Charles Spurgeon’s struggle with depression
Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) was a noted pastor in England who, in his lifetime, spoke to over 10 million people, often speaking ten times a week. The “Prince of Preachers” wrote numerous books, still in print today.
And he suffered from depression.
One Sunday morning in 1866, from the pulpit of his London Metropolitan Tabernacle, he shocked his congregation of 5,000 by admitting, “I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever gets to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to.” He later described his depression as a “seething caldron of despair.”
Here are excepts from his aticle on the “lowness of spirit” and “thick darkness” of depression. (Note that depression was not recognized as a specific mental illness until the late 1800s and not treated until the 1930s, so Spurgeon probably would not have been diagnosed and treated for what, by all evidence, was clinical depression.)
His observations, however, are helpful in realizing that Christians are not exempt from this “darkest and most dreadful experience.”
Moreover the Philistines had yet war again with Israel; and David went down, and his servants with him, and fought against the Philistines: and David waxed faint (2 Samuel 21:15).
For, when we were come into Macedonia, our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side; without were fightings, within were fears. Nevertheless God, that comforteth those that are cast down, comforted us by the coming of Titus (2 Corinthians 7:5-6).
In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is offended, and I burn not? (2 Corinthians 11:27-29).
As it is recorded that David, in the heat of battle, waxed faint, so may it be written of all servants of the Lord.
Fits of depression come over the most of us. Cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy.
There may be here and there men of iron to whom wear and tear work no perceptible detriment, but surely the rust frets even these; and as for ordinary men, the Lord knows and makes them to know that they are but dust.
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 . . 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.
It is not necessary by quotations from the biographies of eminent ministers to prove that seasons of fearful prostration have fallen to the lot of most, if not all, of them. The life of Luther might suffice to give a thousand instances, and he was by no means of the weaker sort. His great spirit was often in the seventh heaven of exultation, and as frequently on the borders of despair. His very deathbed was not free from tempests, and he sobbed himself into his last sleep like a greatly wearied child.
Instead of multiplying cases, let us dwell upon the reasons why these things are permitted; why it is that the children of light sometimes walk in the thick darkness; why the heralds of the daybreak find themselves at times in tenfold night.
God’s people are still frail humanity
[Believers] are compassed with infirmity and are heirs of sorrow. It is of necessity that we are sometimes in heaviness. [We] are promised tribulation in this world . . . that they may learn sympathy with the Lord’s suffering people. . . .
Disembodied spirits might have been sent to proclaim the Word; but they could not have entered into the feeling of those who, being in this body, do groan, being burdened.
Angels might have been ordained evangelists, but their celestial attributes would have disqualified them from having compassion on the ignorant.
[The] all-wise God has chosen to be His vessels of grace; hence these tears, hence these perplexities and castings down.
Moreover, most of us are in some way or other unsound physically. As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off the balance? Some minds appear to have a gloomy tinge essential to their very individuality. Of them it may be said, “Melancholy marked [them] for her own;” fine minds withal and ruled by noblest principles, but yet they are most prone to forget the silver lining and to remember only the cloud.
These infirmities may be no detriment to a . . . career of special usefulness. They may even have been imposed upon him by divine wisdom as necessary qualification for his peculiar course of service.
Pain has, in some cases, developed genius, hunting out the soul which otherwise might have slept like a lion in its den. Had it not been for the broken wing, some might have lost themselves in the clouds, some even of those choice doves who now bear the olive branch in their mouths and show the way to the ark.
Where in body and mind there are predisposing causes to lowness of spirit, it is no marvel if in dark moments the heart succumbs to them; the wonder in many cases is—and if inner lives could be written, men would see it so—how some ministers keep at their work at all and still wear a smile upon their countenances.
Grace has its triumphs still, and patience has it martyrs—martyrs nonetheless to be honored because the flames kindle about their spirits rather than their bodies and their burning is unseen of human eyes.
God’s people have much to try the soul
“Blessed are they that mourn,” said [Jesus] the Man of Sorrows, and let none account them otherwise when their tears are salted with grace. We have the treasure of the Gospel in earthen vessels, and if there be a flaw in the vessel here and there, let none wonder.
Our work, when earnestly undertaken, lays us open to attacks in the direction of depression. Who can bear the weight of souls without sometimes sinking to the dust? Passionate longings after men’s conversion, if not fully satisfied (and when are they?), consume the soul with anxiety and disappointment.
To see the hopeful turn aside, the godly grow cold, professors abusing their privileges, and sinners waxing more bold in sin—are not these sights enough to crush us to the earth?
