I learned very quickly that I had a choice. Either I could constantly invoke my inner attorney to give myself legal defense, or I could invite misunderstanding and let that be okay. Sure, there’s a tension and wisdom that tells us both responses may be done with a confident humility, but maybe one of these options is the better one?
Ministry is challenging. Discipleship is messy. Doing life as a sinner with other sinners can be sinful. When our heart’s desires make tangible appearances through words and actions, bad things can happen. Blowback can and does occur. How should we respond to one another when misunderstanding occurs? How ought we as reconciled-to-God-in-Christ-now-justified-sinners deal with interpersonal conflict and sinful interaction? Thankfully, Jesus, the Second-Person of the Trinity, took on flesh and dwelt among us. He identified with us and exemplified in himself what it means to do ministry and invite misunderstanding.
In Matthew 13, we find Jesus teaching about the kingdom of God in various parables. He tells of the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Weeds, the Mustard Seed and Leaven, the Hidden Treasure, Pearl of Great Value, the Net, and the Master of the House with Old and New Treasures. Each of these stories are likened to some aspect of the kingdom of God and are used by Jesus to explain himself and his ministry.
But that’s not all we find in this chapter. Matthew gives us a look into what is happening behind the scenes, as it were, and explains a bit more about the parables. In Matthew 13:10-17, there’s an excursus that involves only Jesus and his disciples. The crowds are not privileged to this particular conversation. “Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’” (Mat. 13:10). Conflict is on the horizon. What seems to be the problem?
SECRETS OF THE KINGDOM
Jesus responds to their question, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matthew 13:11). Any information that disciples glean from Jesus’ parables is to participate in the secrets of the kingdom of God. In other words, the mysterion that Jesus explains can only be given through the Sovereign hand of God and divine revelation. The Apostle Paul shares the same thing, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2 Cor. 2:14).
What Paul means (and I believe by implication it is the same thing Jesus believed) is not that you have to be a super Spirit-filled person in order to understand this stuff, and if you say the right prayer, do the right thing, you’ll eventually figure it out. No—Paul means that any particular revelation of knowledge that pertains especially to the kingdom of God is only granted from above.
Men do not use logic and reason, then conclude God. Men cannot use logic and reason without God. God is the one who imparts wisdom and understanding. This is what Jesus is getting at with the secrets of the kingdom. It is not an issue of natural insight and basic rationale. It’s an issue of divine revelation. It is only for those, “It has been given.”
PUSHING IT FURTHER
Jesus goes on to say, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (v. 13). Don’t miss what Jesus is saying: There is a dividing line when it comes to the kingdom of heaven. What I am doing in my teaching is clearly laying out the lines of demarcation. There is no middle ground; in fact, there are only two ways to go about this—either you will understand because the Spirit makes you understand, or you will continue in your sin and constantly go about misunderstanding what I’m telling you.
Jesus pushes it further by creating the dividing line. Why did he do it? To start, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 6. Isaiah was to go and preach and Israel wasn’t going to listen. (Not the greatest ministry task. . . . Go and preach, and don’t get mad—they won’t listen anyway. Who wants that job?) Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is Isaiah—a prophet to a rebellious Israel.
The other reason Jesus creates the dividing line this way is because Jesus is okay with misunderstanding. Remember he didn’t come into the world to condemn the world, for the world was condemned already; Jesus came to save it (Jn. 3:17). By drawing the line, Jesus gave no ground for having a neutral position. You are either for him, or against him (Matt. 12:30). Either men will turn to Christ in repentance, or they will harden themselves and perpetuate misunderstanding.
VULNERABILITY IN COMMUNITY
We can learn much from this passage. I want to try and bring one aspect into focus, and it has everything to do with you. If you’ve been involved in ministry in any capacity, you know that misunderstanding abounds. The story I hinted at to start had to do with me being a pastor who has had his share of misunderstanding. In fact, in one Sunday I heard two things: 1) “I learn something every single week when you preach!” and 2) “We’re leaving because we don’t feel like we’re learning anything.”
How does that work? How can a pastor sit at someone’s bedside who is dying from cancer and be told the next day that he doesn’t care about people? Consider another paradox in ministry. How can a lay person who is passionately involved prayer about many different issues be told by someone else that she has bitterness in her heart and seems rather uninvolved in ministry? What’s the deal with misunderstandings in community?
