The Do’s and Don’ts of Helping Sufferers

Editor’s Note: The following article by Zack Eswine was adapted with permission from Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Suffer From Depression. To hear more from Zack about biblical ways to deal with depression and anxiety through the eyes of Spurgeon, you can hear featured interviews with him in our Haven Today radio series called Soul Care.

“Ah!” says one, “I used to laugh at Mrs. So-and-so for being nervous; now that I feel the torture myself, I am sorry that I was ever hard on her.” “Ah!” says another, “I used to think of such-and- such a person that he must be a fool to be always in so gloomy a state of mind; but now I cannot help sinking into the same desponding frames, and oh! I would to God that I had been more kind to him!” Yes, we should feel more for the prisoner if we knew about the prison.
Charles Spurgeon, “A Troubled Prayer”

How can we place our sorrows into a larger story about God, when so often people use such god-talk to cruelly or tritely treat us? Not only has God given us a gracious language in Scripture that is suitable for our sorrows, but God also advocates for the sorrowing by exposing the kind of help that harms us.

Why We Are Harsh With Sufferers

According to Charles Spurgeon, it is a fact that “strong minded people are very apt to be hard upon nervous folk,” and “to speak harshly to people who are very depressed in spirit,” saying, ‘really, you ought to rouse yourself out of that state.’”

The result is that a strong person says to a poor suffering one, “Stuff and nonsense! Try to exert yourself!” But when he does this, he says “one of the most cruel things that can be said to the sufferer.” By trying to help he “only inflicts additional pain.”

What accounts for our tendency of impatient care toward depression?

  1. We judge others according to our circumstances rather than theirs. “There are a great many of you who appear to have a large stock of faith, but it is only because you are in very good health and your business is prospering. If you happened to get a disordered liver, or your business should fail, I should not be surprised if nine parts out of ten of your wonderful faith should evaporate.” Jesus teaches us about those who lay up heavy burdens on others but do not lift a finger to help (Matt. 23:4).
  2. We still think that trite sayings or a raised voice can heal deep wounds. A person “may have a great spiritual sorrow, and someone who does not at all understand his grief, may proffer to him a consolation which is far too slight.” Like a physician who offers a common ointment for a deep wound, we “say to a person in deep distress things which have really aggravated him and his malady too.” In this regard, Charles teaches us the Scriptures, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda” (Prov. 25:20).
  3. We try to control what should be rather than surrender to what is. We must not “judge harshly, as if things were as we would theoretically arrange them, but we must deal with things as they are, and it cannot be questioned that some of the best believers are at times sorely put to it,” even “to know whether they are believers at all.” The Scriptures teach us about Job’s friends who struggled at this very point.
  4. We resist humility regarding our own lack of experience. “There are some people who cannot comfort others, even though they try to do so, because they never had any troubles themselves. It is a difficult thing for a man who has had a life of uninterrupted prosperity to sympathize with another whose path has been exceedingly rough.” The Apostle Paul teaches us to comfort others out of the comfort that we ourselves have needed and received (2 Cor. 1:4).

According to the Bible, when we encounter someone who weeps, we too are meant to weep (Rom. 12:15). When someone encounters adversity they are meant to reflect and meditate, and we with them (Eccles. 7:14).

Without this together-sympathy our attempts to help others can lose the sound of reality. The loss of this sound of reality forges the larger reason for our harshness.

The Sound of Reality

When we suffer depression, we wish that our preachers, Christian coffee shop talkers and answer-givers knew more about the prison in which we suffer before they proposed to speak about it.

It has long been recognized that a spirituality focused only on sunshine, positive thinking, immediacy and quick-fix Bible quoting “breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes.”

When we attempt to help sufferers of depression without this kind of reality in our words, they will not be able to hear us because they will think that we have not yet heard them. The gospel we offer them will seem unable to handle the depth of what they actually experience in real life.

The Rupture of Meaning

Meaning-ruptures happen to most of us. “On one side,” Jennifer Michael Hecht says, “there is a world in our heads … a world of reason and plans, love, and purpose. On the other side there is the world beyond our human life—an equally real world in which there is no sign of caring or value, planning or judgment, love or joy.”

But now imagine how this rupture of meaning feels to sufferers of depression, when “the world in our heads” is filled not with “reason, plans, love and purpose” but with the loss of reasons, plans, love and purpose. In this state, both the world out there and the one within conspire miserably to deny hope. Both the floor and ceiling vanish. We free-fall with no place to land. When realistic hope quits, so do we.

Therefore, when true meaning to our experience ruptures, we must hold on to what William James called “the remoter schemes and hopes of life.” By “remoter schemes,” James referred to what we might call “a larger story” in which our current melancholy signifies only a scene or a chapter.

In short, the hope that we offer must match the depths of the wound and the misery of the pain. What difference would this make in our self-care and in our caregiving?

We Change the Way We Care

First, we are going to slow down and take a longer view. The solution isn’t just a matter of getting the words right.

Second, matching the depths changes the way we speak in public. People who suffer depression and other mental challenges are always near us. As a public speaker, Charles Spurgeon worked hard to use language that could match the intensity of despair. Regarding Psalm 88, he said:

The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it 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.

The result resembles what any caregiver will feel. Spurgeon also said, “It is not easy to lift others up without finding yourself exhausted.” Grace upon grace forges our mantra and our need. Grace that never tires forges our hope.

God has the sound of reality about Him when He relates to us in our sorrows and sufferings. He knows firsthand the proximity of our despair. He gives us language and care proportionate to our pains.

Personally, I also bear witness that it has been to me, in seasons of great pain, superlatively comfortable to know that in every pang which racks his people the Lord Jesus has a fellow-feeling. We are not alone, for one like unto the Son of man walks the furnace with us.
Charles Spurgeon, “The Man of Sorrows”

About the Author

Zack Eswine is a pastor, a mentor, and a writer. He has served in pastoral ministry for over twenty-five years, as a pastor, professor, and global communicator. But he’s also come from a broken family and had to come to terms with anxiety and depression. “I’ve wrestled with doubt. Faith has been hard fought for. Like all of us, I have an ongoing need to learn. Jesus has become lovely to me.” He and his family cultivate life together in Webster Groves, Missouri.


Christians should have the answers, shouldn’t they?

Depression affects many people both personally and through the ones we love. Here Zack Eswine draws from C.H Spurgeon, ‘the Prince of Preachers’ experience to encourage us. What Spurgeon found in his darkness can serve as a light in our own darkness. Zack Eskwine brings you here, not a self–help guide, rather ‘a handwritten note of one who wishes you well.’

1 Comment

  • Ted Bates says:

    Depression can be a terrible malady. I have no problem being compassionate. It was a miracle that I made it passed 20, and that I’m 66 is amazing.

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