It comes as a surprise to some that Charles Spurgeon had a lifelong battle with depression.
His reputation as a famed and powerful preacher, his cheery wit, and his sheer manliness might lead us to imagine there could never be a chink in his Victorian Englishman’s armour.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, of course: life in a fallen world must mean distress, and Spurgeon’s life was indeed full of physical and mental pain.
Aged 22, as pastor of a large church and with twin babies at home to look after, he was preaching to thousands in the Surrey Gardens Music Hall when pranksters yelled ‘Fire!’ starting a panic to exit the building which killed seven and left 28 severely injured.
His mind was never the same again. His wife, Susannah, wrote: ‘My beloved’s anguish was so deep and violent, that reason seemed to totter in her throne, and we sometimes feared that he would never preach again’ (Morning devotions by Susannah Spurgeon: Free grace and dying love, Banner of Truth; p.166).
Severe illness, opposition, and bereavement all made their mark on the great preacher’s life, so much so that today he would almost certainly be diagnosed as clinically depressed and treated with medication and therapy.
Suffering and ministry
In all this, Spurgeon believed that God had a good purpose in all his suffering, and because of it felt he had become a better prepared and more compassionate pastor. It enabled him to deliver a striking and most unusual lecture to his students, titled ‘The minister’s fainting fits’, in which he said:
‘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’ (Lectures to my students, 1:167).
The suffering the Lord granted to Spurgeon tenderised him and allowed him to be a doctor for souls in a unique way. And that’s what we’re looking for at Union School of Theology. As we raise up men who will do the work of ministry, we are looking for Spurgeons: tender-hearted and compassionate pastors, who will pour the comfort of Christ crucified into broken and hurting lives.
Before seeking relief from such melancholy, Spurgeon sought to understand God’s purposes in these things, that he might actually profit from the experience. It is quite clear from Scripture that, through believers’ suffering, God refines them like gold in a furnace (1 Peter 1:6–7).
Spurgeon saw that our heavenly Father ordains suffering for believers. Though our trials may come from the world, the flesh, and the devil, they are overruled and ordained by God, who treats them as an important part of our new life in Christ (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [MTP], 38:2–3).
For a start, we simply could not be like Christ if we are not treated like him, if we have a life of ease when he had so much pain. ‘Do you expect to be crowned with gold where he was crowned with thorns? Shall lilies grow for you and briars for him?’ (MTP, 23:270).
Comfort in Christ
When ministering to the downcast, pastors commonly point people to the resurrection and the victory of Christ. And the thought of death defeated, tears wiped away, and exchanging the helmets and swords of our struggle for palm branches and crowns was all essential comfort for Spurgeon. However, when pastoring the suffering and depressed, he seemed most often to have focused people on Christ crucified and as the Man of Sorrows.
Spurgeon found for himself that in seasons of great pain, the ‘sympathy of Jesus is the next most precious thing to his sacrifice’ (MTP, 19:124–25). Again and again, Spurgeon therefore returned to the theme of Christ’s compassion for his suffering people. In an 1890 sermon titled ‘The tenderness of Jesus’, for example, he spoke, while feeling his own weakness, about Christ as the High Priest who feels for us in our infirmities.
‘This morning,’ he said, ‘being myself more than usually compassed with infirmities, I desire to speak, as a weak and suffering preacher, of that High Priest who is full of compassion: and my longing is that any who are low in spirit, faint, despondent, and even out of the way, may take heart to approach the Lord Jesus…
‘Jesus is touched, not with a feeling of your strength, but of your infirmity. Down here, poor, feeble nothings affect the heart of their great High Priest on high, who is crowned with glory and honour. As the mother feels with the weakness of her babe, so does Jesus feel with the poorest, saddest, and weakest of his chosen’ (MTP, 36:315, 320).
In suffering, then, it is not only the case that we get to draw nearer to Christ, becoming more like him and leaning more fully on him. In such times, Christ draws near to us to walk with his people in the furnace. And not only to walk with us, but to bear us through.
Michael Reeves is president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology (www.ust.ac.uk), which has hubs across the UK, making an accredited theological education geographically and financially accessible for all. He is the author of numerous books including Spurgeon on the Christian Life.