An interview by David G. Moore.
I first encountered Zack Eswine’s work while reading his terrific article, “Listening for the Sound of Reality: The Melancholy of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Haddon Spurgeon.“ Years later, I read his wonderful book, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being. I don’t like the title much because it doesn’t convey what the book is about, but the subtitle is good. Here are a few lines I wrote in my review of that book:
This truly is an important book which is geared for pastors, but contains much wisdom any Christian will benefit from. Among other things, it will help non pastors better understand the peculiar challenges of pastoralministry. Eswine is a gifted writer who writes out of his own brokenness. He could have easily fallen prey to self-indulgence, but Eswine keeps God front and center. Broken and vulnerable humanity is kept wonderfully tethered to the God of all hope.
Zack recently told me that his article had been put into a book. Unlike the article, the book centers on Spurgeon.
The following interview revolves around Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression. The interview was conducted by David George Moore. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.
Moore: You’ve been writing and teaching on the subject of suffering for quite a long time. What led you to write this particular book?
Eswine: Sadness saturates a great deal of life. “There is a time to mourn” no matter who we are or how faithful. Therefore, to learn how Jesus walks with us in sadness forms part of what it means to grow as his disciple. But ordinary sadness can take a dark turn in our lives too. It holds on and intends never to leave us. Now imagine that this never leaving sadness turns mean too. It frightens us, haunts us, lies to us, growls at us, robs promise and joy from us and no amount of bible quoting will take it away. How do followers of Jesus discern Jesus here when the day ends and the gloom still remains unfixed? I’ve had to ask this question.
Many of us haven’t learned well how to be sad much less how to enter our own or another’s’ depression. So, I’ve needed help to grow, not only so I can get through what Spurgeon called, “the howling desert” myself, but also, so that I could enter such “dark dungeons” with others, and this in a manner that differs from Job’s friends.
Moore: It is easy to say that suffering exists because we are sinful and live in a fallen world. That is the go-to explanation of many Christians, but how do we make sense of the fact that suffering is so unevenly distributed? That is, why do some suffer greatly while others largely avoid the catastrophic tragedies?
Eswine: To the first part of your question, I agree. Sometimes we use answers as a way to avoid the real question. In this case, we are tempted to use our intellectual response to suffering as a way to avoid having to weep about it. Imagine if at the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus pronounced judgment upon all who were grieving and present—hollering out that Lazarus’ death signifies the judgment of God upon his life and ours. We might do this but Jesus didn’t. Jesus engaged the intellectual question by responding with the tears that love originates and then speaking of resurrection and life. But immediately after Lazarus is raised from the dead, a death threat is issued upon his life (Jn. 12:10). This new suffering in Lazarus’ life after his rising from the dead, was not because of his individual sin but because of the existence of this sin in the hearts of we who live here, this side of heaven.
In fact, regularly in the Old and New Testaments, Job’s friends or Jesus’ disciples, assume that suffering signals punishment of some kind for an individual’s sins. Just as God the Father rebukes Job’s friends so Jesus corrects his disciples regarding this assumption (Jn. 9:1-3; Lk. 13:1-5). Our path forward isn’t found in just intellectually explaining suffering and trying to sort out who is to blame, even when the proverbs rightly account for a fool who can inflict himself with pains. Our path forward is first to follow Jesus into weeping with those who weep. Second, we recognize that we ourselves will suffer too in our lives and we must take to heart what it will mean for us to relate to God then. To do to others what we would have them do with us includes taking into account what we hope others will do toward us when pain and suffering are ours to bear.
Regarding why it is that some suffer more than others do, I don’t know. All I know is that whatever sufferings we face—his love won’t quit but our sufferings will. His love will outlast what harms us and he will raise us up in Jesus, finally free.
Moore: We also like to tell sufferers that they will slowly get over their grief. I certainly have seen people who have gone through trauma experience joy once again. But we don’t really get “over suffering” do we? Wouldn’t it be preferable (along with being more pastorally sensitive) to say that suffering changes us…the way we look at God, the world, and ourselves?
