He Preached a Big God with a Broken Heart
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
Everyone faces adversity and must find ways to persevere through the oppressing moments of life. Everyone must get up and walk through the routines of making breakfast and washing clothes and going to work and paying bills and discipling children. We must, in general, keep life going when our hearts are breaking.
“Spurgeon knew the whole range of adversity that most preachers suffer — and a lot more.”
But it’s different with pastors — not totally different, but different. The heart is the instrument of our vocation. Charles Spurgeon said, “Ours is more than mental work — it is heart work, the labour of our inmost soul” (Lectures to My Students, 156). When a pastor’s heart is breaking, therefore, he must labor with a broken instrument. The question becomes, then, not just how you keep living when the marriage is blank or when the finances don’t reach or when the pews are bare and friends forsake you, but how do you keep preaching?
I thank God for the healing history of the power of God in the lives of his saints and, in particular, for the life and ministry of Charles Spurgeon, who, for thirty-eight years at the New Park Street Chapel and the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, modeled how to preach through adversity. And for those who have eyes to see, the lessons are not just for pastors, but for all of us.
Spurgeon was called at the age of seventeen to be the pastor of a Congregational church in Waterbeach. Just short of two years later, at the age of nineteen, he candidated at the New Park Street Chapel, London. He started his ministry there the next year (1854). The church changed its name to the Metropolitan Tabernacle when a new building was constructed. Spurgeon would be the pastor of this congregation for 38 years until his death in 1892.
Preaching was the most renowned and effective part of Spurgeon’s life. He preached more than six hundred times before he was twenty. After the new building opened, he was typically heard by six thousand people on the Lord’s Day. He once preached to the largest indoor crowd of his life, 23,654 — without electronic amplification. His sermons would eventually sell about twenty-five thousand copies a week and be translated into twenty languages.
When he came to New Park Street Chapel, there were 232 members. Thirty-eight years later, there were 5,311, with a total addition of 14,460 (an average of 380 new members a year). All of this happened even though he had no formal theological education. He was self-taught and read voraciously — about six books a week, with a phenomenal memory. At his death, his library consisted of about twelve thousand volumes. To secure the legacy of preaching for other churches and times, he founded a Pastors’ College, which trained nearly nine hundred men in his lifetime.
In addition to the six substantial books he read a week, Spurgeon produced more than 140 books of his own — such as The Treasury of David, which was twenty years in the making, and Morning and Evening and John Ploughman’s Talk.
But the ever-present Lord Jesus did not spare his friend and servant the “many tribulations” Paul promised to all who would enter the kingdom of heaven (Acts 14:22). His life was hard and, by the standard of his friend George Müller, short. He stood before his people for the last time on June 7, 1891, and died the following January 31 from a painful combination of rheumatism, gout, and Bright’s disease. He was 57.
Spurgeon knew the whole range of adversity that most preachers suffer — and a lot more.
Spurgeon knew the everyday, homegrown variety of frustration and disappointment from lukewarm members. He felt the extraordinary calamities that befall us once in a lifetime. He was familiar with the adversity of family pain. He faced unbelievable physical suffering. He had to endure a lifetime of public ridicule and slander, sometimes of the most vicious kind. And finally, Spurgeon had recurrent battles with depression.
“Everyone faces adversity and must find ways to persevere through the oppressing moments of life.”
This final adversity was the result of the others. It is not easy to imagine the omnicompetent, eloquent, brilliant, full-of-energy Spurgeon weeping like a baby for no reason that he could think of. In 1858, at age twenty-four, it happened for the first time. He said, “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for” (“The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” 24). He added:
Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings. As well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness. . . . The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back. (Lectures to My Students, 163)
He saw his depression as his “worst feature.” “Despondency,” he said, “is not a virtue; I believe it is a vice. I am heartily ashamed of myself for falling into it, but I am sure there is no remedy for it like a holy faith in God” (“The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” 24).
In spite of all these sufferings and persecutions, Spurgeon endured to the end, and was able to preach mightily until his last sermon at the Tabernacle on June 7, 1891. The question I have asked in reading this man’s life and work is, how did he persevere and preach through this adversity?
Preaching Through Adversity
There were innumerable strategies of grace in the life of Charles Spurgeon. The ones I have chosen to mention are limited, but the scope of this man’s strategies and the wisdom of his warfare were immense.
