Delighting in weakness
Charles Spurgeon, the 19th century Baptist pastor said, “I dare say the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health, with the exception of sickness”.
Spurgeon himself was physically and mentally ill for much of his ministry life. From the age of 24 he was prone to depression. Gout began at 35 and was joined by rheumatism and Bright’s disease.
As a sufferer in the ministry he is not alone. David Brainerd, missionary to the Native Americans in the 18th century, was often forced away from his mission labours because of physical illness and depression. William Cowper, who wrote hymns like “O for a closer walk with God” and “God moves in a mysterious way”, was stricken by depression and spiritual barrenness for months at a time.
And what of ministry spouses? Spurgeon’s wife Susannah was so unwell from the age of 33 that she was virtually unable to leave the house and seldom heard Charles preach. Annie Warfield, the wife of 20th century theological writer and principal of Princeton Seminary B.B. Warfield, was struck by lightening on their honeymoon and permanently paralysed. For their 39 years of marriage Warfield was her primary carer, rarely leaving her alone for more than a few hours.
There is also the Apostle Paul. He speaks of feeling weak, fearful and insufficient –deserted by all human companions, anxious for the churches. His physical illnesses were a trial for the Galatian church and he had that constant thorn in his flesh. With all this illness it’s not surprising that Paul confessed to the Corinthians that at times he despaired even of life itself. And yet in 2 Corinthians 12:10 we hear him confess delight in these trials and hardships. Why? For the sake of Christ.
What does that mean? Firstly it means that Paul was willing to endure these illnesses in order to proclaim the news of Christ. But secondly, these physical and mental trials were helpful for his proclamation of Christ and his service to Christ. Paul reflects that the news of Christ’s suffering and glory was delivered to the world with greater power when he was a broken vessel. So he concludes, “I delight in weakness… when I am weak, then I am strong”.
A physical and mental illness will certainly shape our ministry labour in new ways. Charles Spurgeon was kept out of the pulpit by his illnesses for about one third of the last 22 years of his life. Warfield rarely left Princeton. Susannah Spurgeon could serve only from within the confines of her home. David Brainerd died at the age of 29.
And yet what power from our Lord Jesus Christ rested on their ministry labours. What a blessing they have been to millions. When the stench of illness hung upon their bodies, their testimony of new life in Christ came with greater power. Though they were often kept away from the work, when they were at the work these men and women preached, taught, wrote and prayed with a greater strength because of their physical and mental illness.
It is not necessary to be physically or mentally ill to be an effective minister. And there will be some whose illness, or that of their spouse, is so acute that wisdom says step out of the harness. But illness does not necessarily preclude someone from ministry labour either. In fact, it can increase the effectiveness of their gospel proclamation.
We must be very careful not to follow the mindset of our age, which welcomes the strong and excludes the weak. Modern Australia has no room in its leadership structures for a weeping Spurgeon, a blood-coughing Brainard or a childless, house-bound family like the Warfields.
Do we have room for them in our ministry structures? For the sake of Christ will we rethink what ministry labour looks like and learn to delight in weakness, despite the complexity it brings, so that the news of the suffering and now glorified Jesus might be proclaimed not just by those who are strong, but also by those who are weak?
Spurgeon would rejoice if we were so blessed by our Father.