28 February 2013

Experience and effective ministry

by Dan Phillips

Someone of whom I think very well once objected to recommending Spurgeon as good for the depressed because Spurgeon was so deeply-acquainted with depression. This worthy brother thought that this made the Word slave to experience, as if to say that Spurgeon's experience made him effective, not the Word.

It was one of those situations where I thought a good brother was right in intent, but wrong in application. For instance, one might hear this commendation of Spurgeon as saying that the same Biblical truth, if spoken by some sunny soul who's never known a moment's depression, is not really true on that person's lips — it will only become true when someone like Spurgeon speaks it. That would be existential nonsense; it would imply that the Word is not really true until we experience it as true, as if its truth and power depends on our experience of its truth and power.

I don't think, however, that this is what folks are saying, when they say they love how Spurgeon speaks to those of us who have known depression.

Think of it analogously to other areas. Suppose you  have a migraine killing your world. Who will capture your confidence, when he recommends a surefire cure? Would it be a man who can faithfully read off the ingredients and the PDR articles on such drugs? Or wouldn't it be a man who says, "My life was being ruined by migraines until I tried this"?

It isn't that the medicine changes, becomes more or less effective, depending on who's describing it. It's the confidence and connection you feel in the person who's commending it to you. A theoretician would have a theoretician's level of acquaintance. He would have been satisfied by a much shallower trial and inquiry.

Just ask yourself: Who  would be likelier to have been driven to make deepest study and trial of a medication? A man to whom migraine pain is a matter of academic interest, or a man whose life is periodically shredded by the condition?

So it is with depression, and other life-issues. If that's your thorn in the flesh, your "bad leg" so to speak, who's likelier to apply salve where you're hurting? In fact, who's likelier to have been driven to find and test the very best remedies? A theoretician, even a really good and good-hearted one? Or someone to whom it was a matter of personal survival, again and again?

You know the answer.

We aren't mere data-banks broadcasting to data-banks. There is something to being able personally to affirm "He restores my soul" (Ps. 23:3), as opposed to "the Bible says God restores souls" and nothing more. The Psalmist says, "Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul" (66:16). Being able to echo that call personally is an enhancement to ministry not to be despised.

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Mizz Harpy said...

And just last night I was reading II Corinthians 1:3-6.

John Bunyan has always been my favorite for the same reason. He had some form of depression but he never really writes on depression as a topic instead he consistently points his reader to Christ. I'm amazed at how much better I feel sometimes when I get up the energy to read from A Saints Knowledge of Christ's Love, Advice to Sufferers or the chapter from Pilgrims Progress on being captured by the Giant Despair. I only wish hope were as tangible as the key Pilgrim forgot in his pocket.

DJP said...

Excellent, thanks Doc. Huge oversight that I didn't include that passage. Since you're at the top of the comments, rather than editing it back into the post, I'll leave it with your comment, along with my thanks.

Kerry James Allen said...

"He who would have his spirit bowed down even to the very earth, has only to fix his thoughts upon himself and his circumstances, instead of looking to God and His promises."

"You cannot always rejoice, because, although your treasure is not in this world, your affliction is." CHS

Jay Beerley said...

Isn't that also the essence of the testimony of the gospel?! The greatness of that eternal truth (good news!) that does not need my stamp of approval, but I get the privilege of testifying, "I once was lost, but now I'm found; blind but now I see!"

Good words.

Michael Coughlin said...

Agreeing with the post, I find a lot of tension in the concept and depending on the type of thing we are "talking about," this can be problematic. (not arguing, adding a perspective not detailed above)

Allow me 1 (of several) examples.

NOT realizing, believing or understanding that the "person trying to help" has actually been through the same situation, yet insisting that you be helped by someone who has is a problem.

For example, I know people who, although they suffer from depression, do not believe ANYONE UNDERSTANDS them. So even if you send them a good previously depressed saint for counsel...they don't listen.

And the corollary - I am aptly aware that my pastor hasn't "struggled" with many of the issues I've faced, I trust his godly counsel from the Word, even so.

I suppose this is a gift God's given me.

I mean, I get it. But there's a point where this can't be used as an excuse NOT to be helped, wouldn't you agree? "Well, you don't know what its like to be me, so I'm not listening to your bible-speak."

I seriously have WAY more in me about this, so if I wasn't clear and you want the meta hijacked, let me know.

DJP said...

Go ahead, Michael; it's a germane tangent.

Yes, truth is truth. To make a cogent counter, suppose I tell someone I'm depressed. "Well good Lord, man: get a grip on yourself, use your faith, and cheer up!" might be good advice as far as it goes, but it reflects very little real understanding and compassion.

