Just like you, I have been influenced by the stories of others. Listening to and telling good stories, especially about people, passes along encouragement and inspiration. That is what this series on Great Christian Biographies is all about. I hope you enjoy!
One of the toughest experiences in Christian life and ministry is the reality of suffering. During these moments, we wonder whether we can maintain our faith in a God who is trustworthy or even difficult still, whether we can maintain our zeal for service to him. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834 – 1892) was the pastor of Metropolitan Tabernacle in London for 38 years. He has been called “the prince of preachers” because of his gift and skill of preaching, many times, honed through the reality of suffering and adversity. So what can we learn from him?
We Can Serve God from a Young Age
Though he grew up in a Christian home and was familiar with the story of redemption in the Holy Scriptures as well as in the devotional books of the British Puritans who filled their home library, Spurgeon came to accept the saving work of Christ for him in the year 1850 when he was only 15 years of age. He had attended a church service where he heard the preacher implore, from Isaiah 45:22, “Look to Me! Look to Me! Look to Me!” Convicted in his heart, he was converted to Christ. Barely a few months later, he was asked to accompany his friend as he was going to preach and when the said friend did not turn up, the onus was laid on him. Four years later in 1854, he would come to accept his first pastorate at the age of 19. He would go on to preach in Exeter Hall and Surrey Music Hall, once even to about 10,000 people, making him the most famous preacher in his time at age 22. Though service is much more than numbers, and that maturity in service grows with time, his life shows us that we can serve God from a young age.
We Can Serve God through Adversity
It is often said that suffering is the furnace for our faith. James 1:2-4 captures it well: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” In the face of prosperity preaching in our churches, such truths may fly straight across our face. As much as we are not commanded here to seek out trouble unwisely, the embers of a hot furnace are necessary in refining gold – and such is suffering to our faith. Spurgeon was in the thick and thin of adversity.
He was maligned by others. His firmness in his biblical ministry brought criticisms both from the liberals and extreme conservatives, among the circle of church leaders and also in public magazines. Though he preached ardently and gave himself to his work faithfully, the reality of lukewarm members tempered his spirits. During other times, he would be the recipient of unhelpful criticism. A popular magazine would comment: “He is a nine days’ wonder—a comet that has suddenly shot across the religious atmosphere. He has gone up like a rocket and ere long will come down like a stick.” Perhaps, the extreme calamity of 1856 is what has led to a historian saying that part of Spurgeon’s relatively early death at age 57 was the mental suffering that he underwent after facing the ordeal at the Surrey Music Hall. On this fateful day in a 10,000 packed hall, a false fire alarm from one of the people in the crowds would lead to a stampede that would cause the death of seven people and injuring scores of others. Additionally, family pain and personal physical suffering would continue to haunt him. During her 33rd year, his wife Susannah Thomson of 9 years, who had also borne him 2 sons, would become an invalid despite medical treatment. Despite the well-documented story of his battling depression, Spurgeon himself would suffer gout, rheumatism and inflammation of the kidneys which, “became progressively worse so that ‘approximately one third of the last twenty-two years of his ministry was spent out of the Tabernacle pulpit, either suffering, or convalescing, or taking precautions against the return of illness.'”
Despite these heart wrenching experiences, Spurgeon remained steadfast and strong. He drew his strength from his intimate understanding of who God is and what he had done for him, as the one who controls each and every occurrence of human life.
We Survive Adversity through Biblical Doctrines
To affirm this intimate understanding, Spurgeon said:
“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.”
Such resolve comes from a seasoned walk with God through his self-revelation in scripture, as the one who is Lord of all – the Sovereign who does as he pleases (Psalm 115:3). In contemporary times when the Church is moved by Charisma rather than Commitment to God’s Word and Applause of man rather than the Applause of God, Paul’s caution to the young Timothy remains abiding: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16). Why is this so? Because during tough times and lean moments, it is the sap of the vine, the eternally faithful words long-preserved and the sweet consolations of the Spirit that will keep us through and through. Doctrine directly shapes our heart and affections, so that we are able to praise God (doxology) even in the wilderness experiences. Succinctly put, proper doctrine leads to doxology. And service.
Biblical Doctrines should Inform our Service
Spurgeon was an energizer bunny, laboring himself for the cause of Christ. Piper in his biography of “the prince of preachers” says that he preached over 600 times before he was twenty two; he took charge of his own congregation, more than 4,000 people, as well as numerous other congregations which he was associated with in addition to the 60 organizations he founded or conducted. In the man’s own words:
“No one living knows the toil and care I have to bear: I have to look after the Orphanage, have charge of a church with four thousand members, sometimes there are marriages and burials to be undertaken, there is the weekly sermon to be revised, The Sword and the Trowel to be edited, and besides all that, a weekly average of five hundred letters to be answered. This, however, is only half my duty, for there are innumerable churches established by friends, with the affairs of which I am closely connected, to say nothing of the cases of difficulty which are constantly being referred to me.”
And yet he took moments of rest, every Wednesday, in order to refresh and rejuvenate. How would someone have this much zeal, all along battling depression, which would sometimes exhaust his strength?
“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 [and Christian’s] library.”
He knew Paul’s words with such clarity and conviction:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor. 4: 16-18)
Our Lives in Christ
The life of Spurgeon remains a testimony on what fixing our eyes on Jesus really means. One senses that he would turn in his grave if he were to see how people are fixing their eyes on preachers and pastors who are really “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” A robust grasping and enjoyment of doctrinal truths not only uplifts and elevates our worship but it also guards us in times of great adversity and enables us to serve with zeal, realizing that the life of Christ fuels us in our journey of faith. Spurgeon lived this and his story inspires us to do the same – To rest in the accomplishment of Christ for us:
“The pilgrims have reached the land Beulah, that happy country, whose days are as the days of heaven upon earth. Angels visit it, celestial gales blow over it, flowers of paradise grow in it, and the air is filled with seraphic music. Some dwell here for years, and others come to it but a few hours before their departure, but it is an Eden on earth. We may well long for the time when we shall recline in its shady groves and be satisfied with hope until the time of fruition comes. The setting sun seems larger than when aloft in the sky, and a splendor of glory tinges all the clouds which surround his going down. Pain breaks not the calm of the sweet twilight of age, for strength made perfect in weakness bears up with patience under it all. Ripe fruits of choice experience are gathered as the rare repast of life’s evening, and the soul prepares itself for rest.”
For free, online and detailed biographies:
John Piper, Charles Spurgeon: Preaching Through Adversity (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God), 2015.
Stephen McCaskell, Through the Eyes of Spurgeon – Official Documentary. Published on YouTube on March, 2015.
 Erroll Hulse and David Kingdon, eds., A Marvelous Ministry: How the All-round Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon Speaks to us Today, (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993), 35.
 Darrel W. Amundsen, “The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” in Christian History, Issue 29, Volume X, No. 1, 23.
 John Piper, Charles Spurgeon: Preaching through Adversity (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2015), 11
 Ibid., 12
 The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon, 25.
 John Piper, Ibid.
 C. H. Spurgeon, Autobiography, vol. 2, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), 192.
 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Morning and Evening: Daily Readings (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 566