For Charles Spurgeon, the celebrated 19th-century preacher, depression was more than just circumstantial. When he spoke of it in his sermons and lectures, his examples, which were often rooted in his own experience, included a significant form of depression: the kind that comes without cause. In one sermon, he said,
You may be surrounded with all the comforts of life and yet be in wretchedness more gloomy than death if the spirits are depressed. You may have no outward cause whatever for sorrow and yet if the mind is dejected, the brightest sunshine will not relieve your gloom. … There are times when all our evidences get clouded and all our joys are fled. Though we may still cling to the Cross, yet it is with a desperate grasp.
Spurgeon understood that depression isn’t always logical and its cause is not always clear. There are times, he said, when our spirits betray us, and we sink into darkness. We slip into the “bottomless pits” where our souls “can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour.” There is no reasoning, and a remedy is hard to find. As he put it once in a lecture to students:
As well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet, all-beclouding hopelessness. One affords himself no pity when in this case, because it seems to be unreasonable, and even sinful to be troubled without manifest cause; and yet troubled the man is, even in the very depths of his spirit … [it] needs a heavenly hand to push it back … but nothing short of this will chase away the nightmare of the soul.
I am so thankful for quotes like this from Spurgeon because you can hear his understanding. I remember how helpless I have felt in my own depression, how it seemed I was powerless to do anything to escape from it. Some people expected there to be a quick fix, a logical solution, or some sort of spiritual willpower that could defeat it, but light and joy were evasive.
Spurgeon clearly knew this helplessness and how poorly people can react to it. He spoke directly to harsh and insensitive “helpers” from the pulpit—those who were quick to cast blame, quick to tell depressed people to just pull themselves out of it, and slow to show compassion. He also would not tolerate the accusation that “good Christians” do not get depressed. “God’s people,” he preached, “sometimes walk in darkness, and see no light. There are times when the best and brightest of saints have no joy.”
He was clear that depression isn’t a guaranteed sign of whether or not someone is a Christian; nor is it a sign you aren’t growing in your faith. It is possible to be faithful and depressed: “Depression of spirit is no index of declining Grace—the very loss of joy and the absence of assurance may be accompanied by the greatest advancement in the spiritual life.” Oh for more pastors to preach this way!
Your Usefulness Is Not Over
Perhaps you know the feeling of your spirits being so low that you can do nothing, contribute nothing. You are overwhelmed and paralyzed by sadness. Your brain is foggy, your temper sharp. All is dark. Then the questions come: What if this endures? What if I can never doanything of lasting value again?
Spurgeon knew this feeling. Perhaps this is why, in a lecture to his students on depression, he told them, “Think not that all is over with your usefulness.” He was laid low many times both physically and emotionally, but it didn’t stop his ministry. He wrote thousands of sermons and countless letters, read prolifically, met with people, prayed with people, organized ministries, and taught at the Pastor’s College. His suffering did not exclude him from usefulness. If anything, the fruit of it made him more useful. His experience with depression enabled him to encourage and support others who suffered from it as well.
For example, Spurgeon warned his students to be aware of situations in which they may be more susceptible to depression. The list he gave them runs like an autobiographical catalog:
- when you have prolonged illness or physical problems
- when you do intense mental or “heart” work
- when you’re lonely or isolated
- when your lifestyle is sedentary and you overwork your brain
- after success
- before success
- after one heavy blow
- through the slow pile of trouble and discouragement
- in exhaustion and overworking
Or it could simply come without cause, without reason, without justification, which he considered the most painful circumstance of all.
Spurgeon offered compassionate and practical advice to his parishioners as well, preaching to them about such things as the need for rest: “The spirit needs to be fed and the body needs feeding also. Do not forget these matters! It may seem to some people that I ought not to mention such small things as food and rest, but these may be the very first elements in really helping a poor depressed servant of God.” Self-care is not merely a modern notion. Spurgeon understood from his own experience that taking proper care of our bodies is an important part of fighting depression, and he freely shared his hard-earned wisdom.
Because of his own suffering, he could also better sympathize with and comfort others. People would come from miles around to seek his advice and consolation, and those who couldn’t come physically would write letters. He was a “wounded healer”—someone who used his own sorrow to bring others comfort:
It is a great gift to have learned by experience how to sympathize. “Ah!” I say to them, “I have been where you are!” They look at me and their eyes say, “No, surely you never felt as we do.” I therefore go further, and say, “If you feel worse than I did, I pity you, indeed, for I could say with Job, ‘My soul chooses strangling rather than life.’ I could readily enough have laid violent hands upon myself to escape from my misery of spirit.”