Eswine: No we don’t really “get over suffering. Yes, I think what you suggest aligns more truly with the biblical presentation of it.
Moore: Your book is full of great Spurgeon quotes. It struck me how his suffering made him a man of compassion. Why are too many preachers of sound orthodoxy not known as men of compassion?
Eswine: First, we forget where we’ve been—that we too were once persons who couldn’t tie our shoes or say the word, “ball.” Second, we also forget that when we’ve mastered the Scriptures (if that was possible), we’ve only mastered the baby talk of God. As Calvin reminded us, it is as if the infinite God has lisped toward us so that as children we can know him. Third, as we’ve noted, we are prone to use truth as a means to control or avoid, rather than to surrender into the life it bears witness to. It is easier to declare the definition of true repentance in contrast to its counterfeits than actually to humble ourselves into repentance on an ordinary Tuesday in front of a loved one, a subordinate or an enemy that we’ve sinned against.
Moore: I tend to believe that Job’s counselors were more mature spiritually than many American Christians. As you well know, Job’s buddies started out well (Job 2:13), but then began to speculate about things they could not know. How can hurting and vulnerable Christians make sure the counsel they receive is sound?
Eswine: Perhaps one help is found in meditating on the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Help from God will center on Jesus and will come at us with a stamina for patience, gentleness, kindness, love, joy, peace and self-control.
Moore: Many will be shocked to see this Spurgeon quote which opens chapter 3: “I would not blame all those who are much given to fear, for in some it is rather their disease than their sin, and more their misfortune than their fault.” (Emphasis added) Was Spurgeon downplaying sinful choices, and if not, what are we to make of this arresting quote?
Eswine: That’s right. Spurgeon wasn’t downplaying sinful choices. He faithfully affirms them as central to what wrecks us. In a fallen world, a person can be born with eyes or legs that do not work. In old age they can lose memory or speech through dementia or stroke. None of these come through the fault of their own. Likewise, a person can be born with a brain that is broken in some way. Just as a person must deal with chronic physical ailment so a person might do so physiologically. This fact does not minimize the reality of demonic activity or sinful reality in life. It just reminds us that we were created body and soul and that sometimes what ails us derives from what bodies are like in a fallen world and this not because of an individual sin.
Furthermore, we are creatures who are sinned against too. Trauma from what has been done to us can irrevocably shake us. Spurgeon was trying to account for this and to call us to a fuller more compassionate response rather than trying tritely to manage a fallen world.
Moore: You do a good job of reminding us that ministers who distort the gospel can cause great heartache to those who listen. I want to turn that important observation to ask about faithful ministers who preach a grace-filled gospel, but have some tender souls (and I am speaking of Christians here) who are haunted by the more difficult truths in the Bible. As a pastor, how have you sought to teach about a loving and merciful God while not downplaying the tough stuff like God’s wrath?
Eswine: First, the Apostle Paul teaches plainly that we are to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak and be patient with them all” (I Thess. 5:14). We are not meant to admonish the fainthearted or the weak. And whether we are encouraging, helping or even admonishing, we do so with the patient fruit of the Holy Spirit. This is why Jesus did not speak to the woman at the well in the same way that he spoke to the Pharisees. Both were sinners but one was soft hearted and the others proved in time not to be.
All of this implies that we should be slower in our response to people. In order to discern whether the person in front of us is idle or in need of help often takes more than a quick judgment on first appearance. Patience indicates a stamina for waiting and listening, slow to say the first thing or vent the first emotion that comes to our mind. This was not Paul’s natural way. He was after all, Saul of Tarsus. Only Jesus could have changed him and given him this perspective.
It might help us to remember that God’s wrath is not the rant of an abusive being, impatient and reactive, prone to tantrums. The measured and compassionate judgment of a just and wise judge is something we all long for and depend upon in life for right judgment not only halts the perpetrator but it also defends the victimized. In both cases, wrath that finally, after repeated and gracious invitations to stop, expresses not what is mean, but what is loved. To put an end to what harms another is to uphold what heals them.