One moving testimony to me as I ended my ministry at Bethlehem on March 31 was that of a young woman who has battled cancer. She thanked God for my cancer. She had listened to the messages leading up to my surgery in February 2006. They were life for her.
God knows what pastors must endure to be useful to their people. It is sobering to read in 2 Corinthians 1:6, “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation.” That is one reason the ministry is as hard as it is. We are afflicted so that in our afflictions our people will be saved.
Charles Spurgeon suffered repeatedly from depression. But he had an unwavering belief in the sovereignty of God in all his afflictions. This was his salvation in depression.
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. (Christian History, Issue 29, Vol. 10, No. 1, 25)
For Spurgeon the sovereignty of God was not first argument for debate, it was a means of survival. He was not joking when he quipped, “I dare say the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health, with the exception of sickness. . . . Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister's library” (An All-Round Ministry, 384).
Of the many purposes he saw in the suffering of his bleak depression, one has mainly to do with the good of his flock. It gave him an unusual power in preaching to the despairing soul.
One Sabbath morning, I preached from the text, “My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me?” and though I did not say so, yet I preached my own experience. I heard my own chains clank while I tried to preach to my fellow-prisoners in the dark; but I could not tell why I was brought into such an awful horror of darkness, for which I condemned myself.
On the following Monday evening, a man came to see me who bore all the marks of despair upon his countenance. His hair seemed to stand up right, and his eyes were ready to start from their sockets. He said to me, after a little parleying, “I never before, in my life, heard any man speak who seemed to know my heart. Mine is a terrible case; but on Sunday morning you painted me to the life, and preached as if you had been inside my soul.”
By God’s grace I saved that man from suicide, and led him into gospel light and liberty; but I know I could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay.
I tell you the story, brethren, because you sometimes may not understand your own experience, and the perfect people may condemn you for having it; but what know they of God’s servants? You and I have to suffer much for the sake of the people of our charge. . . .
You may be in Egyptian darkness, and you may wonder why such a horror chills your marrow; but you may be altogether in the pursuit of your calling, and be led of the Spirit to a position of sympathy with desponding minds. (An All-Round Ministry, 221–222)
From my vantage point after thirty-three years, there is no doubt that troubles of every kind in the ministry are God’s bitter medicine for the survival of our own faith and our people’s.