Anxiety, Depression, and Hidden Graces
Scott Sauls | August 17, 2018
This post was published on 07/29/15 and first appeared at aholyexperience.com.
One day in my mid-twenties while studying to become a pastor, I came across a suicide note published in the local newspaper…written by a pastor:
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 writer was the promising young pastor of a large, thriving church in Saint Louis. Having secretly battled depression for a long time – 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 sign-off 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 things, including suicide. Yet grief and confusion remained.
The confusion escalated when another pastor, also from Saint Louis, asphyxiated himself to death because a similar, secret depression.
The news of these two pastor suicides rocked my world. How could these men – both gifted pastors who believed in Jesus, preached grace, and comforted others with gospel hope – end up losing hope for themselves?
I had also heard teaching – which I have come now to believe is unbiblical and destructive – that being a Christian and being depressed and suicidal aren’t supposed to go together. “Light always drives out darkness,” these teachers would say. “When you’re believing the right things, peace and joy will necessarily follow.” Based on these ideas, a worship song was released that became very popular among Christians. The lyrics included the confident declaration that “In His presence, our problems disappear.”
But when the real world hits, teachings and songs hurt more than they help. Two faithful pastors, who prayed and read their Bibles every day, who served their churches and cities and counseled people and preached grace, ended their lives…because in His presence, their problems did not disappear.
Anxiety and Depression: Two Strange Friends
I, too, have faced the demons of anxiety and depression. Most of the time, thankfully, my struggle has been more low-grade than intense. On one occasion, though, it flattened me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
How bad was it? 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 fifteen percent of my body weight in just 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 “Help” and “End this.”
According to a study conducted by Thom Rainer, circumstance-triggered anxiety and depression hit ministers at a disproportionally higher rate than the general populace. Due to the unique pressures associated with spiritual warfare, unrealistic expectations from congregants and oneself, growing platforms for 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.
The two pastors who committed suicide did so 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 suicide note said that if a pastor tells anyone about his depression, he would 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.
Solidarity With Giants
Anne Lamott said on Twitter that it’s okay to realize that you are crazy and very damaged, because all of the best people are. 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 wounded is extremely limited in her/his ability to heal.
In Scripture, the “crazy, very damaged” people are the ones through whom God did the greatest things. 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 – not in spite of affliction, but because of it and through it.
Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, was depressed during many of his best ministry years. William Cowper, the great hymn writer, had crippling anxiety for most of his adult life. Van Gough checked in to an insane asylum and created some of his best paintings there. CS Lewis lost his wife to cancer and fell apart emotionally. Joni Eareckson Tada became paralyzed as a teenager and, for a time, became deeply depressed. And our dear friend Ann Voskamp has written candidly and often about her own emotional battles and scars. These are the instruments God has chosen to bring truth, beauty, grace, and hope into the world. The best therapists and counselors have themselves been in therapy and counseling. It’s how God works.
If you experience anxiety and depression, 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 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. I’ll never forget when Rick Warren eulogized his son, Matthew, who from a desperate place took his own life, he said that Matthew was proof positive that broken trees bear the best fruit. It was not in spite of his affliction, but through his affliction, that Matthew’s life brought gospel hope to many strugglers.
In my darkest hour, in those months of facing into the abyss, 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 to face some demons, I was surrounded by an angelic presence. Perhaps these two, also, were my guardian angels.
These two were my brother, Matt, and my wife, Patti. Both were outstanding healers because both had suffered with anxiety and depression, too.
Afflicted does not mean ineffective.
Damaged does not mean done.
Anxiety and depression can also, ironically, be an occasion for hope. After about two years serving as pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, one of our members told me that he thinks I am a really good preacher…and that 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 told the whole church that I have struggled with anxiety and depression and that I have seen therapists for many years.
Then 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 were written from dark, depressed, wrecked and restless places.
An Invitation to Rest
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 meets you in that place. It is from there that he summons the weary and heavy-laden and the wrecked and restless to come to him and learn from him, to see and savor his humility and gentleness of heart…that we might find rest for our souls. (Matthew 11:28-30)
For an anxious, depressed person, there is nothing quite like an easy yoke and a light burden under which to process the pain.
Often anxiety and depression have come upon me as I have lost my way. Instead of resting in Jesus, I have sought validation from the crowds, wanting fans instead of friends, wanting to make a name for myself instead of making the name of Jesus famous. This is always a dead-end street, but there are times when my heart still goes 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 spoken well of and liked, or a celebrity who is famous like a rock star. He has foremost called me to be loved, to be receptive to his love, and to find my rest in his love. He has called me to remember that because of Jesus, I already have a name. I will be remembered and celebrated and sung over 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. And on that day into eternity, there will be no more death, mourning, crying or pain.
As the little girl once recited for her Sunday School teacher, “The LORD is my Shepherd; that’s all I want.” Sometimes the misquotes are the best and truest quotes, yes?
Kierkegaard said that the thorn in his foot enabled him to spring higher than anyone with sound feet. The Apostle Paul said something similar about the thorn in his flesh. The thorn kept him from becoming prideful. 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. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
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.
As my friend and mentor Tim Keller is fond of saying…
All you need is nothing. All you need is need.