Recurring Depression and Fruitful Ministry

Charles Spurgeon, “The Prince of Expositors” 1834-1892

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”

  3. 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.”

  4. 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.

 

 

The Epiphany of the Red Shoes

 

My Red Shoes
My Red Shoes

A few months ago, my morning routine had taken me outside on our deck.  I just sat and was soaking up the first rays and drinking a cup of coffee.  My mind usually flits about; and I think about many different things.  I’d like to say that at least some are engaged with challenging issues.  But most though are a bit strange and out of bounds.  It seems at times to be like trying to put a leash on a wild dog.

Sitting there on a deck chair, I thought about the shoes I was wearing.  They were black clogs and I wore them everywhere.  I’ve had them for four or five years.  They had liners, so I could even wear them during winter.  As I sat there, it occurred to me that I have always bought and worn either black, or brown shoes.  Always.  As I considered this preference, it struck me as odd.  Why did I always buy dull and ordinary shoes?

Out back in the recesses of my mind, a thought burst into my thinking, it was like fireworks just went off.  I would buy red shoes!  I would retire my faithful sandals and wear red ones instead.  I set down my coffee cup and headed for my laptop.  I ordered a comfortable pair of Crocs, in crimson red.

I waited for the postman like a child waits for Christmas.  I was energized by the thought of having red shoes.  I do a lot of things spontaneously.  I can be far too impulsive, and it usually gets me in trouble.  But when they arrived, they were even better then I expected.  I put them on and started to prance around the house.  And to see a fifty-six year old man acting like a ten year old must of been a sight.  I didn’t want to take them off, and later I even flitted with the idea of even wearing them to bed.

Wearing my new red shoes was a profound experience which I didn’t anticipate. It may seem weird but when I wear them the feeling is somewhat like falling in love, or at least a reasonable facsimile.  Perhaps if its nothing, I’m willing to accept that.

I think of God’s grace and how extraordinary it is. We can reside in a barren wasteland of a tedious existence where joy is seldom found. I know this is true. But there can be an infusion of mercy in such places. A grace that meets with us and alters us. I believe we are to be “grace blasted” believers living with a sense of wonder over the kindness of God. He has chosen us to be His own sons and daughters.

“And I will be your Father, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”

2 Corinthians 6:18

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The Pruning Knife

“He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.”

John 15:2, NLT

In order to become fruitful we must accept the knife. 

It takes a sharp eye and a sharper knife to do the Father’s work of cutting.  He slices to the quick, and all that is not useful falls to the ground.  The vine will produce grapes, and every bit of “grape-energy” will be used productively. Fruitlessness will be cursed, and sterility is condemned.  It takes a decisive heart, as well as a wise hand to prune God’s own vineyard.

Fruitless believers may become fruitful ones.  Understand, the vine dresser does not attack the vine.  He is not malicious or vengeful.  All that He does is for the good of the vine.  He is motivated to produce fruit.  That is what He thinks about; you could say that He is preoccupied with that singular end.

Pruning and fruit are concepts that we vacillate over, some days we understand and other days we blow it off.  After over 30 years, I’ve heard every “John 15 sermon”.  And most of the time I turn down my spiritual hearing aid. That is tragic, and shows my heart has become hardened.

I need to come on board with this particular imagery.  For years I have asked God to “show me His ways”.  I’d like to believe that this understanding of pruning has changed me.  I would like to think that I have attained a clearer view of wisdom.  This pruning business is all well and good.  But being sanctified by the knife is decidedly unattractive and uncomfortable.

You must be pruned; pieces of your life are earmarked to be lopped off.  (I always wonder if the trees that are spray painted are curious over the why and the when they are to be cut?)  In regards to being fruitful we must accept the knife.  If we want to be holy and conform to the image of Christ we will be cut.  There is simply no other way.

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He Was at Home

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“A few days later, when Jesus came back to Capernaum, the news spread that he was at home.” 

Mark 2:1

You can’t hide the presence of Jesus.  There is a ‘built-in’ need for Him in the hearts of men and women.  You can’t keep it quiet, it is an open secret.  Believing people let it out in many ways.  You can see it in their faces, and hear it in their voices.  They become gentle and caring, where once was selfishness and anger.  Peace is present, and a wonderful new thing called joy.  They can’t help but share about their new guest, when they speak it spontaneously spills out.

