C.H. Spurgeon was not only the most renowned preacher of his day, but also a teacher of preachers through the college he founded. In 1875, he published some of the classes he taught in Lectures to My Students. Among them is a lecture on “The Minister’s Fainting Fits” to prepare his students for the periods of depression they would encounter in ministry. What follows is a summary of his thoughts.
As it is recorded that David, in the heat of battle, waxed faint [2 Samuel 21:15], so may it be written of all the servants of the Lord. Fits of depression come over the most of us. Usually cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy. There may be here and there men of iron, to whom wear and tear work no perceptible detriment, but surely the rust frets even these; and as for ordinary men, the Lord knows (and makes them to know) that they are but dust. Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited therewith at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be a comfort to some of my brethren if I shared my thoughts on them, that younger men might not imagine that some strange thing had happened to them when they became for a season possessed by melancholy; and that sadder men might know that one upon whom the sun has shone joyously did not always walk in the light.
It is not necessary by quotations from the biographies of eminent ministers to prove that seasons of fearful prostration have fallen to the lot of most, if not all of them. Rather than listing examples, let us dwell upon the reasons why these things are permitted; why it is that the children of light sometimes walk in the thick darkness; why the heralds of the daybreak find themselves at times in tenfold night.
Ministers are human. All people are surrounded with infirmity and heirs of sorrow. Even though redeemed, it is clear that we are to endure infirmities. Good people 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 fit shepherds of an ailing flock.
Most of us are in some way or other unhealthy. Certain bodily maladies (especially those connect with the digestive organs, the liver, and the spleen) are abundant sources of depression. As for mental maladies, is anyone entirely sane? Are we not all a little off balance? These infirmities may hinder in no way a minister’s special usefulness; they may even have been imposed by divine wisdom as necessary qualifications for their particular course of service.
Our work, when earnestly undertaken, lays us open to the attacks in the direction of depression. Who can bear the weight of souls without sometimes sinking into the dust? Furthermore, our position in the church is conducive to depression. A minister will usually be a spirit by himself, above, beyond, and apart from others.
Sedentary habits also have a tendency to create depression. A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours’ ramble in the beech woods’ calm, would sweep cobwebs out of the brain of dozens of our toiling ministers who are now only half alive.
Certain times are most favorable to fits of depression. First is the hour of great success. We might imagine that amid special favors our soul would rejoice with joy unspeakable, but it is generally the reverse. Consider Elijah after the fire fell from heaven, his opponents routed, and the rain fell on the thirsty land [1 Kings 18]. He flees from Jezebel and prays that he may die [1 Kings 19:3-4]. Highs of joy or excitement must be paid for by subsequent lows. While the trial lasts, the strength is equal to the emergency; but when it is over, natural weakness asserts itself.
Next is before any great achievement. Surveying the difficulties before us, our hearts sink. This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry.
Depression can also arrive in the midst of a long, unbroken stretch of labour. The bow cannot always be bent without fear of breaking. Repose is as needful to the mind as sleep is to the body. Our Sabbaths are our days of toil, and if we do not rest upon some other day we shall break down. Rest time is not wasted time; during it we gather fresh strength. A mower cutting grass with a scythe will stop frequently, not because he is lazy but because he sharpens his blade. He mows all the faster for having stopped, and in the long run we shall do more by sometimes doing less.
When we are struck low by a crushing blow. The brother most relied upon becomes a traitor, like Judas. We are too apt to look to an arm of flesh, and from that propensity many of our sorrows arise. Equally overwhelming is the blow when an honored member yields to temptation and disgraces the holy name with which he is named. Sometimes the blows aren’t so severe, but rather disappointments follow each other in a long succession like Job’s messengers. Constant dripping wears away stones, and the bravest minds feel the fret of repeated afflictions.
Sometimes, depression comes upon us for no discernable reason – and then it is all the more difficult to drive it away. Causeless depression is not to be reasoned with, nor can encouraging words send it away. It’s as bad as fighting with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness. In such cases, the skill of physician and the pastor are needed – and both may find their hands full, and more than full.
So do not be dismayed by soul-trouble. Count it no strange thing, but a part of ordinary ministerial experience. When your own emptiness is painfully revealed to you, chide yourself that you ever dreamed of being full, except in the Lord. Anyone can follow the narrow path in the light: faith’s rare wisdom enables us to march on in the dark with infallible accuracy, since she places her hand in that of her Great Guide. Between this and heaven there may be rougher weather yet, but it is all provided for by our covenant Head. In nothing let us be turned aside from the path which the divine call has urged us to pursue. Come fair weather or foul, the pulpit is our watch-tower, and the ministry our warfare.