Luther and Depression

Published in the Free Methodist Magazine "Light and Life" and used by permission of the author
Dr. Tony Headley

Tony Headley is a professor of counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary, a licensed psychologist and author of Achieving Balance in Ministry (Beacon Hill Press, 1999


John Wesley wasn’t the only church reformer who believed in emotional problems among believers. In the early sixteenth century, The great reformer Martin Luther espoused similar views. The average Free Methodist is quite familiar with John Wesley from whom we trace our roots. We may not be as familiar with Martin Luther. Luther was born in 1483 and died in 1546. Some might know him as the reformer who reintroduced the church to the concept of justification by faith. He set the reformation in motion when in 1517 he pinned his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg castle.  Others might have heard of him because of his famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

The Reality of Mental/Emotional Problems in the Life of the Believer

This great reformer evidently accepted mental and emotional problems in believers. Given his pastoral heart, he sought to bring spiritual counsel to struggling souls. His approach to pastoral care giving is evident in several places. We find pastoral concern in his sermons, lectures, commentaries on the Bible and in his table talks.[i] Also, large sections “Letters of Spiritual Counsel”[ii] are devoted to counseling persons struggling with a variety of mental problems.  For this article, I have primarily drawn from the latter work. These writings include letters to individuals as well as recorded table talks. Here one finds support for insanity in general. For example, in August 1536, Luther interceded for Mrs. Kreuzbinder who he deemed insane. He described her as “accustomed to rage” and sometimes angrily chasing her neighbor with a spear.[iii] 

One also finds several other emotional disorders in Luther’s work. From his writings, his wife Kate seems to have struggled with persistent worry. [iv] In one letter to his son John, Luther wrote: “See to it that you conquer your tears manfully lest you add to your mother’s distress and concern, for she is only too prone to worry and imagine things.”[v] The tenor of Luther’s words here and elsewhere suggests Kate might have suffered from General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). GAD is a disorder characterized by excessive anxiety and worry about a number of events or activities. The individual struggling with GAD is anxious most days than not, and find it difficult to control the worry.

Elsewhere in the same work one finds evidence supporting Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Prince Joachim of Anhalt provides us with one example of this problem. [vi] The latter seemed obsessed by the thought that he had betrayed or crucified Christ. Likewise, one finds examples of hypochrondriasis. In this disorder one becomes preoccupied with fears of having a serious disease. This preoccupation is based on the person’s misinterpretation of bodily symptoms. The belief tends to persist even in the face of medical evaluation and reassurance. Conrad Cordatus, a pastor and one of Luther’s frequent table guests, evidently struggled in this area. Thus Luther wrote to him: “But I pray you to curb your suspicion that you are assailed by who knows how many diseases.”[vii]

Luther also saw several examples of depression. He used a variety of words to describe this problem. One finds words such as melancholy, heaviness (remember Wesley’s use of this term?) downcast, sad, depression, downhearted and dejection of spirit. Forever the pastoral caregiver, Luther sought to provide counsel to depressed souls.  Several of his “Letters of Spiritual Counsel,” address this problem. Many of these letters were to a variety of friends and acquaintances. For example, Luther often wrote to Jerome Weller regarding his depression. Jerome Weller was quite close to Luther. In fact, he lived in Luther’s household and served as tutor for the Luther's children.

Besides what he saw in others, Luther had even more compelling reason to believe in problems of the mind. Luther had his own experience to draw on. He suffered from depression much of his life. Apparently he did not believed depression was something shameful, to be hidden from others. In his work he often revealed his own problems with depression. [viii]

Depression: A Complex Problem

Luther believed illness in general involved the complex interplay of mental and physical factors. He went far beyond his time in noting the role mental and emotional factors played part in physical illness. Thus, he wrote to Conrad Cordatus regarding his fears of disease:

“You know the proverb, ‘imagination produces misfortune.’ Therefore you ought to take the pains to divert rather than entertain such notions. I too must do this. For our adversary, the devil, walks about, seeking not only to devour our souls but also to weaken our bodies with thoughts of our soul in the hope that he might perhaps slay our bodies,for he knows our physical health depends in large measure on the thoughts of our minds.”[ix] (italics mine)

Elsewhere, we find a similar statement. Luther noted: “Heavy thoughts brought on physical maladies; when the soul is oppressed, so is the body. When cares, heavy cogitations, sorrows, and passions superabound, they weaken the body, which, without the soul, is dead.”x]

Like other forms of illness Luther apparently viewed depression as a complex problem involving multiple factors. One finds in Luther evidence supporting spiritual, social (familial), and cognitive factors. I discuss some of these connections below.