Discipleship is an invitation to be vulnerable. It invites misunderstanding and chooses to put that inner attorney out of a job. It’s being so comfortable in your justification that your messy sanctification doesn’t trip you up. The reality is, any amount of investment you make in someone else’s life will invoke misunderstanding. You reap what you sow. The deeper you get into someone’s life the messier it gets. And that’s okay.
Jesus was quite okay with being vulnerable and he built his ministry on misunderstanding. That’s how it was supposed to be. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2). He wasn’t spectacular and outwardly special. He left his home in glory to take on flesh and serve his people. He taught with wisdom and compassion yet was treated foolishly and hated by many.
What makes this special for us in discipleship is knowing that we don’t have to defend our case, but can live our lives for the glory of God free from the chains of man-pleasing. We can be vulnerable and okay with misunderstanding. Why? Because Jesus was vulnerable and misunderstood—so much so, that he was crucified for you. The misunderstanding of Christ led to the salvation of men. So rest easy, and continue to run.
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Passionate Proclamation: Persuading and Pleading for the God’s Glory
“I thought I was going to get a dry lecture!” I really didn’t know how to respond to a pastor friend of mine who said this to me after listening to me preach for the first time. He knew I was an “expository preacher” so I guess he expected me to stand, read, and lecture about the syntactical nuances of the Greek “και” and the socio-historical setting of Colossians. The fact of the matter is many people who hear so called “expository preaching” are bored due to lack of passion in the pulpit. I must confess I’ve heard my share of monotonous musings that have been pandered from the pulpit under the disguise of “expository preaching.” But of all styles of preaching, expositional preaching should be the most passionate as it seeks to persuade the congregation about the work of Jesus and plead with them to trust in His provision from a particular biblical text. Faithful expository preaching is passionate proclamation.
Persuading about Christ
Expository preaching is grounded the inerrant Word of God. Paragraph by paragraph as the expositor moves through books of sacred Scripture, he is seeking to expose God’s Word to God’s people, inviting them to enter into God’s world. Expositional preaching is the methodical process of weekly laying bare the meaning of the text and directing the congregations attention to Christ, the Incarnate Word. Whether the expositor is preaching Old Testament texts or New Testament the goal is exposing and persuading God’s people about Christ. The expositor does an injustice to the text if he doesn’t expose the congregation to the full redemptive context. In saying this I confess there are challenges. As expositors we must give primary meaning to the biblical text we are preaching. It is tempting to see a redemptive connection and “jump to Jesus” as quick as possible. All Scripture is God breathed and profitable (2 Timothy 3:16). Thus expository sermons are to be conformed to the shape of the text, whether it is a narrative, psalm, or epistle. Therefore, I implore you, preacher to give yourself to the text in its entirety. What do mean by “giving yourself to the text” is to give yourself to Christ-Centered preaching. Text driven preaching is Christ Centered preaching since all of Scripture testifies about Christ (Luke 24:27). There is a unifying theme to Scripture: Jesus Christ, the apex of God’s revelation to humanity. The task of the expositor is to unpack the text, laying bare its meaning, and persuade the congregation about the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Pleading to Trust in Him
Since Jesus Christ is the apex of God’s revelation to humanity, the Incarnate Word, the expository sermon is a passionate plea to trust in Him. As the expositor moves through the text, exposing and persuading the congregation about Christ, he pleads with his hearers to live within the story of Christ. The sermon is for the congregation to know their placein Christ’s story, hear His voice, and live according to His Word. Another way to look at it is the sermon presents God’s Reality. The sermon invades our broken perspective of reality and pleads with us to trust in His Son, the Sum of all reality. The expositor, the mouthpiece of God to His people, urges his hearers to accept true reality and forsake the broken version of the one they erected for themselves. His plea isn’t to “just live a better life.” Instead the plea is trust the One who controls the flow of history. The preaching moment must resonate with the words, “Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, just to take Him at His Word.”
A Plea for Passionate Expository Proclamation
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once stated,
“What is preaching? Logic on fire! Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire. A true understanding and experience of the Truth must lead to this. I say again that a man who can speak about these things dispassionately has no right whatsoever to be in a pulpit; and should never be allowed to enter one.”
