth them; and some poor souls yield to it, and say some bad word against God; and then, as soon as it is spoken, somewhat within them saith, “Now thy damnation is sealed! thou hast sinned against the Holy Ghost! there is no hope.”
h. When it is far gone, they are tempted to lay some law upon themselves,—never to speak more, or not to eat; and some of them have famished themselves to death.
i. And when it is far gone, they oft think that they have apparitions; and this and that likeness appeareth to them, especially lights in the night about their beds: and sometimes they are confident that they hear voices, and feel something touch or hurt them.
j. They fly from company, and can do nothing but sit alone and muse.
k. They cast off all business, and will not be brought to any diligent labour in their callings.
l. And when it cometh to extremity, they are weary of their lives, and strongly followed with temptations to make away [with] themselves; as if something within them were either urging them either to drown themselves, or cut their own throats, or hang themselves, or cast themselves headlong, which, alas! too many have done.
m. And if they escape this when it is ripe, they become quite distracted.
EXCURSUS on the Devil and “Possession”
1. And, first, we must know what is meant by Satan’s “possession” either of the body or the soul. It is not merely his local presence and abode in a man that is called his “possession;” for we know little of that, how far he is more present with a bad man than a good. … but he possesseth only the souls of the ungodly by predominant habits of unbelief and sensuality.
2. And so also he is permitted by God to inflict persecutions, and crosses, and ordinary diseases on the just; but when he is God’s executioner of extraordinary plagues, especially on the head, depriving men of sense and understanding, and working above the bare nature of the disease, this is called his “possession.”
3. And as most evil motions on the soul have Satan for their father, and our own hearts as the mothers, so most or many bodily diseases are by Satan, permitted by God, though there be causes of them also in the body itself. And when our own miscarriages, and humours, and the season, weather, and accidents may be causes, yet Satan may bythese be a superior cause. [He defines the word broadly to refer to affect by the Devil: which may range from temptation or physical affliction to possession “of the soul” – which seems similar to what is commonly meant by “possession”.] From all this it is easy to gather:—
a. That for Satan to possess the body is no certain sign of a graceless state; nor will this condemn the soul of any, if the soul itself be not possessed. …
b. Satan’s possession of an ungodly soul is the miserable case which is a thousand times worse than his possessing of the body. But every corruption or sin is not such a possession; for no man is perfect, without sin.
c. No sin proveth Satan’s damnable possession of a man, but that which he loveth more than he hateth it, and which he had rather keep than leave, and wilfully keepeth.
d. And this is matter of great comfort to such melancholy honest souls, if they have but understanding to receive it,—that of all men none love their sin which they groan under so little as they; yea, it is the heavy burden of their souls. …
e. And it is the devil’s way, if he can, to haunt those with troubling temptations whom he cannot overcome with alluring and damning temptations. As he raiseth storms of persecution against them without, as soon as they are escaping from his deceits; so doth he trouble them within, as far as God permitteth him. We deny not but Satan hath a great hand in the case of such melancholy persons; for,
i. His temptations caused the sin which God corrects them for.
ii. His execution usually is a cause of the distemper of the body.
iii. And as a tempter, he is the cause of the sinful and troublesome thoughts, and doubts, and fears, and passions which the melancholy causeth. The devil cannot do what he will with us, but what we give him advantage to do. He cannot break open our doors, but he can enter if we leave them open.
f. But I add, that God will not impute his mere temptations to you, but to himself, be they never so bad, as long as you receive them not by the will, but hate them. Nor will he condemn you for those ill effects which are unavoidable from the power of a bodily disease, any more than he will condemn a man for raving thoughts or words in a fever, frenzy, or utter madness. But so far as reason yet hath power, and the will can govern passions, it is your fault if you use not the power, though the difficulty make the fault the less.
B. ANSWER II. But usually other causes go before this disease of melancholy, except in some bodies naturally prone to it; and therefore, before I speak of the cure of it, I will briefly touch them.
1. And one of the most common causes is sinful impatience, discontents and cares proceeding from a sinful love of some bodily interest, and from a want of sufficient submission to the will of God, and trust in him, and taking heaven for a satisfying portion.
…. But yet it beseemeth even a pardoned sinner to know the greatness of his sin, that he may not favour it, nor be unthankful for forgiveness.
