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: https://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: https://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.