Spiritual Factors in Depression

Luther believed sickness was largely due to natural causes. However, he also placed a great deal of emphasis on spiritual factors in illnesses. Behind some natural causes, he saw Satan’s activity.[xi] The same is apparent in his views on depression. In this regard, Luther saw Satan fulfilling his role as accuser of believers. According to Luther, Satan caused Christians to dwell on their past sins and thereby induced melancholy and despair. Specifically, he saw Satan as one who instilled depressive thoughts. In a letter to Matthias Weller, Luther reflected this position. Speaking of Matthias’ distressing thoughts, he noted: “ Know that the devil is tormenting you with them, and that they are not your thoughts but the cursed devil’s, who cannot bear to see us have joyful thoughts.” Elsewhere in the same letter he warned: “In such fashion you must learn to oppose him and not permit him to put thoughts in your mind. If you allow one thought to enter, and you pay attention to it, he will force ten additional thoughts into your mind until at last he overpowers you.”[xii]

He seemed to draw a distinction between thoughts that came directly from the believer and those which came from Satan. The latter were the devil’s means of vexing believers. Moreover one should not expect that these attacks would readily subside: Rather, one should expect persistence from the devil. Thus Luther could say: “if he (Satan) cannot break a person with the first attack, he tries by persevering to wear him out and weaken him until the person falls and confesses himself beaten.”[xiii]

One surmises that Luther did not see depression as deriving from sin in the believer. Rather, one might infer that attacks contributing to depression came because one was a believer. Satanic attacks in the form of depressive thoughts were intended to destroy faith.

According to Luther, depression may partly spring from Satan’s accusations but it also provides an occasion for God’s activity. Thus, in his letters Luther emphasized the nearness of Christ and his love and esteem for believers. These emphases seemed designed to counteract the very nature of Satan’s thoughts: Namely that Christ has forsaken the believer and no longer loves or esteems the believer. For Luther, nothing could be further from the truth. In the midst of these struggles, God in Christ is near us though we may not see him. He reveals his presence though his word. As a result Luther constantly advised reading comforting scriptures like the Psalms. Luther also saw God’s invisible presence in visible people. Believers became the bearers of God’s comforting and strengthening words to troubled souls.

A Cognitive-behavioral Emphasis

         As implied above, one finds a heavy cognitive emphasis in Luther’s views of depression. By cognitive, I mean that Luther saw depression as primarily related to one’s though life – whether proceeding from oneself or from the devil. This emphasis continually punctuated his letters on the subject. We see this cognitive emphasis in his own experience with depression. Speaking about his depression, Luther spoke about the “…horrible and terrible thoughts I had.”[xiv]

In one table talk, Luther’s cognitive emphasis is especially evident. Luther noted:

“Solitude produces melancholy. When we are alone the worst and saddest things come to mind. We reflect in detail upon all sorts of evils. And if we have encountered adversity in our lives, we dwell upon it as much as possible, magnify it, think that no one is so unhappy as we are, and imagine the worse possible consequences. In short, when we are alone, we think of one thing and another, we leap to conclusions, and we interpret everything in the worse light. On the other hand, we imagine that other people are very happy, and it distresses us that things go well with them and evil with us.>[xv]       

In this statement, Luther makes a number of very astute observations about the role of cognition in depression. One sees in this statement several cognitive errors. These are typically emphasized in current literature by such authors as Aaron Beck and others of a cognitive persuasion. Here we find the following cognitive distortions.

1. Selective Abstraction – attending only to information that supports one’s assumptions. In this case, focusing on worse, sad and evil things.

