Charles Spurgeon’s Pain: What He Learned Through Depression

Image: getfesty.com

Image: getfesty.com

John Piper, in a perceptive article on Spurgeon and adversity, sees several contributing factors to Spurgeon’s depression.

Overwork. His friend, missionary David Livingstone, said he did the work of two men every day: running his orphanage (Spurgeons, still a leading charity today) and a church of 4,000 members (the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London); editing a magazine, writing books, answering several hundred letters a week – the list goes on. Spurgeon saw this as a virtue (“If we die early because of excessive labour, there is more of heaven“). Today, many would seriously question his ‘work – life balance’.

Pain and sorrow. He married Susannah in 1856. Their twin sons were born the day after the horrific stampede at a service where he was preaching in 1856, where seven people were trampled to death. So for Spurgeon, even the gift of fatherhood was a mixed blessing. They had no more children. When Susannah was 33, she became an invalid and remained so until she died, 27 years later. Spurgeon himself suffered so badly from gout that he felt he was being bitten by snakes. He was known to say that the pain would be the end of him.

Hostile criticism. Perhaps because he was a larger than life figure and popular, Spurgeon was attacked from all quarters of the Church.  In 1857 he wrote: “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.”

Yet it was the trauma of the seven people trampled to death in the Royal Surrey Gardens that broke something in him, at only 22 and newly wed. In his first book, The Saint and His Saviour, he described his agony:

When the storm was over, a kind of stupor of grief ministered a mournful medicine to me. I sought solitude, where I could tell my griefs to flowers and the dew could weep with me. Here my mind lay, like a wreck upon the sand, incapable of its usual motion. I was in a strange land, and a stranger in it. My thoughts, which had been to me a cup of delights, were like pieces of broken glass, the piercing and cutting miseries of my pilgrimage.

Image: mflikie.com

Image: mflikie.com

In time, Spurgeon learned to rise from this deep pit of ‘shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness‘ and make his mark on church and nation. Eventually, he could even see divine providence behind it.

By nature a fighter, Spurgeon initially refused to accept depression. He called it his “worst feature.” “Despondency is not a virtue; I believe it is a vice. I am heartily ashamed of myself for falling into it, but I am sure there is no remedy for it like a holy faith in God.” With the passing years, as bouts of depression continued to lay him low, he came through to various conclusions, which may be of help to anyone who struggles with the ‘all-beclouding hopelessness.’

In an early (1859) sermon, ‘The Sweet Uses of Adversity‘, he writes: Perhaps in your own person you are the continual subject of a sad depression of spirit? and offers some thoughts. These could be seen as the standard Christian answers, even a little pat.

  • It may be that God is contending with you that he may show his own power in upholding you (much as the parent of a gifted child delights to see it put through hard questions, because he knows the child can answer them all).
  • Perhaps, O tried soul, the Lord is doing this to develop graces in you. Afflictions are often the black mounts in which God sets the jewels of his children’s graces, to make them shine the better.
  • God is chiselling you, making you into the image of Christ. None can be like the Man of Sorrow unless they have sorrows too.
Spurgeon in later years

Spurgeon in later years

We sense two things emerging. First, an undefensive acceptance that bad and painful things happen, and we may never know why. The great preacher who could analyse most things in life and present them in a 3-heading sermon, could not analyse pain and depression.

Second, a more mature response to the issue of depression, born of his experience. In a later sermon, ‘When a Preacher is Downcast‘, he stresses the need for wisdom, recreation, for time spent enjoying nature, and for vacations to maintain a healthy soul. He also brings in the positives of his experience in the dark valleys of depression.

  • This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry. The cloud is black before it breaks and overshadows before it yields its deluge of mercy.
  • Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing, a John the Baptist heralding the nearer coming of my Lord’s richer blessing. So have far better men than I found it. The scouring of the vessel has fitted it for the Master’s use. Immersion in suffering has preceded the filling of the Holy Ghost. The wilderness is the way to Canaan. The low valley leads to the towering mountain. Defeat prepares for victory. The raven is sent forth before the dove. The darkest hour of the night precedes the day-dawn.

 

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

6 responses to “Charles Spurgeon’s Pain: What He Learned Through Depression”

  1. beatdepression776 says :

    Thanks for this Trevor. i recently did a 4-part blog on Charles Spurgeon’s depression so it’s good to see somebody else is writing about him too. Wasn’t he an amazing source of encouragement?

    • Trevor Saxby says :

      Hi Sharon. Thank you for this 🙂 I had a look at your posts on Spurgeon and only found 3 – probably my mistake. Amazing, yes, honest and sensible too, as well as profoundly trusting of God even when circumstances seemed to be against such a stance. I’m in awe!

  2. Jeremy Nicholas says :

    Hi Trevor, What an inspirational man. I was just wondering if all of Gods mighty men/women have to battle and overcome the same or similar difficulties in their lives?

    • Trevor Saxby says :

      Hi Jeremy, thanks for commenting. I think that scripture and church history would strongly suggest this is so. “Must we we carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize and sailed through troubled seas? Are there no foes for us to face…?” (Charles Wesley) The sweetness of God’s honey comes to us at conversion, but for it to pour through us to others – which is surely God’s will – seems to involve seasons hardship, pain, breaking of self-strength, perplexity, etc. In these the precious oil develops in us that will then spread the fragrance of God.
      Less spiritually, there is Spike Milligan’s memorable proverb: ‘Blessed are the cracked, for they let in [and out] the light’ 🙂

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