I will therefore distinctly open the parts of this sin, which bringeth many into dismal melancholy.
a. It is presupposed that God trieth his servants in this life with manifold afflictions; and Christ will have us bear the cross, and follow him in submissive patience. Some are tried with painful diseases, and some with wrong by enemies, and some with the unkindness of friends, and some with froward, provoking relatives and company, and some with slanders, and some with persecution, and many with losses, disappointments, and poverty.
i. And here impatience is the beginning of the working of the sinful malady. Our natures are all too regardful of the interest of the flesh, and too weak in bearing heavy burdens; and poverty hath those trials which full and wealthy persons, that feel them not, too little pity; especially in two cases:—
I When men have not themselves only, but wives and children in want, to quiet.
II And when they are in debt to others; which is a heavy burden to an ingenuous mind, though thievish borrowers make too light of it.
2. And this impatience turneth to a settled discontent and unquietness of spirit, which affecteth the body itself, and lieth all day as a load or continual trouble at the heart.
3. And impatience and discontent do set the thoughts on the rack with grief and continual cares, how to be eased of the troubling cause. They can scarce think of any thing else; and these cares do even feed upon the heart, and are to the mind as a consuming fever to the body.
4. And the secret root or cause of all this is the worst part of the sin, which is, too much love to the body and this world. …
5. There is yet more sin in the root of all, and that is, it showeth that our wills are yet too selfish, and not subdued to a due submission to the will of God, but we would be as gods to ourselves, and be at our own choosing, and must needs have what the flesh desireth. We want a due resignation of ourselves and all our concerns to God, and live not as children, in due dependence on him for our daily bread, but must needs be the keepers of our own provision.
6. And this showeth that we be not sufficiently humbled for our sin; or else we should be thankful for the lowest state, as being much better than that which we deserved.
7. And there is apparently much distrust of God and unbelief in these troubling discontents and cares. Could we trust God as well as ourselves, or as we could trust a faithful friend, or as a child can trust his father, how quiet would our minds be in the sense of his wisdom, all-sufficiency, and love!
8. And this unbelief yet hath a worse effect than worldly trouble; it showeth that men take not the love of God and the heavenly glory for their sufficient portion. Unless they may have what they want or would have for the body,—this world; unless they may be free from poverty, and crosses, and provocations, and injuries, and pains; all that God hath promised them here or hereafter, even everlasting glory, will not satisfy them: and when God, and Christ, and heaven are not enough to quiet a man’s mind, he is in great want of faith, hope, and love, which are far greater matters than food and raiment.
C. ANSWER III. Another great cause of such trouble of mind is the guilt of some great and wilful sin; … There is some more hope of the recovery of these, than of dead-hearted or unbelieving sinners, who work uncleanness with greediness, ..
But yet if God convert these persons, the sins which they now live in may possibly hereafter plunge their souls into such depths of sorrow, in the review, as may swallow them up.
D. ANSWER IV. But among people fearing God, there is yet another cause of melancholy, and of sorrowing overmuch; and that is ignorance and mistakes in matters which their peace and comforts are concerned in. I will name some particulars:—
1. One is ignorance of the tenor of the gospel or covenant of grace: …
2. And many of them are mistaken about the use of sorrow for sin, and about the nature of hardness of heart. They think that if their sorrow be not so passionate as to bring forth tears and greatly to afflict them, they are not capable of pardon, though they should consent to all the pardoning covenant; and they consider not that it is not our sorrow for itself that God delighteth in, but it is the taking down of pride, and that so-much humbling sense of sin, danger, and misery, as may make us feel the need of Christ and mercy, and bring us unfeignedly to consent to be his disciples, and to be saved upon his covenant-terms. Be sorrow much or little, if it do this much, the sinner shall be saved.
3. And abundance are cast down by ignorance of themselves, not knowing the sincerity which God hath given them. Grace is weak in the best of us here; and little and weak grace is not very easily perceived, for it acteth weakly and unconstantly, and it is known but by its acts; and weak grace is always joined with too strong corruption; …
4. And, in such a case, there are too few that know how to fetch comfort from bare probabilities, when they get not certainty; much less, from the mere offers of grace and salvation, even when they cannot deny but they are willing to accept them; and if none should have comfort but those that have assurance of their sincerity and salvation, despair would swallow up the souls of most, even of true believers.
5. And ignorance of other men increaseth the fears and sorrows of some. They think, by our preaching and writing, that we are much better than we are. And then they think that they are graceless, because they come short of our supposed measures; whereas if they dwelt with us and saw our failings, or knew us but as well as we know ourselves, or saw all our sinful thoughts and vicious dispositions written in our foreheads, they would be cured of this error.