2. Magnification – making small problems much larger than they are.

3. Arbitrary Inference – coming to false conclusions from insufficient data. In this case, concluding that nobody else is as unhappy.

4. Catastrophic thinking – where the person anticipates the worse possible outcomes.

For Luther, cognitive errors are magnified through solitude. Thus, Luther repeatedly encouraged a variety of behaviors to combat solitude and the poison of one’s thoughts. Here we see behavioral activity wedded to his cognitive emphasis. Repeatedly he exhorted the depressed to seek the company of others. For example, in a letter to Jerome Weller, Luther advised him to [xvi] To Prince Joachim of Anhalt Luther wrote: “Seek the company of others. Rejoice in a godly, honorable way. Avoid solitude and melancholy.[xvii]

This emphasis on cognition and behavior fits nicely with modern understandings of depression. Like Luther, authors like Aaron Beck emphasize similar cognitive bases for depression. However, I am yet to see a cognitive approach that is purely cognitive. All of these approaches tend to have behavioral emphases like Luther.

Links to Other mental Disorders

Luther apparently believed that prolonged depression could lead to other kind of emotional problems. This was apparently true of Prince Joachim. The latter evidently struggled with depression. Overtime, he seemed to have developed obsessive-compulsive problems.[xviii] This should not be surprising: Depression tends to be accompanied with inappropriate guilt. Such guilt can lead to negative self-evaluations. It can also lead to an individual becoming preoccupied with a sense of having done wrong (whether real or imagined). Additionally, one often finds obsessive ruminations accompanying depression. All of these problems seem true of Prince Joachim. One is likely to see similar accompanying problems among the depressed. Sometimes, one also finds depression coexisting with or leading to problems like alcoholism or other substance use disorders.

Family Links to Depression 

Luther was quite aware that depression ran in families. For example, he counseled the brothers Jerome and Matthias Weller who both struggled with depression. Likewise, Luther saw similar family links in some royalty. In his letter to Prince Joachim, Luther reminded the latter that other family members had been “…of a retiring, quiet, and sober nature.” He then used those family traits to conclude that Prince Joachim’s illness derived from “melancholy and dejection of spirit.” Evidently, he implied that other members of the family had struggled in this area.

The Potential for Suicide

Luther knew that depression was a deadly serious disorder: Depressed persons sometimes became weary of life and preoccupied with a longing for death. He made this clear in his letter to Jonas Von Stockhausen. [xix] In such cases one must take every precaution to ensure their safety. Thus, Luther wrote a follow-up letter to Mrs. Jonas Von Stockhausen to inform her how to ensure her husband’s safety.[xx] Luther gave her the following specific advice:

1. Ensure that his surroundings are not so quiet that he sinks into his own thoughts. 

2. Do not to leave him alone for a single moment. For Luther, solitude is poison for such a person.

3. Leave nothing around with which he might harm himself.

The third statement above is clearly related to suicide prevention. The other two also seem related to his concern for safety. In the first, Luther very well might have been concerned that too much solitude would heighten his suicide ideation. The second statement might have a two-fold intention. Depressed people need company to counter their negative mood. At the same time, to the severely depressed, the presence of others helps to protect the depressed from themselves. In the word about solitude being poison, Luther may also have in mind the ultimate consequence of ingesting poison – death.

Some Conclusions on Luther’s Understanding of Depression

In many regards Luther's views on depression presented above are consistent with modern understanding of depression. I particularly marvel at his insights into the role cognition plays. He possessed an excellent grasp of the variety of cognitive distortions maintaining depressive states. And why not! Given his own struggles in this area, he was very familiar with the internal mechanisms feeding depression.

However, Luther did not only look within to account for or address depression. He also looked within their environments. What were they doing or not doing that contributed to depression? Thus, we find heavy emphasis on behaviors necessary to combating depression: Playing games, having fun, getting involved with others and similar overt behaviors.

One critical difference between Luther's views and modern therapy approaches involves the former's emphasis on spiritual factors in depression. Luther carved out a place for both the activity of God and Satan's activity. Most therapists are likely to dismiss such views as archaic and out of touch with modern notions. Yet the serious Christian cannot readily dismiss spiritual activity.

