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Spurgeon, Depression, and Suffering Christians

Jul 13, 2020

We can learn from Spurgeon and others when we struggle with depression:

While some Christians may think that no blood-bought child of God should ever deal with depression, plenty of them do nonetheless. Indeed, visit any Christian bookstore and you will find numerous titles dealing with this matter. Many Christians do struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, and over the years I have been among them – at least at certain times.

Although I have written before on this topic, I make no claim to being a counsellor, a pastor, or a psychologist. But I do seek to draw upon those who are, or those who have some expertise in the biblical and theological understanding of the matter. See this piece for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/10/02/on-depression/

Here I want to make use of just a few volumes (which I detail below) and share parts of them with you. My main interest is in the biblical, theological, biographical and historical. As such, let me point out that many great saints of the past have dealt with depression and related issues.

Indeed, Arterburn and Hunter remind us that “a number of famous men in the Bible battled depression, from Job to the prophet Elijah to King David. In fact, numerous psalms chronicle David’s feelings of loss, abandonment by God, and his darkness of soul.” Also, Jonah “became so angry and depressed after God showed compassion toward repentant Nineveh that he wanted to die.”

And church history also offers us plenty of examples of depressed saints. I have already penned pieces on spiritual champions such as Charles Spurgeon who suffered not just physically, but mentally and psychologically as well: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/08/03/spurgeon-and-suffering/

In addition to what I said in that piece, let me say a bit more. A number of the volumes I list below feature Spurgeon, so let me draw from them. In his introduction to the sermons of Spurgeon on suffering (Silent Shades), Zack Eswine writes:

Pastor Charles Spurgeon was a friend to those who physically and mentally suffered. He and his own dear wife, Susannah, suffered truly through years of physical and mental pains. In this light, Charles preached transparently about sorrow and their many kinds, including depression in all of its forms. He was no trite Preacher. He spoke as one who had been there.

Perhaps because he so sorely needed God’s comfort for himself, Charles dug deep for a robust biblical pathway for his sufferings. He found in Jesus, not only a savior, but a fellow-friend for the sorrowing. Over time, out of his own heartbroken miseries, he learned how to sustain with a word him who is weary (Isa. 50:4). He comforted others out of the comfort that he himself had received (2 Cor. 1:4).

And John Piper says this:

Everyone faces adversity and must find ways to persevere through the oppressing moments of life. Everyone must get up and walk through the routines of making breakfast and washing clothes and going to work and paying bills and discipling children. We must, in general, keep life going when our hearts are breaking.

But it’s different with pastors — not totally different, but different. The heart is the instrument of our vocation. Charles Spurgeon said, “Ours is more than mental work — it is heart work, the labour of our inmost soul.” When a pastor’s heart is breaking, therefore, he must labor with a broken instrument. Preaching is the pastor’s main work, and preaching is heart work, not just mental work. The question becomes, then, not just how you keep living when the marriage is blank or when the finances don’t reach or when the pews are bare and friends forsake you, but How do you keep preaching?

I thank God for the healing history of the power of God in the lives of his saints and, in particular, for the life and ministry of Charles Spurgeon, who, for thirty-eight years at the New Park Street Chapel and the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, modeled how to preach through adversity. And for those who have eyes to see, the lessons are not just for pastors, but for all of us.

Let me quote from just one sermon of Spurgeon on suffering: “The Man of Sorrows” based in Isaiah 53:3, “A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” He says in part:

Let it never be forgotten that the subject of the sorrows of the Savior has proven to be more efficacious for comfort to mourners than any other theme in the compass of Revelation, or out of it. Even the glories of Christ afford no such consolation to afflicted spirits as the sufferings of Christ. Christ is in all attitudes the consolation of Israel, but He is most so as the Man of Sorrows. Troubled spirits turn not so much to Bethlehem as to Calvary; they prefer Gethsemane to Nazareth. The afflicted do not so much look for comfort in Christ as He will come a second time in splendor of state, as to Christ as He came the first time, a weary Man and full of woes. The passion flower yields us the best perfume.; the tree of the Cross bleeds the most healing balm; like in this case cures like, for there is no remedy for sorrow beneath the sun like the sorrows of Immanuel. As Aaron’s rod swallowed up all the other rods, so the griefs of Jesus make our griefs disappear, and thus you see that in the black soil of our subject, light is sown for the righteous—light which springs up for those who sit in darkness and in the region of the shadow of death. Let us go, then, without reluctance to the house of mourning and commune with “The Chief Mourner,” who above all others could say, “I am the Man that has seen affliction” (Lam. 3:1).

