The following is excerpted from Randy Alcorn’s foreword to Charles Spurgeon, Encouragement for the Depressed, in the Crossway Short Classics series.
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) preached to approximately 10 million people in his lifetime, often speaking ten times a week. His 3,561 sermons are bound in sixty-three volumes, and in addition he wrote many books.
Wonderful as those accomplishments were, they put demands on his life that no doubt contributed to his battles with depression. (Not least of all that he often worked eighteen hours a day!)
I have suffered many times from severe sickness and frightful mental depression seeking almost to despair. Almost every year I’ve been laid aside for a season, for flesh and blood cannot bear the strain, at least such flesh and blood as mine. I believe, however, the affliction was necessary to me and has answered salutary ends.
Those words were written by a man who lived with great physical pain for a large part of his life. While his dear wife Susanna was bed-ridden for decades, Spurgeon contracted smallpox and suffered from gout, rheumatism, and Bright’s disease (inflammation of the kidneys). His health became progressively worse so that nearly a third of his last twenty-two years were spent away from the pulpit. This physical hardship took a great emotional toll on him.
When Spurgeon was twenty-two years old, a tragedy took place that still haunted him years later. He was preaching for the first time in the Music Hall of the Royal Surrey Gardens because his own church wasn’t large enough. The ten-thousand-person seating capacity was far exceeded by the crowds pressing in. Someone shouted, “Fire!” and though there was no fire, the resulting stampede caused many injuries and the deaths of seven people. Years later, Spurgeon said this horrifying incident took him “near the burning furnace of insanity.”
Still, Spurgeon found that his great suffering drew him closer to God. In an address to ministers and students he says,
I daresay the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health, with the exception of sickness. If some men whom I know of could only be favored with a month of rheumatism, it would, by God’s grace, mellow them marvelously.
As you’ll see in Encouragement to the Depressed, Spurgeon said of pastoral ministry:
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. . . . How often, on Lord’s-day evenings, do we feel as if life were completely washed out of us! After pouring out our souls over our congregations, we feel like empty earthen pitchers which a child might break.
He also wrote:
I am afraid that all the grace I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours might almost lie on a penny. But the good I have received from my sorrows and pains and griefs is altogether incalculable. Affliction is . . . the best book in a minister’s library.
Like the apostle Paul, the often jovial Spurgeon was “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor, 6:10). Spurgeon says,
Glory be to God for the furnace, the hammer and the file. Heaven shall be all the fuller of bliss because we have been filled with anguish here below; and earth shall be better tilled because of our training in the school of adversity.
Thank you, Charles Spurgeon, for your integrity, devotion to God’s Word, honest sharing of your own weaknesses, and your unquenchable passion for God not just in times of good cheer, but in times of desolate darkness. And thank you, sovereign Lord, for encouraging us through your servant, who like Abel in Hebrews 11:4, though he is dead (while fully alive in your presence), still speaks through his example and life-giving words.
May God give us ears to hear, and may our hearts be full of hope and expectancy as we await the day that King Jesus, true to his blood-bought promise, will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4).