6. And unskilful teachers do cause the griefs and perplexities of very many. Some cannot open to them clearly the tenor of the covenant of grace; some are themselves unacquainted with any spiritual, heavenly consolations; and many have no experience of any inward holiness, and renewal by the Holy Ghost, and know not what sincerity is, nor wherein a saint doth differ from an ungodly sinner. As wicked deceivers make good and bad to differ but a little, if not the best to be taken for the worst; so some unskilful men do place sincerity in such things as are not so much as duty; as the Papists, in their manifold inventions and superstitions; and many sects, in their unsound opinions.
And some unskilfully and unsoundly describe the state of grace, and tell you how far a hypocrite may go, so as unjustly discourageth and confoundeth the weaker sort of Christians, and cannot amend the mis-expression of their books or teachers.* And too many teachers lay men’s comforts, if not salvation, on controversies which are past their reach, and pronounce heresy and damnation against that which they themselves understand not. Even the Christian world, these one thousand three hundred, or one thousand two hundred years, is divided into parties, by the teachers’ unskilful quarrels about words, which they took in several senses. Is it any wonder if the hearers of such are distracted?
IV. I have told you the causes of distracted sorrows, I am now to tell you what is THE CURE, But, alas! it is not so soon done as told; and I shall begin where the disease beginneth, and tell you both what the patient himself must do, and what must be done by his friends and teachers.
A. Look not on the sinful part of your troubles, either as better or worse than indeed it is.
1. Too many persons, in their sufferings and sorrows, think they are only to be pitied; and take little notice of the sin that caused them, or that they still continue to commit: and too many unskilful friends and ministers do only comfort them, when a round chiding and discovery of their sin should be the better part of the cure. …
2. And yet when, as foolishly, they think that all these sins are marks of a graceless state, …
B. Particularly, give not way to a habit of peevish impatience.—…Prepare for the loss of children and friends, for the loss of goods, and for poverty and want. Prepare for slanders, injuries, or poisons; for sickness, pain, and death. It is your unpreparedness that maketh it seem unsufferable.
And when you feel distracting cares for your deliverances, remember that this is not trusting God. Care for your own duty, and obey his command; but leave it to him what you shall have: tormenting cares do but add to your afflictions. …
C. Set yourselves, more diligently than ever, to overcome the inordinate love of the world.—…That which men love they delight in, if they have it; and mourn for want of it, and desire to obtain it. The will is the love: and no man is troubled for want of that which he would not have.
1. But the commonest cause of passionate melancholy is, at first, some worldly discontent and care: either wants, or crosses, or the fear of suffering, or the unsuitableness and provocation of some related to them, or disgrace, or contempt, do cast them into passionate discontent; and [then] self-will cannot bear the denial of something which they would have. And then when the discontent hath muddied and diseased a man’s mind, temptations about his soul do come-in afterwards; and that which began only with worldly crosses doth after seem to be all about religion, conscience, or merely for sin or want of grace.
2. Why could you not patiently bear the words, the wrongs, the losses, the crosses that did befall you? Why made you so great a matter of these bodily, transitory things? Is it not because you over-love them? …
D. If you are not satisfied that God alone, Christ alone, heaven alone, is enough for you, as matter of felicity and full content, go, study the case better, and you may be convinced.—…
E. And study better how great a sin it is, to set our own wills and desires in a discontented opposition to the wisdom, will, and providence of God; and to make our wills, instead of his, as gods to ourselves.—…
F. And study well how great a duty it is wholly to trust God, and our blessed Redeemer, both with soul and body, and all we have.—…
O that you knew what a mercy and comfort it is for God to make it your duty to trust him! If he had made you no promise, this is equal to a promise: if he do but bid you trust him, you may be sure he will not deceive your trust.
1. OBJECTION. “But it is none but his children that he will save.”
2. ANSWER. True: and all are his children that are truly willing to obey and please him. If you are truly willing to be holy, and to obey his commanding will, in a godly, righteous, and sober life, you may boldly rest in his disposing will, and rejoice in his rewarding and accepting will: for he will pardon all our infirmities through the merits and intercession of Christ.
G. If you would not be swallowed up with sorrow, swallow not the baits of sinful pleasure.—…The more pleasure you have in sin, usually the more sorrow it will bring you; …Never look for joy or peace as long as you live in wilful and beloved sin. This thorn must be taken out of your hearts before you will be eased of the pain; unless God leave you to a senseless heart, and Satan give you a deceitful peace, which doth but prepare for greater sorrow.
H. … is, the cure of that ignorance and those errors which cause your troubles.
 This is an outline of the first half of Sermon XI from volume three of “Puritan Sermons”; James Nichols, 1844