Drugs and medication

While some might think all this is helpful, they may well have some practical questions here. For example, can the Christian make use of anti-depressants and the like? As I say, I am not properly qualified to answer such questions, but I can point you to those who are.

And those who I have consulted all say that there can be a place for such things, but they also offer caution in doing so. Arterburn and Hunter for example say this: “Dr. David Allen, a psychiatrist … understands the spiritual components of depression and says that drugs do not banish the darkness completely. ‘With drugs we can rearrange chemicals in the brain, but we cannot touch a person’s loneliness and isolation,’ he said.”

Moreland puts it this way:

I would never suggest to someone that they try to deal with anxiety or depression only by taking medications. Instead, I would urge that they attack the problem holistically and use physical (including medical), spiritual, and psychological tools to get better. While medications have been crucial for my own restoration, at the end of the day, they are not for everyone. But at the very least, a Christian can and should be open to exploring this option without shame or feeling like a spiritual failure.

Welch offers this advice:

The problem with immediately opting for a medical explanation is that, once the decision is made, every other perspective seems superficial or irrelevant. Why, for example would you bother considering issues raised by personal suffering when a pill might provide relief? If depressed persons assume that their problem is fundamentally medical, asking them to look at their relationships or their basic beliefs about God will seem as useful as prescribing physical exercise for baldness….

The basic rule is this: physical treatments can possibly alleviate physical symptoms, and when depression is raging most people would be delighted to take the edge off some of the physical symptoms; but physical treatments don’t treat the guilt, fear, self-loathing and other distinctly spiritual symptoms.

Finally, John Piper says this:

I do not want to give the impression that medication should be the first or main solution to spiritual darkness. Of course, by itself medicine is never a solution to spiritual darkness. All the fundamental issues of life remain to be brought into proper relation to Christ when the medicine has done its work. Antidepressants are not the decisive savior. Christ is. In fact, the almost automatic use of pills for child misbehavior and adult sorrows is probably going to hurt us as a society.

I have of course only scratched the surface here on this deep, complex and multi-layered issue. But sometimes just knowing that you are not alone, and that others deal with these sorts of things as well can be a real help. As such, study the life of Spurgeon and other great saints and see how God helped them in these areas.

Let me close with a bullet-point summary that Moreland offers of Chapter 6 of his book, “Suffering, Healing, and Disappointment With God”:

-We are and feel largely what we think.
-The secular condition of contemporary life contributes to the current epidemic of anxiety and depression.
-Without God, there is no meaning, no purpose, to life, yet these are crucial for a proper, healing perspective on anxiety/depression.
-Our worldview is the most important aspect of our lives and our mental health.
-Knowing what to do when God seems distant, uninvolved, and a no-show when our need is great is critical for minimizing anxiety.
-God wants us to be well both physically and mentally.
-Suffering and sickness can have positive long-term benefits.
-There are several good reasons that God does not always answer prayers for healing.
-God wants an honest and authentic relationship with us. After all, he already knows how we feel and think about him before we tell him. So we can be honest.
-Learning and praying the lament psalms are good ways of handling our disappointments with God.
-We should remember the important theological assumptions that underlie the lament psalms.

For further reading

There are countless books one can mention here. These are just the books I have quoted from in this piece or are related to my discussion. Many more could be cited, but these eight volumes are all of some real help and benefit:

Arterburn, Stephen and Brenda Hunter, Understanding and Loving a Person With Depression. David C. Cook, 2017.
Eswine, Zack, Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression. Christian Focus, 2015.
Lloyd-Jones, Martyn Lloyd, Spiritual Depression. Marshall Pickering, 1965, 1998.
Piper, John, Charles Spurgeon: Preaching Through Adversity. Desiring God, 2015.
Piper, John, When the Darkness Will Not Lift, IVP, 2007.
Moreland, J. P., Finding Quiet. Zondervan, 2019.
Spurgeon, C. H., The Silent Shades of Sorrow. Christian Heritage, 2015.
Welch, Edward, Depression. New Growth Press, 2011.

