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Book Review – Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Suffer from Depression (Zack Eswine)

Zack Eswine. Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Suffer from Depression. Scotland, UK: Christian Focus, 2014. 144 pp. $9.99.

spurgeon's sorrowsI don’t think I’ve ever even hinted on this blog of my battle with depression, and I’m thankful that it’s now but a distant memory. The short version of the story is that depression captured me a few months after I became a Christian (almost 10 years ago) and quickly became all-consuming. From waking ’till sleeping I just wanted to die, and no amount of prayer, singing, reciting Scripture, preaching the gospel to myself, etc. gave me even momentary reprieve. I mostly kept my struggles a secret. Though I’m thankful for the love and prayers of a handful of people in my life that knew about my depression, I hated talking about it because I almost always ended up feeling worse. I received a lot of trite, unhelpful words and a few down-right harmful words. I don’t think my experience is unique; depression and mental health are issues that the Church doesn’t really talk about, which means sufferers feel like an anomalies and non-sufferers don’t know how to counsel or just “be there” for them. Platitudes are the norm, and untrue words implying presence of sin, lack of faith, the need to just “lighten up” are unfortunately common.

Though my struggle has ended (the Lord supernaturally and instantaneously delivered me from depression about a year and a half ago, but that’s another story for another day), I share it here because the subject matter of Spurgeon’s Sorrows was my constant reality for eight years. I therefore read this book with an eye toward two questions: 1) would this book have helped me and given me perspective back then (i.e. would those battling depression find this book helpful?); and 2) would this book help those who have never struggled with depression understand and provide support to those who do? Though I don’t often read Christian living books, I knew I had to read this book not just because of my own past struggle with depression, but also because 1) this struggle is more common in the Church than we realize and 2) the Church doesn’t address it nearly enough.

In Spurgeon’s Sorrows, Zack Eswine illuminates the intense battles the “Prince of Preachers” fought against depression. Filled with Eswine’s own beautiful prose as well as quotes from Spurgeon’s writings, this book provides a window into sufferers of depression for those who have never experienced it. The majority of the book (eight out of 12 chapters) is dedicated to helping non-sufferers understand depression and learn how to help those who battle depression. This is extremely valuable because, as I expressed above, it’s hard for those who have never battled crippling depression to understand those who do. Eswine conveys much the same:

Condemnation comes from what Charles calls the “ungenerous suspicions” which many harbor toward those in depression. In the eyes of many people, including Christian people, depression signifies cowardice, faithlessness or a bad attitude. Such people tell God in prayer and their friends in person that the sufferer of depression is probably faking it or soft or unspiritual. To our face they coach us to rouse our courage, shame us to expose our lies, or quote the Bible to stir our faith. They try to reason with us using ‘logic’ to demonstrate and prove the absurdity of our fears.

(Eswine 46*)

Understanding is the first step to helping. I remember having a difficult time communicating about my depression and feeling extremely frustrated about being misunderstood and receiving the kinds of counsel described in the quote above. Spurgeon’s Sorrows helps you understand those who suffer. For this reason, I highly recommend this book to all Christians who have never battled depression. I’m not talking about feeling sad once in a while – everyone does. I’m not talking about short spurts of intense sadness and tears in response to temporary circumstances that dissipate shortly after circumstances change. I’m talking about a constant residence in the pit of despair and never being able to escape, no matter how good the circumstances. If you haven’t experienced that, please read this book.

In terms of how helpful Spurgeon’s Sorrows is for those enveloped in perpetual darkness, I think the greatest value is that this book undoes a bit of the damage that has most likely been done by bad counsel and misunderstanding. This book helps you realize that your depression is not due to presence of sin or lack of faith – that it isn’t your fault that you can’t just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and feel happy-dappy. It helps you see that just because you battle depression doesn’t mean that you’re unspiritual or that God can’t/won’t use you mightily for the kingdom. It helps you feel not-so-alone – that Jesus understands, that the “Prince of Preachers” struggled with this too, that Eswine can relate. A 144-page book can’t be expected to provide comprehensive, detailed helps; but the last section on coping with depression gives a brief overview of spiritual and natural helps, which includes medicines. The value in this is that sometimes Christians believe that it’s a purely spiritual struggle, and that natural means of relief shouldn’t be sought; that “God alone will deliver me.” But God uses means, and medication is one of them when there is a physiological/chemical component to one’s depression.

The book concludes with a chapter on the benefits of sorrow. Sorrows “teach us to resist trite views of what maturity in Jesus looks like,” “deepen our intimacy with God,” “enable us to better receive blessings,” “shed our pretences,” “expose and root out our pride,” “teach us empathy for one another,” “allow small kindnesses to loom large,” and “teach us courage for others who face trials” (108-109*). Spurgeon’s Sorrows should be read by every Christian, especially those who have not struggled with depression.

