Depression and Faith Can Coexist - A look at Charles Spurgeon's Life
Updated: Aug 22
Faith, the size of a mustard seed, is all we need to move a mountain (Matthew 17:20). This tiny seed reminds us that Christ will still do amazing things according to his will even when our unbelief outweighs our belief. So if a believer can move a mountain with a small amount of faith, why couldn't Charles Spurgeon free himself from depression with faith the size of an entire mustard field?
Recently, a well-intentioned Christian lady who doesn't know me personally told me to "read and be free!" She was adamant that depression is never genetic and that increased faith and Biblical counseling would heal my mental health disorder supernaturally. My fingers were poised to write a scathing reply, but the Holy Spirit convicted my heart to respond with grace and ask a simple question. "Have you ever heard of Charles Spurgeon?"
Who is Charles Spurgeon?
The 19th-century Baptist Preacher's name is synonymous with faith – he was an uprooter of mountains. Nothing is more certain than God's ordination on Charles Spurgeon's life. He was known as the "Prince of Preachers" and left a legacy that still heavily influences evangelical Christian ministries today. According to The Spurgeon Center, he preached the gospel to over a million people and personally baptized 15,000 new believers under his ministry. His sermons were translated into almost forty languages. And his resume doesn't stop there.
Faith & Depression Can Coexist
In recent years, Charles Spurgeon's name has also become synonymous with depression, not just any depression, but endogenous meaning "from within" in Latin. Today, we call this type of depression major depressive disorder (MDD), which is most likely caused by genetics. Spurgeon's diagnosis throws a wrench in the uneducated view that mental illness, especially depression, is always a spiritual disorder.
An article on The Weary Christian hits this nail squarely on the head. "The great 19th-century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon is a tough case for the "mental illness is spiritual" camp. Many in the "mental illness is spiritual" camp are suspicious of contemporary preachers and theologians. But Spurgeon is rightly considered a giant of the faith by this group. His mental illness presents a dilemma. If you say depression, anxiety, and panic are either sins or reflective of a spiritual problem, the greatest preacher in evangelicalism's history shouldn't have been near a pulpit. Because he was often overwhelmed with depression, anxiety, and panic."
Spurgeon addresses how faith and unbelief can dwell together in the same heart in his sermon, "Sweet Stimulants for the Fainting Soul." In a single sentence, he turns what some see as a punishment for unrepented sins into a promotion in spirit. "Depression of spirit is no index of declining Grace—the very loss of joy and the absence of assurance may be accompanied by the greatest advancement in the spiritual life." If unbelief and belief can live together in the same heart, joy and grief can coexist. Our level of happiness is not directly correlated to the size of our faith, and Spurgeon taught this well.
Depression didn't Stop Him from Achieving Great Things
Spurgeon was not only a man of words; although he was a master of the pen and pulpit, he was also a man of action. In plain terms, he actually "practiced what he preached." According to The Spurgeon Center, "He founded a free seminary called the Pastors' College to equip ministers and refine their skills. His students planted 53 new Baptist churches in London, not counting missions worldwide or across England just within the first twenty years. Spurgeon founded ministries for police officers and prostitutes. He built two orphanages and seventeen almshouses for widows. He funded most of these projects on his dime after amassing a net worth of around $50 million because he believed in 'investing in God's Kingdom.'"
Spurgeon never stopped his Kingdom work even while suffering from depression, arthritis, and severe gout. He even preached on usefulness to his students during a lecture on depression. Spurgeon never let his ailments stop him from pursuing his ministry work, even when he had to step back from the crowd. His trials did not render him useless but instead more useful and relatable to fellow suffering brothers and sisters.
His Invitation of Vulnerability
I read the other day that when a writer writes from a place of vulnerability, it draws the reader in. As a writer, Spurgeon certainly possessed this gift of sharing vulnerability. His writing invites the reader to take residency in his thoughts and feel his heartbeat. I quote many of Spurgeon's words verbatim (like in this article) because I cannot fathom a better way to communicate the message.
When I went through a season of depression, I never felt more understood and seen than when I read the words of one of Spurgeon's accounts of depression. "There is a kind of mental darkness, in which you are disturbed, perplexed, worried, troubled – not, perhaps, about anything tangible." What I couldn't explain, Spurgeon put on paper. The words are not necessarily fancy but instead plain for the average sheep to consume. And his sermons nourish the soul.
Suffering as the Teacher
It wasn't Spurgeon's lack of faith that failed to lift the burden of depression. He was given a thorn, much like Paul's thorn in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10, keeping Charles' dependency in check. Spurgeon managed to find the purpose and "pure joy" in his trials (James 1:2-4).
In "Hezekiah and the Ambassadors, or Vainglory Rebuked, "he wrote of this lesson, "Perhaps there may be no way of teaching us so thoroughly the baseness of our heart as by leaving us to its devices; perhaps we shall never know our folly, unless suffered to play the fool, but oh prevent it, Lord! Prevent it by thy grace! Better to be taught by suffering than to be taught by sin! Better to lie in God's dungeon than to revel in the devil's palace."
Praise Him in the Dark
God may not have healed him from his mental and physical illnesses, but that did not deter Spurgeon from praising God in the dark. He writes of this praise in the sermon, "Songs in the Night," based on Job 35:10. "It is easy to sing when we can read the notes by daylight; but he is the skillful singer who can sing when there is not a ray of light by which to read, -- who sings from his heart, and not from a book that he can see, because he has no means of reading, save from that inward book of his own living spirit, whence notes of gratitude pour forth in songs of praise."
It is the Object of Your Faith that Matters Most
Little is much when it comes to the power of God. Small faith can do much, but greater faith can do immeasurably more. However, neither is accomplished unless the object of your faith is in Christ.
Of course, Spurgeon wrote about this aspect of our faith more eloquently, "The eye cannot see itself. Did you ever see your own eye? In a mirror you may have done so, but that was only a reflection of it. And you may, in like manner, see the evidence of your faith, but you cannot look at the faith itself. Faith looks away to itself to the object of faith, even to Christ."
I thought long and hard about the words "read and be free." The lady is right, you know? You can "read the Word and be free." Friend, freedom in Christ, is ours for the taking regardless of this life's circumstances and health issues, and the Word is a balm for our souls. "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36).
Charles Spurgeon preached and lived the Word. His life is proof it is possible to live free while mired in deep valleys of sorrow -- if only one looks to the hills.
Originally published on ibelieve.com.