The source of this passion is derived from the text of Scripture that finds all fulfillment in Jesus. Scripture is the authority that drives passionate proclamation, which ought to lead to powerful application in the life of the hearer. I must say I’m tired of boring preaching – I’ve listened to enough of it. Let’s repent of our dispassionate preaching. The reality is the arc of the universe is bending towards Him who spoke it into existence and by His grace, we preach Jesus Christ, the Reigning King. As we ascend the pulpit to open God’s Word, we are to do so with passion. Cry out He saves! Catch fire and burn!
Essential to the gathering of God’s people on Sunday morning is the preaching of God’s Word. For anyone who has been granted the honor to stand and deliver knows the humbling but terrifying reality of the moment. Ascending the pulpit as all eyes are on you can make the strongest, the weakest. Pastor, this is the way it needs to be because your responsibility is to direct your hearers to Jesus through the exposition of the biblical text. Pastor from your study to the pulpit it is all about Jesus. My plea is for preachers to recapture exposition on fire which ispassionate proclamation that persuades and pleads for God’s glory.
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On Sunday I celebrate fifteen years of leading Servants of Grace, by God’s grace. I wish I could say that this journey has been easy, but I’d be lying. Anyone who has been in ministry, for any length of time, knows that the work is hard, often intense, and demanding. As I’ve reflected on my experience in ministry over the past few weeks, one main truth keeps coming up—relationships are the currency of ministry.
Jesus had twelve disciples whom He called and spent three years with. In those three years, Jesus poured into their lives truths that would help launch the Church and form biblical orthodoxy as we now know it. Even among the Twelve there were three—Peter, James, and John—who were considered Jesus’ closest friends. Among the three closest disciples of Jesus, there was one singled out among them—John—who was called the Beloved disciple. Jesus knew the value of relationships, which is why He called men (a pattern established in the creation mandate, and in the Old Testament) to positions of great leadership and responsibility, as pillars of the church under the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to a deeper understanding of the value of relationships as the currency of ministry. As my understanding of this truth has expanded, so has my appreciation for my mentors—both past and present—and my friends. There have been many men and women who have helped me to get to where I am in my Christian life now. What follows is not an exhaustive list, by any stretch of the imagination, but is a simple reflection of my deep appreciation for these people. There was a youth pastor and youth elder in high school who loved me enough to speak the truth in love, and be there for me, through thick and thin, through one of the roughest parts of my life. There have been many friends like Aaron Armstrong, Dan Darling, Brian Cosby, Mike Boling, Jason Garwood, Chris Poblete, Paul Emery, and Craig Hurst (to name only a few), who have listened, prayed for, cared for, and shown me the love of Christ, through tough times. There have been local friends, including Fred Genther, a faithful Sunday school teacher for almost twenty years at my local church.
Then there is Pastor Mike Beaudin (the associate pastor) and Pastor Greg Reider, the senior pastor at the church my wife and I are members of. Along with Fred, Pastor Mike and Pastor Greg have made a big difference in my life. Both Pastor Greg and Pastor Mike would shy away from public notoriety, acknowledging (as I did) their previous mentors, which were many, but in my mind they are a living embodiment of the principle that relationships are the currency of ministry. They continue to demonstrate through their teaching, encouragement, prayers, and care of me over the past three years, the love of Jesus in word and deed. Let me assure you that it has not gone unnoticed or underappreciated. I thank them at every opportunity and honor them as men worthy of respect and imitation for the Christian life and ministry.
Lastly, not lacking in significance to this, is my wife Sarah. There have been many, many times where I have wanted to fold it all up and call it a day. There has been many days where, thankfully by God’s grace, I have not quit ministry work. A huge reason has been God’s grace working through my wife. As someone who gets discouraged and sometimes battles depression, my wife is a constant source of amazing encouragement to me. I have said—and will say again till my dying breath—that without the love of Jesus displayed through my wife, I would not be the man I am today. Her editing has helped make me a better writer, not to mention helping me graduate from seminary with high grades. I love you sweetheart, and am deeply thankful to Jesus for you.
Relationships can be difficult. I’ve learned that dealing with difficult people is not easy—it requires patience, but more than that it requires the gospel. Speaking the truth in love is difficult, especially when people don’t want to hear the truth about how they are living contrary to the gospel. It requires wisdom and grace to speak on volatile issues like abortion, homosexuality, sexual addiction, mental illness, etc.
