CultureWatch

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Spurgeon and Suffering

Aug 3, 2018

Did you know that one of the greatest, most loved, and most influential preachers of all times not only suffered greatly in the flesh, but in spirit as well? His physical ailments were outdone by mental and emotional ailments such as lengthy battles with depression, leaving him at times despondent and suicidal.

When most folks think of Spurgeon, they think of the jovial, witty, clever, humorous and likeable preacher. He was all that and more, but he also suffered greatly both in body and soul. He suffered as much as any great man of God, and that suffering made him who he was.

He may be known as the “Prince of Preachers,” but it may be this was because he was also the prince of pain. He believed that God was involved in his sufferings and that they were not a waste – they were working an eternal weight of glory. Because Spurgeon suffered much, he had much to say about suffering. Some general remarks of his about suffering include the following:

“I pity a dog who has to suffer what I have.”

“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.”

“Fiery trials make golden Christians.”

“Mark then, Christian, Jesus does not suffer so as to exclude your suffering. He bears a cross, not that you may escape it, but that you may endure it. Christ exempts you from sin, but not from sorrow. Remember that, and expect to suffer.”

“There is no university for a Christian like that of sorrow and trial.”

“The Lord gets his best soldiers out of the highlands of affliction.”

“The Lord frequently appears to save his heaviest blows for his best-beloved ones; if any one affliction be more painful than another it falls to, the lot of those whom he most distinguishes in his service. The gardener prunes his best roses with most care.”

“The Lord’s mercy often rides to the door of our heart upon the black horse of affliction.”

And from a 1859 sermon, “The Sweet Uses of Adversity” he said this: “God is chiselling you, making you into the image of Christ. None can be like the Man of Sorrow unless they have sorrows too.”

Physical suffering

For much of his ministry he suffered from various physical ailments, including gout, rheumatism and Bright’s Disease. In his later years especially, the pain in his joints was such that standing in the pulpit was a very painful experience, and he often had to kneel on a chair as he preached.

But he believed that God was involved in all his afflictions, even in his physical ailments, and he knew that like his master, he was not above such suffering. He had much to say on all this:

“I bear witness that some of the best things I have ever learned from mortal lips, I have learned from bedridden saints!”

“‘I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction’ – This has long been the motto fixed before our eye upon the wall of our bed chamber, and in many ways it has also been written on our heart. It is no mean thing to be chosen of God. God’s choice makes chosen men choice men. . . . We are chosen, not in the palace, but in the furnace. In the furnace, beauty is marred; fashion is destroyed, strength is melted, glory is consumed; here eternal love reveals its secrets, and declares its choice. So has it been in our case . . . Therefore, if today the furnace be heated seven times hotter, we will not dread it, for the glorious Son of God will walk with us amid the glowing coals.”

“I venture to say that the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health, with the exception of sickness. Sickness has frequently been of more use to the saints of God than health has. . . . A sick wife, a newly-made grave, poverty, slander, sinking of spirit, might teach lessons nowhere else to be learned so well. Trials drive us to the realities of religion.”

“I know of no one who could, more sweetly than my dear father, impart comfort to bleeding hearts and sad spirits. As the crushing of the flower causes it to yield its aroma, so he, having endured in the long-continued illness of my beloved mother, and also constant pains in himself, was able to sympathize most tenderly with all sufferers.”

As we read in Spurgeon’s autobiography (vol. 2, p. 414): “Undergirding all Spurgeon’s experience in suffering was his conviction that his ill-health was God’s gift. He gained from illness a wealth of knowledge and sympathy which he could not have gained elsewhere. In the realms of sorrow he was blessed.”

Mental and emotional suffering

As mentioned, Spurgeon struggled with deep bouts of depression for much of his life. And much of it may be attributable to a horrific experience he had to endure when he was still very young and relatively new to the ministry. It happened on the evening of October 19, 1856.