Spring flowers can’t help their beautiful fragrance.  There is a fragrance that announces that He is present.  You might say that He takes over, just as a bright light takes over the darkness.  When Jesus is present, His brightness pushes through the cracks and shines out every window.  He cannot be contained or hidden.  Love itself is invisible.  But it has an effect on all who take it in.  The very presence of Jesus transforms us.

My heart is now His home.

People travel and gather great works of art.  They collect these things of beauty and culture.  They will go out of their way to search for paintings and statues of grace and elegance, and finding them they will spend a great deal of money to obtain them.  But no one or nothing can compare to having Christ as the honored guest. The poorest farmer can be the wealthiest man. No matter how quietly Jesus enters, His presence will soon make itself known.  Where Christ truly abides, nothing but good will be observed.

Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong.”

Ephesians 3:17, NLT

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Nothing But Leaves [Self-Deceit]

“Seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.”

Mark 11:13, NASB

Perplexing isn’t it?  I personally have lived with a certain amount of ambiguity with this passage.  I have questions that I’ve swept under the rug.  Why did that poor tree get cursed?  It wasn’t the trees fault, after all.  And didn’t Jesus realize this?  So why go through the theatrics?

I don’t know if this is the case with anyone else.  I hesitate to ask around.  But recently have come to a better place about this entire event.  The traditional view is that it comes immediately after “the cleansing of the temple” and that explains a lot.  The fig tree is always emblematic of Israel.  (The Old Testament is well populated with these references.) Mark adroitly organized his account in order to connect both events.

Jesus has no issues or vendettas against trees.  But He does take an issue with things that claim fruit, but really have nothing.  There is nothing but leaves. I’ve been told that the figs do grow, almost as fast as leaves.  The lush greenness is the prime indicator of the succulent fruit. At least, it has the potential.

The beautiful leaves announces its fruitfulness.  This tree was loaded, but had nothing to show but leaves.  Within God’s plan for Israel was for fruit.  Enough to feed the nations that would stream to Jerusalem.  Instead, it was worthless.  There was nothing to be had.  Loads of leaves, and the promise of an incredible harvest, but zilch, zero, nothing.

Hypocrisy is a deadening experience, with a certain sterility in it.  Israel was finding this out, and Jesus is now declaring it to the nation.  A corrupt temple, and a fruitless tree; this were all indicators of hypocrisy and showiness.  The luxuriant leaves loaded the tree, but ‘where’s the fruit?!’

Sometimes we declare that we are fruitful, on the mere basis of our leaves. 

At times we can be a wonder, and make an exceptional statement.  But when He comes, and looks up at our limbs and out to our branches, will He find fruit, or just lots of green?  Leaves are pretty much all we can do.  And we do it quite well. But the fruit is from the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22.)

Israel failed God.  They became religious and neglected mercy, and justice.  Humility and graciousness.  The widow and the orphan were not part of their personal equation.  They produced leaves by the wheelbarrow load, but were missing out on the authenticity to what was true, and what really mattered.

Pharisees will do this, and they turn into hypocrites who do not possess what they profess. A hypocrite values true godliness, but he personally falls short of all those things he admires. But he will never, ever admit it to anyone.  And even we who struggle so, must continually admit that we stumble and falter as we try to follow.

I may be a ‘screwy’ excuse of being a disciple, but I have decided I don’t want to deceive people.  God, help me.

“This year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practise ourselves the kind of behaviour we expect from other people.”  

C.S. Lewis

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How Things Grow, [Work]

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A farmer slowly walks behind his plow. The ground is hard and unyielding, but the steel cuts the heavy sod like a knife. He is preparing the soil for receiving the seed. He knows that what he is doing is imperative and he shouts out to encourage the horse. Its getting late and he wants to cut another furrow before night.

Plodding behind the plow he thinks many things. He can break up the ground, till and fertilize it, sow the seed— and then wait. He is powerless it get the seed to germinate and grow. He is limited to cultivating the soil and waiting. That is all he can really do, and he accepts this powerlessness. He can do everything right, and still not have a crop. All he can do is his part.

The farmer works in partnership with God. He is dependent on Him to grow the seed. The farmer must rely on the weather to meet and engage the planted seed. There are no shortcuts here. He does all he can, and then hopes that it is enough.

Farming is a joint endeavor between man and God. The man does what he has to do. God takes what the man has done and then finishes it. The crop will grow because He wills it. The farmer plays a part for sure, but ultimately God must become involved. Afterall, He makes the seed to sprout and grow.

