How John Piper Helped Me in the Midst of Darkness

I wrote awhile back of what it is like when the lights go out in my fragile mind.  I had a pretty intense period of darkness that finally seems to have lifted yesterday (Praise God!).  One of the things that really helped me in the midst of darkness was John Piper’s When the Darkness Will Not Lift.  I wanted to mention two points of counsel that really helped my soul.  They may be surprising.

Start with Despair

It is really difficult being a pastor that struggles with depression.  I feel a ton of added pressure to kick this depression thing.  You never want your darkness to negatively shape your preaching, counseling, planning, or other duties.  Because I am usually the one doing the counseling it can be very tempting to counsel yourself and try to turn to some sort of self-effort to rescue yourself from this darkness.  That is why I found this counsel particularly helpful:

“Start at the easiest place for those in darkness.  Start with despair.  Despair of finding any answer in yourself.  I pray that you will cease from all efforts to look inside yourself for the rescue you need.  I pray that you will do what only desperate people can do, namely, cast yourself on Christ.  May you say to him, “You are my only hope.  I have no righteousness in myself.  I am overwhelmed with sin and guilt.  I am under the wrath of God.  My own conscience condemns me, and makes me miserable.  I am perishing.  Darkness is all about me.  Have mercy upon me.  I trust you.”  (Piper, 21)

To be honest, those types of paragraphs are not all that soothing at first.  But they become like a cartoon character swallowing a Mexican jumping bean.  It bounces around inside your heart and soul and shakes things up.  Eventually words like this start to calm voices of darkness and heals brokenness, pain, and sin with the beautiful gospel.

You might think that telling a depressed person to cast themselves on Christ as helpless sinners would be counter-productive but it is not.  And that is why I appreciate the boldness of Piper and his unswerving trust in the powerful gospel.  It is a means that God used to heal my soul.

Duty Includes the Duty of Joy

The last thing that a person in darkness wants to hear is that they are more guilty and messed up than they think they are.  But it is, oddly enough, in this truth that I found refuge.  After encouraging me to “repent and confess the sin of gloomy faith” Piper says this:

I am aware that this may sound like an added burden to to the one who is in spiritual darkness.  But it is not an added burden.  If it is a burden at all, it is already there and not added by calling it what it is.  Failing to rejoice in God when we are commanded to rejoice is sin.  False comforts lead to artificial healing.  But the truest diagnoses lead to the deepest cures.  (Piper, 49-50)

This in itself may not be all that helpful.  But when you are reminded of this in light of the gospel (which Piper faithfully exposits throughout this little booklet) it helps the message of Christ actually heal brokenness and sin.  If I am parading around like I am only a victim and not also a sinner and I try to apply the gospel only to my “depression” but not also my sin then it’s not going to go deep enough.  If I am guilty, then I really need healing.

So thank you John Piper for being truthful and preaching the gospel to me.  I am grateful that the Spirit of God used your words to massage my soul and make the lights start to flicker on again.  May the Lord be glorified in both my anguish and joy!

If you battle depression and have seasons of darkness you may want to purchase When the Darkness Will Not Lift.


  1. says

    Transparent & Vulnerable. Rare qualities in Christians, especially among Pastors. KUDOS for your openness and so much JOY that you have found LIGHT! God’s best to you my brother!!

  2. says

    The one thing about the return to Sovereign Grace theology that is taking place on an ever-increasing scale is that there is a renewal of the wherewithal in the church to challenge believers in their perplexities. The depth of scripture in its teachings is comparable for starters with the US Navy practice of inviting its young sailors to go swimming in the deepest swimming hole on earth (the Mariannas Trench off of the Philippines). My cousin back in the fifties had that experience on a Navy Ship, and the same happened to my wife’s nephew in the early seventies (which is why I suppose it is a practice). In any case, the biblical depths of truth are of such nature that they can meet the deepest and sorest woes that we suffer in this world. It was the training I was getting in American Intellectual History from 1969-71 (in addition to six years of research in church history 1963-69) that started me to thinking about the nature of the Inspired Book, namely, if it is inspired by omniscience, then it ought to reflect a depth of wisdom commensurate with such an origin. I began to look at the Bible in that light and to write papers in accordance with that approach. Such course led to finding out that the teachings of the Bible are so constructed that they set up a creative tension in the believer’s mind, enabling and empowering him or her to become balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic, God’s living, walking advertisements for the Faith of His Son. This perspective includes the means for dealing with dark trials. Mike, your link to Piper’s work does whet one’s thirst for help in such struggles, and the works listed there (like D. M. Lloyd-Jones’ work on Spiritual depression) reminded me of the wealth of works that the Puritans produced on this subject. There is the Rare Jewell of Christian Contentment, A Lifting Up For The Downcast, and various works on Providence which include sections addressing the issue. Praise God! There is an answer to our perplexities, a purpose in and to our sufferings, disappointments, despairs, and defeats. I remember some of the secular historians I have read in American Intellectual History commenting on the Puritans and how they could hang in there in the midst of the worst sorts of troubles. The historians expressed admiration for such perseverance. All of these difficulties resound, by God’s grace, to His glory and honor, somehow or other. Even our darkest and most despairing moments are but the background for the bright luster of His purposes in our lives.

    • says

      The Puritans are very rich in dealing with melancholy. They really were pioneers in that field. Your last sentence, “even our darkest and most despairing moments are but the background for the bright luster of His purposes in our lives” is a pretty apt summary of Puritan thought on the matter.

  3. Amy says

    Thanks so much for posting this today. I’ve read Piper’s book but needed to hear this again today especially. And thanks to Dr. Willingham for suggesting the Rare Jewell and Lifting up for the Downcast. I have downloaded both, encouraged to find a whole sermon series on the beloved Psalm 42.

    • says

      Amy, I have an old copy of A Lifting Up For The Downcast, and it is heavily underscored. Our son is always fussing that I ruin perfectly good books by marking them up and writing in them. I tell him that Spurgeon did, and now those books are really valuable. To which he responds, “Yes, but you ain’t famous.” So true. It is funny to live long enough to be able to laugh about things, when I was under severe and the utmost distressing emotions, when I did the markings in those books. O yes, there are several works on Divine Providence. Flavel wrote a really good book on the subject…as did several others, including Abraham Booth and his work on Providence in the Book of Esther. I once had a record of a sermon by George W. Truett on that very subject, a moving message.

  4. Anthony Clay says


    Failing to rejoice in God when we are commanded to rejoice is sin. False comforts lead to artificial healing. But the truest diagnoses lead to the deepest cures.

    It truly is comforting to know that God doesn’t just spin the earth into orbit and sit back relying on our own supposed sovereign free-will. Letting God be God and resting in the promise of the Gospel is liberating.
    As Mary Rowlandson said during her captivity,

    The Lord hereby would make us the more acknowledge His hand, and to see that our help is always in him


    I then remembered how careless I had been of God’s holy time; how many Sabbaths I had lost and misspent, and how evilly I had walked in God’s sight . . . that it was easy for me to see how righteous it was with God to cut off the thread of my life and cast me out of his presence forever. Yet the Lord still showed mercy to me, and upheld me

    You will find no such comfort in an anthropocentric gospel.

    • says

      I think you are right, Anthony. A man centered message affords little more than an illusion of comfort. What we have to be careful about is tha we might get so high in the heavenly matters that we would be of no earthly benefit….although I serious doubt that such thing really occurs, if one has his or her heart firmly planted in the word of God.