Editor’s note: This article is the first of a two-part series about pastors and depression. See the next installment here or in the Pre-Convention 2019 print issue.
Depression is an invisible sickness. It cannot be seen. A broken leg is obvious. But a broken soul—is there such a thing?
Many seem to think that our depressed friends just need to get up, quit feeling sorry for themselves, and get going. Right? This attitude reflects a misunderstanding of what depression is, what causes it, and how to deal with it.
Each of us interprets life through our own accumulated experiences and expectations of how life should be. Our conceptions can blind us to life as it is. One of those strange “life as it should be” definitions is: pastors should not get depressed. I held that view for some time, but then God sent depression my way (with free shipping!). Depression has been a harsh but effective teacher. Through both experience and biblical and historical research, my definition changed.
Writing an article concerning pastors facing depression feels a bit like walking across a mine field. Both are hard to do without causing an explosion. It is possible that along the way I may step on a mine and say something with which some may disagree. I have no intention of being disagreeable. My aim is not to cause an explosion but to open a door of learning about the realities of being depressed.
Do Pastors Get Depressed?
What if your pastor told your Sunday morning congregation, “I have been experiencing some deep personal difficulties and decided to see my physician. He suggested that I see a counselor. I was diagnosed with major depression and the doctors agreed that I need to take six weeks off for rest and therapy.” What would you think? If you are a pastor, would you feel safe saying something like that to your congregation?
I have been a pastor for thirty-one years, the last twenty-five of which have been at the same church. The suffocating darkness of depression has been my unruly traveling companion off and on for twenty-eight years. I know the torturous havoc it creates in one’s mind and emotions.
These words of Charles Spurgeon, who himself fought crippling depression throughout his life, have helped me see God’s purposes in my suffering: “I often feel very grateful to God that I have undergone fearful depression of spirits. I know the borders of despair, and the horrible brink of that gulf of darkness into which my feet have almost gone; but hundreds of times I have been able to give a helpful grip to brethren and sisters who have come into that same condition, which grip I could never have given if I had not known their deep despondency.”1
Depression may be triggered by a traumatic event. It may be rooted in a genetic or biological predisposition. It may be caused by a specific diagnosable physical problem. And there are those bewildering times we face what seems to be a “causeless” depression.
Once again Spurgeon is helpful: “Causeless depression is not to be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings. [You might] as well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness. One affords himself no pity when in this case, because it seems so unreasonable, and even sinful to be troubled without manifest cause; and yet troubled the man is, even in the very depths of his spirit. If those who laugh at such melancholy did but feel the grief of it for one hour, their laughter would be sobered into compassion.”2
Depression seldom travels alone. It has many cousins. Depression can breed ill conceptions of God in the mind, ignite the draining experience of obsessive thinking, and awaken the sleeping master of an over-sensitive, self-condemning conscience.
A depressed mind does not see God or life in their true sense. Our darkened understandings are at the core of our misery. Richard Baxter said, “If you conceive God as one that is glad of all advantages against you, and delighteth in his creatures’ misery, it is impossible you should love him. . . . [T]roubled souls represent God to themselves in an ugly, odious shape. To think of God as one that seeks and delighteth in man’s ruin, is to make him as the devil.”3 Such depression assaults a pastor with fearful doubts about his most deeply held beliefs and steals his spiritual stability.
If I have stepped on any mines I will address my misstep with the words of John Bunyan: “God did not play in convincing of me; the devil did not play in tempting of me; neither did I play when I sunk as into a bottomless pit, when the pangs of hell caught hold upon me: wherefore I may not play in my relating of them, but be plain and simple, and lay down the thing as it was: he that liketh it, let him receive it; and he that does not, let him produce a better.”
Some of you, like I once did, may hide your depression out of shame. There is no shame in being like Martin Luther, Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon, and countless others in ministry who suffer this affliction. Depression is never kind, but in God’s hand it can give the pastor a keen sense of human nature and a skillfully compassionate vocabulary that is audible in the depths of the human soul.
1 Skoglund, Elizabeth, Bright Days, Dark Nights. Baker Books, 2000. P. 63
2 Spurgeon, Charles, Lectures to My Students, Zondervan, 1954. pp. 162-163
3 Baxter, Richard, The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, Soli Deo Gloria Publications, Vol. 2, 2000. p. 890