When A Pastor Gets Depressed

 

Depressed1

Pastor, you are not weird if you battle with depression. You aren’t sub-Christian if you are in despair. It happens. You are human. You are real, organic matter—you are not like the unmeltable ice cream sandwich.

Last Monday, an untraceable sadness came over me. It wasn’t because we had a “bad Sunday.” We didn’t (whatever that means.) A young man, someone who I had been praying would come to Christ, pulled me aside before the second service and wanted to become a Christian. Hallelujah! I live for these moments.

I preached on Proverb 4:23 and watching our hearts, having joy in God, and keeping our lives in alignment with the King of kings. After church, we went on to have a great lunch with friends; I even got in my nap.

And then Monday morning, right before lunch, I began to cry for no reason. I sat in my living room, while my ten-month old son was napping, and tears slid down my cheeks.

This had never happened to me. I didn’t know what was wrong. “Am I losing my mind?” I didn’t know how to feel. “Am I burnt out?” I was more than bummed. I felt upside down, shrouded in a silent thunderstorm. “What is wrong with me?”

When my wife came home, I was hunched over in the living room—resembling stage 2 of the monkey-man on the so-called evolutionary chart.

Natalie asked, “Jeff, what’s wrong?”
‘That’s the problem, I don’t know. I’m just sad. You haven’t done anything. No one has done anything. I’m just, just, I dunno.’

I put on my shoes, while holding back tears who are bullying their way out, to go to my weekly elder meeting. The last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to lay on the floor and wait for tomorrow.

I asked my brothers, my friends, my co-pastors— my pastors—to pray for me, telling them it seems like I’m depressed. What grace Christians are to one another.

I drove home from our meeting, crying, praying, crying out, “Lord, help me. Please. O, my God, won’t you please help me.”

And then, God spoke me.

HOPE IN THE MIDST OF DEPRESSION

He didn’t show up in my truck and speak to me. He brought his word to my mind.

Psalm 42 washed over me.

“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.”

Hope in God. God, the Triune, Omni-loving, God is where we place our confidence and trust. Christ is the solid rock. Everything else? Sinking sand. In my sinking, I had to look up.

The Hebrew word for cast down also means melting, sinking, disintegrating, and despair. And as I looked at myself, I realized that most of my day I spent wallowing instead of hoping. I had been trying to pinpoint my despair instead of looking to the God of my life (Ps. 42:8). I wanted to figure me out—instead of walking by faith.

I began to preach the gospel to myself. “The greatest reality in my life is I’m secure in Christ. I am no rock. He is my rock. If Christ is stable, I am stable. My entire life is baptized into the blood of Jesus. I’ve been crucified with Jesus. And I’ve been raised with him. Even though I’m sitting on the ground crying, I’m sitting with him in the heavenly places.”

I kept telling myself the glories of the gospel until I believed them—until I hoped in God. Friends, we must keep looking at the cross—put our knees on blood-stained soil—until we hear, “It is finished!”—until we believe it.

I love that Psalm 42 doesn’t resolve with a man skipping down to Jericho. It fades to black. The scene dissolves, and we are left seeing a man battling to hope in God. This is reality.

In my battle, it took me few days to come back to sanity. While Monday was 100% chance of rain, Tuesday felt like 60%. But by the end of Tuesday, there was only a light shower of sadness, a mist, if you will. Two friends ministered to me; bearing my burden and fulfilling the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). Another Acts 29 pastor took me to lunch and strengthened my hand in the Lord. One of my other pastors, came over and encouraged me, counseled me, and was simply there for me.

Spurgeon, a distant friend, ministered to me as well.

SPURGEON AND DEPRESSION

In Lectures To My Students, Spurgeon has a whole address on the issue of depression in ministry, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits.” I cannot help but commend the entire chapter and book to you.

When I thought about all that was weighing on my heart and mind, and all of the sadness I was experiencing, Spurgeon’s words were sweet counsel:

Our work, when earnestly undertaken, lays us open to attacks in the direction of depression. Who can bear the weight of souls without sometimes sinking to the dust? Passionate longings after men’s conversions, if not fully satisfied (and when are they?), consume the soul with anxiety and disappointment. To see the hopeful turn aside, the godly grow cold, professors abusing their privileges, and sinners waxing more bold in sin—are not these sights enough to crush us to the earth?

Spugeon goes on to talk about the effects of studying, of not resting well, of sedentariness, of not having other pastors to lean on, etc. And then he talks about when depression comes upon us with no traceable cause, and how even in the midst of fruitful ministry, depression hits and we know not why:

If it be inquired why the Valley of the Shadow of Death must so often be traversed by the servants of King Jesus, the answer is not far to find…the man shall be emptied of self, and then filled with the Holy Ghost. In his own apprehension he shall be like a sere leaf driven of the tempest, and then shall be strengthened into a brazen wall against the enemies of the truth…

My witness is that those who are honored of their Lord in public, have usually to endure a secret chastening, or to carry a peculiar cross, lest by any means they exalt themselves and fall into the snare of the devil…

By all the castings down of his servants God is glorified, for they are led to magnify him when again he sets them on their feet, and even while prostrate in the dust their faith yields praise.

From my experience, I agree with Mr. Spurgeon.

It is such a comfort to know that I’m not some anomaly, or Biblical weirdo, “Count it no strange thing,” Spurgeon says, “but a part of ordinary ministerial experience. Should the power of depression be more than ordinary, think not that all is over with your usefulness.” And in one of his sermons on Psalm 42, Spurgeon tells us, “Depression of spirit is no index of declining grace; the very loss of joy and the absence of assurance may be accompanied by the greatest advancement in the spiritual life.”

The downward spiral of despair is a reminder to us pastors that we are still in great need of the risen Christ. Apart from him, we can’t do anything (John 15:5).

The Psalmist wrestled. Spurgeon wrestled. Piper wrestled:

I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times in the last twenty-eight years at Bethlehem I have fought back the heaviness of discouragement with these very words: ‘Hope in God, John. Hope in God. You will again praise him. This miserable emotion will pass. This season will pass. Don’t be downcast. Look to Jesus. The light will dawn.’ It was so central to our way of thinking and talking in the early eighties that we put a huge ‘Hope in God’ sign on the outside wall of the old sanctuary and became known around the neighborhood as the ‘Hope in God’ church.”

When we are leveled, cut down to the dirt, the Lord doesn’t look at us and scoff, “C’mon. Gimme a break, ‘Pastor.’ What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you better than this?” Rather, Jesus look at us and says, “My dear friend, I know exactly what’s wrong.”

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15–16 ESV)

If you find yourself in the discombobulation of depression, do not read this as a trite and mere yeah-yeah platitude: draw near to Jesus. His throne is one of grace. And there, right there with him, there is mercy and grace in our time of need. Pastor, let the gospel we preach to others be the gospel we preach to ourselves.

Hope in him.

Here is a link to a sermon I preached, “What To Do When You’re Depressed,” from Psalm 42. Maybe it’ll encourage you.

Up Next:

Paul Tripp and Paul of Tarsus on Pastoral Ministry

Paul Tripp and Paul of Tarsus on Pastoral Ministry