From Ashes 11: The Poor in Spirit and the Fainting Minister

Poverty in spirit is the porch of the temple of blessedness…Till we are emptied of self we cannot be filled with God. Stripping must be worked upon us before we can be clothed with the righteousness which is from Heaven.

(C.H. Spurgeon, “The First Beatitude”)


I remember a dream I had once, when I was not yet diagnosed with depression. In my dream, I was altogether unable to relate to those around me. Everything I said sounded rude, offensive, ungracious, and everyone assumed I was simply being unkind. Yet I knew that my words only came out of my inability to feel anything beyond deep sadness. And so I retreated to bed. My bed, I recall, was in a room full of people, and a friend – now a minister – was standing by my bedside, telling others that I needed to sleep. “He has depression,” he was saying to them. “He needs to rest.” The sensation that I felt in that dream was one, strangely, of safety. Someone else understood, even when others around me didn’t – even, perhaps, when I didn’t myself.

This desire to sleep, and sleep, until the trouble is passed, is a common experience of depression. Though I was never so depressed that I could not get up in the morning, though I managed, most of the time, to go to work and fulfil my duties, there were days when I carried there with me such a deep, abiding languor that, though I was there in body, in spirit I was somewhere altogether different. I often thought of the sleepers in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and of Lord Rhoop, beleaguered by the trauma of nightmares turned to reality, who was allowed to sleep among them until his soul was healed. That, I felt, was what I needed most. I later saw this emotional state perfectly, tangibly, evoked in Lars von Trier’s film, Melancholia, probably the most powerful depiction of depression I have ever seen. Yet Melancholia, though it creates and expresses palpable empathy for the broken, can do nothing to heal them. The answer to such brokenness and anguish seemed altogether evasive.

When talking with another friend, now also a minister, about my struggle to feel alive in my faith when everything else in me felt dead, he suggested that I look to figures in the faith who knew the same struggles as me. Perhaps, he suggested, I should read Spurgeon. I had heard of Spurgeon, and recalled his words about divine election being of a particular comfort to me while working in Malaysia, so I began to seek out what I could find of his work and of biographical writings on him. Yet what I found was not the comfort I expected. At a time when I most wanted to hide until it was all over, I read in Spurgeon’s life of a man who continually pushed himself in his work for the Gospel, whose response to depression seemed to be the opposite of what he most wanted to do; he did not sleep, he laboured. Was this what was expected of me? What about my dream of sleeping, and sleeping, until the world was a safe place again for me to enter?

A closer look at Spurgeon’s life shows the truth to be more complex than this. Yet the question remains: how do we handle the deep darkness of the soul productively, in a way that enables healing, when what we most want is to hide until it is over? The first answer is that the Bible promises refuge for the truly broken, expressed perfectly in the opening to Psalm 57:

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,

                  for in you I take refuge.

I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings

                  until the disaster has passed…

Yet David spoke these words when he was fleeing for his life from Saul. The darkness of the soul is much like this, but less tangible. Nor is the “distress” something which always passes; unlike a physical foe which can come and go, the foe of depression can remain far longer, for the very reason that it is not tangible and not so easily defeated or exposed. Spurgeon himself writes:

Causeless depression is not to be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings. As well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet, all- beclouding hopelessness.

The Psalms, however, always manage to move from this “causeless depression” to a place of hope – with the exception, of course, of Psalm 88. The psalmist may often begin “in the midst of lions”, yet he seldom stays there. Often, he does what Martyn Lloyd-Jones would call “preaching to oneself”. He would ask himself: “Why so downcast, O my soul?”, as though it were not needful, however powerful the source of dread may be.

As my depression slowly came into the light and I began receiving treatment, this idea of preaching to myself became a source of great comfort to me. I also began to see certain activities – working, praying, reading the Bible, going to church; serving others – as a kind of soul-physiotherapy. Just as a patient whose body has been broken by injury or stroke needs to begin exercising her muscles slowly, in agonisingly small steps, until they can handle the rigours of walking, lifting, talking and carrying, so my soul needed to be opened, in infinitesimally small stages, until it too could walk, run and praise. I began to see in figures like Spurgeon not an insensitivity to the pains of depression but rather an awareness of the fact that hiding in bed may comfort but does not heal, that only the Gospel can heal, and that only the life lived under the Gospel is truly life.

