I have long debated whether or not to share my personal struggles with depression or anxiety. As a pastor, I am aware that many people will cling to my testimony as a balm for their own struggles. It is common for people to latch on to another person’s struggles in an effort to find hope. Yet our struggles are our own. They are often unique to circumstance and personal character. Still, I know the hope that can be birthed in the soul when someone else shares their struggles. So, I hope this short-expression might bring you a modicum of hope, and more than that, I pray it will drive you to seek hard after Christ.
Last week was a difficult week for me. The weight of depression landed heavily on me. The stress of counseling, sharing the burdens of others, and isolation due to a pandemic, coincided with painful memories and feelings of personal failure. Add to that the recent rash of Christian pastors succumbing to depression, and the climate was right for me to hit a wall. So, I found myself laboring in that all too familiar space of exhausted depression. You may know how this feels… It’s not uncommon, particularly in those of us who spend a large amount of time listening to others and struggling with them through their own difficulties.
Often the physical reactions to depression set in first. You find yourself staring off into the middle distance, not really thinking about anything. Then a sigh rises from your chest and you blink slowly. Your arms feel heavy. Not the good heavy – as if you just exercised. No, this is the kind of heavy that is produced from nervousness. It is a heaviness as if you are about to fight with someone or walk into a meeting in which you are uncertain of the outcome. Then come the feelings. You sit down to try and control yourself and find that all you want to do is cry. Sometimes you do, but only for a moment when no one is looking. Other times you get a phone call (extremely common for pastors) and someone else has a need or issue that requires your attention. You push down your own feelings and get back to work.
The past months have been interesting, to say the least. We had a continent on fire for a while, a global pandemic that forced most of us to remote worship and teaching (an area in which none of us have confidence), and now… well, we are in an interesting time, are we not? Many are clamoring for justice and reform. That’s a good thing! Some are waging war. War is always bad because people die in war and life is precious. In our current climate, it is understandable that many pastors are exhausted and worn thin. Combine that with some personal difficulties, reminders of past failures, constant barrage of enemy attacks, and this is a recipe for a spiral into a depressive slump.
So, here are some things I remember and things I do when struggling with depression. Maybe what I do will encourage you.
- Remember God gave us the Gospel. Just reflect for a moment on this idea: The God of the Universe decided to give you the gospel of Jesus Christ! He entrusted you with it and He provided redemption for you! How awesome is that? Unworthy me!? Pitiful, selfish, arrogant me!? He sought me out and saved me from my sin, then gave me life and seated me with Him, giving me a position as a child of God. How beautiful! How wonderful! When I’m depressed, I try to remind myself of this. I open my Bible and remember the beauty of redemption! (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Ephesians 2:1-9; 2 Timothy 1)
- Remember God is present. For me, depression comes often with a side of loneliness. So I must work hard to remind myself that God never leaves. When I was about 15 years old, my Dad passed away suddenly. In the wake of his passing, I dealt with heavy depression. In the midst of overwhelming emotion, I was drawn to remember my dad’s favorite book of the Bible – Job. In the story, Job loses everything. In the midst of his pain (and with some horrible advice from his friends) Job cries out to God essentially asking God, “where are you!?” God responds from the whirlwind by showing Job that He has never left. He is in the cosmos and He is in minutia. He is in the joy of life and He is in the pain. So, God is with us. Jesus now, even more tangibly with us than Job! He walks through life with us, comforting and protecting us. He is present. He feels your pain and difficulty. He knows your tears because He shares them. He weeps with you and cheers with you. He is here. Trust Him! (John 1:1, 14; Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5-6; 1 Peter 5:7)
- Do cartwheels! I read a lot of “old dead guy books.” When you read a lot of ODG books, you begin to see that they had many of the same struggles as us. One of my favorites is Francis of Assisi. Cool guy. He struggled with depression as well and his followers often recounted him randomly doing cartwheels or just being extremely goofy. One of his brothers once recounted that he realized that Francis was trying to overcome a depressive attack. He’d run, jump, click his heels together, do cartwheels, sing silly songs, etc… whatever he could do to combat the heavy weight he felt. It seems like Paul would urge the same kind of reckless rejoicing in Philippians. Just go read it and see… he constantly urges the Philippians to rejoice. So… I do the same. I crack jokes, run around my house, sing a happy song, pillow-fight my six-year-old son, attempt cartwheels, make my kids laugh and laugh along, etc… Goofiness is not a solution, but it certainly is a nice reprieve.
- Turn on all the lights and clean the room. There is no Scriptural mandate for this one. Only a general sense that the Psalmist found joy in sunshine. Sometimes depression can be debilitating and the environment can do much to change that! When I feel anxious, depressed, or just heavy, I turn on all the lights, open the window shades, and clean the room where I am. Sometimes I even rearrange the furniture. This action allows me to accomplish something simple and removes the depressive weight for just a little bit. Sometimes a little bit is all we need to process. Sometimes all we need is a breath. Picking up the room and turning on the lights and opening the windows to accomplish a simple task like picking up the toys can grant you that breath. A breath may be all you need to process. So take one.
- Call a buddy and eat something together. God gave us community so we could walk together through trouble. I have a few brothers that I call to go out to lunch with when I am exhausted. They listen well and offer little to no advice. This is great! When I’m depressed, I don’t need advice. I need someone who will sit with me while I process it. Often they’ll just say, “that stinks, I’m sorry about that.” Then we’ll talk about superheroes, books, or movies. These dear brothers don’t give particularly profound wisdom. But in their silent commiseration, there is a wisdom that even the greatest philosopher cannot capture. Plus… who can stay depressed when eating good Tex-Mex with a brother! (Hebrews 10:24-25; Galatians 6:2; 1 Cor. 12:25-27; Romans 12:4-5; Mt. 18:20)
- Pray! I put this one at the end because it seems cliché and you all already know you’re supposed to do it. It should really be at the front. Alas, I did not want you to skip over it so I put it here at the end. A simple read of Scripture urges us to pray. Psalm 55:22, 1 Peter 5:7, Hebrews 4:16 all call us to take our concerns to the Lord. Oh Christian, when we are in the throes of battle, we MUST pray.
This is not an exhaustive list. There are numerous other things I do to deal with depression and anxiety. Art, poetry, and good literature are some other areas of engagement for me. Working to accomplish something with your hands is another – e.g. building something or creating artwork. What are some additional things you do to deal with the weight of ministry? put them in comments to encourage one another.