If you are depressed or anxious, you will also be afraid of stigma. In the dictionary ‘stigma’ is; ‘a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance or condition’.
A mark of disgrace!
It gets worse. In the Christian community, especially within the evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic traditions, is it very common for a mental health issue to be attributed to personal sin or unbelief. You are anxious because you are self-centred; you are depressed because you have failed to 'choose happiness'.
In our churches the ‘mark of disgrace’ can be all too visible.
This must change. And it will help if more people know about Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892). Spurgeon was an astonishing phenomenon in Victorian London. It is reckoned that in his lifetime he preached to around 10,000,000 people, and this was before radio and TV. He served as a pastor and an influential Christian leader for 38 years. He was a natural evangelist, founded an organisation committed to social action and started a theological college.
To this day, tens of thousands of Christians worldwide read his books – mostly transcribed sermons – with immense profit. While I have been studying the Psalms in recent years, his three-volume commentary, The Treasury of David, has become a core text.
It is clear from the Treasury that Spurgeon had serious problems with mental illness.
Why not read the quotations I have reproduced below and then read the psalms he is dealing with? This might help you if you feel that depression etc. is too unspiritual to admit to. It will also help if you (secretly or otherwise) think that mental illness is being overplayed. Read on!
Here, he is commenting on Psalm 88:3-5.
All his life was going, his spiritual life declined, his mental life decayed, and his bodily life flickered; he was nearer dead than alive. Some of us can enter into this experience for many a time have we traversed this valley of death-shade, aye! And dwelt in it by the month together.”
If you are sceptical about these things, and wonder whether people should just ‘pull themselves together’, Spurgeon continues.
It is all very well for those who are in robust health and full of spirits to blame those whose lives are sicklied o’er with the pale cast of melancholy, but the evil is as real as a gaping wound, and all the more hard to bear because it lies so much in the region of the soul that to the inexperienced it appears to be a matter of fancy and diseased imagination. Reader, never ridicule the nervous and hypocondriacal, their pain is real; though much of the evil lies in the imagination, it is not imaginary.
He had dealt with many a Christian who suffered from ‘melancholy’ (a much better word than ‘depression’ don’t you think?). But his clarity on this issue flowed from his own personal experience.
It wasn’t the done thing for a Victorian author to draw himself into his own narrative, but Spurgeon felt that he had to. Here he is on Psalm 88:6-9.
The mind can descend far lower than the body, for there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour… He who now feebly expounds these words knows within himself more than he would care or dare to tell of the abysses of inward anguish.
For Spurgeon, the bible and his own experience taught him something very profound; that serious inward struggles with mental health can be part of a fruitful Christian life, and no guilt or blame need follow. Those who suffer this way do not need to put up with the extra dollop of guilt and shame that lesser teachers would heap into their – already poorly - minds.