O The Humanity! Spurgeon and Ministerial Depression
The minister’s depression is a fascinating phenomenon. Though he’s the man who communes with God in private, sings of his praises from the pulpit, and counsels the flock through all of life’s difficulties, this same man is often the one who also wrestles with God in darkness, can barely muster the strength to preach, and often struggles to counsel his own soul in times of debilitating depression. Why is this so often the case? As a young Christian who heard of this experience, I quickly attributed its cause to personal active sin, a lack of faith, or an assault of the devil. Quickly I realized that this list of causes is too narrow for there is much more occurring in the experience of despondency. In other words, there is a broader range of causes and divine purposes in this experience beyond that of faithlessness or the devil’s work. To attribute all experiences of despondency to active evil forces (whether stemming from within or outside) is a failure to truly grasp the full range of corruption brought in via the Fall.
Someone who understood the full range of causes and purposes behind depression is Charles H. Spurgeon. Known primarily for his prolific preaching, writing, and tireless work ethic, he is also known to have battled with desolation throughout the duration of his ministry. One place where he writes on this issue is his Lectures to my Students, where Spurgeon records a lecture aptly titled, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits.” In this place he lays out the reasons for, the experiences of, and the divine purposes behind the clergyman’s despondency. This lecture is a must read for all ministers who battle with depression because of his brilliant handling of the topic.
One reason why his talk is so brilliant is because he sees that mental ailments should not immediately be associated with active sin or Satanic assault. Rather, Spurgeon begins by noting that the experience of despondency finds its most basic cause in the common fallenness of humanity, the seed of Adam that affects all men. Spurgeon says:
“…Let us dwell upon the reasons why [depression is] permitted; why it is that the children of the light sometimes walk in the thick darkness; why the heralds of the daybreak find themselves at times in tenfold night. Is it not first they are men? Being men, they are compassed with infirmity, and heirs of sorrow.” (159).
Like all men, ministers are subject to the effects of sin. No part of creation has remained untainted from the distorting effects of sin and this includes the realm of the mind (i.e. Total Depravity). Every part of man is vitiated including the mind of man. Thus, depression may exist in some simply because the mind is no longer whole. This assertion coheres with recent research which indicates that the mental illness of depression can find its cause in genetics and biological factors. Spurgeon notes this in saying that “some minds appear to have a gloomy tinge essential to their very individuality…” (160). Proneness to depression may just be part of the fallen make-up of many. This is true for many God-fearing individuals in our churches.
Thus, every experience of depression does not need to be linked to sinful grief, idolatry, or faithlessness. This doesn’t mean it can’t be linked to such factors for many are depressed due to personal sin. What I am suggesting is that sin pervades every area of life, including the mind. As a result of this, the mental sphere is just as prone to sickness as the physical sphere. Both despondency and blindness find their root cause in the Fall and the minister is prone to experiencing either one. Hence, the minister shouldn’t automatically be chided for his despondency—it may have simply fallen upon him. It is no different for him than any other man.
With this foundation, Spurgeon goes on to argue that the humanity of the clergy combined with the ministerial call, should cause the minister to expect depression. His reasoning is as such: people will battle with depression seeing that it is a common plight of the mind. One look at our society affirms this: there is an estimated 19 million people suffering from it. Spurgeon reasons, then, that if people suffer in this way, ministers should expect to suffer in a similar manner for it is through these experiences that the minister learns to sympathize with and compassionately minister to the downcast. In other words, depression is common to man, so God makes sure his ministers find the experience common to themselves. It is analogous to the reasoning of Hebrews where Christ is spoken of as being our sympathetic High Priest who we should approach in temptations because he was tempted as we are (Heb. 4:14-16). Concerning this point Spurgeon goes on to say:
“Disembodied spirits might have been sent to proclaim the Word, but they could not have entered into 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 vessels of grace, hence these tears, hence these perplexities and castings down” (160).
God’s ministers were never meant to be men who stood above their congregations in ivory towers, as if it was the churchman’s job to elevate himself to the ‘exalted’ status of the minister. Rather, God designed it to be the exact opposite. The minister’s role is to step down into the lives and experiences of his congregants so as to stand alongside them, continually identifying with them in weakness and hardship. One look at the Incarnation attests to this reality. For in Christ, God descended from heaven, becoming Immanuel (“God With Us”) in assuming our humanity and experiencing the common ailments of man. In like manner, his ministers have been called to do the same. In sharing the dark sufferings of the ailing flock and the lost, the minister is in the unique position of being able to sympathetically stand alongside the depressed while pointing them to the Light that is Christ. This course of events is to be expected by the minister. Christ himself was no stranger to depression as the “Man of Sorrows” (Is. 53:3). What would make us, his ambassadors, any different?