1. Submit to a Sovereign God
Spurgeon saw his depression as the design of God for the good of his ministry and the glory of Christ.
What comes through again and again in Spurgeon’s writings is his unwavering belief in the sovereignty of God in all his afflictions. More than anything else, it seems, this kept him from caving in to the adversities of his life. He writes:
It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity. (“The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” 25)
For Spurgeon, this view of God was not an argument for debate; it was a means of survival. Our afflictions are the health regimen of an infinitely wise Physician. Though Spurgeon dreaded suffering and would avoid it, he said:
I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable. . . . Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library. (“The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” 25)
I would say with Spurgeon that in the darkest hours, it is the sovereign goodness of God that has given me the strength to go on — the granite promise that he rules over my circumstances and means it for good, no matter what anyone else means.
2. Breathe Different Air
Spurgeon supplemented his theological survival strategy with God’s natural means of survival — his use of rest and nature.
For all Spurgeon’s talk about spending and being spent, he counsels us to rest and take a day off and open ourselves to the healing powers God has put in the world of nature.
“Our Sabbath is our day of toil,” he said, “and if we do not rest upon some other day we shall break down” (Lectures to My Students, 160). Eric Hayden reminds us that Spurgeon “kept, when possible, Wednesday as his day of rest” (Highlights in the Life of C.H. Spurgeon, 161). More than that, Spurgeon said to his students:
It is wisdom to take occasional furlough. In the long run, we shall do more by sometimes doing less. On, on, on forever, without recreation may suit spirits emancipated from this “heavy clay,” but while we are in this tabernacle, we must every now and then cry halt, and serve the Lord by holy inaction and consecrated leisure. Let no tender conscience doubt the lawfulness of going out of harness for a while. (Lectures to My Students, 161)
In my pastoral ministry experience, I can testify that time off is crucial for breathing a different spiritual air. When we take time away from the press of duty, Spurgeon recommends that we breathe country air and let the beauty of nature do its appointed work. He confesses that “sedentary habits have tendency to create despondency . . . especially in the months of fog.” He then counsels, “A mouthful of sea air, or a stiff walk in the wind’s face would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is next best” (Lectures to My Students, 160).
3. Commune with Christ
Spurgeon consistently nourished his soul by communion with Christ through prayer and meditation. It was a great mercy to me at an embattled point in my ministry that I discovered John Owen’s book Communion with God. It nourished me again and again as my soul asked, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”
“What comes through again and again is his unwavering belief in the sovereignty of God in all his afflictions.”
Spurgeon warned his students:
Never neglect your spiritual meals, or you will lack stamina and your spirits will sink. Live on the substantial doctrines of grace, and you will outlive and out-work those who delight in the pastry and syllabubs of “modern thought.” (Lectures to My Students, 310)
I think one of the reasons Spurgeon was so rich in language and full in doctrinal substance and strong in the Spirit, in spite of his despondency and his physical oppression and his embattlements, is that he was always immersed in a great book. Most of us cannot match Spurgeon’s six books a week, but we can always be walking with some great “see-er” of God. Over the years, I’ve learned that the key in all good reading of theology is to strive in the reading for utterly real fellowship with Christ. Spurgeon said:
Above all, feed the flame with intimate fellowship with Christ. No man was ever cold in heart who lived with Jesus on such terms as John and Mary did of old. . . . I never met with a half-hearted preacher who was much in communion with the Lord Jesus. (Lectures to My Students, 315)
In many ways, Spurgeon was a child in his communion with God. He did not speak in complex terms about anything too strange or mystical. If we are going to preach through adversity, we have to live in communion with God on such intimate terms — speaking to him our needs and our pain, and feeding on the grace of his promises and the revelations of his glory.
A Sure Triumph
Near the end of his life, in Spurgeon’s last address of his pastors’ conference, he said, “Who is he that can harm us if we follow Jesus? How can his cause be defeated? At His will, converts will flock to His truth as numerous as the sands of the sea. . . . Wherefore be of good courage, and go on your way singing [and preaching!]:
“The winds of hell have blown,
The world its hate hath shown,
Yet it is not o’erthrown.
Hallelujah for the cross!
It shall never suffer loss!
The Lord of hosts is with us,
The God of Jacob is our refuge.” (An All-Round Ministry, 395–96)