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