That said, the advice really does identify what I need to do, doesn't it? But the fact that the speaker has never himself felt the naryest whisp of depression makes it seem like a simply finger-snap issue.

THAT said, if he had himself studied the topic in Scripture more deeply, to say nothing of the lives of the saints, he could have gained greater understanding and compassion regardless of his experience.

But without the problem, he'll be less motivated, perhaps.

Michael Coughlin said...

Isn't Ratzinger Germane, as well? Are you calling me popish?

DJP said...

< facepalm >

Robert said...

Just as last week's post did, this one points me back to humility that is required on the part of believers. We need to be humble enough to show our weaknesses so that we can point to the strength that comes only through Christ.

"And He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

If we become too proud to open up about our own struggles and weaknesses, then we don't provide the example of how we have leaned upon Christ's strength to deliver us. Instead, we set up examples of proud men who are much too pious to have ever struggled with anything like depression, anger, pride, lust, coveting, etc. And we are, in essence, fighting against the church becoming strong in Christ, while not showing grace to other believers who struggle to put to death their own sins.

Great post, Dan...thanks.

Kerry James Allen said...

Isn't that the point of Hebrews 4:15, a sympathizing Saviour who was tempted in all points as we are, understands our struggles, and invites us to come boldly to Him to pour out our hearts in prayer for grace and strength? I'll gladly own my weakness in a hundred areas for as Paul said, "when I am weak, then am I strong."

jsampson1945 said...

'Such-and-such a medicine helped me' is anecdotal - sound evidence such as adequate double-blind trials is better. OTOH, sharing testimony of what we both know is effective is a different thing.

The Blainemonster said...

Can't agree more vigorously with what you've said here, Dan. For me, it is my very arduous experience with depression and its connected ills that has magnified the Word in my life. It has been the thing that has highlighted God's faithfulness to me all the more.

"How I've proved Him o'er and o'er!"

Andrea said...

I'm grateful for Michael Coughlin's "tangent," because this touches a nerve in my life. My husband says that I'm a good help-mate--indeed, essential to his well-being, simply because unlike him I am rarely if ever depressed. In fact, I'm sure that the worst I have ever felt in my life is rather mild in comparison with the depression with which I see him wrestling daily.

When I read what mature Christians who have suffered depression write about the experience, my heart goes out to them. I can sympathize by analogy, in that I have known hardships and struggles that knocked me off my feet, brought me to my knees, and made the world seem hopeless in spite of what I know about God.

At times like that even my habitual (biblically prescribed) coping mechanisms like prayer, praise, and song can seem feeble and empty. I don't stop doing them, because I know that they are good and right however I feel about them in that moment, but I know that having friends who understand my situation come and put their arms around me, weep with me, and speak words of consolation and comfort has a bigger impact than all the best theological theorizing that anyone could offer.

But again, this is analogy. I am blessed with a quick recovery time and an overall optimism which makes it hard to understand a prolonged and debilitating depression with no discernable cause.

II Corinthians 1:3-6 rings true because it *is* true, as God's word. Moreover we are told to weep with those who weep. The challenge for those of us who have been lightly touched by troubles that overwhelm our loved ones is how to minister God's comfort when we really don't understand their pain.

We don't want to be like Job's friends, blundering in with high sounding theologizing which actually betrays a lack of understanding not only of the pain and the situation, but even of God.

We don't want our answers to come out as pat and formulaic, because that could make a person dismiss the true comfort that is to be found in scripture.

And we certainly don't want to be so paralyzed by what not to say and how not to say it that we distance ourselves from the sufferer entirely.

So what would scripture say to a person in a position to provide scriptural comfort, whose experience with the affliction is limited?

Mizz Harpy said...

@Andrea, I don't know if this helps but I have been the sort of comfortless person Michael describes. The only passage that comes to mind is II Samuel 17:27-29. The most helpful people for me in moments of depression were the ones who were there, just there. What could Shobi, Machir and Barzillai say that would be any comfort to David, his family and friends at that moment? But they were there and sometimes that is enough to keep a person going. "...Beds, basins, and earthen vessels, wheat, barley, flour, parched grain, beans and lentils, honey and curds and sheep and cheese from the herd" are all totally optional.

Michael Coughlin said...

I think the point is that we do all we can to relate to people; but we always want to remember God's Word is the absolute truth.

Once I told a person who was depressed that I used to be depressed, too. Their response was that I wasn't suicidal like they are.
Then when I explained that I had contemplated suicide numerous times, they responded by making it clear I had never come quite as close as they had.

Another friend basically wouldn't listen to my advice because I just didn't understand what he was dealing with. Then one day I sorta casually commented about how in the past I had felt the same way they do now...for some reason he believed me and asked me how I "escaped."

My counsel was identical to earlier...yet this time he listened.

