Book Review: Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon

SusieSusie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, Wife of Charles H. Spurgeon is a new biography by Ray Rhodes, Jr. Susannah’s life can’t be told apart from apart from her husband’s, but Rhodes doesn’t describe her just in relation to Charles. He tells her own story fully.

Susie, as she was called because her mother and an aunt were also Susannah, “shared a lifetime” with Queen Victoria. “Susie was five when Victoria was crowned, and she died two years after Victoria’s death.” She was a city girl, living in London all her life and traveling often to Paris.

She became a Christian at about age 21, but experienced a lot of doubts for a while thereafter. She was not impressed with Pastor Spurgeon at first. He came from a rural background, and:

Charles violated her preconceived notions of what was appropriate for a polite young man in Victorian times, and a preacher at that. Susie found Charles’s hair, suit, mannerisms, and his provocative preaching style offensive. Later, reflecting on her earlier sentiments, she wrote:

Ah! How little I then thought that my eyes looked on him who was to be my life’s beloved; how little I dreamed of the honour God was preparing for me in the near future! It is a mercy that our lives are not left for us to plan, but that our Father chooses for us; else we might sometimes turn away from our best blessings and put from us the choicest and loveliest gifts of His providence.

Charles’ counsel and gift of Pilgrim’s Progress helped Susie. It wasn’t long before his pastoral concern turned romantic. The sections about their courtship are sweet, but Susie had a cold splash of reality one day. Charles was asked to preach somewhere and Susie accompanied him. They got separated in the crowd, but Charles never noticed. Lost, alone, and upset, Susie went home. Her mother “wisely reasoned that my chosen husband was no ordinary man, that his whole life was absolutely dedicated to God and His service, and that I must never, never hinder him by trying to put myself first in his heart.”

Charles and Susie married and enjoyed home life, travel, and togetherness. They had twin sons, Charles and Thomas. But both Charles and Susie developed health problems. He suffered from gout, kidney problems, and depression. It’s not known exactly what Susie’s health issues were, but severe endometriosis is suspected. She had surgery at one point but spent much of her life in pain. Sadly, she usually could not accompany Charles to places he was advised to go for his health. But he wrote to her every day, and their letters to each other are often delightful. In one of his letters from before they were married, Charles wrote:

I shall feel deeply indebted to you if you will pray very earnestly for me. I fear I am not so full of love to God as I used to be. I lament my sad decline in spiritual things. You and others have not observed it but I am now conscious of it; and a sense thereof has put bitterness in my cup of joy. Oh! what is it to be popular, to be successful, to have abundance, even to have love so sweet as yours, if I should be left of God to fall and to depart from His ways? I tremble at the giddy height on which I stand, and could wish myself unknown, for indeed, I am unworthy of all my honors and my fame. I trust I shall now commence anew and wear no longer the linsey-woolsey garment; but, I beseech you, blend your hearty prayers with mine, that two of us may be agreed, and thus will you promote the usefulness and holiness and happiness of one whom you love.

Once Susie wished aloud that one of Charles’s books could be sent to poor pastors who could not afford a much-needed library. Charles said, not in these words but to this effect, “What are you going to do about it?” That was the beginning of Susie’s book fund, which grew far beyond what she envisioned at the beginning. In one particular month, Feb. 1883, Susie received 657 letters. In 1886 she distributed 9,941 volumes. Correspondence as well as packaging, sending books, and seeking donations was a blessed ministry yet took time and energy. This ministry spawned others, like a pastor’s aid society for sending money and clothes, an auxiliary book club for lay preachers, and the Home and Foreign Sermon distribution. She said, “It is the joy of my life thus to serve the servants of my master.” She felt that the confinement necessitated by her illness enabled her to minister in these ways.

Though Susie knew some congregations were themselves poor and could not provide for their pastors, she encouraged those who could to do so in her book Ten Years of My Life in the Service of the Book Fund:

Keep your minister’s table well provided, and you shall be fed with the finest of the wheat; see that his earthly cares do not press on him painfully, and your own hearts’ burdens will be lifted by his heavenly teachings; supply him with this world’s needful comforts, and he will not fail to bring you solace and consolation in the time of your extremity. If he has sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if he shall reap your carnal things?

