Thinking through depression and mental health with Charles Spurgeon

What can a cigar loving, Victorian Era baptist preacher teach us about depression and mental health? Turns out, actually a lot.

I have been wanting to write a blog post about mental health for a while. My mental state has been something that has caused me great trouble in my spiritual life and other areas of life. I am on medication for a “mood disorder” that doctors have called either depression, anxiety, or OCD. I usually have identified it as OCD when people ask because I believe that is the first diagnosis I had before doctors changed their minds like a million times. One doctor said I was bipolar. Anyway I don’t really know what is exactly wrong and I don’t know that me knowing matters all that much. I don’t know if repetitive condemning thoughts from OCD lead me to periods of depression and despair or if periods of depression lead to repetitive condemning thoughts or maybe they just go together. I don’t know.

Anyway my experiences with despair and depression have lead me to great guilt. I often feel as if there is some I confessed sin or something that leads me to these feelings. I have thought that I only experience these feelings due to a lack of faith. This has been made worse by the fact that many contemporary Christians deny the existence of any mental health issues. I have heard psychology considered a social construct or an atheistic science. Then I did a little digging and found out that this is a relatively new phenomenon for Christians. Christians have nearly unanimously acknowledged a physical nature to mental health in addition to the spiritual side. In fact, the Puritans are considered by modern psychologists as well ahead of their times when it comes to the science of the mind. Reading through a little bit of the great puritan theologian Richard Baxter has been a great help. in this area. Martin Luther, Timothy Rodgers, John Newton, William Cowper, Archibald Alexander, Octavius Winslow, Martyn Lloyd Jones, Richard Winter, and David Murray have all been beneficial as well, but I have found the most help from The Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon. When I found that there was a book that was written about Charles Spurgeon’s depression and counsel for the depressed, I couldn’t resist reading it. This book, Spurgeon’s Sorrows, by Zack Eswine has turned out to be one of, if not the best book I have read so far this year. The following is not as much a book review as it is a collection of thoughts about depression and mental health that I have either drawn from or previously held and had confirmed through Eswine’s book.

1. Mental Illness is real.

It may seem odd that I start here, but this must be established. Spurgeon refers to “depression of mind” as “a real disease” and that “it is not imaginary.” (Before I go on it is important to note that most mental health issues would have been catagorized under depression or “melancholy” during the nineteenth century when Spurgeon was alive.). Spurgeon also writes,

“It is all very well for those who are in robust health and full of spirits to blame those whose lives are sicklied or covered with the pale cast of melancholy, but the [malady] is as real as a gaping wound, and all the more hard to bear because it lies so much in the region of the soul that to the inexperienced it appears to be a mere matter of fancy and diseased imagination. Reader, never ridicule the nervous and hypochondrichal, their pain is real; though much of the [malady] lies in the imagination thought-processes] it is not imaginary.”

Don’t tell those who are depressed or despairing to just snap out of it. Richard Baxter writes,

“you may almost as well persuade a man not to shake in an fever, or not to feel when he is pained, as persuade them to cast away their self-troubling thoughts.”

In case you want to here from an Arminian, John Wesley agrees. He said,

“Faith no more hinders the sinking of the spirits (meaning depression) in an hysteric illness than the rising of the pulse in a fever.”

2. Depression is not a sin.

This is also something that is not exactly accepted fully in the Reformed circles I follow. Spurgeon, however, would affirm this. He writes “we may get depressed in spirit, we may be nervous, fearful, timid, we may almost come to the borders of sin…apart from sin.”

3. Preachers can hurt the depressed.

There is certainly a place for convicting sermons, and sin should never be called something other than sin, but sometimes out of zeal, preachers can place a burden on their congregation that Christ never required them to carry. People are tired and need the gospel of free grace constantly shoved down their throat. We must remember that some people respond differently to different styles of preaching. The depressed do not need to here that they must do more for they often lack the ability. As Richard Baxter writes,

“they think that God hath forsaken them, and that the day of grace is past, and there is no more hope; they say they cannot pray, but howl, and groan, and God will not hear them; they will not believe that they have any sincerity and grace; they say they cannot repent, they cannot believe, but that their hearts are utterly hardened.”

They must here that Jesus has done enough. They must be loved gently and encouraged.

4. Faith is a gift.  

Stronger Christians with unshakable faith must remember that their faith is a gift from God. We should all desire to have our faith grow, but we must be gentle, patient, and encouraging with those with weaker faith. It is also worth noting that it takes more faith for some to do less than others.

5. Total Depravity includes our brains.

It amazes me that many Calvinists just really don’t understand how the doctrine of total depravity affects our minds. Total depravity means everything is messed up, including our minds. Our brains are an organ that affect the way out mind functions therefore it follows that total depravity would affect mental health.

6. Our greatest problem is our sin.

This is hard to think about sometime, but my greatest issue is not in my mind but it is in my heart. I, and many others have real issues in our heads that need to be addressed as medical rather than spiritual issues, but sin remains my biggest issue. My life would not be perfect if I could rid myself of repetitive condemning thoughts. I would still have to deal with my pride, greed, lust, hate, and every other sin issue I struggle with. These are the root of my separation from God.