Satan's activity is likely to be troubling for both the Christian and non-christian for different reasons. Luther reminds us that we cannot ignore Satan. We have ample biblical evidence that there is a tempter who desires to destroy believers. The biblical accounts of Job and Jesus’ temptation show such activity. According to Luther, one way Satan seeks our destruction is through tormenting believers with thoughts. Such activity is designed to destroy faith in Jesus Christ.

Having said that, I must issue a caution regarding the degree to which we emphasize Satan's activity. In my opinion some believers carry this to an extreme and see a demon behind every case of depression. Language suggesting the Christian "has a spirit of depression" is not Luther's intent. Can the Christian be oppressed by depressive thoughts? Luther answers with a resounding yes. Can the Christian be possessed by some demon that stimulates depression? His answer would be a resounding no. We Christians must steer this delicate middle ground: On the one hand we must affirm spiritual activity (Both God's and Satan's) in the many things that touch human lives. On the other hand we must avoid those extreme positions that culminate in heaping heavier burdens on sincere Christians caught in the grips of depression.

Combating Depression

Having laid this groundwork we now turn to the critical question: How did Luther address the problem of depression? One finds in Luther a multi-faceted approach that matches its complex nature. For starters, Luther seemed to normalize the experience of depression: Luther helped sufferers to understand that they were not alone in this suffering. Depression was to some degree a universal occurrence afflicting even the people of God. [xxi]

The Use of Spiritual Disciplines

Earlier I spoke about the role of spiritual factors in depression. Namely, that depression was partly precipitated through thoughts instilled by Satan. Thus, one should not be surprised to find an emphasis on spiritual strategies for combating depression. That spiritual emphasis is apparent in every letter Luther wrote to depressed persons who sought his comfort. I highlight some of these strategies below.

·                    Remember Christ loves and esteems you

First and foremost, Luther assured his “clients” that Christ loved and esteemed them and was near to them. Christ not only cared but would help believers carry their burden.  Believers must also trust in Christ’s atonement for sin as a buttress against Satan’s accusations.

·                    Make use of comforting scriptures and spiritual songs.

Luther recommended the use of a variety of spiritual disciplines: He counseled prayer and the use of scripture passages. Depressed persons should read or have read to them comforting words from scripture. Luther also knew that music had a soothing quality. Therefore, he advised believers to make use of spiritual songs. They should sing and play songs unto the Lord until their sad thoughts vanished.

·                  Listen as God Speaks through others

Luther emphasized God’s work through others. He saw that God used the words of others to strengthen and comfort struggling persons. [xxii] Depressed persons need to listen to such words. To one severely depressed person, Luther advised: “…cease relying on and pursuing your own thoughts. Listen to other people who are not subject to this temptation. Give the closest attention to what we say, and let our words penetrate to your heart. Thus God will strengthen and comfort you by means of our words.” [xxiii]

In this emphasis, Luther espoused a concept similar to one found in Larry Crabb and others. Crabb has used the concept of eldering. By this emphasis, he suggests that other godly believers have the capacity to help one another. He also believes that the church need to take the role of godly men and women more seriously. According to him, “They have a lot more power to deeply affect the souls of other people than they generally are given credit for.” [xxiv]b I agree. However, I do not think this discounts the role of professional counselors as some would suggest. However, it does suggest that there are multiple resources within the body of Christ to address the healing needs of his people.

                   Seek the Company of Others

Besides bringing comforting words, believers play an additional role in the lives of the depressed. They provide company to pull the depressed away from solitude. For Luther, solitude fostered depression. Thus, he constantly counseled the depressed to seek the company of others. It is evident from his words that Luther envisioned company with those who were not suffering from depression. For him, community with believers served several purposes in combating depression.

First, company afforded the depressed person an opportunity to receive a perspective on life different than their own. Second, company with believers was a necessary precaution against suicide. The reader would remember that this was Luther’s recommendation to Mrs. Jonas Von Stockhausen when her husband was severely depressed and thinking about suicide.

·                    Remember “merriment is not sin.”

