Spurgeon’s Sorrows: a book I never realised I was desperate for
If you’re from a certain corner of the global harvest field that is the church, then Charles Haddon Spurgeon will be a familiar, if not revered, name. The ‘prince of preachers’ (as he was known) was perhaps the world’s first megapastor – but the wonderful thing about him was that it never went to his head, he wasn’t corrupt, he was a character of whom it could certainly be said that ‘what you see is what you get.’ A far cry, in other words, from the smooth-talking, chiseled and attractive megapastors of today.
For the most astonishing thing about him was not the fact that he was appointed pastor of New Park Street church in Southwark (it eventually became Metropolitan Tabernacle church in London’s Elephant & Castle) at the age of only 19.
And yet, he would be quite open about it. In the pulpit. For he was a pastor who wasn’t too proud to be frail or to limp… in public. And I cannot tell you what a gift that is to those of us who are frail and limp (whether we are pastors or not).
Zack Eswine is a writer I’ve encountered before – I’d dipped into his Preaching to a Post-Everything World for example. But it was only after devouring his Sensing Jesus (see previous post) that I appreciated his real pastor’s heart. For he has been through the mill himself. And he is not afraid to be open about it.
Ancient and modern experience of the dark valley
So having finished that one, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who suffer from depression. Eswine is a pastor and a scholar – and he has studied Spurgeon’s published sermons (by his death 3600 had been published!) to see how he tackles the theme of mental affliction, both autobiographically and pastorally. And this book is the result. It therefore offers a unique, historical chain of biblical interpretation and spiritual experience:
Eswine’s experience ⇐ Spurgeon’s Preaching ⇐ Spurgeon’s Experience ⇐ Scripture writers’ experience
We very speedily care for bodily diseases; they are too painful to let us slumber in silence: and they soon urge us to seek a physician or a surgeon for our healing. Oh, if we were as much alive to the more serious wounds of the inner man. (p13)
Or this in Spurgeon’s sermon on the startling Psalm 88:
The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour. (p25)
But Spurgeon knows that the pains refine a person to be able to relate to others who might be weighed down by the affliction:
When a person “has been through a similar experience” of depression, “he uses another tone of voice altogether. He knows that, even if it is nonsense to the strong, it is not so to the weak, and he so adapts his remarks so that he cheers” the sufferer “where the other only inflicts additional pain. Broken hearted one, Jesus Christ knows all your troubles, for similar troubles were his portion” too. (p31)
And this is the thing – many trample blithely on hidden wounds, and consequently unwittingly do more damage than the pains they seek to heal. But Spurgeon knew. He’d been there – and regularly had to step back from the work. And he loved people in such a way that they responded to him with equal openness and vulnerability. So he seeks to reassure us all:
“Depression of spirit is no index of declining grace.” It is Christ and not the absence of depression that saves us. So, we declare this truth. Our sense of God’s absence does not mean that He is so. Remember, depression is a “misfortune not a fault.” (p39)
The gentle application of truth
But what I think is so special about this book is that we find within its pages two people (Eswine and Spurgeon) who are articulate about both spiritual reality and personal pain, because they have been through the dark valley and know the Lord. This gives the book both authenticity and the surprises that come from the experienced. Speaking of Jesus’ own suffering, Eswine suggests (derived from a number of Spurgeon’s sermons):
Those who suffer depression have an ally, a hero, a companion-redeemer, advocating for the mentally harassed.
At this point, it might surprise us that heaven is not always the best consolation for those in depression. In fact, when we are conscious only of our misery, it sometimes offers little consolation to attempt comfort by constantly referring to the great by and by. In these times, “The afflicted do not so much look for comfort to Christ as he will come a second time… as to Christ as he came the first time, a weary man and full of woes.”
Why? Because, we ourselves are weary and full of woe with no finishing line in sight. (p85)
I suspect that this is where the true value of the book comes in. I’ve read a LOT of books about and for depression. Many have been good and timely for me and others. But this one stands head and shoulders above the rest. Eswine manages to combine comfort for the suffering, hope for the lost, truth for the confused, and wisdom for the caring. It explicitly seeks to help both the afflicted and those who love the afflicted (with all the confusion, impatience and bemusement another’s depression inevitably provokes).
Because of this slowness or absence of cure, sufferers of depression must daily withstand voices of condemnation. After all, “Shouldn’t you be over it by now?”
Condemnation comes from what Charles calls the “ungenerous suspicions” which many harbour toward those in depression. (p58)
Eswine never ducks the difficult stuff because Spurgeon never did, but neither fails to get the tone right. So one of the most surprising, but crucial, chapters was on suicidal thoughts – but even here there is gentle compassion and realism. As Eswine summarises, “our sorrows belong to Jesus.”
Charles cherished a certain picture. The engraver portrayed the moment in Pilgrim’s Progress in which Christian panics, swallowed up by the deeps of a river and going under. The portrait shows Christian’s companion, named Hopeful, pushing up with his arm around Christian and lifting up his hands shouting, “Fear not! Brother, I feel the bottom.”
With this picture on his mind, the preacher so familiar with sorrows then rejoices with those listening to him. “This is just what Jesus does in our trials. “ Charles proclaims. “He puts his arm around us, points up and says, “Fear not! The water may be deep, but the bottom is good.” (p143)
This has therefore become my default go-to-book on depression (with its secular counterpart, William Styron’s Darkness Visible). I cannot recommend it enough. And it made me love and appreciate the prince of preachers all the more… would that all would receive the balm of his pastor’s heart.