God allows fainting after great victories lest we should be “exalted above” measure
The times most favorable to fits of depression, so far as I have experienced, may be summed up in a brief catalog.
First among them I must mention the hour of a great success. When at last a long-cherished desire is fulfilled, when God has been glorified greatly by our means and a great triumph achieved, then we are apt to faint.
It might be imagined that amid special favors our soul would soar to heights of ecstasy and rejoice with joy unspeakable, but it is generally the reverse. The Lord seldom exposes His warriors to the perils of exultation over victory. He knows that few of them can endure such a test and therefore dashes their cup with bitterness.
See [Elijah] after the fire has fallen from heaven, after Baal’s priests have been slaughtered and the rain has deluged the barren land! For him no notes of self-complacent music, no strutting like a conqueror in robes of triumph. He flees from Jezebel, and feeling the revulsion of his intense excitement, he prays that he may die. He who must never see death yearns after the rest of the grave.
Poor human nature cannot bear such strains as heavenly triumphs bring to it. There must come a reaction. Excess of joy or excitement must be paid for by subsequent depressions.
While the trial lasts, the strength is equal to the emergency. But when it is over, natural weakness claims the right to show itself.
Paul may be caught up to the third heaven and hear unspeakable things, but a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet him, must be the inevitable sequel.
Men cannot bear unalloyed happiness. Even good men are not yet fit to have “their brows with laurel and with myrtle bound” without enduring secret humiliation to keep them in their proper places.
Burden and weakness are given to humble us before great tasks
Whirled off our feet by a revival, carried aloft by popularity, exalted by success in soul winning, we should be as the chaff which the wind driveth away were it not that the gracious discipline of mercy breaks the ships of our vainglory with a strong east wind and casts us shipwrecked, naked and forlorn, upon the Rock of Ages.
Before any great achievement, some measure of the same depression is very usual. Surveying the difficulties before us, our hearts sink within us. The sons of Anak stalk before us, and we are as grasshoppers in our own sight in their presence. The cities of Canaan are walled up to Heaven, and who are we that we should hope to capture them? We are ready to cast down our weapons and to take to our heels. Nineveh is a great city, and we would flee unto Tarshish sooner than encounter its noisy crowds. Already we look for a ship which may bear us quietly away from the terrible scene. Only a dread of tempest restrains our recreant footsteps.
Such was my experience when I first became a pastor in London. My success appalled me. The thought of the career which it seemed to open up, so far from elating me, cast me into the lowest depth, out of which I uttered my Miserere and found no room for a Gloria in Excelsis.
Who was I that I should continue to lead so great a multitude? I would betake me to my village obscurity or emigrate to America and find a solitary nest in the backwoods where I might be sufficient for the things which would be demanded of me.
It was just then that the curtain was rising upon my lifework, and I dreaded what it might reveal. I hope I was not faithless, but I was timorous and filled with a sense of my own unfitness. I dreaded the work which a gracious Providence had prepared for me. I felt myself a mere child. I trembled as I heard the voice which told me to arise and “thresh the mountains . . . and make the hills as chaff.”
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 benison. So have far better men 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. Fasting gives an appetite for the banquet. The Lord is revealed in the backside of the desert, while His servant keeps the sheep and waits in solitary awe.
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.
Additional quotations from Spurgeon on depression
- I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.
The iron bolt . . . mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison.
I have sometimes been the means in God’s hand of healing a man who suffered with a desponding spirit. But the help I have rendered has cost me dearly. Hours after, I have been myself depressed, and I have felt an inability to shake it off.
I am the subject of depression so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to. But I always get back again by this—I know that I trust Christ. I have no reliance but in Him, and if He falls, I shall fall with Him. But if He does not, I shall not. Because He lives, I shall live also, and I spring to my legs again and fight with my depressions of spirit and get the victory through it. And so may you do, and
so you must, for there is no other way of escaping from it.
We have our times of natural sadness; we have, too, our times of depression, when we cannot do otherwise than hang our heads. Seasons of lethargy will also befall us from changes in our natural frame, or from weariness, or the rebound of over excitement. The trees are not always green, the sap sleeps in them in the winter; and we have
winters too. Life cannot always be at flood tide: the fulness of the blessing is not upon the most gracious at all times.
I often feel very grateful to God that I have undergone fearful depression of spirits. I know the borders of despair, and the horrible brink of that gulf of darkness into which my feet have almost gone; but hundreds of times I have been able to give a helpful grip to brethren and sisters who have come into that same condition, which grip I could never have given if I had not known their deep despondency. So I believe that the darkest and most dreadful experience of a child of God will help him to be a fisher of men if he will but follow Christ.
When a Preacher is Downcast