Reviewed by Paul Tautges
Spurgeon’s Sorrows by Zack Eswine is a gem in the expanding treasure chest of resources for Christians who (at least at times) walk through the dark valley of depression, and those who walk with them. It has been long understood that Charles Spurgeon, the famed preacher at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in the 1800’s, wrestled against this darkness through much of his pastoral ministry. As a result, many of us who fight this same aspect of our humanness have received immense help and comfort from his pastoral approach and the biblical counsel he faithfully fed to his congregation. However, though this aspect of Spurgeon’s life is fairly well known, I’m not aware that anyone has attempted what Pastor Eswine has done for us. He has mined the sermons and writings of the famous preacher, culled that which is most valuable, and organized it in a manner that is helpful to those who suffer with depression and the spiritual friends who are faithful to not let go of them in the midst of the fog. This little book is so rich; it will be difficult to say all I want to say in 1500 words, or less.
Well-Organized and Well-Presented
The book is carefully divided into three parts. Part One: Trying to Understand Depression takes us into the foggy world of deep sorrow while acknowledging how life circumstances, melancholy, and spiritual depression factor into the equation. Part Two: Learning How to Help Those Who Suffer from Depression explains why diagnosis does not equal cure and exhorts us to learn the language of sorrow and avoid so-called helps that actually harm others. Part Three: Learning Helps to Daily Cope with Depression reminds us of the power of God’s promises, and prayer, as well as natural helps.
Compassionate and Empathetic
A unique characteristic of this book is the author’s use of the famous preacher’s first name Charles instead of his surname. Why was this wise? Well, for me, it helped me immediately connect with the preacher as a fellow struggler, as one who was no different from the rest of us. When I hear “Spurgeon,” I think of the towering, eloquent man in the pulpit of a megachurch. But when I hear “Charles,” my mind pictures a mere man at home sitting alone in his living room on a Sunday evening, quietly wrestling with thoughts and fears that are too foggy to write about, too despairing to verbalize. When I read Charles, the untouchable becomes touchable. Make no mistake about it; Charles Haddon Spurgeon is a towering figure in church history whom all who sincerely love the Word of God also love and admire. One only need use his last name and everyone knows who you’re talking about. However, by doing so, it is my opinion that we unwittingly keep Spurgeon on that towering pedestal and; consequently, the immense helpfulness of his ministry toward sufferers is diminished somewhat. Mature believers understand that the counsel we all find most helpful, and hopeful, is that which comes from a transparent, fully human life like that of Charles. When a counselor speaks to others as one who walks alongside fellow strugglers, rather than a professional who lives above their situation; he brings biblical compassion to bear upon the heart that needs the hope of Christ. A willingness to be human, even if it invites attack (like it did to Charles) bears the fruit of real-life ministry to others.
Honest and Realistic
Zack Eswine (May I call him Zack?) also approaches the context that impacted Charles to become an emotionally transparent preacher, with honesty and realism. Though many know of Charles’ struggle with depression, many don’t know of the circumstantial triggers which plunged him into deep grief. “Only two weeks prior to this early November sermon, when he talked about helplessness and he defended the depressed, he had preached to several thousand people in that exact spot. But as he did, a prankster yelled, ‘Fire!’ The resulting panic left seven dead and twenty-eight seriously injured….He and his wife were wading diaper deep into the first month of parenting their twin boys in a new house full of unpacked boxes. Now, with so many people dead, newspapers across London cruelly and mercilessly blamed him. The senseless tragedy and the public accusation nearly broke Charles’ mind, not only in those early moments but also with lasting effects.”
By periodically making reference to the trials Charles suffered, Zack does not cast blame on circumstances, but exemplifies how a wise counselor never divorces depression from its life context. Elsewhere he writes, “Sometimes sadness in response to painful circumstance takes a dark turn. It morphs into something other than itself. Grief doesn’t end and the dark creature we call depression wakens from its lair.” There is a helplessness that accompanies depression and that helplessness results from real-life sorrows. “We are different,” Zack writes, “each one of us; but I am sure there is one thing in which we are all brought to unite in times of deep sorrow, namely, in a sense of helplessness. We sense helplessness, yes, and also shame. Like other issues of mental health, we don’t talk about depression. If we do, we either whisper as if the subject is scandalous or rebuke it as if it’s a sin. No wonder many of us don’t seek help, for when we do, those who try to help only add to the shame of it all.”
Biblically Balanced, Historically Honest, and Medically Fair
Spurgeon’s Sorrows takes a balanced approach to the role of diet and medicine to relieve some of the symptoms of depression, in some people, some of the time. However, the author also wisely concludes, as did Charles, that dietary or medicinal relief is not a solution in and of itself and should not be pursued alone, apart from the deeper, more important work of the Spirit in the soul. True hope is renewed by means of focusing on the promises of God and consistently tapping into our never-ending resources in Christ. The book also touches on what Charles referred to as the disease of melancholy, that is, that some people seem to be constitutionally more prone to wrestle with depression than others. For some, fear and worry seem to naturally dominate. Therefore, understanding oneself is important, as is the constant discipline of turning eyes of faith to Christ and learning to find rest in the Lord’s goodness and faithfulness. In other words, the fleshly struggle with despondency becomes a blessing when it is recognized as the weakness that keeps one dependent upon God.
Affirming of Spiritual Depression and Spiritual Warfare
Spiritual depression, Charles argued, is the most difficult of all. Zack writes, “In this tug of war with God and depression, Charles recognized a spiritual reality to depression. He felt that depression itself has circumstantial, biological and spiritual contributors and challenges. But he also believed that the spiritual side of things could originate its own kind of depression. In other words, someone with biological depression will have spiritual realities to contend with. But a person might suffer from spiritual depression even though they’ve had no circumstantial or biological depression to speak of.”
In the growing body of literature concerning depression; it is rare for anyone to dare to suggest that Satan may have a part in using this struggle to defeat God’s children. Among Christians there is too often a hardened approach to “helping” the depressed, a kind of cold and calloused “Why don’t you just pick yourself up out of the mire?” kind of counsel, which may betray a lack of belief in the supernatural war that every true believer is in by virtue of union with Christ. On the matter of spiritual warfare, Zack writes, “Charles believed in an actual devil. This creature does not originate or cause depression. But like a lion drawn to the weakened zebra in the herd, this evil creature derives peculiar pleasure from devouring those who are lame, sick, or debilitated. In other words, ‘The great enemy makes a dead set at anxious souls.’ He delights in taking sorrows and making more of them. Like Giant Despair, Satan ‘lashes his poor slave with excess of malice, if by any means he may utterly destroy his victim before the deliverer arrives.’ Accusation, condemnation, and cruel whispers pile upon the already wheezing sufferer. If we are not careful, we imitate this accusing cruel one in our attempts to help or rouse ourselves or our depressed friends.”
Spurgeon’s Sorrows is sure to be a blessing to many. Pastors, fellow strugglers, spiritual friends, counselors, caring church members, and you, the reader of this summary will find your own soul enriched and, consequently, more effectively equipped to wisely love others through the dark, foggy valleys that believers of all ages have traveled.
Paul Tautges is senior pastor of Cornerstone Community Church (Cleveland, Ohio), biblical counselor; and review editor for counseling here at Books At a Glance.
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Spurgeon's Sorrows: Realistic Hope For Those Who Suffer From Depression