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Model Endurance

Posted by James Carroll on

If church historians made lists like sports journalists, many would argue that when comes to preaching, outside Christ and the apostles of course, Charles Haddon Spurgeon is the GOAT. (If you’re unfamiliar, it’s an acronym for Greatest Of All Time.) He began preaching as a teenager and was almost immediately recognized for his extraordinary gifts, delivering more than 600 sermons before turning 20. At the age of 19, he became the pastor of the largest Baptist church in London, the New Park Street Chapel. The church grew rapidly and was forced to rent venues to hold the growing crowds. Seven years into his ministry, the congregation settled into a new permanent location and became Metropolitan Tabernacle, where he ministered for next 30-plus years.

The reach of Spurgeon’s preaching extended well beyond the 5,000 people who filled this megachurch building. They translated his sermons into 20 languages and sold approximately 20,000 copies each week. Called the “Prince of Preachers,” his collected sermons have been called “the largest set of books by a single author in the history of Christianity.”

Don’t be misled. While the statistics make his ministry look like a breeze, it was anything but. Even outwardly fruitful ministries are not immune from the trials and suffering; in fact, often the notoriety brings additional challenges. Whatever the cause, he could have, like Paul, written about affliction “at every turn – fighting without and fears within” (2 Corinthians 7:5). He faced nearly every form of adversity imaginable in one way or another.

Despite his meteoric rise and widespread popularity, he was often the subject of public criticism and ridicule. The attacks were so prevalent that his wife was able to compile a scrapbook of them from the years 1855-56. 20 years later he remarked, “Men cannot say anything worse of me than they have said. I have been belied from head to foot, and misrepresented to the last degree.”

The attacks ebbed and flowed over the years until they culminated in his withdrawal from the Baptist Union over the Downgrade Controversy in the late 1880’s. He took a firm stand against associations with those who refuse to maintain doctrinal fidelity arguing that it would lead to doctrinal slippage among the orthodox. The world’s most well-known preacher at the time can now be recognized as a prophet, but he could not convince his brethren. They continued down that path and even voted to censure him several months after he withdrew. Adding insult to injury, his brother seconded the Union’s eventual motion to adopt a compromise doctrinal statement.

Despite the obvious difficulty in all these situations, the one event that seems to have caused him the most grief happened on October 19, 1856. As he stood to preach before more than 10,000 people in the Music Hall at Royal Surrey Gardens, someone in the crowd yelled, “fire!” In the ensuing chaos, seven people were trampled to death and dozens more injured. Many blamed him. The burden so overwhelmed him that he didn’t preach for months and even considered quitting. Decades later, the haunting memory would return like post-traumatic stress along with feelings of responsibility and guilt.

Adverse life circumstances at home created burdens for Spurgeon as well. His wife, Susannah, gave birth to their twin boys in 1856, but they were not able to have more. Her health declined significantly in her mid-thirties to the point that she was rarely able to hear him during the last 25 years of his ministry.

The fighting without was matched by physical adversity within in the form of gout, rheumatism, and Bright’s disease. The onset of gout came in his mid-thirties and grew worse over the years causing him to vacate his pulpit for months at a time to recover. When he died at only 57, he was in France attempting to recuperate from the ongoing maladies in his diseased and failing body. This man with a sharp mind and booming voice was no superman and reminders of his frailty were constant throughout his ministry in London.

His inward adversity was not isolated to physiological matters; however, Spurgeon also wrestled with “spiritual sorrows.” As pastor of the same church for 38 years, he knew well the minor disappointments of shepherding unfaithful members and leading a large congregation. His “mental miseries” were much worse, though. The dark clouds of depression covered him first at the ripe age of 24 when he described his spirit as “sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.” This battle raged throughout his life making him feel at times that God had deserted him and at others that God was smiting him.

Despite all this adversity, Spurgeon endured to the end as pastor of Metropolitan Tabernacle. A casual glance at his resume might lead to the assumption that he sailed through life untouched by the ordinary trials of life and ministry. But any such thoughts are sorely misguided. Like Spurgeon, each one of us will face adversity in many forms. And like Spurgeon, we are called to endure every form of suffering – from within and without – with joy as we rest in God and hope in His promises.