*page numbers are from an epub version and might be different from print and mobi.

I received a digital copy in exchange for an honest review.

Purchase: Westminster | Amazon

 

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10 Comments

  1. jamesbradfordpate

     /  February 28, 2015

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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  2. Very nice review. Thank you.
    Jeff

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  3. Thank you for sharing this story about your depression; and also of course your review in light of it

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  4. rgbrao

     /  March 1, 2015

    Jen,
    ~ You may find this strange… but I think I have told you this somewhere before. I used to be a very very theologically reactive person. It is how I process things…

    So I struggled with depression for about a ~ 1-1/2 years, back in grad school for Comp Sci. My depression however stemmed very directly in good measure from studying things like predestination, what about those who have never heard, Hell, abject suffering in India, etc., all those types of issues. It just seemed like God was not loving. It also did not help that rather than sit down and learn from a book, I was learning from uncharitable online debates where some Xtns had so great an understanding of grace yet so little actual graciousness. Very sad. They did not get that when character is pervasive, character is persuasive.

    So I fell into a huge depression. Basically everything you see in life is discolored. And there is that deep dark hopeless whatever – that thing inside you – that words cannot describe… accompanied by a fear, heaviness… The blackness saturates all of your life. Its a sovereign all permeating darkness. Well – It reached a point finally where I told God I needed a break because I thought I could no longer function. I could not go on. I was also on the edge of leaving the faith. So I strangely enough asked for a 4 year break. And the next day after that prayer, I met this chap who asked me to join his campus ministry and the depression abruptly(!) ended that very day as I dove into the ministry.

    Four years later I was sitting in Starbucks with friends discussing stuff and a thought suddenly popped into my head as to how the reformed view of predestination connected with the immanent trinity and… the next thought that came to me was… wow – its been 4 years since I have thought about all this. The depression had also been gone. I was free.
    ~~~
    Now all that said – where I have reservations about the post is this – my experience is that the church (and teds esp.) has been very very very helpful in this area. In all the churches I have been in, you could talk openly about it, pray about it, mourn with those who mourn, etc. I would say that this is true for basically every church I have attended my entire life.

    Ok. Jen – Sorry about the term paper up above -) God bless sis and take care!

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    • Thanks for sharing your story, Raj! My situation is a bit different….between my depression starting and ending nothing had changed in my theology, ministry involvement, etc. It’s all a mystery to me – both the depression itself, and even the Lord just delivering me from it (after many years I had finally come to this point where I had made peace, so to speak, with having to struggle with it my whole life). It’s definitely one of the first things I want to God about when faith becomes sight!

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  5. Mine was a crippling and debilitating depression mixed with anxiety. It cost me my job and, possibly, my family. The book I read that ensured this would not happen to me again is “Hope and Help for Your Nerves” by Claire Weeks. After spending about three years in hell, I persuaded my psychiatrist to prescribe an anti-depressant that was often used in atypical depressions, and since nothing else had worked, he prescribed it, an MAO inhibitor called Nardil. It totally emancipated me from the black dog. It was like a miracle to me. It was like the sun coming out after a storm. Later I came to see my depression as an instrument of God. “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep thy word. It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:67,71 RSV) Peace be with you all.

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    • rgbrao

       /  March 8, 2015

      Crispus,
      ~ This is a bit late… but if you are still out there. Your post popped into my inbox mid-week and I felt compelled to pray for you and have done so till today. It just seems like its been rough for you so why not pray some grace down I thought. Being sick I had a lot of time.

      Anyway just in case your unfamiliars with Dr. Piper … Of late I have been reading a whole lot on joy… in particular from Pastor John Piper. Basically I want to make some claims about joy so I have gone to Piper for help cuz its been difficult processing.

      And I have found some remarkable(!) help from him. If you get a chance take a look at two of his books, (1) When the Darkness Will Not Lift and (2) When I Don’t Desire God. While I am not depressed, the books are just helping me everywhere in life. Wow!

      The thing with Dr. Piper is that he himself suffered a severe depression for 5 years or so. And it was one of those depressions that just came out of nowhere and he just found himself crying and crying for no good reason. And in the meantime everything else in life – family, ministry, kids, house, etc was going just fine. He had no reason to weep but was just sunken. So … So when this guy speaks its not just theory. He knows it personally from the inside. So I wanted to commend him to you. Google his books. They are free at his website.

      Take a look bro cuz… when we recover from something … we got to bulk up so that we can help others also. The Luke 22:32 thing… Peter was to recover and strengthen others.

      Ok. Thats it my friend. Take care…
      ~ Raj
      P.S. I resonate with your Psalm 119:67, 71 cuz. I have been sick 5x since Jan 8th. And that – ack! – was my morning devo the day my sickness began. God is good though!!!

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