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  • Dane Bundy

Spurgeon and the Dark Clouds of Mercy (Part 3)

Editor's Note: This is part three in a series of articles exploring Charles Spurgeon’s lessons to his students on the six occasions in which a pastor might encounter depression and despair. You can see all published articles here.


At the age of 16 my dad took me on a moped road trip across route 66 (and sometimes on route 40). With a top speed of 40 mph, we rode from Nevada to Missouri with a ministry called Wandering Wheels. One of the highlights of the trip was riding to Amarillo, Texas. At one point, the group had thinned out so it was just Dad and me. Up ahead we could see furious black skies staring at us; we could see the rain falling in great sheets. We pulled over on the side of the highway and stared at what was planning to meet us. Although it wasn't storming where we stood, we knew in a moment it would engulf us. So, we stepped into our bright yellow rain gear and rode into the darkness. Going through the storm was the only way to Amarillo.

Today, we’ll explore the third occasion Spurgeon notes in which pastor’s face sadness or depression in their ministry: before any great achievement.

One instance in which Spurgeon felt the weight of clouds in the future was when he was a young pastor, and his future ministry started to come into focus as he grew in popularity. Instead of looking forward to this, his heart sank. "My success appalled me;” he explains, “and the thought of the career which it seemed to open up, so far from elating me, cast me into the lowest depth, out of which I uttered my misery and found no room for a gloria in excelsis" (159).

But Spurgeon offers the hope he saw in clouds like this, "I dreaded the work, which a gracious providence had prepared for me. . . . This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my own ministry; the cloud is black before it breaks, and overshadows before it yields its deluge of mercy" (160).

In Spurgeon’s Sorrows, a powerful little book by Zach Eswin, the author quotes a hymn that I’ve committed to memory. It’s my favorite hymn. William Cowper wrote it, and it’s titled, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” You may have heard of Cowper. He was a godly man who was racked with mental illness and depression for much of his life, and his story is sobering and beautiful. John Newton, the former slave trader and hymnast, was his pastor. This weathered pastor took this hurting man under his wings.

In Cowper's third and fourth stanza of the hymn, he writes:

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

Like Cowper, Spurgeon came to see the presence of clouds up ahead as a foreshadow of mercy and blessing, and even the pleasure of God. "Fasting, “Spurgeon says, “gives an appetite for the banquet. The Lord is revealed in the backside of the desert, while His servant keepeth the sheep and waits in solitary awe. The wilderness is the way to Canaan" (160).

I love that last line– The wilderness is the way to Canaan. The wilderness is an important theme in Scripture. Have you traced it before? Think of the many leaders God has formed in the desert. Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Paul to name a few. Where did Jesus go soon after his ministry began? And who led him there?

Over the years, I’ve encountered seasons that I describe as wilderness seasons. They are difficult and lonely, but even at the time, I knew they were merciful invitations to a deeper communion with the Lord. Have you experienced these before?

It’s in the wilderness that God strips our comforts and sheds the idols we’ve collected along the way. And when God deems we’ve grown in the way he wants us to grow, he leads us out of the wilderness just as he led us into it.

As you’d expect, we’re not the same as we were when we entered. We’ve grown in humility, gratitude, and joy. We now have a clearer vision of the Kingdom of God and how we’re to pursue it in our particular context.

The wilderness is the way to Canaan, and dark clouds in the hands of our sovereign God are full of mercy and blessings.


1. The Douglas Effect–More Blessing, Less Burden

Arnold Dallimore in his biography of Spurgeon notes that a significant trigger of Spurgeon’s depression was the sheer weight of shepherding his congregation, including those whom he trained in his College and sent out to be pastors (Spurgeon, 187). These men would regularly return to Spurgeon for wisdom and prayer, sharing their problems and burdens of ministry.

However, Dallimore writes of one man named James Douglas, “One of the best of the College men,” had a different approach. I’ll let Dallimore explain:

James Douglas, said that he saw Mr. Spurgeon so often bearing other men’s burdens in this way that he determined never to bring him any trial of his own, but that when he came to him it would be with some account of blessing that would raise his spirits. (187)

I love this! Douglas purposed to be a blessing to his pastor! Can you see it? James Douglas knocks on Spurgeon’s door, and when he opens it, the very sight of Douglas makes Spurgeon feel lighter. Certain spaces can be marked with rest, and so can people. Douglas was a man of rest for Spurgeon.

We don’t always know when storms are hovering near our pastors, but we can channel The Douglas Effect! And it doesn’t have to be complicated. What if we wrote a letter or sent an email, thanking our pastor for his faithfulness, reminding them that we were praying for them? What we if paused our critique of . . . whatever we see lacking . . . and ask them how they are doing (and mean it) and if they need anything (and mean it)? We could purpose to be an instrument of God’s grace to them.

2. Future Grace

John Piper wrote a book titled, Future Grace, and . . . I haven’t read it (though I should!). But the title has stirred me on to creating a new section in my daily journal. Whenever I sense a storm cloud forming in the distance, whether that’s a potential conflict with someone or an upcoming big event or something small like . . . oops! I forgot to rent a soundboard for our upcoming show! I write out the need, fear, or burden and date it. Usually, before I leave the entry, I add a short note and prayer that reminds me God can, and will, provide the grace I need to walk through whatever’s frightening me.

Sometimes God answers the need in the way I want, sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he answers the need quickly, sometimes it’s in the 11th hour . . . or the 13th!

But here’s the best part, whenever God provides for the need, I go back and date how and when God did it. While reading George Muller’s biography, I noticed that this was something he did as well. And no surprise, God always provided for Muller, reminded him and those around him of the power of prayer.

This doesn’t mean God gives us everything we want – that’s not a loving God! It means I can depend on Him in the future. I can assure myself that when the storm finally hits, his grace will not only meet me but be sufficient for what I need to remain faithful. And because of Christ, when the cloud breaks, I can rest in knowing that mercy will fall on my head.

And yours!


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