Eswine, Zack. Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression. Scotland, UK: Christian Focus, 2014. 144 pages. $9.99. Paperback.
A lighthouse dons the bright blue cover of Zack Eswine’s book, Spurgeon’s Sorrows. We often see picturesque lighthouses displayed prominently on postcards, travel guides, and desktop wallpaper, but we can easily forget the actual function of a lighthouse. A lighthouse is a tall beacon just along the coastline that radiates light, serving as a navigational guide to those who are at sea. Spurgeon’s Sorrows functions in a similar way. It is a bright light of help to needy souls navigating the troubled waters of depression.
Zack Eswine is a qualified Spurgeon expert, having written on Spurgeon’s pneumatology for his doctoral work at Regent University. Eswine went on to serve for a number of years as Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Today, he serves as the Lead Pastor of Riverside Church in St. Louis.
Spurgeon: No Stranger to Trial and Sorrow
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–92) was unquestionably the greatest preacher of the Victorian era. His published sermons now span sixty-seven volumes. Believers all over the world admire Spurgeon for his cross-centered preaching, which emphasized the gospel, the atonement, and the grace of God. He is also increasingly appreciated among Christians today because of his experiences of and writings on suffering and depression. Spurgeon was no stranger to trial and sorrow, as almost any biography of Spurgeon makes clear. What is truly remarkable is how, as a Victorian and a trans-Atlantic celebrity, he was so shockingly candid about his chronic struggles with depression and despondency.
In Spurgeon’s Sorrows, Eswine introduces Spurgeon as a sympathetic helper and a friend to those who struggle with depression. Eswine writes, “The fact that such a prominent Christian pastor struggled with depression and talked so openly about it invites us to friendship with a fellow sufferer. . . . In his story we can begin to find our own. What he found of Jesus in the darkness can serve as a light for our own darkness” (20). The book is not a biography of Spurgeon, nor is it a technical manual on anxiety and depression. Rather, Eswine utilizes Spurgeon’s narrative as well as his sermons to direct particular encouragements and exhortations to those who wrestle with what Spurgeon often referred to as “melancholy”. Though the book is well-suited for any Christian struggling with doubt or discouragement, the book primarily addresses those who battle with depression. Eswine himself candidly acknowledges his own struggles, saying that such books, “I too have sorely needed” (23).
Eswine presents twelve chapters divided into three major sections: “Part One: Trying to Understand Depression,” “Part Two: Learning How to Help Those Who Suffer from Depression,” and “Part Three: Learning Helps to Daily Cope with Depression.” Eswine acknowledges two basic forms of depression: one is depression arising from difficult external circumstances and the other is depression originating from within, what Eswine calls “The Disease of Melancholy (Ch. 3).” Both are real and can produce deep despondency in many, even hopelessness and despair in some. Eswine acknowledges with frank realism that many will never be free of depression in this life, yet the Bible still brings various helps and promises to such people.
Through Spurgeon, Eswine locates help for those who struggle with depression in the person of Jesus Christ, in the biblical gospel, and in the means of grace. He also acknowledges the utility of various natural helps such as “Medicines, good humor, rest, nature, baths, diet, scheduling our days according to our limits, therapy, and pastoral counsel” (117). He concludes the book by considering “The Benefits of Sorrow (Ch. 12),” which are primarily realized through God’s work of enriching, increasing, and deepening Christian faith in the believer.
Simple and Deep
One of the major strengths of Eswine’s book is his moving prose. Eswine, like Spurgeon, addresses this sensitive subject with muscular language that is as affecting as it is instructive. He also maintains a characteristic element of Spurgeon’s profundity, his ability to be both simple and deep at the very same time. At just 144 pages, Spurgeon’s Sorrows covers a large amount of emotional, psychological, and spiritual territory in a short compass. The arrangement and relative brevity of the book’s twelve chapters make for an easy and delightful read.
Perhaps Eswine’s greatest achievement in the book is that he manages to capture something of the essence of Spurgeon. Because Spurgeon published so many words, one can easily present a skewed picture of Spurgeon based on cherry-picked quotes from his sermons and books. As one who has read many thousands of pages of Spurgeon myself, I can testify that Eswine knows Spurgeon and has clearly explored his corpus in considerable depth. Eswine has the scent of Spurgeon about him, and something of Spurgeon’s heart comes through in this book, which is perhaps the greatest commendation I can give.
A Book of Few Weaknesses
The weaknesses of the book are few. As a historian, the book left me desiring to hear a little bit more of Spurgeon’s story. This is not primarily out of historical curiosity, but because a greater knowledge of Spurgeon’s narrative would enhance the book’s thesis and provide more points of contact between Spurgeon’s life and the lives of the readers. Eswine rightly gives a great deal of attention to the Surrey Gardens Music Hall disaster, which had a profound effect on Spurgeon for the rest of his life. However, other aspects of Spurgeon’s biography could have been analyzed in greater depth such as the effects of widespread criticism on Spurgeon in his early days in London, the impact of his many physical ailments, as well as the loneliness, isolation, and discouragement brought on by the Downgrade Controversy. These elements of Spurgeon’s story can further deepen and texturize our understanding of Spurgeon’s experience of melancholy.
In Spurgeon’s Sorrows, Eswine provides tremendous comfort to the many Christians who struggle with depression. He has successfully brought the help of one of church history’s greatest preachers to the hearts of God’s people. Eswine shows us that in Spurgeon, the downcast and despondent have a kindred spirit who can truly sympathize with them and who can lovingly point them to Christ.
Pastors and church leaders should seek to comprehend this book. Further, they should seek to exude something of the sympathetic tone and spirit that it conveys. Spurgeon, like Christ, invites strugglers and sufferers to come to him and share their burdens. Pastors should be men of deep compassion and sympathetic concern. They should know how to console those who struggle with anxiety, depression, fear, doubt, and a thousand other maladies. They should learn how to carefully and tenderly apply the gospel to the needy. In short, they should bring something of the disposition of Christ to those in need. In Spurgeon’s Sorrows, Eswine does this masterfully.