Ajith Fernando



Some years ago I read a fascinating book called Genius and Grace by Dr. Gaius Davies (Hodder & Stoughton, 1992; I believe the book has been revised as published as Genius, Grief and Grace). Dr. Davies is a consultant psychiatrist at King’s College Hospital in London and a committed Christian. He includes biographies of nine of God’s great servants who had a mighty influence upon the church and the world but who nevertheless suffered from serious personality weaknesses.


Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a gallant warrior for grace as he took on the mighty Church of Rome, pressed home the importance of justification by faith and became the most influential figure in the Protestant reformation. Yet he often suffered from depression and from severe symptoms of anxiety resulting in panic attacks.


John Bunyan (1628-1688) spent 12 years in prison for preaching the gospel, but he wrote some spiritual classics that are unparalleled in their depth of spiritual insight. The most famous of these is The Pilgrims Progress of which more copies have been sold than any other Christian book in history apart from the Bible. It is still in print in many versions and languages, more than three centuries after its writing. So are many of his other books. But for a time Bunyan suffered from severe doubt and terror over his condition leading to anxiety and despair.


William Cowper (1731-1800) was the most popular poet in England for a time. He is the author of such well-loved hymns as “God moves in mysterious way” and “Hark my soul it is the Lord’. He became a Christian after his first nervous breakdown and was inflicted with severe mental illness, off and on, after he came to Christ too.


Anthony Ashley Cooper, better known as Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885), is a hero because of how much he achieved in the political sphere on behalf of the poor and weak, especially abused children and the insane. He was also active in several evangelical causes. But he was often depressed, he would easily get upset with others and was difficult to get on with. Despite all he achieved, he had several unfortunate quarrels with Christian leaders and others.


The great Missionary to India Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) is a hero of many, including myself. She immersed herself in the Tamil culture and served in India for 56 years without visiting her native Britain even once during that time. She has come to exemplify “Calvary love” through her sacrificial life of loving service. She rescued scores of girls (at much personal risk) from terrible sexual abuse after they had been sold as temple prostitutes. She believed strongly about what she and her community had to do and how it was to be done. She believed that God gave these plans to her. So she tended to be quite autocratic in enforcing these convictions in her community. Those who disagreed with her were dismissed, and one of those she dismissed was the great theologian and writer Bishop Stephen Neill! Because of her rigid insistence on the disciplines of her “Order” she was somewhat isolated from other Christians in India.


J. B. Phillips (1906-1982) had a genius for writing and for translating God’s Word in a lively and attractive way. Over 10 million copies of his books have been sold. His testimony as a translator, The Ring of Truth, had a major influence in the formation of my Christian convictions as a youth. He had some personality problems (somewhat connected to his upbringing and health problems) that made him susceptible to severe, and sometimes crippling, depression. He had several such attacks that lasted for significant lengths of time.


C. S. Lewis was one of the most influential Christian writers of this century, and there are thousands today who came to faith in Christ or discovered deep insights into the meaning of Christianity by reading his books. He revolted against the idea of God until his reluctant conversion in his mid-thirties. So he understood unbelief well and addressed it convincingly.  But he did keep a few strange habits and views from his pre-Christian life that some of us would object to.


There are several things I learn from this study.


  1. When Paul said that the whole world has been given over to frustration because of the fall, he did not exclude Christians (Rom 8:19-22). In fact he specifically pointed out that “we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:23). Our personalities are not immune to this frustration. We all have various weaknesses. They may be owing to our physical and emotional imperfections. They may be the results of our sins and the sins of those who have influenced us. They may be the results of being hurt by the sin-polluted environment in which we live.


  1. God’s grace is sufficient for all our weaknesses. But sometimes the grace shines through our weaknesses—even emotional weaknesses—not by eliminating them, as Paul found out with his thorn in the flesh, but by giving us strength to bear them and turn the situation to good (2 Cor. 12:6-10; Rom. 8:28).


  1. We sometimes do not make use of the available healing grace of God owing to ignorance, stubbornness or sin. Just as God uses specially trained people like medical doctors to bring healing grace for physical illness, he can use specially trained people, for our emotional illnesses too. Others, especially people skilled in the workings of the mind like psychiatrists and counsellors, may be able to see things about us, which we cannot see because of our confused emotional involvement in our problems.


  1. It is no secret that God uses the least expected instruments to do mighty things for him so that more glory would go to him (1 Cor. 1:26-31). This gives hope to all of us. All the people discussed in the book did great things despite their weaknesses.


  1. Some people, nursing hurts and wounds that have resulted in some imbalance in their personalities, compensate for those weaknesses through a determination that enables them to persevere until great things are achieved through them.


  1. While we may understand the causes for our weaknesses, we must not excuse them. In fact we must try hard to overcome them. In the meantime we may need to ensure that others compensate for our weakness by filling in and doing things which we would not do well.


  1. Most of the heroes Dr. Davies described had others who understood them, accepted them in spite of their weaknesses and counselled and encouraged them. Friends also help to moderate the damage that could be done through our weaknesses. Martin Luther had John Staupitz whom he called his “father in Christ,” and he also had an understanding wife. John Bunyan was greatly helped by a pastor called John Gifford. He spoke of “Holy Mr. Gifford, whose doctrine, by God’s grace, was much of my stability.” William Cowper had several friends, among them the Anglican priest and hymn writer John Newton (“Amazing Grace”). Lord Shaftesbury had a loving wife. J. B. Phillips had several friends and a psychiatrist who helped him. C. S. Lewis had a large number of friends who helped shape his thinking, some of whom were famous authors themselves.


  1. We need to learn the art of helping people with weaknesses by listening to them, advising, rebuking and comforting them. But we must avoid devastating them, through incessant and harsh criticism over weaknesses that will change only very slowly and may sometimes not change at all this side of heaven. That important Christian trait of longsuffering come in here (1 Cor. 13:4; Gal. 5:22; Eph. 4:2, Col. 3:12).We are in danger of crushing the spirit of people through harping on their weaknesses. Some could in reaction develop a strong determination and become great successes. But they will have a bitter edge that spoils all the successes they achieve through their determined spirit.


  1. Sometimes those with special weaknesses are able to minister in a uniquely effective way to others with weaknesses This is certainly true of the spiritual impact of the writing of J. B. Phillips and William Cowper. Lord Shaftesbury who suffered much from parental neglect did much to alleviate the suffering of neglected children.


  1. All the subjects of Dr. Davies study worked very hard. He says, “Only small part of genius is inspiration, and a great deal is perspiration”. When it comes to faithfulness there is indeed no substitute for hard work (2 Tim. 2:6). Dr. Davies describes this in terms of costly obedience: “Obedience was a daily workout for our heroes.” They did didn’t take to many of the things they did naturally. They simply decided that they would be obedient daily to their call.


In the meantime…

  • We thank God for his grace that is greater than our weaknesses.
  • We acknowledge that, if God has used us in his service, it is not because of any worthiness in us, but because of his mercy (2 Cor. 4:1).
  • We thank God for the friends who mediate this grace in our lives.
  • We long for the redemption of our bodies in heaven.
  • We ask God to forgive us for dealing insensitively with people’s weaknesses.
  • We resolve to help our brothers and sisters struggling with weaknesses to achieve their fullest potential under God.
  • In fact, we will refuse to give up on people because of their human weaknesses and look at them instead with eyes influenced by hope in what can be done through God’s grace.