7. We may never experience healing in this life.

God never promises healing from Christians in this life. God surely can heal anything, but he may chose to leave us with certain afflictions to humble is and draw us to Himself. I have found that my periods of despair have been one of the key things leading me to become painfully aware of my weakness and dependence on God.

8. We will experience complete healing in heaven.

Though we may not experience much if any physical healing on earth (though we may), we will be completely healed and made new in heaven. We have the hope of a glorified mind and perfect union with Christ for eternity.

9. Medication and other natural remedies are gifts from God.

I have read many Christians that say that we should not take prescription medication for any mental health problem. I have even seen famous pastors blame the Newtown and Charleston shootings on the use of psychotropic drugs (both in a way to try to protect the right to bear arms.). That part is kind of irrelevant for this post, but anyway, I have found many places throughout the writings of the Puritans that advise the use of “physic”, the name they used for medication. The depressed naturally feel guilt when taking medication. Heaping guilt upon them is not the answer. In one of my favorite books Gospel Wakefulness (the book is worth buying just for the chapter on depression), pastor Jared C. Wilson writes,

“many Christians have adopted the unfortunate posture of Job’s friends, adding more discouragement to those discouraged in depression by urging them not to seek help except via spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study…it certainly isn’t the gospel of Jesus to heap guilt on people who need medical help to be healthy people.”

Or as Spurgeon says,

“it would not be wise to live by a supposed faith, and cast of the physician and his medicines any more than to discharge the butcher and the tailor and expect to be fed and clothed by faith.”

Other common graces are often also helpful. Spurgeon loved cigars. Luther loved a beer (or a few). I have found that music is very southing to my soul. Switchfoot and Christian hip hop especially, but even secular music can be helpful. U2, Lupe Fiasco, and Twenty One Pilots all do a great job at articulating the beauty and pain of living in a broken world.

10. Our affections for God come and go. God’s affections for us remain constant.

One of my greatest struggles is having affections towards God. I become overcome with apathy and indifference towards the gospel. In Spurgeon’s words “we want to feel but cannot feel.” I long to have a greater desire for God through prayer, scripture and corporate worship, but sometimes I just can’t. While my affections towards God change, God’s affection towards me is constant. I must focus on God’s strong, unconditional love rather than my weak and wavering love. Spurgeon wisely notes that God’s promises do not fluctuate with our ability to feel them.

11. We need community.

The depressed and afflicted must not be left to themselves. At the 2014 Desiring God conference, Ben Stuart remarked how being alone in your room with just a bible can be one of the most dangerous and unhelpful things for those struggling with depression. I myself find that in the midst of despair I find little grace and much condemnation in scripture. We need people who force feed us the grace and mercy of the gospel. Ruminating in your own thoughts is also unhelpful when depressed. Distraction and laughter is needed. Speaking of laughter, Spurgeon carried around a joke book with him. That’s so awesome. He loved laughing.

12. Life is hard. Everyone suffers.

We are all sinners, but we are also all sufferers. Spurgeon wrote “I wonder everyday that there are not more suicides, considering the troubles of this life.” Spurgeon actually affirms the reasonableness of the desire to die. Thankfully I have never been really suicidal (I am too afraid of hell), but I have desired death and wished I was never born. I want to be careful not to endorse suicide, but I want to make clear that the desire to die can actually be very rational (Spurgeon actually uses that exact word). We must not reply in shock when we are approached by those who desire death. As the church we must be a safe place for the desperate and depressed. We must be a safe place for those who wish to die to fall apart and be honest. There must be no stigma or shame. None. Zero. It is worth quoting professor David Murray at this point,

“Judgment Day alone will declare how many people took their lives because they were too frightened of the condemnation that would be heaped upon them in the church if they admitted to struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts. If there’s one thing that infuriates me (usually holy anger, sometimes not so holy) it’s the ridiculously ignorant and horrifically insensitive statements that some pastors and Christians make about depression and mental illness.”

My blood is boiling as I copy that quote. The epidemic of suicide in the US and worldwide breaks my heart. I know the dark night of the soul and knowing that many experience a much darker night without those who are willing to love and listen while withholding judgement is something that deeply grieves me. I have a great desire to change the posture of the church towards those with these feelings.  And for the record, suicide is not the unpardonable sin.

13. Jesus can sympathize.

We have a savior who can feel our pain (Heb 4:15). Spurgeon says that the sympathy of Jesus is the second most precious truth behind His sacrifice. Jesus is called the Man of Sorrows. Zack Eswine writes “those who suffer depression have an ally, a hero, a companion-redeemer, advocate for the mentally harassed.”

14. We need rest.

As reluctant as Spurgeon was to do so, he knew his need for breaks and vacations. We need rest. We must take breaks from our usual activities for extended times of refreshing. As Spurgeon writes “rest time is not waste time.” The depressed and discouraged especially need this rest.

15. The gospel is for you.

I think this is a good place to finish. When I am experiencing depression or despair, I believe the lie that the gospel is for everyone but me. That is not true. The gospel is for me. The gospel is for the discouraged, the depressed, the despairing, the suicidal, and the schizophrenic. We must remember this truth.

I recommend reading this and this  about the Puritans and mental illness.

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