Mental Health
4 min read

Have our worries changed over time?

A pep talk to teachers reveals whether our fears are age-old or not.
In an egg box sit two eggs with faces drawn on them with marker pen. One looks worried, the other looks on.

‘You’re not going to mention the psalms!’ my colleague said. ‘Are you?’ 

She was doing alarmed eyes at me, the sort which show white all round. I could see why really. We were on our way to give a talk at a big secondary school in Birmingham – multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith. The sort where praying had been banned as divisive, and the wearing of crosses discouraged. Hijabs too, for that matter. Not the kind of place where you chat lightly about a part of the Christian bible, on the whole, unless you’re trying to be provocative. 

I did mean to mention them though. ‘I can’t think of another example,’ I said. ‘And anyway, it’s too late now – I sent the slides through last night.’ Deep breaths. 

Just to explain a little, as counsellors, my colleague and I had set up a programme of talks and workshops for schools in the area, aimed at improving mental health in the aftermath of the pandemic. We’d seen all the warnings about the ‘tsunami of mental health issues’ threatening to deluge the country and decided to take action. Recognising that we couldn’t get to every individual child who might need help, we’d focused our efforts on the adults in the schools. Steady the grown-ups and you steady the children, was our thinking. The young take their wellbeing largely from the pattern set by their elders, even in this age of smart phones and social media, and the levels of despondency were very high among teachers and school staff in our experience. Lots of people burning out and leaving the profession. Not a steadying influence then. Hence our topic for today: ‘How to feel better in difficult times’. 

I was nervous as I stood in front of the large hall full of people. Several hundred of them, all ages and stages. Some looking attentive, many expressionless, a few sleepy. I could see my colleague at the end of a row near the front. She had one hand up to the side of her face and was making herself small. Great, I thought. Very reassuring. But too late now, so on we go… 

I introduced myself. I introduced my colleague. I introduced our work. And then I mentioned the thing that needed no introduction. It was already familiar, a regular inhabitant – present here in the room, but also everywhere else we went: our homes, our classrooms, our friends’ houses, the streets, the supermarkets. Fear. Horrid fear, drifting through the air like smoke. I gave them some awful statistics I’d found, about the rates of anxiety and depression. About the levels of self-harm, about the fact that suicide is now the second biggest killer of children between 10 and 15. I let these sink in a bit. 

Then I asked, ‘So what are we afraid of, exactly?’  

It is accepted practice in all mental health disciplines to try to identify the causes of fear and face squarely up to them as that’s the only real way to defuse their power, I said. I was going to read them a list of potential causes – and while I was doing so, I’d like them to try and guess where the list had come from. Call out your guesses please. 

‘Getting old,’ I started. ‘Drinking too much. Tyrants swooping on other people’s countries. Teaching our children to be better than we are…’ 

‘Twitter!’ someone called out. 

‘Cutting down the forests. Loss of friends. Waking up sweating in the night. Other people saying awful stuff about us…’ 

This Morning!’ came another voice. 

‘Feeling very alone. No sign of things getting better. Envying the rich. Death. Food being short…’ 

‘The news this lunch time!’ 

‘Plagues and pestilences. Being in despair. Cruel words. The evils of the class system. Not having work. Feeling low. Feeling weak…’ 

‘It’s got to be The Daily Mail,’ someone else shouted. Laughter. 

I looked up. ‘Good guesses,’ I said. ‘All of them, thank you. Only they’re a bit out of date. By about four millennia, give or take!’ 

Surprise fizzed through the room. 

I had wanted to find out what people used to worry about, I explained. To see how that differed from our current worries. I hadn’t known where to look though, until I suddenly remembered the psalms. ‘Some of you might be familiar with the psalms,’ I said, ‘but for those of you who aren’t, they are 150 ancient songs full of moaning.’ They varied in age, but the oldest were thought to have been written the best part of 4,000 years ago – making them older than the pyramids. I’d taken twenty of these songs out of the middle of the book – Psalms 60-80 – and listed the things they were moaning about… as just demonstrated. 

A lot of the sleepy faces were looking more alert now.  

Since this ancient list is more or less identical to our own, we can draw two conclusions, I said. Both very good news. The first is that, clearly, these are the things we worry about – if we’re human. People from a totally different culture/ period in history/ part of the world/ ethnicity/ stage of economic development/ political system/ level of education and so on and on, worrying about the same things as us? Doesn’t it show that… er, it’s normal? For living, breathing, average, sentient human beings like us? 

And secondly it proves, surely, that we’re designed to survive this kind of worrying. We’re wired to cope. Our brains are built for it. Because – ta da! – here we all are, FORTY CENTURIES later, still moaning about exactly the same stuff! 

I looked at my colleague again. Not only were both her hands now down in her lap, but like a lot of the rest of the room, she was smiling. 

‘If we can clear fear out of the way, it’s much easier to get on with sorting out problems,’ I finished. ‘So now, shall we talk about where we can get started?’ 

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.