Nobody warned me that some of my darkest days would come while serving as a pastor. I don’t say that to blame anybody, only to say that I was caught off guard. But there I was, sitting at my dining room table across from a dear couple from our church who had come to tell me, “Charlie, we don’t think you’re doing okay.”
They were right.
I could list a host of reasons for battling depression: a group of people having left the church, waiting six years for our girls’ adoption to be finalized, and the list goes on. But sometimes it’s hard to see how you got to where you are, and even more importantly, it’s hard to see how to get back to a better place.
If we read enough of the prophets, or if we think enough about Paul’s beatings and imprisonments, we shouldn’t be surprised that hard times will come for those who want to follow God. And even those of us who will never be beaten for our faith will feel beaten down to the point we don’t see the way forward. So what do we do in the midst of despair?
Recognize that not all is right with the world.
Somewhere along the way, we began to think we could woo a lost world if we painted smiles on our faces 24 hours a day. We forgot the words of the Psalmist, “I am afflicted all day long and punished every morning” (Psalm 37:14, CSB). We forgot that we really do live in a broken and sinful world, full of plenty of evils that should cause us to weep. We really are citizens of another world (Philippians 3:20) living in the midst of a world set under bondage to decay (Romans 8:20). And while “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us” (8:18, CSB), sufferings remain.
Sometimes the more we pretend things are okay, the darker the pit becomes. The answer to despair cannot be found in this kind of hypocrisy. We must recognize the brokenness of this fallen world, and at times, we must grieve.
Remember that Christians should be marked by hope and joy.
One of the most amazing realities of the Christian life is that we should have hope and joy in the midst of dire circumstances. When Paul addressed Christians who were facing the death of a loved one, he didn’t tell them not to grieve; he told them to grieve with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
This hopeful grieving is surely a distinctly Christian trait. The world should see hope in us, even when we are being persecuted (1 Peter 3:15). The Christ who died for us says that we should be glad and rejoice when we are persecuted and slandered because we have a great reward in heaven (Matthew 5:11-12). We must not be content to wallow in the pits of despair, but we must seek to be people who live with hope and joy no matter what comes our way.
Admittedly, this is a hard task. I would go so far as to say that from a human perspective, it’s an impossible task. So, don’t be too proud to ask for help.
Not every pastor will have church members who are willing to intervene on behalf of their pastor. Some pastors will do such a good job hiding their despair that no one will know how bad things have gotten.
For pastors who are supposed to have all the answers, sometimes it’s hard to ask for help. It’s hard to ask people to pray for you. It’s hard to be vulnerable enough to weep in front of church members. But even pastors in the most difficult of circumstances will have people close to them who want to help. This help might come through prayer, fellowship, accountability, counseling, or medicine.
Pastors should, more than anyone, realize they are insufficient to serve God on their own. But too often we become self-sufficient, and we need to be reminded that we need God’s grace and the grace of God’s people if we are to keep pressing forward.
We should readily call out to God for help, and we should be open to help from others who have our best interests at heart.
Take comfort in the acceptance of God.
After having lamented his constant affliction, the Psalmist ended Psalm 73 with the statement, “But as for me, God’s presence is my good. I have made the Lord God my refuge” (Psalm 73:28, CSB).
Depression can have many causes and a complex range of solutions. I am one who has benefitted from common graces like medicine, but there is no substitute for finding refuge in God. There is no greater source of encouragement than that God has called us His own. “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31, CSB). If danger and the sword cannot separate us from the love of God, neither can our doubts, our despairs, or even our own feeble minds. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37, CSB). Rest in the fact that if God has called you His own, He will carry you through. Even if all the rest of the world might reject you, He will not. And that is enough.
Sometimes God allows us to walk through very hard seasons of life specifically so that we might learn to trust in Him. As Paul talked about his own afflictions, he said, “We were completely overwhelmed—beyond our strength—so that we even despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, CSB).
Sometimes when we are in our darkest hours, sometimes when we feel we just can’t keep going on, God has put us exactly in that place so that we might remember that we can’t keep going on without His help. Don’t try to press forward in your own strength, but realize your desperate need for God. Trust in the God who raises the dead and gives joy to the joyless, hope to the hopeless.
As the hymn reminds us, “He never fails! He must prevail! Have faith in God, have faith in God.”
This is the final piece of a three-part series on encouragement for pastors written by Dr. Ray, an experienced pastor and director of the Accelerated BA + MDiv program. Be sure to visit www.faithfulpastor.com where he and Dr. Adam Hughes provide resources, sermon helps, and other helpful information for pastors as they lead congregations.