Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: Spurgeon's Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression

Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression by Zack Eswine
Christian Focus (2014); 144 pages

By its nature, depression is a difficult experience to put into words, even to oneself. No matter how much one longs for companionship in the dreary, grey slog, it can be especially hard to describe it to those who have not experienced it—or even to those who have experienced it quite differently—in a way that they can relate to. That’s why I was so impressed with Zack Eswine’s little book, Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression. Eswine’s writing about depression is some of the most accessible—dare I say beautiful—that I have read.

The book is uniquely structured around the struggles of beloved nineteenth-century preacher Charles Spurgeon, who did not shy from speaking honestly about his depression. Spurgeon’s language about depression obviously doesn’t reflect modern psychological insights; but, on the other hand, there is a depth and frankness that our attempts to face this subject often lack. Finding such companionship in an earlier era of the church can be deeply encouraging to sufferers.

Eswine does not try to be comprehensive in his discussion, and certainly the book is no substitute for pastoral and other forms of professional counsel. But, weaving his own insights with generous excerpts from Spurgeon’s sermons, he packs a lot of wisdom into short chapters. The book is divided simply: Trying to Understand Depression, Learning to Help Those Who Suffer, and Learning Helps to Daily Cope with Depression. I want to offer a representative quote from each.

In the first section, Eswine discusses melancholy temperament and spiritual depression alongside more clinically recognized forms of circumstantial and biological depression. While one could raise good questions about the connections among these, I found his approach sensitive and very helpful. This certainly rang a bell:

Painful circumstances or a disposition of gloom within our chemistry can put on their muddy boots and stand thick, full weighted and heavy upon our tired chests [. . .] These kinds of circumstances and bodily chemistry can steal the gifts of divine love too, as if all of God’s love letters and picture albums are burning up in a fire just outside the door, a fire which we are helpless to stop.

Part Two asks, “How can we entrust our sorrows to the larger story of God?” Aimed particularly at caregivers, these chapters commend a biblical scope and vocabulary for talking about depression. This is far from simplistic, and accounts for the ways that we unwittingly cause harm with words and attitudes about others’ suffering.

When we grow numb toward god-talkers whose hope isn’t realistic or who know nothing of what we experience, we needn’t bypass Jesus. On the contrary, when we search for someone, anyone, to know what it means to walk in our shoes, Jesus emerges as the preeminent and truest companion for our afflictions. Realistic hope is a Jesus-saturated thing. Those who suffer depression have an ally, a hero, a companion-redeemer, advocating for the mentally harassed.

Finally, Part 3 offers simple, practical steps sufferers can take to strengthen themselves in the daily walk. This includes learning how to rest on God’s promises even when we can’t feel their truth or imagine their fulfillment. Eswine touches on a variety of other helps like medication, humor, and scheduling around one’s limited energy. I wished he had written more about different forms of counseling that are available, and that he had discussed the role of worship, the means of grace, and the larger Body of Christ in the depressed person’s healing. Still, this section was genuinely useful, venturing outside the box of standard depression-helps.

Sorrow teaches us to resist trite views of what maturity in Jesus looks like [...] It is the presence of Jesus and not the absence of glee that designates the situation and provides our hope. Spurgeon says it this way: “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 of the spiritual life . . . we do not want rain all the days of the week, and all the weeks of the year; but if the rain comes sometimes, it makes the fields fertile, and fills the waterbrooks.”

I don’t think there is a single, must-read book that speaks to every person who suffers from depression, as everyone's experience is so different; but I hope many Christians will read, learn from, and treasure the hope celebrated in this book. It is a tenderly written book from the heart of one who knows that "the sorrowing have a Savior."

The publisher provided me with an electronic review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

When God feels distant and you're not sure you have faith...

Gisbertus Voetius in Spiritual Desertion, first published 1646:

"[O]ne's faith is definitely not gone as a result of the . . . assaults of temptation when one's conscience fails to feel and taste the sweetness of God's grace and of justification—for which it nevertheless yearns and which it continually pursues with much sighing. On the contrary, faith is like a smoldering piece of charcoal covered with ashes . . . The case is that in this state of numbness faith itself is not so much diminished as concealed and obscured, as concerns its functions, when the black cloud of depression or spiritual abandonment interposes itself between the two. One's faith, in that condition, has retreated into some corner of the heart and stays there . . . Faith and assurance are then still found as it pertains to the root, the ground, the state, and the possession of it . . . but not as it pertains to the outflow and influence of the manifestation and assurance, the emotions, the consolation, the joy and serenity, as it was experienced earlier."
Emphasis mine.
Now this is one reason I love reading older works.
They tend to remind me that I'm not a special snowflake with unique spiritual struggles. Also, they contain precious pastoral truths that our age is often slower to recognize. The communion of saints is a beautiful thing.

Johannes Hoornbeeck, in the same work:

"Apart from the general necessity of worship, in the situation in which the soul now is [feelings of spiritual desertion], the person has a greater need for worship than ever in order to return to the earlier joy that God will again grant through a diligent practice of worship . . . And the worship that one practices in the midst of spiritual abandonment and dryness is rooted more deeply and is more disciplined than that which is experienced under the precious feeling of God's grace; it is proof that the person has come far in the denying of self and in the pure love of God and of worship—proof that what counts is God and not self."

 How painfully and beautifully counter-cultural is this?