Susie did a fair amount of her own writing, and, after Charles’s death, was instrumental in planting a church and edited The Sword and the Trowel magazine.

I’ve read Mrs. C. H. Spurgeon by Charles Ray several times, and this book draws heavily from that one. But Ray’s book was written in 1903, not long after Susie’s death. I’m sure more resources were available to Rhodes than Ray might have had, plus over 100 years of perspective adds to Rhodes’ book.

I did get just a bit frustrated at times with how the book was laid out. Though Susie’s life is covered chronologically, at each point Rhodes goes backward and forward in time to pull details about that point. So there’s a lot of back-and-forth and repetition. It helped to think of the book as a documentary. I listened to the audiobook, but I think this book would be better read than listened to.

Nonetheless, this is a great resource. I enjoyed so much hearing again the parts of Susie’s life that I knew and learning what I did not know. I appreciated the historical context, something Ray’s book could not have given as effectively since it was written in the same era. I especially enjoyed both Charles and Susie’s letters. And I was blessed by her heart and her walk with God. One phrase that stood out in many of her writings was “the glory of God.” Everything she did was ultimately for His glory.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

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Book Review: Come Back, Barbara

Come backFather and daughter C. John Miller and Barbara Miller Juliani team up to share Barbara’s prodigal daughter story from both sides in Come Back, Barbara. In each chapter John – also known as Jack – shares situations from his point of view at the time, then Barbara shares hers.

Miller and his wife, Rose Marie, thought they had a fairly normal Christian family until Barbara suddenly announced at eighteen that she wanted nothing to do with their rules and their Christianity any more. She wanted freedom on every level. The Millers were stunned. They had caught Barbara in a few lies over the years but thought those were isolated incidents. Her outward conformity for most of her life had fooled them into believing her heart was right as well. They realized they had been mistaken in not looking below the surface.

For a time they puzzled over comparing what they had always thought about her and the “new Barbara” emerging now. It just didn’t seem to fit – she had seemed like a genuine Christian. They thought at first that perhaps she was just going through a rebellious phase and would hopefully come out of it soon. Gradually they realized that her rebellion and deception went further than they had ever guessed. They had to accept, by her words and actions and reactions, that she was not a Christian, though she had once professed to be.

There’s no five-step foolproof plan to winning back a prodigal, but Jack shares some of what he learned. First, he had to realize he was truly powerless. All his efforts backfired. Often control is the first weapon against rebellious children. Of course, some degree of control is necessary in raising children, but parents “have to confront your own manipulative techniques of consolidating power” (p. 160).

Many fathers and mothers are simply more satisfied with a child’s conformity and less concerned with the youngster’s motivation and hidden desires, with what the Bible calls “the thoughts of the heart.” Often unconsciously, the self-centered parent labors to form an orderly child who performs well in public and does not shame the family by disturbing the status quo. The problem, of course, is not with the orderliness of the child, but with the shaping of a person with a desensitized conscience, a performer who has never learned to love God or people from the heart (pp. 160-161).

He had to give up control to God and depend on Him to draw Barbara to Himself. He also had to confront his own sins, realizing the irony of God’s using a rebellious child to show him his own heart.

And he had to genuinely apologize to Barbara. Even though he felt wronged and wounded, he could not hold on to victim status. He had to confess his wrongs whether she did or not. And that humility and honesty was a step in the right direction in their relationship.

The constant practice of forgiveness leaves no room for self-righteousness. Frustrated condemnation of others and treasuring of old wrongs are not part of the artillery of God, but the slithering, slimy, deadly creatures of the Prince of Darkness (pp. 79-80).

Jack and his wife wrestled for a long time over whether Barbara had apostatized and how to respond if she had. Finally they just had to accept that she was not a believer and treat her as they would any other unbeliever. They just had to show her Christ’s love. That didn’t mean accepting everything she did, but she knew where they disagreed. They asked that some things not be done in their house.