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9 Responses to Spurgeon, Depression, and Suffering Christians

  • I used to be one of those self-righteous Christians who believed a true Christian would not experience depression, even though my own nature is naturally melancholy. I lived through some difficult times over a period of 20 years or so with no major changes in my disposition until 10 years ago when a series of major events in rapid succession over a period of 4 years, culminating in the most heartbreaking one of all 6 years ago, tipped me over into what I now recognise as depression – at a peak at the moment because it’s a difficult time of the yer for me. Fortunately because of many years in the mental health sector, I recognised what was going on, and had at hand practical strategies to keep myself moving forwards, choosing to live and feel my experience rather than blunt it with medication – in no way being critical of those who have needed to take the medication path. Because of the many clear examples of Scripture and the examples of heroes such as Spurgeon, I have accepted that what is happening to me, and many others, is a normal but difficult part of a fallen life. However there is one fact above all that sustains me – the knowledge that this experience is time limited. It will not last forever. Scripture reveals the Light at the end of the tunnel and this experience will be only a blip on the radar in the context of eternity.

  • Many thanks indeed for that Anon – bless you.

  • Thanks Bill. Timely word from God for me tonight. Bless you.

  • Hi Brother Bill – Thank you so much for addressing this very real issue of depression in the Christian. I too am a melancholic personality. I am also a life-long sufferer of deep bouts of depression ( first suicidal feeling and thought at age 4 or 5 ), and I know what it is to fall into great darkness of both mind and spirit.

    Before my conversion from Mormonism to Christ almost 27 years ago, I hovered many times between life and death. Great waves of blackness would greet me first thing in the morning, making it so very difficult to even get out of bed. I would not eat – even showering seemed like an impossible task at times. Until the Lord saved me just months shy of my 30th birthday, I was sure I’d have taken my own life! It was a solid study of scripture over a two year period that led me out of Mormonism and out of suicidal despair!

    As a Christian, I still battle episodes of depression and high levels of anxiety. God has not saved me from it, but He has continued to save me through it! His word has been paramount in keeping and sustaining me in the dark night of the soul. I am learning to trust more and more in the God of my faith.

    God has used both Charles H Spurgeon and his wife Susannah many times in my Christian walk to help pull me through episodes of darkness. I have read many of his sermons and books and I use his devotions daily. I also love Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones and have read his book Spiritual Depression. The sovereignty of God undergirds everything they write and Gods gospel is preached clearly and passionately. Another book that helped me a lot in my early years of conversion was called “Masks of Melancholy,” by Dr John White – A Christian Psychiatrist Looks at Depression and Suicide. “The Bruised Reed,” by the very gentle Puritan Richard Sibbes is another book I recommend. It can be found on Grace Gems as an audio – it was instrumental in bringing me through a very bad year in 2017. Charles Spurgeon once said of him -“ Sibbes never wastes the students time, he scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands.”

    Lastly, God has wasted nothing of my darkness – my ministry is to the persecuted for Christ in Pakistan. The songs I write and record are born out of my own suffering and this being used by God to better enable me to enter into the sufferings of Christ and His people.

    So sorry if this is longer than usual. I just wanted to encourage you and anyone reading this article. God bless and sustain you brother.

    Kaye H

  • Many thanks for that Kaye. Yes i discuss the Sibbes’ volume here:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/11/a-bruised-reed/

  • I’ve suffered depression/anxiety for 25 years, but it was also the very thing that brought me to my knees and helped me to see my need for God. Through my desperate need of God, I also came to the realization i was a sinner headed towards hell, and thus the need for repentance and trusting in the saviour. At the same time I was still suffering quiet deep in the black dog, and my doctor who was a devoted christian put me on antidepressants. Apart from being redeemed and coming to know God, it was the best thing that happened to me.
    I agree doctors hand out pills like candy today, but, as for me, i tried alternate therapies, herbal remedies, changing diet, and nothing could quiet lift the darkness, (even though I stood in the light of Christ) like a small dose of prozac.
    I’m not happy that I need to take them (over twenty years, I’ve tried many times to go without, but to no avail) but at the same time, I realize we live in a sin cursed fallen world, and no meds are without side risks.
    But often, when I come across depressed people, my advice always is to make changes in life, look at sleeping habits, stress factors, diet etc, and if none of those work, then perhaps they may need some medical help.