There is a profound comfort in realizing someone else understands— at least in part—your suffering. They can offer comfort in a way others cannot. Surviving painful experiences like depression puts us in a unique position and bestows on us a unique responsibility to offer this comfort and camaraderie to others. Spurgeon encourages us not to forget this: “He who has been in the dark dungeon knows the way to the bread and the water. If you have passed through depression, and the Lord has appeared to your comfort, lay yourself out to help others who are where you used to be.”
Your usefulness is not over, Spurgeon tells us. You, too, can be a companion to one in the dark.
Sing in the Darkness
When I think of the word Spurgeon speaks to us from the inheritance of his own struggles, it brings to mind a boisterous hymn I remember singing in my childhood church:
Standing on the promises that cannot fail,
When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,
By the living Word of God I shall prevail,
Standing on the promises of God.
In the lowest points of Spurgeon’s life, it was the promises of God in Scripture that lifted him from despair. In the early years, when he was depressed and distraught over the harsh criticism flung at him, he took comfort from looking at a Bible verse written in his wife Susannah’s script: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you” (Matt. 5:11, KJV). As the years went by, another verse replaced it, again in his wife’s hand: “I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction” (Isa. 48:10, KJV). After the Surrey Gardens Music Hall disaster, when seven were trampled to death and many others injured after a false alarm during Spurgeon’s prayer at a crowded service, consolation from Scripture pulled him from the brink of collapse.
And repeatedly in his sermons, the words of Scripture and the lives of biblical characters encouraged him. They reminded him of truth. They kept him singing. They kept him alive. It was here, where the promises of God collided with his own sorrow, that he found hope.
In his introduction of the Chequebook of the Bank of Faith, a devotional book he wrote in the midst of the Downgrade Controversy (when he was embroiled in a dispute over compromised doctrine within the pastorate), Spurgeon says this: “I believe all the promises of God, but many of them I have personally tried and proved. … I would say to [fellow Christians] in their trials—My brethren, God is good. He will not forsake you: He will bear you through. … Everything else will fail, but His word never will.”
“Ah, yes, Spurgeon,” we might say, “but this is so difficult.” He knew this. He felt this struggle, the struggle for belief, for faith, the struggle to hold on to the hope of the promises. He knew the temptations of doubt. He knew how depression made them even more difficult to withstand, how much easier it was to question God’s goodness, his faithfulness, his abiding presence: “That perpetual assaulting, that perpetual stabbing, and cutting, and hacking at one’s faith, is not so easy to endure.” But endure we must. And it is precisely “by enduring that we learn to endure.” Our trials make these promises richer and make our faith in them even stronger as we see again and again that they are robust enough to sustain us. They teach us humble dependence on a faithful God.
Spurgeon was not saying that the solution to suffering and depression lies in the mantra many depressed Christians have repeatedly heard: Just read the Bible, just pray more, just have faith. There is no depression cure-all, no quick spiritual fix. But when we are in the darkness, the promises of Scripture are strong enough to keep us tethered. Knowing that we belong to Christ is an anchor. When we are flailing about, when we don’t know if we can go on, when we feel lost, when the darkness consumes us, we cling to God’s promises, even when we hardly have the strength to believe them. They are sure, regardless of our feelings, regardless of our outward state.
When we see people from the Bible like Elijah, who wanted to die, and the psalmists, who wrestled with depression and feelings of abandonment by God, and “we find ourselves in similar places,” Spurgeon preached, “we are relieved by discovering that we are walking along a path which others have traversed before us.” We see these saints cast into darkness. We see God’s faithfulness. We see his promises that are strong enough to hold them—and us as well. Don’t be dismayed, their stories remind us. This is a trial many have had to endure. You are still his. The Christ who bought you will not abandon you in the dark.
Spurgeon once said, “In the night of sorrow … believers [are] like nightingales, and they sing in the darkness. There is no real night to a man of a nightingale spirit.” It reminds me of a note I received once from a friend: “You are brave. You stand in the darkness, whispering Truth back to yourself.” I felt anything but brave at the time. It had been a hard year. It had been a year of tears and questions and fitful nights. And here was my closest friend calling me brave. I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t brave—I was desperate. What else could I do in that dark place but keep whispering Truth? It was all I could do to keep the darkness at bay, to keep it from suffocating me.
This is what Spurgeon offers to us. A reminder to sing God’s promises. Sing of his faithfulness. Even if you can’t see it yet, even if you don’t feel it—whisper the Truth to yourself. Sing in the darkness.