In 2020, I felt dead-end weariness. It scared me. I couldn’t shake it. For the first time in 20 years of pastoral ministry, I considered walking away.
I know I’m not alone. But the Scriptures give us help. In Psalm 42, we find potential causes for spiritual depression and several practical prescriptions for recovery.
Reasons Pastors Walk Away
I see at least three reasons pastors are walking away from ministry.
1. Physical Condition
Why are you pressed down with depression, anxiety, and melancholy? In Spiritual Depression, Martyn Lloyd-Jones began with these questions:
Does anyone hold the view that as long as you are a Christian, it doesn’t matter what the condition of your body is? You’ll soon be disillusioned if you believe that. . . . [But if] you recognize that the physical may be partly responsible for the spiritual condition and make allowances for this, you’ll be better able to deal with the spiritual issues.
Some people are, biologically, prone to depression. It’s not merely a spiritual matter but a matter of temperament. Your recovery begins with undoing a simplistic, over-spiritualized, guilt-tripping, and shame-inducing approach that pays no attention to your physical condition.
In verse 3, the psalmist, one of the sons of Korah, says his diet consisted of tears. There’s no mention of adequate sleep while he laments day and night. If you never sleep, you won’t feel awesome, because you can’t sever your body from the soul. Remember, Satan tempted Jesus when he was physically at his weakest.
2. Spiritual COVID
The psalmist hasn’t lost faith in God, but he has lost his spiritual taste and smell—his sensory experience of God. Like a panting deer, he aches to see, taste, and enjoy God again. The roaring waves he describes in verse 7 are an apt image of the spiritual depression he’s experiencing. It’s like drowning, and it’s all-consuming. He’s mourning the palpable absence of communion with God.
Sometimes in the Bible, in Psalm 32 for example, miseries erupt as the direct result of sin. Isaiah 30:15 offers the only relief from this miserable guilt: “For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’” But no sin is described in Psalm 42. Like with COVID-19, the psalmist has lost his spiritual senses. He’s experiencing fog and lingering fatigue without any moral failure.
I’ve lost count of the pastors who said they feel like they lost more during the pandemic than all previous years combined. As criticism, unprecedented challenges, divisions, and conflicts spiked, pastors bore all kinds of hurt. It hurts to lose your idols. It hurts most to lose the people you love.
Psalm 42 also gives four practical prescriptions for preachers on the verge of quitting.
In The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer writes,
We hear the refrain “I’m great, just busy” so often we assume pathological busyness is okay. After all, everybody else is busy too. But what if busyness isn’t healthy? What if it’s an airborne contagion, wreaking havoc on our collective soul?
Maybe one of the blessings of the pandemic is that it has slowed us all down. Notice the psalmist’s repeated cries in verses 5 and 11: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” The psalmist repeats himself because he’s taking time with God and with himself.
Do you expect people to get better right away? Does your golf swing improve after a single hole? If you’re impatient with people, you won’t pastor for long. If you’re impatient with yourself, you won’t pastor long. Love is patient (1 Cor. 13:4). God is patient with you and your church. Are you?
Most pastors work without or beyond limitations. And lest you think the solution is a periodic sabbatical, Carey Nieuwhof has observed, “No matter how many vacations you take, [your health is related to] the nature of the job you return to.”
What’s your usual pace? Do you regularly work to the point of utter exhaustion? Do you schedule and allow for margin? Do you prioritize and enjoy time with your family?
Often our pace reveals we’re making ourselves into God instead of submitting to his repeated command to “remember the Sabbath” (e.g., Ex. 20:8).
The psalmist had once worshiped with people in southern Israel. But for whatever reason, he’s separated and isolated up north (vv. 4, 6). He longs for company and the chorus of worshipers.
Similarly, the great prophet Elijah went from a literal mountain-top high to a crash so hard that he no longer wanted to live (1 Kings 19). What did God do for him? Elijah was provided food and the company of angels. We need a company, too—a community around us.
In many ways, the most influential preacher for your soul is you. If you were to manuscript what you think, feel, and say to yourself on a regular basis, would you be comfortable posting it online? Would it pass ordination standards?
If you’re impatient with people, you won’t pastor for long. If you are impatient with yourself, you won’t pastor long.
The greatest life-giving practice I’ve gained from Psalm 42 is this: instead of listening to yourself, preach to yourself. Instead of playing the usual lifelong soundtrack, grab hold of yourself to play what is true, lovely, and worthy from God’s Word.
Everyone is a preacher. How are you preaching to you? Do you preach to the roots, all the way to the most traumatic thing you’ve experienced (see vv. 9–10)?
Do you preach with the depth and honesty of the psalmists? Because the One who is greater than the psalmists has arrived, can you preach him to yourself? Jesus Christ drowned under the lethal wrath of God to bring hope to you.
Who Is Hopeful?
How does hope come down in Jesus? Charles Spurgeon is famous for his preaching and his melancholy. In “Sweet Stimulants for the Fainting Soul,” he wrote, “To be cast down is often the best thing that can happen to us.” How so? Some of the benefits of being cast down include shedding pretense, pride, and trite views of maturity. Times of being cast down can deepen our intimacy with God and teach us courage and empathy.
Zack Eswine reports how Spurgeon cherished an engraved picture from Pilgrim’s Progress in which the character named Christian panics while being swallowed by the depths of a river. The portrait shows Christian’s companion, Hopeful, pushing him upward with his arm around Christian while shouting, “Fear not! Brother, I feel the bottom!”
Who is hopeful? No matter how deep and treacherous the waters may be, Jesus hit rock bottom for you. No matter where you are or where you’re going, there is nowhere Jesus hasn’t already been. Jesus meets you there. From the bottom, he holds you up. He will never let go. He doesn’t quit. And because he arose from death, we shall rise with him.
This article is adapted from a sermon delivered at the Asian American Leadership Conference and is published in partnership with the SOLA Network.