We can say decisively that the pursuit of holiness in a Christian’s life is a joint endeavor between a believer and God.

Each have made the effort. The Christian does what is necessary, and then the seed is finally sown. It is then up to God to make the seed become the seedling. But each must work to finish the growth.

No one can attain holiness in their life apart from the work of preparation (it’s indeed work). The man must prepare the ground through plowing and cultivating. The farmer works the ground in order to make the ground ready. On the other hand, God provides both the environment and the growth needed to grow the seedling. Both the farmer and God must do their work.

A life of holiness is not automatic. It will never come at measured pace, trickling into our souls at a mechanized rate. (It would be nice if it would). Rather it wheat-field-landscape-picture_1920x1200_79595seems to come, in fits and spurts, sputtering rather than simply flowing.

Holiness is like a steamy Amazon jungle, vibrant and full of life. It is saturated with things living and green. It is not like an arid and sterile desert. Holiness is pulsating and powerful, full of lush growing things.

Becoming a person of holiness is the grandest adventure for the human soul. It defies our tendency to be rigid and legalistic. It is quite the opposite. It is tapping into life itself, and who is up to the task? Our morbid ideas of what holiness are not worthy of what really is.

Yes, to be holy is to work. Just as the farmer must prepare the soil for the seed, we too must guide our plows. God is ready to sow, and we should be ready to be ready. That is if we want to be fruitful and productive.

“Oh, the fullness, pleasure, sheer excitement of knowing God on earth!”

 Jim Elliot

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Riding the Underground, [with Jesus]

“And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.’

Mark 6:31, ESV

Our Savior would never drive us to do things with a whip.  He is not a taskmaster, and he will not insist or impose his will over us.  Nothing about him is brutal or demanding. (He could, really– if he wanted to.)  But no, we learn how to serve him from our loving hearts.

It is interesting that it was Jesus that was very careful, and aware of his disciples needs.  No one suggested a break from the work, but Jesus initiated the break from the massive press of the crowds. He knew intensely what his disciples needed.

 “Crowds of people were coming and going so that Jesus and his followers did not even have time to eat. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves, and we will go to a lonely place to get some rest.”

Mark 6:31, NCV

Underground-SymbolThe presence of so many people had put the disciples in a very hard place.  The NCV describes the crowds, as “coming and going.”  If you have ever been on the London Underground you will understand just the sheer number.  Everyday, 2.93 million people ride the trains.  I remember travelling from the backwoods of  Alaska, with just a backpack, and hitting the crowds on “the tube” in London, UK.

The intense masses were way beyond anything I ever imagined.  Talk about a “culture shock!  I saw more people in just 3 minutes than in an entire year of living in Alaska.  It was like an amazing giant ant-hill; I would stop, and just stare. Nothing prepared me for this. But I knew His presence was with me.

Jesus is more concerned about the living freshness of his disciples.  He shuts things down in order to rest with his followers.  Often the tendency will be the opposite, especially when the leader is weak and immature.  “Work harder, and even more hours!”  Jesus did not have the need to be available 24/7.  And he certainly didn’t expect his disciples to.  His heart is committed to his followers.

He “orders” his disciples, come apart and let’s rest!

“But so many people were coming and going that Jesus and the apostles did not even have a chance to eat. Then Jesus said, “Let’s go to a place where we can be alone and get some rest.”

Mark 6:31, CEV

I don’t know if you can grasp the sensitivity, or see the nuances of Jesus shepherding his disciples.  He has a deep awareness of them; he doesn’t get lost by people pressing in from every side.  He loves the world of men and women, but his followers are his “specialty.”

He tunes in on their frequency, and knows our spiritual capacity.

What gives his followers strength, is to be close with Jesus, and to separate from the needs that were densely surrounding them.  We can be flattered by being needed, but that can be very corrosive or destructive.  I’m guessing but I believe that a few of the disciples may have been annoyed by this break in the action. They found it hard to remove themselves from the action.  Some may have been frustrated, perhaps maybe even slightly irritated by “Jesus’ retreat.”

When you are pouring out, you will find there is only a certain capacity before you run dry.  You may think this is “noble and praiseworthy” but it is nothing of the sort.  It is a form of arrogance and pride.  In order to really mature as a believer, we must shake this off and not to entertain our seeming indispensability to the cause.

We must keep on following Jesus into the quiet places.

 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Matthew 11:28, MSG

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