Over the years, I’ve made so many mistakes and there are so many reasons why I should have probably hung it up and called it a day, except for the grace of God. As I write those words it strikes me as ironic. I sit here before a computer and type out this message, but these are words I’ve uttered, not only on the internet, but also in person to many people over the years. It’s been amazing to see Servants of Grace grow over the years, and continue to grow through our various ministries. I’ve been deeply humbled by the opportunity to write for dozens of Christian ministries, and even to speak for six years on a Christian radio station, reaching into heavily populated Muslim countries.
Through it all there has been heaps of God’s amazing grace, mixed with tons of godly people who have prayed, invested in me, and who (most importantly) have believed in me. Today I stand on the grace of God, and on the shoulders of my mentors—both past and present. My future is in God’s hands, along with all of my life. I’m looking more than I ever have to the hope I have in the grace of God; so thankful that God has seen me through this far, and will bring to completion His work in and through me.
With a few days left remaining before Servants of Grace—and by extension me being in ministry—reaches the fifteen year milestone, I’ve often found myself reflecting (as I do often) on the amazing grace of God that has sustained me thus far in my Christian life. After almost thirty years of following Jesus through the heights and the valleys, I’m still amazed by God’s grace. I’m fired up about the future, and trusting the Lord who promises to never leave us nor forsake us, to do what He says He will do: to save the lost, make disciples, and built His church for His glory.
As this article comes to a close, let me encourage you, friend. Your labor for the Lord is not in vain. You will never know the full impact on this side of eternity that your ministry has had on people. This is why you should consider every relationship that you have as an opportunity to display God’s love and grace to people. As my pastor would say, “Befriend people and impart truth to them.” This, my friends, is at the heart of the ministry Jesus has called us to—to speak the truth in love, seasoned with grace, so that people’s eyes and ears may be opened by God’s grace to the person and Excellency of Jesus Christ. So, friends, let’s stand by God’s grace in who we are in Him, all the while declaring that our great God and King is soon returning. After all, Jesus alone is mighty to save, sanctify, and glorify a people for His own possession, for His own glory. Let’s know the good news so well that other people can see it radiating out of our lives to the glory of the Risen Christ.
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I’m young, leading my family as a husband and father of four, through the ERLC (Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC), and as an author/writer/blogger. The world gets excited about young leadership, but quite often young leaders make mistakes because we lack the wisdom of our elders. Here are five common pitfalls I’m finding for myself:
1) The Pitfall of Pride
The Scriptures both encourage and warn about young leadership. The encouragement is for the young to not let their youth get in the way of leading (1 Timothy 4:12) and yet it also warns against appointing immature people to weighty positions because they lack experience (1 Timothy 3:6). Perhaps our biggest and most pernicious temptation is pride. We’re young, we’re full of ideas, we feel we can change the world. That’s good, but it can also be bad when it seals us off from needed rebuke, the wisdom of mentors, and constructive criticism. Young leaders must be wary, very wary, of the various ways that pride disguises itself as something good.
2) The Pitfall of Wanting Fame
Notice I didn’t say the pitfall of fame. I don’t think fame is inherently wrong. I don’t think all celebrity pastors or Christian leaders are off track, as some seem to. I think God allows some to gain favor and find numerical success. But what we young leaders must die to is our desire to be famous. This can be tricky, a sort of fine line between desiring our churches or organizations or platforms to grow and pursuing popularity with reckless abandon. I’m not always sure where that line is– maybe it’s different for every person. I do know that we must guard and check our hearts to see if our motivations for ministry are to glorify God and serve His people or to enrich ourselves.
3) The Pitfall of Comparison
It takes a while for a leader to gain a godly confidence his life and purpose. In the meantime, there is a dangerous tendency to compare and measure ourselves against our peers. Authors obsess over their Amazon rankings and privately wonder why some others seem to have more success than they do. Pastors compare numbers with other pastors and compare their sermons with the sermons of those they admire. I’m speaking from ministry experience, but I’m sure it affects young leaders in a variety of vocations.
Comparison is deadly because it blinds us to God’s unique purpose for each individual life. So we must kill this daily.
4) The Pitfall of Anti-Establishment
Our growing up years shape us in more ways than we know. For many of us there is a tendency to base our leadership off of our childhood experiences. We can easily become the negative about our church/ministry/business experience. I’m seeing a lot of this in the books and blogs and sermons I hear from young leaders such as myself. Uber-contemporary pastors styles themselves as different than the stodgy fundamentalists of their youth. Super-serious reformed guys style themselves as different than the substance-less contemporary leaders of their youth. And so it goes. There is nothing wrong with coming to grips with the parts of our upbringing or past that we would like to do differently in our leadership environments, but we hurt our effectiveness by cycling everything we do through the prism of what we considered wrong. We become reactionary and imbalanced. We become a movement defined more by being against we perceive as wrong than being for what God has called us to do.