  • As someone who has gone through trials in the form of my husband’s illness which happened shortly after we were saved and married to his recent heart transplant. All of this also caused financial difficulty and many other issues a newly married couple did not expect to deal with. While I would not wish to go through suffering, I can say these trials have been an instrument of transformation and sanctification in my life. His recent transplant brought up some horrible PTSD that I realized was from the original trial when he became ill but was originally caused by it. I have suffered terrible anxiety and depressive episodes. I have considered taking meds but have not gone that route. I have no problem with meds I just think I really need to work through some issues. When this recent transplant journey began, I walked into it, after some struggle, wanting to embrace whatever the Lord had in store for me. I wanted to feel it, live it and see God in the midst. I have learned as Amy Carmichael stated “In acceptance lies peace”. Fighting God achieves nothing but insanity leading to bitterness, resentment and anger.
    I am still struggling with PTSD, depression, and anxiety but it has gotten better. It is a process, there is no quick fix. Trials shake us to our core. It challenges everything in us, especially what we think we believe. It shows us the idols in our life and reveals the cracks in the foundation of our faith. If we listen, God graciously shows us our false theology and where we have strayed. It is not easy but taking the time to examine these areas bring a lot a healing, as well us bringing us to a stronger relationship with the Father. I had a lot to deal with and am still weeding out the false beliefs I had allowed to become truths. I am weak and needy and am working on bringing it all to the throne of grace instead of beating myself up. I forgot grace, mercy and the love and compassion of God. Ultimately, I needed to take my eyes off myself and put them back on Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me. Sometimes we need to go back to basics, back to our first love, and remember all that He has done. Trials, pain, suffering tend to make us forgetful of who God is and what he has done.
    I think if you need meds, take them. There are people who have need of these medications. I would just caution anyone to be careful, medication can numb us and keep us from examining ourselves and dealing with things that are more spiritual in nature. Sometimes, it is not depression but God calling us to deal with some serious issues. I find most of the time I am struggling to trust the Lord. I want control and though I trust him I question why he does what he does. I want life to deliver what it never can, or people to be what they can never be. Like Paul, we need to learn to live with the brokenness of this world and knowing we will never find our fulfillment this side of eternity. I say Paul because when I read about Paul in Scripture, I find he keeps focused on Christ and his mission and not the trials and suffering. This I need to do, and when I do, I have peace.
    Grateful for ministry Bill. God Bless You!
    Julie

  • Thanks for sharing your stories George and Julie.

  • Psychiatry used to speak of endogenous and situational depression. I can identify with both. In fact endogenous depression is likely to lead to situational since its debilitating effects (tiredness and distraction etc) make life difficult to cope with.

    I have (largely) leaned to identify when my thoughts are a cause rather than a symptom. This however is not always easy. I suspect many assume their thoughts are the cause when they may be a symptom.

    In my case something happened in my brain in my late twenties that never quite fixed itself. A steel skull cap descended.. a glass ceiling that could not be shattered. A perpetual fug settled in. Energy levels significantly dropped… this was real not imagined. Medication helped to ameliorate the effects a bit – it mitigated rather than removed them.

    However fairly recently a drug subscribed did what no previous drug had done and significantly raised/diffused/eased the steel cap. Previously it was there even if my thoughts were clear (and was crippling) but now it is only pronounced if my thoughts are troubled. A big improvement.

    Thus I would advocate medical help.

    Strangely, as I’ve got older, (mid-sixties) I’ve been more troubled by a) a weariness at the thought of cross-bearing b) an increased moral scrupulosity akin to Luther’s problem c) doubts about personal salvation.

    In earlier life these were not troublesome. I suspect different stages of life bring different challenges to faith. My mental fights/anxieties are rarely about circumstances and mainly about ethics – what is right.

    Having said this, the threat of persecution in the West, has recently been a bit of a mind battle. Faith has had to assert the power of the indwelling Spirit to enable me to stand. Sounds weak I know, but our courage is only in the Lord. Mind you, I do wonder whether it is wise for me to read Tom Holland’s dominion (and Christian suffering) or blogs about cultural Marxism ?

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