I am one of those ministers who has endured a handful of seasons of anxiety and depression. Most of the time, thankfully, the affliction has been more low-grade than intense. On one occasion, though, it pretty much flattened me physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. I call this particular season my “living nightmare.”
That season, as well as others, occurred while serving in ministry.
How bad was the living nightmare? I could not fall asleep for two weeks straight. Even sleeping pills couldn’t calm the adrenaline and knock me out, which only made things worse. At night I was terrified of the quiet, knowing I was likely to lose another all-night battle with insomnia. I was terrified of the sunrise, an unwelcome reminder that another day of impossible struggle was ahead of me. I lost nearly 35 pounds in two months. I couldn’t concentrate in conversations. I found no comfort in God’s promises from Scripture. I was unable to pray anything but “Help” and “Please end this.”
I believe—no, I am certain—that anxiety and depression hits ministers disproportionately. And a minister who suffers with this affliction, especially in isolation, is a person at risk. When I was in seminary, two pastors committed suicide because they couldn’t imagine going on another day having to face their anxiety and depression. Both suffered with the affliction in silence. One wrote in his suicide note that if a minister tells anyone about his depression, he will lose his ministry, because nobody wants to be pastored by a damaged person. Or do they?
Theology of Weakness
For those of us in ministry who have suffered (or are suffering) from this affliction, I think we need to do everything we can to discover and embrace an applied theology of weakness. Even the apostle Paul said that in weakness we discover the glory, power, and grace of God. This is how God works. He is upside-down to our sensibilities. Better said, we are upside-down to his.
Anne Lamott recently said it’s okay to realize that you are crazy and damaged because all of the best people are. Suffering has a way of shaping us as people and as ministers. It has a way of equipping us to lead in ways that are helpful and not harmful. A healer who himself has not been wounded is limited in his ability to heal.
The crazy, damaged people in Scripture seem to be the ones through whom God did the greatest things. Hannah experienced bitterness of soul over infertility and a broken domestic situation. Elijah felt so beaten down by ministry that he asked God to take his life. David repeatedly asked his own soul why it was so downcast. Even Jesus, the perfectly divine human, expressed that his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death. Each of these biblical saints, in his or her own way, was empowered by God to change the world—not in spite of the affliction but because of and through it.
Charles Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers,” experienced depression for many years of his ministry. William Cowper, the great hymn writer, had debilitating, paralyzing anxiety for most of his adult life. C. S. Lewis lost his wife to a violent form of cancer. Joni Eareckson Tada became paralyzed from the neck down when she was a teenager. All of these and others have been God’s chosen instruments for bringing truth, grace, and hope into the world. The best counselors have themselves been in counseling. It’s how God works.
So if anxiety and/or depression is your affliction, I am sharing this part of my story to remind you that there’s no shame in suffering from this or any other affliction. In fact, our afflictions may be the key to our fruitfulness as ministers. “Damaged” does not mean “ineffective.” It does not mean “done.”
Anxiety and depression can also, ironically, be a conduit of hope—an opportunity for the foolishness of God to be displayed in our lives. Recently a member in our church (where I’ve been senior pastor for two years) told me he thinks I am a great preacher . . . and he is entirely unimpressed. He told me that the moment he decided to trust me—the moment he decided I was his pastor—was when I shared openly with the church that I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression and have seen counselors for many years.
As ministers, we may discover in the end that our afflictions had greater effect in people’s lives than our preaching or our vision.
Anxiety and depression are also invitations into Sabbath rest. When you are laid flat and there’s nothing you can do except beg for help, Jesus tends to meet you in that place. There he reminds us Matthew 11 is for ministers too. He invites weary and heavy laden ministers to come to him and find rest, to learn from him, to experience his humility and gentleness of heart . . . that we, too, might find rest for our souls. For an anxious, depressed person, there is nothing quite like an easy yoke and a light burden under which to process our pain.
Many times I’ve encountered this affliction through or because of something related to ministry. Usually anxiety and depression have come on me because I’ve lost my way temporarily—leaving the easy yoke of Jesus and looking to ministry for self-validation, to make a name for myself, to gain applause and acclaim and respect from the crowds. This is a dead-end street, but in moments and seasons of weakness my heart has gone there.
Anxiety and depression have been God’s way of reminding me that I don’t have to be awesome. He has not called me to be awesome, or impressive, or a celebrity pastor, or anything of the sort. He has first and foremost called me to be loved, and to receive that love. He has called me to remember that because of Jesus, I already have a name, and I will be remembered even after I am long gone, because he is my God and I am his. He is my Father and I am his son.
Søren Kierkegaard said the thorn in his foot enabled him to spring higher than anyone with sound feet. The apostle Paul said something similar about the thorn in his flesh. The thorn kept him from becoming cocky. It kept him humble. It kept him fit for God and fit for the people whom God had called him to love and serve. There is glory in weakness. There is a power made perfect in that place.
Though I wouldn’t wish anxiety or depression on anyone, I am strangely thankful for the unique way this affliction has led me, time and again, back into the rest of God.
“All the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him. . . .”