His preaching was attracting such large followings that ever newer, bigger venues were needed. Spurgeon preached at a new meeting place that evening with some 10,000 people within and another 10,000 outside: the Surrey Gardens Music Hall. Malicious cries of “fire” all of a sudden rang out, and a panic and stampede ensued.

When it was all over seven people had died and another 28 were seriously injured. The grief and sorrow over the tragedy at Surrey Gardens when he is a mere 22 years old stayed with him throughout his ministry. And like many others, his life was constantly assailed by vocal critics, opponents and enemies.

He constantly had to deal with ugly criticism, abuse and derision, often from other church leaders. Newspapers and church papers often printed malicious attacks on him and vexatious slander about him. As he wrote in 1857, “Down on my knees have I often fallen, with the hot sweat rising from my brow under some fresh slander poured upon me; in an agony of grief my heart has been well-nigh broken.”

All this added to his constant despondency and depression. Often he found himself weeping like a baby. He spoke much of his psychological suffering, knowing that he was able to give comfort to others in the same boat. Recall the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

That is how Spurgeon saw things. He knew many others were going through the deep waters of depression and despondency, so his own experiences in this could be used to help others. As he said in one sermon:

“Some of you may be in great distress of mind, a distress out of which no fellow-creature can deliver you. You are poor nervous people at whom others often laugh. I can assure you that God will not laugh at you; he knows all about that sad complaint of yours, so I urge you to go to him, for the experience of many of us has taught us that, ‘the Lord is gracious and full of compassion’.”

Many other quotes can be offered here. Let me offer just a few more:

“Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited therewith at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts thereon, that younger men might not fancy that some strange thing had happened to them when they became for a season possessed by melancholy; and that sadder men might know that one upon whom the sun has shone right joyously did not always walk in the light.”

“When I first became a pastor in London, my success appalled me; and the thought of the career which it seemed to open up, so far from elating me, cast me into the lowest depth, out of which I uttered my misery, and found no room for a Gloria in excelsis.”

“The road to sorrow has been well trodden – it is the regular sheeptrack to heaven, and all the flock of God have had to pass along it.”

“Some of us are marked by melancholy from the moment of our birth,”

“No sin is necessarily connected with sorrow of heart, for Jesus Christ our Lord once said, ‘My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.’ There was no sin in Him, and consequently none in His deep depression.”

“Just now, when anguish fills the heart, and the spirits are bruised with sore pain and travail, it is not the best season for forming a candid judgment of our own condition, or of anything else; let the judging faculty lie by, and let us with tears of loving confession throw ourselves upon our Father’s bosom, and looking up into his face believe that he loves us with all his infinite heart. “Though he slay me yet will I trust in him,” — be this the one unvarying resolve, and may the eternal Spirit work in us a perfect acquiescence in the whole will of God, be that will what it may.”

In sum, we need to develop a theology of suffering. Spurgeon knew all about this, as did so many other great saints of God. And we have a model to follow in all this – the suffering servant. Christ provides an example for all believers. As Peter said in 1 Pet. 2:21: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”

Spurgeon timeline

1834, June 19 – Charles Haddon Spurgeon born in Essex, UK
1850, January 6 – conversion in Colchester
1851 – Preaches first sermon, at Taversham
1851 – becomes pastor at Waterbeach Chapel in Cambridge
1854 – starts pastoral ministry at New Park Street Church in London, at age 19
1855 – first service at Exeter Hall
1856, January 8 – marries Susannah Thompson
1856, September 20 – twin sons Charles and Thomas born
1856, October 19 – seven killed in Surrey Gardens disaster
1857, October 7 – preaches to largest indoor crowd: 23,654 at Crystal Palace, London
1861 – the Metropolitan Tabernacle opens
1865, January – starts publishing a monthly magazine, The Sword and the Trowel
1868 – Susannah becomes an invalid at age 33
1887 – start of the “Down-Grade Controversy”
1888 – the Baptist Union votes to censure Spurgeon
1891, June 7 – last sermon preached at the Tabernacle
1892, January 31 – dies in France
1897-1900 – his four-volume autobiography is published

