DOES RECURRING DEPRESSION PREVENT A FRUITFUL MINISTRY?
The ‘Depression-Prone’ Preacher
by Terry Powell
Long before the proliferation of mass media, he was known and revered throughout the Christian world. Scholars of his era labeled him, “the prince of expositors.” His commentaries, devotionals, and sermons are still being published, generations after his death.
So many folks in London wanted to hear him preach that he occasionally pleaded with church members to stay home so unsaved visitors could get a seat and hear the gospel. The pages of his book, Lectures to My Students, should be dog-eared by every vocational or volunteer teacher of Bible.
Yet, depression dogged Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) most of his adult life. A major bout with despondency occurred in 1858 when he was 24, serving as a pastor in London. That’s when he wrote, “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I know not what I wept for.” Repeated episodes spawned these words: “Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with…as well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness.”
What can we learn from this depression-prone, yet outrageously fruitful leader?
- Depression doesn’t necessarily hinder ministry effectiveness. He often didn’t feel like serving, yet enabled by God’s grace, he kept giving himself to others. No matter how physically and emotionally drained he was, most Mondays he wrote out by longhand the previous day’s sermon so it could later be published.
The pain of despondency may expand one’s usefulness by cultivating dependency and humility. Spurgeon said that despondency was “my trial, my thorn in the flesh that Satan wanted to use to take me down, and God wanted to use to deepen my dependency on Him.” A favorite verse of his was 2 Corinthians 12:9, where God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In reference to this verse, Spurgeon said, “My job is not to supply the power, but the weakness. That’s one job I’m good at! It’s God’s job to supply the power.”
Openness about one’s depression may encourage others, and point them to God’s sustaining grace. Spurgeon’s transparency concerning his depression was rare for his day. Knowing how many people suffered in silence with this malady, he preached a message to show others how he coped with it (titled “When a Preacher Is Downcast”). From experience he learned and taught an ironic truth captured in my favorite Spurgeon quote: “God gets from us most glory when we get from Him much grace.”
His life and ministry demonstrate that depression and spiritual maturity aren’t mutually-exclusive. Depression didn’t negate Spurgeon’s godliness, nor did his steadfast use of spiritual disciplines cure it.
Biographies of and articles about Spurgeon don’t always mention his predilection for depression. Yet reading about his accomplishments and ministry output will show you what God can do through a yielded person not in spite of depression, but possibly because of it. Spurgeon also suffered from severe gout in his later years, long before medical intervention could eliminate or minimize the pain.
I benefited enormously from Arnold Dalimore’s Spurgeon (Banner of Truth, 1984). Also, in a chapter of John Piper’s Future Grace, titled “Faith in Future Grace Versus Despondency,” you can read about Spurgeon’s battle with depression. In 2014, Zack Eswine wrote a more thorough coverage of Spurgeon’s despondency: Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Suffer from Depression (Christian Focus Publishers)
Terry teaches in the areas of Church Ministry and Ministry Leadership at Columbia International University in South Carolina. He has served as a Christian Education staff member for three churches, and he’s a licensed preacher in the Presbyterian Church of America. His current books in print are Serve Strong: Biblical Encouragement to Sustain God’s Servants, and Now That’s Good A Question! How To Lead Quality Bible Discussions. Terry has been married for 46 years, and has two sons, a daughter-in-law, one grandson, and a dachshund. His constant prayer is, “Lord, make me half the man my dog thinks I am!”
Check out his blog at https://penetratingthedarkness.com/. His ministry is focused on Christians experiencing clinical depression and other mental issues.