5) The Pitfall of Overstatement
There is a tendency among young leaders to think of themselves as “the movement that will finally fix everything wrong with the church.” The church is going one way, but we know better and we’re leading it the other way. When we’re young we tend to see ourselves as the hero in our own story, the Gideon/David/Abraham warrior that God has sent to rescue His people.
Even if your book lands on the NYT bestseller list or your congregation swells in size in a few years, you’re likely just one of many God is using in this generation. That’s not to tamp down enthusiasm or God-given ambition. We must remember that our story is not our own. God is the author of our story and it is Him who is after glory. We’re really not as influential or great as we think we are. And that’s okay because God loves us when we’re a bit broken.
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Depression can be debilitating. It can make the seemingly simplest of tasks seem like scaling Mount Everest. Finding ways to persevere through these seasons can be immensely helpful in the long run. In this post, I’m going to outline a few of the practical ideas that have been helpful to me.
As with my previous post on this subject, I want to reiterate that there are two ways to read these suggestions: (1) As a simplistic attempts to explain highly complex problems. Many people have simplistic answers to emotional and mental exhaustion. These answers are cliché, trite, and reductionist. They offer no real comfort and misunderstand the complexity of a person’s struggle. It is not my intention to do that in sharing my experience. (2) Instead, these can be read as an attempt to offer some hope and encouragement. What follows is merely my own experience. I do not presume that these suggestions will impact everyone the same way. My goal is rather simple: to encourage you by my experience that there is hope and help that can be found for depressed pastors.
For starters, it’s important to set realistic and attainable goals. Sometimes we can exacerbate our problems by reaching for perfection. An all-or-nothing attitude will quickly become deflating. It’s tempting to think that if something doesn’t just fix all my emotional/mental problems then it’s not worth doing. That is a massive failure on my part. I need to see the value of smaller goals and their meaningful contributions to my long-term recovery. Some days my goals might be really small: get out of bed and take a shower. Other days my goals can be more involved: finish two chapters in the book I am reading; help my wife around the house; cut the grass; do my job. I am trying to be patient with my own growth. The objective most days is not to succumb to passivity; plodding activity is always better.
Serving others is also another practical step with massive benefits. Depression shrinks my world. It prevents me from seeing God’s larger picture; it prevents me from seeing the many people around me who also struggle. Remembering that I am not the only one in sorrow or hurt reminds me to look up from my world and find ways to love others. Counselor, Brad Hambrick comments:
How do we keep our own struggles in perspective? One way is that we give weight to the struggles of others. A primary focus on our struggles always makes them seem more significant. When we begin to neglect serving others, we no longer hear phrases like: “thank you…,” “I miss you…,” and “you make my life better…” The absence of these kinds of interactions makes life seem less meaningful; which only makes depression-anxiety worse. But when all we hear is the silence; we often fail to recognize it may be rooted in our void of serving others. (Depression/Anxiety: A Suffering Paradigm, 56)
Serving others expands my world, allowing me to regain a sense of purpose, and meaning that depression attempts to rob.
Music has been another helpful means for me to engage my emotions Godward. I love music and listening to worship music in particular can bring joy and focus to my mind and heart in a time of an emotional low. It doesn’t always work, it’s not magic, and there are times where I don’t want to feel so I refuse to listen even to worship music at those moments (this is wrong of me, I believe). Often, however, I have found that some good songs can motivate me, encourage me, and reorient me towards truth. So I may listen to my iPod periodically throughout the day. I have a playlist of pre-selected songs that I know to have a powerful effect on me and I may revert to them for help in difficult moments. A couple of songs that are helpful right now are: “Oceans” by Hillsong; “Give Me Faith” by Elevation Worship; “Be Thou My Vision” by Ascend the Hill; and “Beneath the Waters” by Hillsong. Music is a powerful tool to encourage our emotions, try utilizing it.
