MINISTERIAL DEPRESSION – Its Cause and Cure
Notes on an address given at a meeting for ministers, November 2003. J. Gosden
At the outset I have to say I owe much in the preparation of this paper to the writings of a number of authors, particularly to William Bridge and Dr Lloyd-Jones; I would also mention that I have not considered any aspect of depression that is the result of a mental problem. Its Cause and Cure in the subtitle is not a misprint, because I hope we shall see, that although there are many secondary causes and many suggested cures there is really only one underlying cause: Following Afar Off, and but one fundamental cure: A Close Walk With God. William Williams’ verses summarise well what I shall be trying to say:
In thy presence I am happy; In thy presence I’m secure; In thy presence all afflictions I can. easily endure.
In thy presence 1 can conquer, I can suffer, I can, die;
Far from thee, I faint and languish; O thou Saviour, keep me nigh. The man of the world ought to be depressed
To be depressed or cast down, is to be dejected because we become obsessed by the fact that we are unable to see the possibility of a favourable outcome to some situation. There is every reason therefore for unbelievers to be discouraged and cast down. They imply their lives are controlled by luck or chance, and consequently they have no source of wisdom, no guide or comforter, no security, and no moral absolutes to shape their attitudes and decisions. Indeed they ought to be cast down to despair if the reality of their state were to dawn on them – when it is realised the sum total of their success and excitement, and possessions, their pain and their loss are hourly leading them relentlessly to old age with all its limitations and on to the grave and a lost eternity. This awful sequence of events has often been played out publicly by the untimely death of some eminent person in the public eye. However, our concern is not with the unbeliever, but with the true Christian and in particular with the Christian Minister.
The importance of the subject
Dr Lloyd-Jones, in the foreword to Spiritual Depression – Its Causes
and Cure emphasises the importance of the subject in these words: …Believing as I do that the greatest need of the hour is a revived and joyful Church, the subject dealt with in these sermons is to me of the greatest possible importance. Unhappy Christians are, to say the least, a poor recommendation for the Christian Faith; and there can be little doubt but that the exuberant joy of the early Christians was one of the most potent factors in the spread of Christianity…’
Christians in general can become cast down
Not only does the unbeliever experience difficulties and trials that cause them dejection, many a true believer has also found himself in the depths.
Examples: Job (Job 3.1-6 etc) caused by loss, affliction, and bereavement.
The author of Ps 42 & 43 and 130.
Asaph (Psalm 77.1-9) because of spiritual desertion. Hezekiah (2 Kings 20 and Isa 38.14) because of combined effects of bodily affliction and the attack on his kingdom.
These few examples demonstrate that for a variety of reasons the most favoured believers are not exempt from circumstances that cast them down, nor is their spiritual condition always such as would save them from discouragement. It is not therefore surprising that there are many experiences in our generation which have a strong tendency to depress us.
William Bridge cites the following causes amongst others: Great sins
Lack of Assurance Temptations Desertion Affliction
To which I would add:
Unanswered prayer, particularly for the conversion of wayward loved ones.
Prolonged physical pain or mental or physical weakness. Providential difficulties. Unemployment, constant financial concern, how to pay the bills, poor housing etc.
Relationship problems particularly husband/wife difficulties, where children are involved.
Any one of these trials and difficulties alone is sufficient to cause
grave concern, how much more when, as in the case of Hezekiah, they combine together?
Why ministers are particularly prone
Ministers are like every one else: only human! They can therefore be subjected to the effects of the circumstances listed above, and in addition, because they are Satan’s particular target, there are other pressures peculiar to their work which may cause the strongest character to be cast down. Great advantage comes to Satan when the minister has lost his assurance, when he is dejected and uncertain of his call, and in no spiritual state to lead and protect and comfort the flock. So our adversary labours constantly to cast us down.
Examples: Elijah, 1 Kings 18. Physical and spiritual exhaustion. Paul, I Cor 9.27. Implies the possibility of mistaken `Call’. Philip, Acts 8.13-20. Defection of one who seemed to make a good beginning.
Isaiah 49.4, Phil 2.16. The possibility of all our labour having been in vain.
Ezekiel 33.31-33. The hardness of heart of those to whom you preach.
David, Ps 55.12-14. When those turn aside with whom you have walked in fellowship.
In addition to these examples there is the constant and, at times, the crushing responsibility of directing immortal souls to Heaven and warning them of the only alternative – Hell. The query arises how will my work appear in That Day’? Will it then appear as only wood, hay or stubble? This responsibility is keenly felt when conducting funeral services, and when dealing with requests for baptism or membership when the testimony is not too clear. To accept the candidate mistakenly is to encourage a dangerous false assurance, but to reject, can permanently wound and hold back a tender conscience.
Also, towards the congregation you have grown to love, `warts and all’ there will ever be the burdensome privilege of supporting friends through times of trial, pain, family problems and bereavement, all of which will inevitably involve the minister emotionally and very personally and can be spiritually and mentally exhausting especially when church discipline is involved.