Showing such love in the face of disdain and rebellion is exactly what God has done for us. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NASB). Drawing from His love and grace enabled them to show love and grace to Barbara.

We were facing the death side of the Christian life, but there was a resurrection waiting to take place as we stepped into the grave. Today it is my conviction that no matter how heavy the blow inflicted by circumstances, each negative experience is part of the heavenly Father’s perfect plan for each believer. He allows the hour of destruction for the purpose of building something better in its place. Our part is not to run away from the pains but to walk through the briars and thorns and let Christ teach us how to turn each scratch into positive learning about the depths of God’s love (p. 67).

There is no more impenetrable barrier to God’s love than the sense of being right. So often self-righteousness controls a parent’s attitudes toward a rebellious offspring (p. 150).

He’s not saying to ignore right and wrong: they had to stand up for right and truth often. But they had to “speak the truth in love,” not from a sense lofty condescension.

Many parents tend to turn out an erring child, and sometimes indeed that’s the only option. The prodigal in Scripture left his father’s house in rebellion, and Barbara did that for a while, too. But Jack and his wife felt they needed to be open to Barbara, and when she moved back in their area, the Millers welcomed Barbara and her friends in their home, to show love and kindness to them as Jesus did with “tax collectors and sinners.”

At one point Barbara had “come back” in the sense of “settling down,” becoming responsible, not engaging in destructive behaviors. But she still was not a believer. As Jack pressed that point, it led to a major battle between him and Barbara.

Barbara, meanwhile, began “groping for the light while still resisting it” (p. 139). “Many painful things happened to me during this period, but the work of the Holy Spirit was to gently lead me from darkness to light” (p. 167). She described it like walking into a large, dark room, turning on the nearest lamp, moving to another area and turning on another lamp, continuing until there’s enough light to clearly see. She didn’t think she could have stood it if God had turned all the lights on at once. “Instead, God showed me the truth about myself bit by bit, in pieces I could handle” (p. 167.) One “light” was the realization that the things she thought would bring her happiness and allay her insecurities and anxiety could not. She was still unhappy, anxious, and insecure though at one time she had everything she thought she wanted. Another “light” was realizing her tendency to deceive and blame-shift. One by one God opened her eyes to the needs of her own heart and to His love.

I’ve noticed that C. John Miller has written some other books, but I don’t know anything about his theology other than what is in this book. One aspect that I was a little wary of was what he called “praying with authority.” In my experience, people using that kind of terminology advocate “demanding” answer to prayer, which to me seems to contradict the humility and surrender manifested in Scripture. But from what’s said in this book, that didn’t seem to be what they were talking about. Jack’s wife had said in the beginning of their troubles that she felt like an orphan. But gradually she realized she could come to God as a child to her Father, basing her requests on Scriptural truths. If that’s what they mean by praying with authority, then, yes, I agree. I was also a bit cautious when they talked about “claiming” certain things, associating that with the “name it and claim it” culture. But, again, in the context here that doesn’t seem to be what they are referring to.

I found this book on a sale table at a Christian bookstore years ago: the name in the title caught my eye. 🙂 I don’t know why I haven’t gotten to it before now, but I am glad I finally did. I marked many more places in the book than I have space and time to share here. I’d highly recommend it to anyone with a prodigal friend of family member or anyone who wants to read how God worked in lives to bring people to Himself.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

Book Review: More Than These

More Than TheseWhen I saw More Than These: A Woman’s Love for God by June Kimmel featured at By the Book, my interest was piqued for three reasons: JustRead Publicity Tours was sponsoring a giveaway of the ebook; I had used some of June Kimmel’s Bible studies before; June’s son-in-law was our youth and music pastor at the church we attended when we first moved to Tennessee, and he and his wife are some of the dearest people on the planet. Fortunately, I won a copy of the book!

The premise of the book is that we have multiple facets of our lives that vie for first place in our hearts, crowding out our first love for God. Some of these are God’s good gifts, like family, friends, and ministry. But when they take His place, we’re not loving either Him or them in the best way. Others are sinful aspects that we need to put to death. So June examines several of these issues, couching them in a time when she and her husband felt led of the Lord to move from South Carolina, where they were near all of their grown children and grandchildren and had jobs and ministries they loved, to Wisconsin for a new ministry opportunity.

