My wife shared a great resource with me today. It’s a sermon by John Piper at Desiring God’s 1995 Pastors Conference entitled, Charles Spurgeon: Preaching Through Adversity. I think it’s a good word at this time, especially as I talk with friends who have graduated from college in the last year, and are struggling through this current season of life, for various reasons. Depression is a topic that I think all Christians can better prepare themselves to understand.
“The final adversity I mention is the result of the others – Spurgeon’s recurrent battles with depression.
It is not easy to imagine the omni-competent, eloquent, brilliant, full-of-energy Spurgeon weeping like a baby for no reason that he could think of. In 1858, at age 24 it happened for the first time. He said, “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.
Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings. As well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness … The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back.
He saw his depression as his “worst feature.” “Despondency,” he said, “is not a virtue; I believe it is a vice. I am heartily ashamed of myself for falling into it, but I am sure there is no remedy for it like a holy faith in God”.
In spite of all these sufferings and persecutions Spurgeon endured to the end, and was able to preach mightily until his last sermon at the Tabernacle on June 7, 1891. So the question I have asked in reading this man’s life and work is,
How Did He Persevere and Preach Through This Adversity?
O, how many strategies of grace abound in the life of Spurgeon. My choices are very limited and personal. The scope of this man’s warfare, and the wisdom of his strategies were immense. Our time is short and we must be very selective. I begin with the issue of despondency and depression. If this one can be conquered, all the other forms of adversity that feet into it, will be nullified in their killing effect.
1. Spurgeon saw his depression as the design of God for the good of his ministry and the glory of Christ.
What comes through again and again is Spurgeon’s unwavering belief in the sovereignty of God in all his afflictions. More than anything else it seems, this kept him from caving in to the adversities of his life. He said,
“It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity”.
This is exactly the opposite strategy of modern thought, even much evangelical thought, that recoils from the implications of infinity. If God is God he not only knows what is coming, but he knows it because he designs it. For Spurgeon this view of God was not first argument for debate, it was a means of survival.
Our afflictions are the health regimen of an infinitely wise Physician. He told his students,
“I dare say the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health, with the exception of sickness … If some men, that I know of could only be favoured with a month of rheumatism, it would, by God’s grace mellow them marvelously”.
He meant this mainly for himself. Though he dreaded suffering and would willingly avoid it, he said,
I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable … Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library.
He saw three specific purposes of God in his struggle with depression. The first is that it functioned like the apostle Paul’s thorn to keep him humble lest he be lifted up in himself. He said the Lord’s work is summed up in these words:
“‘Not by might nor by power but by my Spirit, saith the Lord.’ Instruments shall be used, but their intrinsic weakness shall be clearly manifested; there shall be no division of the glory, no diminishing of the honor due to the Great Worker … Those who are honoured of their Lord in public have usually to endure a secret chastening, or to carry a peculiar cross, lest by any means they exalt themselves, and fall into the snare of the devil”.
The second purpose of God in his despondency was the unexpected power it gave to his ministry:
“One Sabbath morning, I preached from the text, ‘My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me?’ and though I did not say so, yet I preached my own experience. I heard my own chains clank while I tried to preach to my fellow-prisoners in the dark; but I could not tell why I was brought into such an awful horror of darkness, for which I condemned myself. On the following Monday evening, a man came to see me who bore all the marks of despair upon his countenance. His hair seemed to stand up right, and his eyes were ready to start from their sockets. He said to me, after a little parleying, ‘I never before, in my life, heard any man speak who seemed to know my heart. Mine is a terrible case; but on Sunday morning you painted me to the life, and preached as if you had been inside my soul.’ By God’s grace I saved that man from suicide, and led him into gospel light and liberty; but I know I could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay. I tell you the story, brethren, because you sometimes may not understand your own experience, and the perfect people may condemn you for having it; but what know they of God’s servants? You and I have to suffer much for the sake of the people of our charge … You may be in Egyptian darkness, and you may wonder why such a horror chills your marrow; but you may be altogether in the pursuit of your calling, and be led of the Spirit to a position of sympathy with desponding minds”.
The third design of his depression was what he called a prophetic signal for the future. This has given me much encouragement in my own situation.
“This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry; the cloud is black before it breaks, and overshadows before it yields its deluge of mercy. Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing, a John the Baptist, heralding the nearer coming of my Lord’s richer benison”.
I would say with Spurgeon that in the darkest hours it is the sovereign goodness of God that has given me the strength to go on—the granite promise that he rules over my circumstances and means it for good no matter what anyone else means.”