Furthermore, a devastating loss is sometimes experienced when the minister’s `helpmeet’ can no longer, through mental or physical disability, provide the help, comfort and support that once she did. This may well bring, not only depression, sorrow and bewilderment, but the termination of a ministry. Again Satan will roar, `Where is now thy God?’ and the minister will feel as one bereaved. Each of us will no
doubt have experienced their own particular circumstances by which Satan will attempt to cast us down.
Why art thou cast down, oh my soul?
You may well ask; why, if the Christian is, as Paul asserts, a new creation, and is assured that nothing can separate him from God’s love, one who is being guided by his Father’s counsel and will afterwards be received by Him in glory – why should such a person possessed of such privileges and security be cast down by the passing trials of this short uncertain life? Did not Paul say; `Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory?’ William Bridge addresses the question by saying, `The saints and people of God have no true reason. for their discouragements, whatever their condition be.’ But that does not answer the question as to why Christians do become cast down and depressed. To understand the reason it is necessary to recognise what a true believer is. Paul tells us that `If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away;… all things are become new’ (2 Cor 5.17). That is a tremendous statement, but, by the analogy of scripture, it is not intended to imply the Christian is perfect. It does mean that the Christian is no longer condemned by the law, has been given a new heart, that his relationship to God is now that of father and son, and he is on the narrow way daily bringing him nearer to eternal glory. Yet this tremendous statement needs to be balanced against Paul’s words in Romans chapter 7, `I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing,… when 1 would do good, evil is present with me… O wretched man that 1 am!’ That is the problem: `The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would’ (Gal 5:17).
The apostle Peter’s life is an example of this inner conflict between faith and unbelief. There can be no doubt that Peter was a man of God, a man of great faith; he left all to follow the Lord, he walked on the sea because he had implicit faith in Christ’s word. Yet his faith was not perfect, for unbelief began to surface, and fear and mistrust overcame him and, as he took his eye from Christ and looked at the waves, he immediately began to sink. Then again, shortly after promising Christ he would be with Him even to death, he was asleep when he ought to have been praying, and when he should have been close to his Master he was following afar off. Finally, because of the fear of man, he took the fearful step of denying his Lord with oaths and curses!
Take heed to thyself
Paul knew all about the devices of Satan which are aimed to cast down the Lord’s people, particularly the minister; hence when he wrote to Timothy he counselled him; `Take heed unto thyself, and unto the
doctrine…’ (1 Tim 4.16). We are prone to reverse this order. To give priority to our doctrine and preparation (and in due proportion we should) but do we neglect the equally important necessity of taking heed to ourselves and to our spiritual condition? Because of many pressures we may easily skimp prayer and Bible reading for our own soul’s good, but very largely engage in these activities only for help in our ministry. In fact we can become so encumbered with the `professional’ duties of the pastorate and ministry that we barely have time to seek God’s help for that! When we fall into such a condition, it is evident we too are following afar off and have left our first love. We have grieved the Holy Spirit, and have quenched His activity in our hearts, and like Peter – our faith has withered and our unbelief has grown bold. Faith is the active response of mind and heart and will to what God has said, and when we are enjoying a close walk with God, we believe and rest on the promises, eg. Romans 8.28, Phil 4.19, Heb. 13.5, Rom 8.38, and on a practical level experience `the peace of God which passeth all understanding…’ Even in the storms of life we can be quietly confident knowing `our times are in His hands…’ But when faith is weak and unbelief is strong, we cannot rest on the promises, and we only see the waves! Is there any wonder we become cast down? – we feel to be alone. Then understandably Satan roars again; `Where is now thy God?’
Oh for a closer walk with God
When circumstances in our personal lives and in our church situation are being prospered we may well feel uplifted and exhilarated by it and our faith may appear strong. But when Satan’s determination to destroy us is felt – when everything seems contrary to our plans, then only as we have habitually known a close walk with God, and are currently aware of His love and the reality of our sonship are we in a condition to rest comfortably on His promises in the midst of the storms of life. (Isa 26.1)
The big question is therefore: How do I regain and then maintain a close walk with God? Well we all know there is no easy answer to that question, and in any case it is a very personal matter, yet the scriptures are not silent, nor do they refuse to help. The author of Psalm 42 addresses the question and shows us the disposition of his heart, `As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God…’ Francis Schaeffer said, `God’s richest blessings are not necessarily reserved for the most correct in practice or the most orthodox in doctrine, but for those who desire Him with the greatest ardency…’ If we can honestly say the Psalmist’s words express our longing, then we can be assured such longing is known by our Great High Priest, and He is the One who `satisfieth the longing soul and filleth the hungry soul with goodness…’ so we, like David (‘?) can look with expectancy to the time when we
,shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and nay God.’
When the sense of our sonship is thus restored, though we may well feel some pain and anguish remaining on the human level, we can again rest securely on the simple yet profound fact that our times are in His hands.
Then shall we understand afresh William Williams’ words: In thy presence 1 am happy;
In thy presence I’m secure; In thy presence all afflictions I can easily endure.
In thy presence I can conquer, 1 can suffer, I can die;
Far from thee, I faint and languish; O thou Saviour, keep me nigh.
There is only one way to maintain a close walk with God, that is: to continue in the love of Christ (John 15.9,10.). But that is another subject!