Finally, I have been learning the importance of taking care of my body. Getting plenty of sleep, eating better, not drinking too much caffeine, and exercising regularly have helped me with how I feel and how I respond to those feelings. We are whole-being creatures, which means that my physical body impacts my emotional, psychological, and spiritual body. It is immensely difficult to fight an emotional, mental, or spiritual battle when my physical body is lethargic and achy. It’s not impossible, but exceedingly challenging. In fact there is a great deal of research that reveals that regular exercise can play a positive role in a person’s struggle with depression. Biblical Counselor and medical doctor Charles Hodges has pointed to some research to suggest that “daily vigorous exercise can reduce the risk of depression in the general population by 34%” (“Depression and Exercise”). It’s not a perfect cause and effect relationship by any means, but it’s made a small difference in my own experience. Sleep too plays a crucial role in emotional health. Seven to eight hours a day allows us to better regulate our emotions. Lastly, diet can be a productive contributor to emotional/mental health. Hambrick notes some specific benefits to healthy eating when he writes:
- Antioxidants combat the effects of free radicals, a primary source of the physiological deterioration caused by depression-anxiety. Antioxidants include beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E.
- Carbohydrates have been linked to boosts in the neurotransmitter serotonin.
- Protein is known to boost the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine. (9)
So, I am learning to take care of myself, be conscious of the biological and physiological factors that may contribute to or exacerbate my emotional/mental struggles.
It’s not that any one of these practical, or the previous spiritual, counsels does the trick. As if one element is the determining factor of my struggle. Rather, it is these tools that are collectively helping me to battle my depression better. Some days are still exceedingly hard. Yet, I am hopeful because I know God’s Word is true even when I don’t feel its truthfulness. The Scriptures state: he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). One way or another, in this life or the next, God will transform my experience of depression. I have hope, even if it is sometimes a weak hope, I have hope. These practical exercises play a part in cultivating that continued hope.
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Recent research has suggested that pastors/clergy suffer from depression at a rate higher than most Americans. This has always been mere information for me; something I knew was probably true but couldn’t speak to with any real knowledge. Sure, I had been sad plenty of times, and even experienced a season of prolonged melancholy after my dad died. But that was more logical sadness, not something I would have qualified as “depression.” The truth was I didn’t really know depression, not personally. Not, that is, until this year.
It was a brand new experience for me. It has been waging war on me for months. I didn’t want to wake up. I didn’t want to go to work. I didn’t want to see people or talk to people. I didn’t want to read or write or laugh or play. Life itself was beginning to feel heavy. A plethora of insecurities about myself began to come to the surface. They began to tempt me with unhealthy thoughts, patterns, and ideas. Suddenly, I found myself in a very different place. A place completely unfamiliar to me. A place that scared me. So, I called my former mentor looking for help.
“I am surprised it took this long,” he said. They weren’t the words I expected to hear and yet they were somehow oddly comforting. Feelings like this are often part of the pastor’s emotional cycles, he told me. He began to reassure me that I wasn’t crazy or broken, nor was I alone. The research was right: pastors get depressed too. There’s another important truth as well: there’s hope and help for pastors who struggle with depression.
As I have waged war against my own depression for the last several months I am learning several important truths. These are truths I’d like to share with my brothers and sisters in Christian ministry. There are two ways to read these truths: (1) As simplistic attempts to explain highly complex problems. The reality is that many people have simplistic answers to emotional and mental exhaustion. Often these answers are cliché, trite, and reductionist. They offer no real comfort and misunderstand the complexity of a person’s struggle. It is not my intention to do that in sharing my experience. (2) These can be read as an attempt to offer some hope and encouragement. What follows is merely my own experience. I do not presume that these truths will impact everyone the same way. We are all different, and while all of God’s truths are good for all of us, His truths impact each of us differently at different times in life. My goal then, is rather simple: to encourage you by my experience that there is some hope and some help that can be found. Depression doesn’t necessarily just go away. Mine certainly hasn’t. It doesn’t just stop. But we can learn to live in the midst of it with eyes fixed on God, and as such find some hope and encouragement. To that end, let me share what has helped me. I will divide my helps into two categories. For lack of better terminology, I will call them Spiritual Counsel and Practical Counsel. My discussion, then, will attempt to integrate both forms of counsel as a means of promoting encouragement and hope.