For further reading

Dallimore, Arnold, Spurgeon: A New Biography. Banner of Truth, 1984, 1991.
Drummond, Lewis, Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers, 3rd ed. Kregel, 1992.
Eswine, Zack, Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression. Christian Focus, 2015.
Fullerton, W. Y., Charles H. Spurgeon: London’s Most Popular Preacher. Moody Press, 1920, 1966.
Murray, Iain, The Forgotten Spurgeon. Banner of Truth, 1966.
Nettles, Tom, Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Mentor, 2013.
Piper, John, Charles Spurgeon: Preaching through Adversity. Desiring God, 2015.
Reeves, Michael, Spurgeon on the Christian Life. Crossway, 2018.
Spurgeon, Charles, C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography, 2 vols. Banner of Truth, 1962.
Triggs, Kathy, Charles Spurgeon. Bethany House, 1984.

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21 Responses to Spurgeon and Suffering

  • Hi Bill,

    Charles Spurgeon said ‘Calvinism is the Gospel’ – now that’s depressing! God only wanting, desiring and ordaining a very few to be saved. I don’t read this in my Bible.

    That said, I do think he was a great and powerful preacher with a heart for the lost. But on the topic of sickness and suffering, how does Spurgeon’s view discussed above coincide with say that of Smith Wigglesworth. Smith, who had an amazing healing ministry, believed that true repentant Christians should not remain sick. Can these two views from Spurgeon and Wigglesworth be reconciled.

    Indeed Christ did suffer, but not from sickness. Should we boldly pray and believe for someone to be healed, or do we humbly petition God and simply hope for a good outcome?

    Thanks Bill for another informative article.

    Kyle

  • Bill –
    Thank you for sharing this article. It was very enlightening. I appreciate the fact that you share the truth with regard to the ongoing degradation of our conservative values. Many Christians understand that Jesus was a man of sorrows and the reasons for that. We live in a fallen world indeed.

  • Bill, if it is OK with you, may I post here please what I have already posted in your Facebook item on this?
    Bill, you have rightly and aptly come to a most necessary subject….one so easily rejected, diminished or side-stepped by some who are our brothers and sisters in Christ – those who (in my view wrongly) insist that God will heal all in this present life if they will but believe what they say the Bible teaches.
    And should it be thought that Mr Spurgeon did not believe that God may sometimes choose to heal people physically, one only has to refer to the 1892 book by Russell H. Conwell – Chapter 7 – of “Charles Haddon Spurgeon: The World’s Great Preacher” to see the truth of the matter.
    The book is online, and one can select to read Chapter 7
    http://www.reformedreader.org/rbb/spurgeon/conwell/bos.htm

  • Many thanks for that Charles. Good stuff.

  • Thanks again for your kind words Kyle (although I will overlook your somewhat misleading characterisation of Calvinism!). Charles just above offered one helpful facet to the discussion of sickness and healing. It is indeed a complex and nuanced issue. As to this idea of whether healing is in the atonement, I have discussed that here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/04/29/is-physical-healing-in-the-atonement/

    And as to the claim that Jesus was not or could not be sick, that may be speculation on our part. See more on that here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2016/12/01/jesus-ever-sick-theological-exercise/

  • Thanks guys. One thing does intrigue me here, and on the social media where I have also posted this article: the relative lack of interest and response. Given that we all suffer, and that it is such an important theme, and given that a major designation of our Lord is that of ‘the suffering servant,’ it is surprising that there is so little interest in the article or in the topic. It seems that most folks – including most Christians – just don’t want to talk or think about suffering. But the Bible talks about it constantly. Hmmm…

  • Thanks for this article Bill. I am currently emerging triumphant from 7 years of sorrow and loss. Reading this has helped me to see why that happened to me and how God has changed me though suffering to come to a greater understanding of His purpose in my life. While I am still recovering I feel excited every day as to what is in store for me. I pray for the courage and conviction that saints like Spurgeon had. And I am truly thankful for men of God like yourself who are willing to say it how it is.

