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My Two Strange Friends

My Two Strange Friends

One day in my midtwenties while studying to become a pastor, I was alarmed to see a suicide note published in the local newspaper. It was written by a pastor. In his note, the pastor said, “God forgive me for not being any stronger than I am. But when a minister becomes clinically depressed, there are very few places where he can turn to for help... it feels as if I’m sinking farther and farther into a downward spiral of depression. I feel like a drowning man, trying frantically to lift up my head to take just one more breath. But one way or another, I know I am going down.”

The deceased had been the promising young pastor of a large, thriving church in Saint Louis. Having secretly battled depression for a long time, and having sought help through prayer, therapy, and medication, his will to claw through yet another day was gone. In his darkest hour, the young promising pastor decided he would rather join the angels than continue facing demons for years to come. The signoff to his note, “Yours in the Name of Our Blessed Lord, Our Only Hope in Life and Death,” brought a strange comfort, because grace covers all types of things, including self-harm and suicide.

  • One can only imagine the deep compassion in Christ’s heart when His beloved children lose their way like this.

Yet for this aspiring pastor, grief and confusion felt more real than hope did.

Grief and confusion grew even larger when a second pastor, also from Saint Louis, asphyxiated himself to death because of a similar, secret depression.

The news of these two pastor suicides shook me. How could these men — both exemplary leaders who believed in Jesus, preached grace, and comforted others with gospel hope — end up losing hope for themselves?

I had also heard others teach that being a Christian and being depressed aren’t supposed to go together. “Light always drives out darkness,” these misguided teachers would say. “When you’re believing the right things, peace and joy will always follow.” In that same season, a worship song based on such teaching was released that became very popular among Christians. The lyrics confidently declared that in the Lord’s presence, all our problems will disappear.

But when reality strikes, such teachings and songs hurt more than they help. Two faithful pastors, who prayed and sought solace from Scripture every day, who served their churches and cities and counseled people and preached grace, ended their lives. What drove them to do so was that in God’s presence, their problems, curiously, did not disappear.

I, too, have battled anxiety and depression from time to time. My struggle with both has most often been more low grade than intense. But in one particular season, anxiety and depression flattened me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

During those days, 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 fearful of the quiet, knowing I was in for another all-night battle with insomnia that I was likely to lose. The sunrise also frightened me, an unwelcome reminder that another day of impossible struggle was ahead of me. I lost 15 percent of my body weight in two months. I could not concentrate in conversations. I found no comfort in God’s promises from Scripture.

  • I couldn’t bring myself to pray anything but “Please help,” “Please end this,” and “Why?”

According to a study conducted by Thom Rainer, circumstance-triggered anxiety and depression hit ministers at a disproportionally high rate. Because of the unique pressures associated with spiritual warfare, unrealistic expectations from congregants and oneself, unrestrained and unaccountable criticism and gossip toward and about ministers (especially in the digital age), failure to take time off for rest and replenishment, marriage difficulties, financial strains, and the problem of comparison with other ministers and ministries, Rainer says that ministers are set up as prime candidates for descent into an emotional abyss.1

The two pastors committed suicide because they could not imagine navigating the emotional abyss for another day. Both also suffered their affliction in silence, for fear of being rejected. The one who left the note said that if a pastor tells anyone about his depression, he will lose his ministry. People don’t want to be pastored, taught, or led by a damaged person.

Or do they?

Maybe instead of labeling anxious and depressed people as damaged goods, we should learn from the psalms and Jesus and Paul about the biblical theology of weakness. Maybe we should start learning how to apply that theology in our lives and also in the lives of those who are called to lead us. Even the apostle Paul said that it is in weakness that we experience the glory, power, and grace of God. This is how God works.

  • God is upside down to our sensibilities.

Better said, we are upside down to His.

I once heard someone say that it’s okay to realize that you are crazy and very damaged, because all the best people are. Like nothing else, suffering has a way of equipping us to be the best expressions of God’s compassion and grace. It has a way of equipping us to love and lead in ways that are helpful and not harmful. A healer who has not been afflicted is extremely limited in his ability to participate in the healing of others. As Henri Nouwen has written, “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”2

Conversely, she who has been afflicted is strangely strengthened in her ability to lead others into the less arid, more fertile, healing pastures of God.

The apostle Paul encourages us with these words:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.3

According to Scripture, the “crazy, very damaged” people are the ones through whom God did the greatest things. It is worth adding more examples to the ones given previously. Hannah had bitterness of soul over infertility and a broken domestic situation. Elijah felt so beaten down that he asked God to take his life. Job and Jeremiah cursed the day that they were born. David repeatedly asked his own soul why it was so downcast. Even Jesus, the perfectly divine human, lamented that His soul was overwhelmed with sorrow. He wept when His friend died. Each of these biblical saints was uniquely empowered by God to change the world — never in spite of their affliction, and always because of it and through it.

The likes of these are God’s chosen instruments to bring truth, beauty, grace, and hope into the world. Many of the best therapists have themselves been in therapy. It’s how God works.

If you have experienced anxiety and depression, I share this part of my story to remind you that there is no shame in having this or any other affliction. In fact,

  • our afflictions may be the key to our fruitfulness as carriers of Jesus’ love.

What feels like the scent of death to us may end up becoming the scent of life for others as we learn to comfort others in their affliction with the comfort that we, in our affliction, have received from God.

Broken trees bear fruit, and I am one of those trees, bent and broken.

In my darkest hour, in those months of facing into the abyss of anxiety and depression and a rapidly diminishing will to live, there were two people who put themselves on permanent call for me. These two carried me day and night, with constant reminders that though I was down, I was not out. Though I was afraid, I was not alone. Though I had been called upon by God to face some demons, I was surrounded by an angelic presence. Perhaps these two, also, were my guardian angels.

These two angels were my brother, Matt, and my wife, Patti. Both were outstanding healers because they were themselves wounded healers. Both had suffered with anxiety and depression, too. Having been bent and broken themselves, they helped me in my hour of need to find the straight path of hope again.

Being afflicted does not make you ineffective.
Being damaged does not mean that you are done.
Anxiety and depression can also, ironically, be occasions for hope.

After I had served as pastor at Nashville’s Christ Presbyterian Church for about two years, one of our members told me that he thought I was a gifted preacher and that he was entirely unimpressed by this fact. He told me that the moment he decided to trust me, the moment he decided that I was his pastor, was when I disclosed to the whole church that I have struggled with anxiety and depression and that I have needed therapy for many years.

In that very moment, it dawned on me: as a pastor and as a man, my afflictions may end up having greater impact than my preaching or my vision ever will. It is helpful to remember that nearly all of the psalms — and all the books of the Bible— were themselves written from dark, depressed, wrecked, and restless places.

1. Thom S. Rainer, “Pastors and Mental Health,” Charisma Leader, March 3, 2014, 

2. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (Melbourne: Image Publishing, 2013), 72. 160

3. 2 Corinthians 1:3–7.

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Your Turn

If you're struggling with depression, it's nothing to be ashamed of. You're in good company! The places where we are weakest and most frail are where we can be best used by God because it's evident that it's by His strength, His power, and His grace! How have you seen the Lord use it in your life? Come share with us. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily