Editor’s note: This article is the second of a two-part series about pastors and depression. See the previous installment here or in the Winter 2018 print issue.
Christopher Love wrote, “Melancholy [depression] in a man darkens the understanding and troubles the fancy [imagination]. It disturbs the reason, saddens the soul, and clothes it in mourning weeds. And when these meet together, it must cast the man down and suspend the sense of God’s favor from him. Melancholy is the mother of discomfort and discontent; it is the nurse of doubts.” 1 He penned these words in the seventeenth century. Obviously the malady of depression has been with us for a while.
Ideas and opinions concerning mental health run strong among us today. Gaining wisdom from the church’s past might teach us, humble us, and soften us toward one another. At times it appears we are more concerned about correcting those who differ with us than we are about comforting and healing the broken among us. John Newton, commenting on conflicts in his day, wrote, “The longer I live, the more I see of the vanity and the sinfulness of our unchristian disputes: they eat up the very vitals of religion. I grieve to think how often I have lost my time and my temper that way, in presuming to regulate the vineyards of others, when I have neglected my own.” 2
Listen to this wisdom from another pastor in the seventeenth century. “[T]o those that find that melancholy is the cause of their troubles, I would give this advice. Expect not that rational, spiritual remedies should suffice for this cure; for you may as well expect that a good sermon, or comfortable words, should cure the falling sickness, or palsy, or a broken head as to be a sufficient cure to our melancholy fears; for this is as real a bodily disease as the other.” 3 Caregivers in the past realized that reasoning with someone whose reasoning ability was broken was, well, unreasonable—even if you were reasoning about Scripture. Before spiritual issues can effectively be addressed, the individual suffering a mind-darkening depression needs the compassionate, healing wisdom of one who understands his state.
The same pastor said, “My last advice is to look out for the cure of your disease, and commit yourself to the care of your physician and obey him; and do not as most melancholy persons do, that will not believe the physic [medicine] will do them good, but that it is only their soul that is afflicted . . . till the body be cured, the mind will hardly ever be cured, but the clearest of reasons will be all in vain.” 4
So what is a depressed pastor to do? I have been lost in the lightless caverns of depression and suffocated by unreasonable fears. But, God has been ever faithful, giving me grace to step forward when it was too dark to see. He will do the same for you! I offer this simple counsel.
1. Sin can cause depression in a pastor. But, is it really that hard for us pastors to know if we are sinning? No. If you are attempting to serve God and live in sin at the same time, the only cure for your depression is repentance. Such depression is the easiest to diagnose and heal.
2. If you find yourself dealing with fears, haunting intrusive thoughts and doubts about your call and your faith, and experiencing a darkness you cannot describe but you certainly can feel—you need to tell someone! (Our North American Mission Board provides a free, confidential help line for pastors). Secrecy and shame are the devil’s tools, and the fertilizer of depression’s darkness. Telling a trusted friend or counselor is the best weapon to defeat the stranglehold of secrecy and shame. Yes, telling someone can be risky for the pastor. It is worth the risk. It is time to stop being so ashamed of your own humanity. The only people who condemn a depressed pastor are Pharisees.
Like me, you will have to get over your pride to call a counselor. You may have to get over your pride about taking medication. I thought taking medicine meant I was trusting doctors and science over God. I even thought it was a moral and spiritual wrong to take medication for my depression. The best information I know of to guide you through these issues was written by my good friend Brad Hambrick. You can find his article at bradhambrick.com/medication.
3. Stop viewing your depression as a spiritual problem or a human weakness. It is in just such weakness that the power of Christ is made perfect in us. My shame over being depressed was as high as Everest and as deep as the Pacific Ocean. As long as I kept my depression hidden it continued to extinguish my hope and my increase my shame. I learned there is a hard-won freedom in Christ when we openly admit our brokenness and weakness before His throne of grace. Join with me and quit the charade of “Preacher Perfect”! Please admit your weak humanity. Jesus is not ashamed of you. He died to save you—yes you, depression and all. Your depression and your admission of it may be the widest door you have ever known into the depths of God’s mercies.
1 Christopher Love, The Dejected Soul’s Cure (Morgan, PA; Soli Deo Gloria, 2001), 70
2 Newton, John. Letters of John Newton, 2007. The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA. p. 42
3 Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of Richard Baxter (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), 2:888
4 Ibid., 1: 267