A few quotes from the book that stood out to me:

Without love, our good efforts are empty and hollow. We are useless and unprofitable if our service, however noble, is done without supreme love for God.

We must be in the Word to know God’s promises. Sometimes people expect God to do what he never promised to do.

May we see beyond the circumstances of the moment and praise God continually. May our fear never exceed our love for God.

Do you have goals for tomorrow? Did that ambition begin at the feet of the Lord Jesus? Our plans may be exactly what God has for us, but is it the dream we long for or the Master?

We all have positive and negative experiences to recall, but God doesn’t want us living in the past or focusing on it instead of Him. God simply wants to use our past as a tool to shape us into His image.

Unless we surrender our fearfulness to the Lord, it will draw our focus off the Savior by consuming our thoughts. The circumstances intended to draw us closer to the Master will attempt to capture the throne of our heart.

June encourages us to “diligently study His Word and endeavor to take the truths we learn and turn them into daily actions that demonstrate the goodness of our God.” The more we get to know Him, the more our love for Him grows.

I would have preferred the study questions at the end of each chapter rather than all together at the end of the book, but that’s just a matter of personal preference.

Thanks to June, By the Book, JustRead Publicity Tours, and Ambassador International for the giveaway and for sending me a copy of the book!

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Drawing Near to the Heart of God

Heart of GodI had read a number of Cynthia Heald‘s Bible studies in my early married days, but I couldn’t remember much about them. So when I came across Drawing Near to the Heart of God: Encouragement for Your Lifetime Journey (previously published as A Woman’s Journey to the Heart of God), I gave it a try not just for the content, but also to reacquaint myself with Heald’s writing.

Heald frames the Christian life as a journey. The first section covers “Essentials for the Journey,” like “Traveling Light” (things to set aside), “Righteous Clothing” (holiness), “The Guidebook” (the Bible), “Fellowship With Our Guide” (abiding in Christ), and others. Section Two focuses on “The Destination: God’s Heart” and spends time on some of His attributes. The last section. “Enjoying the Journey,” covers “Bearing His Fruit,” “Experiencing His Rest,” “Living for the Eternal,” and “Bringing God Glory.”

Heald writes in an easily understood style. She particularly handles Biblical stories well, drawing the reader right in to what the character was probably feeling without a lot of extra-biblical conjecture.

A few of the many quotes that stood out to me:

My journey to the heart of God does not begin tomorrow; the choices I make today determine whether I move towards Him or toward self and the world (p. 20).

[Re the Israelites failure to obey God and go into the promised land the first time] The people decided to focus on the potential risks instead of the promised blessings (p. 47).

My definition of abiding is “consistently sitting at the feet of Jesus and continually depending upon Him by listening to His words with a heart to obey” (p. 68).

When you fear God, you will be freed to listen to His “fear nots” (p. 87).

We cannot expect to make steady progress on our spiritual journey if we insist on taking little side trips away from the highway of holiness (p. 110).

Since we can do nothing to captivate [God’s] love, we can do nothing to lose it (p.136).

God has His time schedule, and He uses what we call delays to produce in us patience and trust and to accomplish His purposes in establishing His kingdom (p. 234).

To understand the difference between living for heaven and demanding that life here on earth be like heaven is an important lesson in learning to live for the eternal (p. 241).

I disagreed with her in a few spots, like when she said the Bible is “one of the best ways to hear God speak” (p. 244). It’s not just one of the best – it is the primary way we hear from God, some would say the only way. She speaks of “hearing God’s voice” in a couple of places, but I don’t think she means it in terms of an audible voice or extra-biblical revelation. This would have concerned me more if she had written anything doctrinally questionable. I also wouldn’t endorse everyone she quotes.

But for the most part, this is a fairly solid explanation of how to grow in the Christian life. Even though I was already familiar with these truths, it was good to go over them again.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)