First, don’t immediately draw conclusions about causation. When I first began to struggle back in January I had loads of theories about what was wrong. At first they were all physical: sleep patterns, diet, exercise routines. But then I noticed more mental exhaustion, cynicism, and apathy settling in. So I concluded it was a sin issue. Even after making changes to my devotional life, however, I felt little relief. It’s comforting to think we know the cause of our problems. If we know the cause, we reason, then we can find the cure and resolve the issue. Depression, however, is complex. It may have many causes. They can be biological, social, or spiritual. It can be caused by others, by ourselves, by our circumstances, by Satan. Determining the cause isn’t easy and reductionist explanations may actually hurt us in the long run. Counselor Ed Welch comments:
The problem with immediately opting for a medical explanation is that, once the decision is made, every other perspective seems superficial or irrelevant. Why, for example, would you bother considering issues raised by personal suffering when a pill might provide relief? (Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, 31)
The truth is that causation is probably far more complex than a single issue. It is more likely that the causes are multiple. Again, Welch says:
When applied to depression, this teaching suggests that our quest to find one specific cause could be too narrow. For example, depression might have a physical cause, but that doesn’t exhaust the list of other possible contributions. It may simultaneously be a consequence of spiritual warfare, the sin of other people, and our own sin. And it is always under the oversight of the sovereign God. (42)
I am learning not to draw too rash a conclusion about my depression. The way I feel is complex, therefore it is likely that the roots of its birth are complex too. Simple answers might make us feel temporarily better, but they won’t really help us in the long run.
Second, evaluate what you are experiencing. Brad Hambrick has developed a phenomenal evaluative tool to help us put into words exactly what we are experiencing. Depression is overwhelming, and that overwhelming feeling can make certain experiences seem more powerful, influential, and pressing than they really are. The overwhelming feeling of depression can keep us off-balance, paralyzed, and uncertain. Evaluating what we are experiencing can help us to get a better handle on our depression, understand it, and speak truth to certain feelings. For example, by evaluating myself I came to see how much of my depression related to spiritual doubts. So many thoughts go through my head in a day it would have been hard to see the spiritual concentration without evaluating my experience. Now, I am attuned to spiritual doubts as they arise.
Third, speak to your feelings. Our emotions are powerful, but they are also contaminated by sin. I need to remind myself in the midst of emotional exhaustion and pain that my feelings do not always tell me the truth. God’s Word is true even when I don’t feel its truth. When my emotions and God’s Word come into conflict, God’s Word wins. Every. Single. Time. So I need to speak to myself more than I listen When my depression says, “God doesn’t care about you,” I know truth that I can speak back to it: for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything (1 John 3:20). The inclination of depression is passivity. I must wrestle against this passivity with Scriptural truth. Fight to believe what is so hard to believe.
Fourth, speak about your experience. In some ways that what this article is: an effort to be honest about my struggle. Depression isolates us. We need to invite others into our suffering and allow them to help us bear up under this burden (Gal. 6:2). This can be particularly hard for pastors, and we must recognize that not every congregation can handle this information in a healthy way. Yet, nonetheless, pastors need people to whom they can go for counsel, encouragement, or simply a listening ear. I am so thankful for friends and fellow elders who have continued to love me, pray for me, and encourage me through this difficult season. It has been a difference maker at various points over the last 6 months.
Fifth and finally, don’t excuse disobedience. Even if our depression is not caused by sin it can still tempt us towards sin. When the pain is unending, and seemingly meaningless (though I don’t think it really is meaningless), it can be tempting to surrender to temptation. When we are emotionally, spiritually, and mentally exhausted it is hard to fight temptation. Yet, God does not excuse our sin because we are depressed. I have had to wrestle with my own disobedience in the midst of this hardship, and while it feels so discouraging to do that there is actually a great deal of relief that comes as I repent and seek help in demonstrating the fruit of repentance. There are no excuses for sin. The words of Paul ring true even in depression:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Cor. 10:13)
Stick close to the Scriptures, stick close to the church, force yourself to be in accountability, to seek counsel, to correct sinful behaviors. Depression is likely to worsen as sinful indulgences abound. And while depression won’t just go away as you seek obedience, you may yet grow and honor the Lord even in the midst of it.
I have counseled many people through this experience, but there is something quite different about being in the midst of it. Some days are good, and some days are horrible, but I am striving to be always hopeful in the Lord. I want to be able to say with the Psalmist: I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken (Ps. 16:8). It’s my prayer that all pastors who struggle this way can express such hope.
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