Great! I think it proves Dan's point (with which I want to remind everyone I do not disagree). But the lesson for ME is that there may be GODLY men or women in my life who are advising me and I need to listen even if I'm not certain they "really understand" or have "been there."

I just see this as a bit of a crutch people MAY use to "stay in their sin." (not everyone)

Michael Coughlin said...

May I post this blog by Carl T which I believe has some good food for thought: http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2013/02/any-place-for-the-god-of-job.php

DJP said...

Good points, Michael. You remind me of this post.

And normally I just delete links to other blogs. But... it's Trueman, so...

Michael Coughlin said...

I actually avoided posting the link in my first comment, then changed my mind. I figured a true man like you wouldn't mind a link to a post by a fellow true man.

Michael Coughlin said...

Amen to the other post to which you linked.

That was good, harsh, love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend.

Lord bless you.

The Yeater's said...

This is to Michael. I am a person who was led here by a very loving, kind, supporting pastor. I say that because I am a missionary... 5 years on the field at that.
I have been suffering from major anxiety/depression. I don't know what to think brother... I plead, cry, beg God. I related to Andrea earlier because my sweet wife is here homeschooling my 3 children and cannot connect. She want to, but just can't fathom those fears and hopelessness I am fighting right now. I have to prepare to disciple 3 men in our church plant... today!
Anyway, I find amazing wisdom and comfort in what you all have written here. From Dan to all the follow up comments. But to you Michael, I would gladly take your counsel sir. It does my heart good to talk to people... especially those that have dealt with and overcome it. Please be frank and open. Here, via e-mail... whatever my friend.

Thank you ALL and God bless. Prayers and very much appreciated.


Michael Coughlin said...

Robert -

I'll shoot you an email.

Us Ohioans have to stick together.

I hope you and anyone else finds solace in the simple truth that you are not alone.



Terry Rayburn said...

Relevant tangent [hopefully]:

I agree wholeheartedly that someone who has actually experienced something may be a qualified teacher of others on that subject.

But in the actual case of Spurgeon and depression, I'm not sure he is the best, and here's why.

I don't think he understood the real source of his own depression.

While Spurgeon read widely from many sources, he was Super-Immersed in two things: his Bible (that's great, of course) and the Puritans.

1. His Bible taught him to gaze upon Christ...

...the Puritans taught him to look to himself in prolonged introspective examination of his wicked and deceitful heart.

2. His Bible taught him “It is finished”...

...the Puritans taught him that he must “persevere”...or else.

3. His Bible taught him that the New Covenant was unilateral, accomplished entirely by God...

...the Puritans dragged him over the blessings/cursings coals of the Old Covenant, never rightly dividing the Old from the New, a la Hebrews 8.

4. His Bible taught him that he was a Saint who sins...

...the Puritans taught him that he was a Sinner who was also sorta a Saint.

5. His Bible taught him that sin shall no longer be master over us because we are not under law, but under grace...

...the Puritans taught him that he might have been initially saved by grace, but he surely was now under law.

6. His Bible taught him that he had been given a new heart by God, one that loves Christ and hates sin...

...the Puritans taught him that his heart was deceitful and desperately wicked, confusing the regenerate with the unregenerate, the spirit with the flesh.

7. His Bible taught him that he could rejoice in the assurance of his salvation...

...the Puritans taught him, “Not so fast, Buster! Do you KNOW you’re saved? 100% sure? C’mon, you know what a wretched creature you are! Will you stay till the end? That’s the question! Are you properly aware of your sin, such that you daily grovel and weep and mourn for it? I didn’t think so! You probably don’t even weep and wail for the lost daily, do you? Huh?! Huh?! And you call yourself a preacher! You may fancy yourself a worker for God, but do you match us Puritans? Do you put in 18 hours a day? Do you always visit the poor and needy and lost until you’re exhausted? I didn’t think so. Not so fast, Buster!”

8. His Bible taught him that if he would walk by the Spirit, he would not fulfill the lusts of the flesh...

...the Puritans taught him that if he would not fulfill the lusts of the flesh, he MAY be able to walk by the Spirit.

9. His Bible taught him, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage...”

...the Puritans taught him that if he strived hard enough, he might rid himself of his bondage, though they weren’t too sure, since they had not rid themselves of theirs.
Obviously there were exceptions to the above caricature of the Puritans. They themselves were confused many times, and so it’s no surprise that they would confuse others.

But such mingling of Old Covenant and New Covenant means mingling grace and works, freedom and bondage, joy and condemnation, assurance and doubt.

And it’s not just Spurgeon. Such confusion is the norm when one immerses themselves in Covenant Theology.

No one was better than Spurgeon at pointing to Christ and exalting Him. Praise God, that's what he spent most of his preaching time doing.