  • Many thanks Kate. Bless you.

  • I thought this another invaluable post, Bill. I remember attending a Catholic mass once with my Pentecostal sister, a long time ago, and of her remarking that she missed that part of our Catholic upbringing, in that it acknowledged and allowed for suffering. This impressed my new, “born again” faith and it kept those passages in Scripture in the foreground for me.

  • I have a great deal of interest in this article and topic Bill. I have a similar problem. I’ve been through alot of suffering in recent years and read alot on the subject. Your article a few months ago was great – 3 Cheers for Lament. I printed it off and showed a few people who also found it very helpful.
    I’ve read much on this topic too – eg Philip Yancey’s – Where is God when it Hurts, Disappointment with God, and Reaching for the Invisible God.

    Also other books include:
    Making Sense out of Suffering – Peter Kreeft
    Glorious Ruin – Tullian Tchvidjian
    When God Weeps – Joni Erickson
    When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer – Jerry Sittser
    A Grace Disguised – Jerry Sittser

    I find i have an immense frustration with bringing up this subject at most churches. The Pentecostal churches especially rarely bring the topic up and if so just gloss over it. It saddens me a great deal as when I went through terrible grief and suffering I read Yancey’s books and found some great solace and answers in there to deepen my faith. I wish churches weren’t afraid of this subject so much – it would make people’s faith more real and solid and churches more honest and raw in conversation. Of course it would scare aware crowds and those who just want ”feel good” services. That’s probably a main reason why churches don’t often talk about suffering – if people are scared off the money may not come in as much.

  • Ironically talking about this subject excites me. I’d be happy to preach on it at any church if they’d have me, but don’t expect offers to flood in.
    Through all the suffering I’ve been through I identify with Jesus more than ever before. After all, he cried ”My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”. This gives us peace more than the good times ever will as we know our Creator feels the griefs and sorrows we feel.
    I finish with this Spurgeon quote from https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/blog-entries/10-spurgeon-quotes-for-wounded-christians

    “I, the preacher of this hour, beg to bear my witness that the worst days I have ever had have turned out to be my best days, and when God has seemed most cruel to me, he has then been most kind. If there is anything in this world for which I would bless him more than for anything else, it is for pain and affliction. I am sure that in these things the richest, tenderest love has been manifested to me. Our Father’s wagons rumble most heavily when they are bringing us the richest freight of the bullion of his grace. Love letters from heaven are often sent in black-edged envelopes. The cloud that is black with horror is big with mercy. Fear not the storm, it brings healing in its wings, and when Jesus is with you in the vessel the tempest only hastens the ship to its desired haven.”

  • Many thanks Jeremy. Yes, as I said in a comment above, and in various articles, most Christians don’t even want to talk about this topic. Pentecostal Christians certainly often avoid it, at least if they are into the health and wealth gospel, or the name it and claim it gospel, but evangelicals as a whole try to avoid it as well – they are too busy trying to have their ‘best life now’. As I keep saying, we need to develop a theology of suffering.

  • Thank you Mr. Muehlenberg for this article, it was a real encouragement to me. God tells us to ‘number our days’ and this is what I believe Mr. Spurgeon did. Such a prolific man, yet his seed planting via preaching continues to this day.

    Fifty-eight years old, and he dies. After forty years of preaching the Cross of Christ, he dies. An amazing life that continues to strengthen the Church.

  • It took a gaol term, bankruptcy and the loss of his family for Oscar Wilde to learn, as he wrote in his De Profundis, that: “Where there is sorrow there is holy ground. Some day people will realise what that means…” [https://www.gutenberg.org/files/921/921-h/921-h.htm ]!

    Spurgeon evidently followed in the footsteps of Jeremiah, St Paul and William Cowper when it came to wrestling in the might of the Man of Sorrows with the proverbial “Black Dog”. The faith of Christ has no place for forced, fake “plastic” smiles and manic, hysterical compulsory laughter.