In a startling account of ministry now highly influential in Christian thinking, Spurgeon once spoke to his ministry students about a phenomenon which he called “the minister’s fainting fits”. In this lecture, Spurgeon presents depression as the norm, not the aberration, among ministers. Granted, such depression may not always be clinical, and Spurgeon – though he did not have the medical vocabulary that we have now to talk about such things – makes no such claim. Yet experience tells us that his statement is true: the levels of clinical depression amongst full-time ministers and missionaries appear far higher than in other vocational sectors among those in the church. Beginning with this solid conviction, based both on personal experience and observation, Spurgeon moves on to ask the question why this is so, offering a number of highly informative answers along the way.

First, he notes, burdens of the body and soul weigh down all believers at some point in their lives. Just as the benefits of common grace reach out to all humans, so do the troubles of this fallen world. Christians are not spared their realities, and so ministers can expect to encounter the very same burdens as others. Indeed, for Spurgeon, experiencing depression oneself is altogether necessary to be able to reach out to the “poor in spirit” among your flock. “Good men”, he writes, “are promised tribulation in this world, and ministers may expect a larger share than others, that they may learn sympathy with the Lord’s suffering people, and so may be fitting shepherds of an ailing flock”. Indeed, the ability to sympathise with an “ailing flock” seems, to Spurgeon, to be a prerequisite for ministry the way that God ordained it to take place:

Disembodied spirits might have been sent to proclaim the word, but they could not have entered the feelings 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; men of marble might have been fashioned, but their impassive natures would have been a sarcasm upon our feebleness, and a mockery of our wants. Men, and men subject to human passions, the all-wise God has chosen to be his vessels of grace; hence these tears, hence these perplexities and castings down.

It is curious, perhaps, that Spurgeon does not refer here to the very fact that God Himself chose not to despise the brokenness of human flesh, but was anguished to the point of sweating blood, making Him the Great High Priest who can sympathise with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). Yet, even without this strong Biblical justification, Spurgeon makes his point with almost irrefutable eloquence, and he is not alone among Christian writers in expressing the significance of personal brokenness in developing empathy. Had he lived in the same century as the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, he may have found an unexpected affinity with the sentiment Nouwen expresses in his seminal work The Wounded Healer:

Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a voice of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in their own heart and even losing their precious peace of mind? In short, ‘Who can take away suffering without entering it?’ It is an illusion to think that a person can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.

Spurgeon, like Nouwen, argues that experience of suffering is both necessary in order for ministers to empathise with those for whom they care and a consequence of dealing with human brokenness. Indeed, he paints a vivid picture of the struggles that the minister’s life entails: the intensity of the work, the lack of rest, the weariness of deep, persistent study, the struggles of consistently carrying the burdens of others. “Let no man who looks for ease of mind and seeks the quietude of life enter the ministry”, he warns; “if he does so, he will flee from it in disgust.” Yet he goes further to argue that depression provides a necessary antidote to more dangerous human weaknesses, noting the significance of depression in humbling great men and women of faith in the past, to keep them from what St. Paul described as “becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness” of their encounters with God (2 Corinthians 12:7). Spurgeon evokes the language of Paul’s account in 2 Corinthians when describing the life of Martin Luther as an example: “His great spirit was often in the seventh heaven of exultation, and as frequently on the borders of despair.” The same, he notes, is seen in the life of Elijah, whose ecstatic victory over the prophets of Baal was followed by one of the Bible’s most stark accounts of depression: “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”.

Spurgeon explains the need for this to happen by saying that “poor human nature cannot bear such strains as heavenly triumphs bring to it; there must come a reaction.” The heights of spiritual triumph need to be offset by despair at our own inadequacy so that we are saved from a greater danger: the dangers of besetting pride:

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 place. Whirled from off our feet by a revival, carried aloft by popularity, exalted by success in soulwinning, 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.

Spurgeon is famous for his highly florid metaphors, and this passage is no exception. At times, he tends perhaps towards the purple in his prose, yet the image here is quite an extraordinary one, whereby the rock upon which the ship is wrecked is not a danger at all but a source of salvation: the Rock of Ages. Depression, in Spurgeon’s view, is not always a curse; indeed, often it can even be a means of grace.