Company with believers served a third purpose. It represented an opportunity for good, clean fun. Thus, Luther repeatedly recommended playing games, joking, jesting and other forms of merriment. To Mrs. Von Stockhausen Luther advised that she read or tell stories which lead to laughter and jesting. Luther especially insisted on pleasurable diversions to young persons like Jerome Weller and Prince Joachim of Anhalt. For example, to the youthful Jerome Weller he advised: “Seek out company of men, drink more, joke and jest and engage in some other forms of merriment.” [xxv]

One should not be surprised by this emphasis on merriment in Luther. He likely knew that the depressed tended to give up pleasurable activities. Thus they lived their lives in more and more confining limits. In a sense, they sapped the life, vigor and fun out of their lives. What else but depression can one expect when joy is sucked from one’s life?

But Luther emphasized merriment for another reason. Luther saw that some Christians avoided pleasurable activities because they saw these as sinful. It was their Christian scruples that posed a threat to defeating depression. For example, Luther saw the over-scrupulous Prince Joachim as “…reluctant to be merry, as if this were sinful.” You might remember from an earlier comment that this same Prince Joachim believed he had betrayed or crucified Christ. Luther further noted that “… proper and honorable pleasure with good and God-fearing people is pleasing to God.”[xxvi] Thus one should strive to be merry in two ways: First, one should rejoice inwardly in Christ. Second, one should take pleasure outwardly in God’s gifts and in the good things of life.

         Dealing with Cognitive Distortions

Earlier I noted that Luther emphasized the role of cognition in depression. Therefore, one should not be surprised to find strategies designed to address these cognitive distortions. In Luther, one finds this problem addressed on at least four levels; grappling with one’s own cognitive biases; listening to the thoughts and words of others; disputation with and disregard for the devil; and through scripture’s promises. Much of these strategies are implicit in earlier statements.

Luther evidently believed that there are times we should not trust our own thoughts. This is especially true during depression when we tend to distort reality. It’s during these times that we need to rely on the others. Christian persons who are not depressed represent a reality check for the depressed. Their words and thoughts pull us away from our distortions and back to reality. 

The reader might remember that Luther saw some depressive thoughts as proceeding from Satan. How is the believer to deal with this problem? Should the believer quickly capitulate? Certainly not! The believer must resist the devil. How does one do this? Sometimes believers must avoid disputation with the Devil. It seems Luther believed this was one method to avoid dwelling on the deadly thoughts from Satan. [xxvii]At other times Luther seemed to endorse some disputation with the devil. In one table talk, drawn from his personal experience, Luther noted: “I discovered that a person who is well fed is better fitted for disputation with the devil than a person who is fasting.”[xxviii]

It would seem from these examples that Luther did not have a hard and fast rule about when to combat depressive thoughts from the enemy. From the latter statement one might surmise that the timing largely depended on personal factors. Thus, when one is fasting is not a good time to indulge in disputation. In general, one might conclude that disputation is unwise any time one is overly vulnerable, whether in body or mind. At those times, believers should draw strength from spiritual persons and from scripture.

Luther also emphasized the role of scripture in combating deadly thoughts. This makes sense since scripture presents the ultimate reality, an antidote to our distorted view of our circumstances. Scripture especially reminds us that God loves us, esteems us and is with us in the midst of our struggles. The very opposite of what Satan would have us believe; namely that we are unloved, worthless and abandoned.

Suicide Prevention Strategies

However, Luther was also a realist. Sometimes depressed persons plunge into so much despair that they need to be protected from themselves. At those times, caring persons need to take every precaution. We saw this approach in his advice to Mrs. Jonas Von Stockhausen. Essentially his advice indicated that she needed to provide a safe environment for her husband. She needed to have someone with him constantly and rid the home of things with which he could harm himself. This is indeed sound advice consistent with modern understanding of suicide prevention. For the modern reader, providing a safe environment for their loved one may sometimes mean hospitalization until the threat passes. Such actions when necessary do not represent callousness. They represent genuine Christian love in action.

Some common sense advice for the depressed

Finally, I am impressed with what I term “common-sense” advice to persons wrestling with depression. I cite three examples that illustrate this side of Luther.

·                   Eat, don’t fast!

