Published by IVP on November 24, 2020
Genres: Non-Fiction, Biography, Christian Life, Theology
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The church's relationship with depression has been fraught: for centuries, depression was assumed to be evidence of personal sin or even demonic influence. The depressed have often been ostracized or institutionalized. In recent years the conversation has begun to change, and the stigma has lessened--but as anyone who suffers from depression knows, we still have a long way to go. In Companions in the Darkness, Diana Gruver looks back into church history and finds depression in the lives of some of our most beloved saints, including Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. Without trying to diagnose these figures from a distance, Gruver tells their stories in fresh ways, taking from each a particular lesson that can encourage or guide those who suffer today. Drawing on her own experience with depression, Gruver offers a wealth of practical wisdom both for those in the darkness and those who care for them. Not only can these saints teach us valuable lessons about the experience of depression, they can also be a source of hope and empathy for us today. They can be our companions in the darkness.
Companions in the Darkness shares biographical sketches of seven different faithful Christians who endured long and recurrent periods of depression. The author, Diana Gruver, has struggled with depression herself, but even though she occasionally mentions general aspects of her experiences, she focuses on the common patterns and similarities that we can find in the experiences of different Christians from throughout Western church history. She shows how these men and women dealt with depression over time, some more successfully than others, and encourages her readers to know that no matter how dark their lives may be, they are not alone.
Faithful and Accurate Histories
Gruver is willing to sit in the mystery of her own and others’ pain, and instead of presuming to know all the answers, she focuses on how Christians like Spurgeon, Luther, and other lesser-known figures experienced their suffering and navigated their relationships with God in the midst of it. One of the most interesting chapters, in my view, is the one about Martin Luther King Jr. I was not aware that he struggled with depression, but Gruver draws on reports from people who were close to him and saw past his public persona, showing how he struggled over time. She also explains various reasons for his secrecy, ranging from Black American cultural factors to the threat that any hint of weakness or mental instability would destroy his constantly challenged ministry. In this chapter, she creates an interesting and deeply sympathetic portrait that is strikingly different from most people’s visions of MLK.
I appreciate Gruver’s willingness to delve into difficult aspects of people’s stories, and she does an excellent job presenting brief biographies that are thorough, detailed, and well-cited. She doesn’t make assumptions about her subjects, and even when she explores the possibilities of what they might have been thinking or feeling at a certain time, she always distinguishes plausible speculation from documented evidence. Gruver never makes assumptions about other people’s mental health in order to advance a narrative, but faithfully, carefully retells the stories of people’s real struggles. She also maintains a sense of historical context, and even though I am a history major and can easily pick apart books like this, Gruver explained the cultures and mental health perspectives of different time periods very well. My only critique is that I wish she had mentioned obsessive-compulsive disorder as a factor for Luther, instead of only addressing his depressive symptoms.
Hope and Wisdom
Gruver never smooths over suffering with platitudes, and points out how absurd it would be for someone to tell Spurgeon that he could get over his depression if he just prayed more, or had more faith. She acknowledges how painful it is when people call suffering believers’ faith into question because of their mental health issues, and encourages her readers to see themselves within these faithful Christians instead of despairing of the often shallow church cultures around them. Also, even though she includes practical advice from these sufferers and writes about how they understood their internal states prior to modern psychological understandings, she never minimizes how important it is for people to make use of the psychological and medical resources that are available now.
Gruver also emphasizes the importance of communal love and support. Even in the darkest stories, she draws attention to the ways that family members and friends helped provide, protect, and care for sufferers, even when no one truly understood what was happening or could do anything to fix it. She encourages helpers to faithfully support their depressed love ones in similar ways, and in the appendix, she shares brief and specific action points that people can take to help encourage depressed loved ones in daily life and support them in getting professional help.
Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints Who Struggled with Depression and Doubt illumines the often hidden history of mental health issues among saints that Christians admire. Diana Gruver writes their stories in a sensitive and accurate way, providing historical context when needed, and never smooths over painful stories with platitudes or shallow assumptions. Instead, she emphasizes the sustaining grace of God and the ways that loved ones can provide care even when the whole world seems dark. This book will encourage both depressed Christians and the people who love them to see similarities between their struggles and those that other Christians have faithfully endured, and can help open conversations about how the American church responds to mental health issues. Although this is a heavy read at times, Gruver encourages her readers with the knowledge that even when they feel like no one can understand, they are not alone.