Speaking elsewhere of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, Spurgeon notes how Jesus, in “describing the saved”, begins with poverty of spirit in order to provide a “ladder” by which “feeble climbers” can hope to ascend. “Had the Savior said, ‘Blessed are the rich in Divine Grace’,” he notes, “he would have spoken a great Truth of God, but very few of us could have derived consolation from there.” Yet, in beginning with poverty of spirit, all may identify themselves in Christ’s blessing and from there ascend to grace. Indeed, Spurgeon argues that the first beatitude is even more central to our experience of grace in that it

is essential to the succeeding characters. It underlies each one of them and is the soil in which alone they can be produced. No man ever mourns before God until he is poor in spirit! Neither does he become meek towards others till he has humble views of himself. Hungering and thirsting after righteousness are not possible to those who have high views of their own excellence – and mercy to those who offend is also a Grace, difficult for those who are unconscious of their own spiritual need.

How, we might ask, can a minister hope to lead others to an understanding of grace which they themselves have never acquired? And how can they acquire it until they know themselves to be poor in spirit? Depression, Spurgeon seems to argue, is one of God’s primary means of bringing us face-to-face with our own poverty of spirit without Him.

Thus, “the lesson of wisdom” found from depression, Spurgeon notes, is to “be not dismayed by soul-trouble.” Indeed, it seems possible even to consider it an unexpected blessing. The economy of God’s grace is full of strange reversals like this, and the Beatitudes are based on them. Spurgeon writes:

If it be inquired why the Valley of the Shadow of Death must so often be traversed by the servants of King Jesus, the answer is not hard to find. All this is promotive of the Lord’s mode of working which is summed up in these words – ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord’”.

To confirm this, one has only to think of God’s unexpected ways of dealing with people all through scripture: deliberately choosing Gideon, seemingly the least likely warrior, and assembling for him an army of even less likely warriors, to overthrow Midian; choosing the younger usurper Jacob over the hunter Esau, rejected Leah over beloved Rachel, “the griefs of Hannah” over “the boastings of Penninah”; breaking Paul that he might better trust in the sufficiency of God’s grace. This grace has always used the unexpected and the painful, and has used them to work remarkable wonders in ways that show us that He can “do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

John Piper, a great admirer of Spurgeon, expresses a similar sentiment when writing a reflection on his experiences of cancer, provocatively entitled, Don’t Waste Your Cancer. According to Piper, “we waste our cancer if we do not believe it is designed for us by God” and “if we believe it is a curse and not a gift”. The greatest use of cancer, Piper argues, is “to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ”. Sometimes cancer, he contends, is the best way for us to do this: a “golden opportunity to show that [Christ] is worth more than life”.

The same, I believe, could be said of depression. I have often thought of writing a book called Don’t Waste Your Depression, yet have not done so, both out of a reluctance to bring law-suits upon myself and an uncertainty that I have the wisdom necessary to write it properly. If, however, I ever write it, I suspect it will be most meaningful if it tells stories like the life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who accepted his depression as a painful yet wonderful way of God working His grace in him. Far from wasting his depression, Spurgeon used it as a way of learning humility before God, and from this starting-point of humility, to move on to deeper understandings of grace than health could ever afford.

My frustration with Spurgeon initially stemmed from his prolific work, which challenged my desire simply to hide from the world until I felt healed. Yet I was also frustrated by the fact that he seemed to write about far more than depression, and wrote in an exhortative style that I struggled with; surely, I thought, knowing depression himself he would recognise the ways in which depression clouds our every other perception of God? Not at all. For Spurgeon, depression should never be the final word on a life; nor was it for him ever the defining feature of a ministry. Instead, it brought him to an altogether essential understanding of his poverty of spirit: the sense of brokenness and mourning over self and pride without which no minister or believer can ever hope to rise from the ashes and praise. May we learn to mourn and praise like him.

References

Nouwen, H. (1979). The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York: Image Books.

Piper, J. (2011). Don’t Waste Your Cancer. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

Spurgeon, C.H. (1909). The First Beatitude: A Sermon Published on Thursday August 5th, 1909. Accessed online, 25th July, 2014. http://spurgeongems.org/vols55-57/chs3156.pdf

Spurgeon, C.H. (n.d.). The Minister’s Fainting Fits. In Lectures to My Students, Vol.1. Accessed online, 24th July, 2014. http://www.onthewing.org/user/Spur_Lectures1.pdf

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