Mental Illness, Jesus, and Me

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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…”

 


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18 responses to “Mental Illness, Jesus, and Me”

  1. […] the two pastors from St. Louis are not rare. Many of us pastors, including Spurgeon and including me, have fallen into the emotional abyss—not in spite of the fact that we are in ministry, but […]

  2. […] the two pastors from St. Louis are not rare. Many of us pastors, including Spurgeonand including me, have fallen into the emotional abyss—not in spite of the fact that we are in ministry, but […]

  3. […] I have been anxious and depressed. I have doubted my calling and been through a vocational crisis. I have questioned the meaning of life and begged God to end it all. I have contemplated the inevitability of my own death. I have, at times, been made vulnerable—having been involuntarily “lifted up” by the Creator who, as C.S. Lewis faithfully reminds us, is always good but never safe—and have been struck by Him. […]

  4. […] felt hate and we ignored that. Three four five If you were gay, would you believe that? Mr. One. Anxiety and Depression, My Strange Friends – Scott Sauls. Not long ago, I was given an opportunity to share at a ministers’ dinner about my personal […]

  5. […] I prayed daily that God would either heal the affliction or end my life (you can read that story here). While I was going through this awful season—a season in which I could not sleep even while […]

  6. […] I have been anxious and depressed, sometimes in a deeply crushing way. I have been (rightly) critiqued for being racially blind and insensitive by a handful of racial minorities. I have been publicly criticized for certain aspects of my teaching and approach to ministry. I get worked up too much, because my personality is on the intense side. I have lost a job and been unemployed for a time, struggled with body image issues and overeating, and during certain times felt like a failure at ministry, friendship, parenting, and being a husband. I live with insomnia regularly. If I don’t take melatonin at bedtime, I don’t sleep. […]

  7. […] was then reminded by a friend of a prior reflection I wrote called “Anxiety and Depression: My Strange Friends,” and upon revisiting that reflection I became convinced — ironically by my own words […]

  8. […] Anxiety and Depression, My Strange Friends A pastor shares his story of how God has blessed seasons of anxiety and depression in his life. […]

  9. Kim says:

    Just. Thank you. Your blog posts have been a source of life and hope.

  10. […] Anxiety and Depression, My Strange Friends: This is all too real of our family right now. 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. […]

  11. Don says:

    Good words of encouragement. However, the last church I served, which was the last one I’ve wanted to serve was a place of shame and condemnation. At one brainstorming meeting, one of the elders and a defacto leader (who had his own bouts of depression) stayed a few minutes afterward to voice their “concern.” They said that they had noticed I seemed to be discouraged and that was a concern. I told them I was not merely discouraged but depressed. The two of them seemed quite surprised. The elder said there was no room in the church for a depressed pastor. It was unacceptable and I needed to snap out of it. The leader said he could not figure out why any pastor would ever be discouraged or depressed and I needed to get with it and never give anyone in the church any indication there was anything wrong. For the next twenty minutes, they scolded me and lectured me about how bad it was, how wrong it was to be in my mental or emotional state. After all, they never heard of any good pastor who dealt with depression.

    At the end of their shame-based scolding, they wanted to know if I had anything to say. I told them there were two things. The first was their rebuke only discouraged me further and giving me an emotionally charged beating was wrong and harmful. The second was the fact they came to beat me down rather than to come alongside as brothers to boost me up. Shaking their fingers and wagging their tongues was not the biblical way to address someone who was discouraged or depressed. It would have been far better and more life filling if they said they noticed a problem but were ready to help.

    They got up and left.

  12. Timothy Hamilton says:

    Thank you, brother

  13. […] widely about his struggles with anxiety and depression (one particularly excellent post here: https://scottsauls.com/blog/2014/06/20/anxiety-depression-strange-friends/). I am devouring his most recent book, From Weakness to Strength. I am hopeful that continued […]

  14. Cody Mathews says:

    Pastor thank you so much for sharing. I am coming out of a year long struggle with anxiety and depression. Through it I believe God was breaking me and calling me into missions. However I fear (some times very strongly) wondering when I know I will be ready to move my family and be fully over it, or if that it even something to expect. God has made me so much stronger through it. I still have same fears and anxieties yet I’m much stronger and can manage them. When will I know I’m ready to? When I’m fully fear of my anxieties and fears or should I not expect them to go away and go in the strength of the Lord? Pastor I was wondering if I could somehow ask you a question in regards to that. As a man who has experienced it, is highly value your opinion!

  15. […] Sauls shares a very candid testimony from a pastor suffering from mental illness. It could just as easily been written by a missionary. You need to have a good understanding of […]

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