  • Many thanks, Bill. You have presented a discussion that should encourage us all. Who, in the act of proclaiming Law and Gospel, has not reaped both raving compliments and scathing criticism? While the compliments are salve to the criticism, the criticism usually comes from those who somehow miss the point or brazenly defend their sin, and this brings on the melancholy or depressed experience.

    This article helps us understand that.

  • Amazing he was attacked by other Christians. Some of a man’s worse enemies can be his own family or in this case his christian family.

  • I have only latterly discovered this wonderful site of Spurgeon’s sermons. When one reads the immediacy and relevance of these they make much of what we hear from the pulpit today sound like so much shallow drivel.
    http://archive.spurgeon.org/index/rindex.php

    Try this one on suffering.
    https://www.spurgeongems.org/vols25-27/chs1620.pdf

    David Skinner UK

  • Hi Bill, I always appreciate everything on Culture Watch…excellent, enlightening, sharp and encouraging. This one is particularly special and pertinent. As you’ve said, so few in some churches are willing to discuss suffering, let alone admit it’s existence as part of God’s plan to mature us. Thanks so much.

  • Suffering is central to the Christian experience. We can only fully enter into Christ through our suffering. How can we truly understand what Christ did for us on the cross, if we can’t comprehend our sin that put him there – and similarly how can we understand His suffering if we do not enter into it with Him, and endure it with Him.

    The apostle Paul wrote at length that to suffer for Christ is gain. Glorious gain. To be Christian, is to suffer.

    As Brother Yun (The Heavenly man) said
    “Don’t pray for the persecution to stop! We shouldn’t pray for a lighter load to carry, but a stronger back to endure! Then the world will see that God is with us, empowering us to live in a way that reflects his love and power. This is true freedom!”

    “The path of following the Lord Jesus Christ is not an easy one. Along the way lies suffering and hardship, but nothing we experience will ever compare to the suffering Jesus endured for us on the cross.”

    “We must submit ourselves to God and embrace whatever he allows to happen. Sometimes there are times of peace, other times struggle and persecution. But both are from the Lord, to mould us into the vessels he wants us to be.”

    “In order to realize the worth of the anchor we need to feel the stress of the storm.”?-Corrie ten Boom
    “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure…” ?-Hebrews 6:19

    Oswald Chambers:
    “The greatest test of Christianity is the wear and tear of daily life; it is like the shining of silver: the more it is rubbed the brighter it grows.”

    “If through a broken heart God can bring His purposes to pass in the world, then thank Him for breaking your heart.”

    “No healthy Christian ever chooses suffering; he chooses God’s will, as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not.”

    Unfortunately often this suffering is at the hands of others who would call themselves people of God.

    Much of Spurgeon’s later suffering was brought about by denominationalism – issues which result in the exclusion of people/avoidance of fellowship based upon beliefs which are not central to salvation.

    As Kyle wrote – “Charles Spurgeon said ‘Calvinism is the Gospel’ – now that’s depressing!” True, Spurgeon was a one-eyed Calvinist but even Spurgeon realised and preached for the Body to come together under a general creed that establishes the very basics for a Christian faith but does not seek to exclude people based upon varying held beliefs which are not foundational to salvation. (That, and the way that the Baptist Council handled, and thus perceived motivation, was his issue).

    Nothing can separate us from the love of God, even our false theology, if we seek Him.

    http://archive.spurgeon.org/s_and_t/dg09.php
    As he wrote…
    “To say that “a creed comes between a man and his God,” is to suppose that it is not true; for truth, however definitely stated, does not divide the believer from his Lord. ”

    So Spurgeon was yet another who suffered at the hands of those professing to be of God.

    There is a direct relationship between suffering, and the growth of the Kingdom. We do not go looking for it, but those that seek to escape it, to pray against it, seek to avoid the will of God. How can we display God’s grace if we are not hurt and bruised first?

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