First, Luther believed that in certain cases some spiritual disciplines worked against victory over Satan (and overcoming depression). As noted earlier, he once noted that those who disputed with the devil should be well-fed rather than fasting. This may initially sound rather unspiritual but makes good sense. Such advice makes sense for depressed persons who need sustenance. Another example where spiritual disciplines may work against defeating depression comes readily to mind: Unlike Luther, I believe there’s a place for solitude in the Christian life. Jesus evidently agreed as he constantly found a place for solitude and retreat in his life. In this sense, solitude and retreat certainly are spiritual disciplines. But for the deeply depressed individual, retreating alone doesn’t make good sense. Rather, the better decision might be to go out with a friend. Again, this may sound unspiritual but it is not. There’s a time and place for everything, even in regards to legitimate spiritual disciplines.

               Be realistic – Improvement may be slow

While remaining optimistic and encouraging dogged determination to overcome depression, Luther kept a realistic perspective. Luther reminded depressed persons that improvement may sometimes be slow. [xxix]  At first this sounds discouraging. I don’t believe it need be. Improvement may be slow but it’s still improvement. I find that persons struggling with various emotional problems often focus too much on what’s not right and what hasn’t changed. Most of the times, they need to focus on what’s right and even small changes made. These incremental improvements, though slow, represent hope for a better day.

                Time is a great healer.

Luther also saw that time was a great healer. This does not mean that he advocated inactivity and just waiting around for depression to blow over. We have already seen that he actively combated depression and advised sufferers to do the same. Nonetheless, he had a place for the role of time. This is especially evident in one statement where he noted: “… old age and other circumstances will in time render present depression and melancholy superfluous…”[xxx] I believe there is some truth in this statement. I have found that in some emotional problems such as stress, age and maturity tends to bring new perspectives and sometimes healing.

This may be partly evident in the testimony of one depression sufferer, Matilda Nordtveldt. She wrote: “At age 71 I still struggle with my desire to bolster my self-image as well as my reputation by overworking…Even if I have not learned my lesson perfectly yet, I am on my way. I know that my value in His sight is not determined by what I accomplish but by my relationship to Him, and I have learned that giving thanks in every circumstance brings joy and peace.”>[xxxi] Through time, Nordtveldt has learned some vital lessons about depression.

Evidently, I believe that Luther has something to say to today’s church. Others hold the same view. A few years ago, one of my friends and colleagues, Dr. Donald Demaray wrote a paraphrase of Luther ‘s table talk called “Listen to Luther.” Dr. Demaray believed Luther had a valuable message for modern believers. I agree. Listen to Luther as he counsels on how to defeat depression.

Also see Wesley and Depression by Tony Headley

[i] The table talks are recorded accounts of discussions that took place in Luther’s home. Luther entertained guests, students and friends at his table. With these persons he discussed a number of topics and concerns brought to his attention. Many of these persons made written records of these conversations known to us as his table talks. See Preserved Smith,Luther’s Table Talk, New York: Ams Press, 1907 for a critical study of the table talks.

[ii] Martin Luther, Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Translated by Theodore G. Tappert, Philadelphia: the Westminster Press, 1955

[iii] One piece of evidence is found in his letter to Francis Burkhard in which Luther affirmed the insanity of one Mrs. Kreuzbinder, Letters of Spiritual Counsel p. 182.

[iv] See Luther’s letter to his wife on February 7, and February 10, 1546, in Letters of Spiritual Counsel, pp. 105-108.

[v] See Luther’s letter to his son John Luther, December 27, 1542,Letters of Spiritual Counsel p. 166.

[vi] Letters of Spiritual Counsel, p. 98

[vii] To Conrad Cordatus, May 21, 1537, Letters of Spiritual Counsel p. 99. Another example of this problem is found in his letter to Mrs. P, p 103

[viii] Letters of Spiritual Counsel, pp. 93, 115 and 117 where he refers to his problems. Other authors cite some of Luther’s difficulties. For example, Erik Erickson grapple with Luther’s difficulties in his work Young Man Luther, New York: Norton & Company, 1958.

[ix] To Conrad Cordatus, Letters of Spiritual Counsel p. 99