Mental Illness, Marines, and Ministers
Ours is a nation weary of the kind of death, mourning, crying, and pain that the Scriptures speak of in Revelation 21.
This weariness of ours is animated greatly by one mass shooting after another, the latest of which took twelve lives at a social gathering place along the lovely California coast. As the story developed, it was discovered that the shooter, like so many others before him, was a man who suffered from mental illness—PTSD, specifically—related to his prior service as a Marine fighting the war in Afghanistan.
Our hearts go out to all who grieve the loss of life. Along with this, for those who suffer from mental illness, may we encourage a good therapist, in conjunction with a pastor and/or care team at your local church?
Studies indicate that when we suffer mental illness alone, the results can be tragic, even horrific. When we suffer inside a support system, however — when we bring our pain and sorrow and stress into the light in the context of redemptive community—the chances of coping well become exponentially higher.
For some, perhaps all that’s needed is the assurance that you are not unique, you are not alone, you are not an oddball for the things you are suffering in the silence of your own brain. I, too, am one who has suffered from the awful affliction of the brain.
The following account, which I have shared at other times also, is for your encouragement. Much love, SS
I am one of those ministers who has endured a handful of seasons of anxiety and depression. Most of the time, thankfully, the affliction has been more low-grade than intense. On one occasion, though, it pretty much flattened me physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. I call this particular season my ‘living nightmare.’
That season, as well as others, occurred while serving in ministry.
How bad was the living nightmare? I could not fall asleep for two weeks straight. Even sleeping pills could not calm the adrenaline and knock me out, which only made things worse. At night I was terrified of the quiet, knowing I was in for another all-night battle with insomnia that I was likely to lose. The sunrise also terrified me, an unwelcome reminder that another day of impossible struggle was ahead of me. I lost nearly thirty-five pounds in two months. I could not concentrate in conversations with people. I found no comfort in God’s promises from Scripture. I was unable to pray anything but “Help” and “Please end this.”
Why would I tell you this part of my story? Because I believe—no, I am certain—that anxiety and depression hits ministers disproportionately. And a minister who suffers with this affliction, especially in isolation, is a person at risk. When I was in seminary, two pastors committed suicide because they could not imagine going on another day having to face their anxiety and depression. Both suffered with the affliction in silence. One wrote in his suicide note that if a minister tells anyone about his depression, he will lose his ministry, because nobody wants to be pastored by a damaged person.
Or do they?
For those of us in ministry who have suffered (or are suffering) from this affliction, I think we need to do everything we can to discover and embrace an applied theology of weakness. Even the Apostle Paul said that it is in weakness that we discover the glory, power, and grace of God. This is how God works. He is upside-down to our sensibilities. Better said, we are upside-down to his.
Anne Lamott recently said that it’s okay to realize that you are very crazy and very damaged because all of the best people are. Suffering has a way of shaping us as people and as ministers. It has a way of equipping us to lead in ways that are helpful and not harmful. A healer who himself has not been wounded is very limited in his ability to heal.
The ‘very crazy, very damaged’ people in Scripture seem to be the ones through whom God did the greatest things. Hannah experienced bitterness of soul over infertility and a broken domestic situation. Elijah felt so beaten down by ministry that he asked God to take his life. David repeatedly asked his own soul why it was so downcast. Even Jesus, the perfectly divine human, expressed that his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death. Each of these biblical saints, in her/his own way, was empowered by God to change the world—not in spite of the affliction but because of it and through it.
Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, experienced depression for many years of his ministry. William Cowper, the great hymn writer, had debilitating, paralyzing anxiety for most of his adult life. CS Lewis lost his wife to a violent form of cancer. Joni Eareckson Tada became paralyzed from the neck down when she was a teenager. All of these and others have God’s chosen instruments for bringing truth, grace, and hope into the world. The best therapists and counselors have themselves been in therapy and counseling. It’s how God works.
So if anxiety and/or depression is your affliction, I am sharing 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 ministers. ‘Damaged’ does not mean ‘ineffective.’ It does not mean ‘done.’
Anxiety and depression can also, ironically, be a conduit of hope—an opportunity for the foolishness of God to be put on display in our lives. Recently a member in our church (where I have been senior pastor for two years now) told me that he thinks I am a great preacher…and he is entirely unimpressed by this. He told me that the moment he decided to trust me, the moment he decided that I was his pastor, was when I shared openly with the church that I have struggled with anxiety and depression and that I have seen counselors for many years.
As ministers, in the end we may discover that our afflictions had greater impact in people’s lives than our preaching or our vision.
Anxiety and depression are also invitations into Sabbath rest. When you are laid flat and there’s nothing you can do except beg for help, Jesus tends to meet you in that place. It is there that Jesus reminds us that Matthew 11 is for ministers too. He invites weary and heavy laden ministers to come to him and find rest, to learn from him, to experience his humility and gentleness of heart…that we, too, might find rest for our souls. For an anxious, depressed person, there is nothing quite like an easy yoke and a light burden under which to process our pain.
Many times when I have encountered this affliction, it has been through or because of something related to ministry. Usually anxiety and depression have come upon me because I have lost my way temporarily—leaving the easy yoke of Jesus and looking to ministry for self-validation, to make a name for myself, to gain applause and acclaim and respect from the crowds. This is a dead end street, but in moments and seasons of weakness my heart has gone there.
Anxiety and depression have been God’s way of reminding me that I don’t have to be awesome. He has not called me to be awesome, or impressive, or a celebrity pastor, or anything of the sort. He has first and foremost called me to be loved, and to be receptive to that love. He has called me to remember that because of Jesus, I already have a name, I will be remembered even after I am long gone, because he is my God and I am his person. He is my Father and I am his son.
Kierkegaard said that the thorn in his foot enabled him to spring higher than anyone with sound feet. The Apostle Paul said something very similar about the thorn in his flesh. The thorn kept him from becoming cocky. It kept him humble. It kept him fit for God and fit for the people whom God had called him to love and serve. There is glory in weakness. There is a power that is made perfect in that place.
Though I would not wish anxiety or depression on anyone, I am strangely thankful for the unique way that this affliction has led me, time and again, back into the rest of God.
“All the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him…”
This is an adapted excerpt from Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation and Fear. Used by permission of Tyndale House.
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