How to Fight Feelings of Forlornness in the Ministry, by Ed Underwood
I’ve been a pastor for over 40 years and a few times each year it hits me. “What if I’ve wasted my life?” What I’m describing is that lingering doubt that won’t go away, maybe even an initial melancholy. I’ve fought deep and paralyzing depression two or three times in my life, so there’s genuine fear in my heart that I may be sinking into the abyss of shaming despondency. Basically, the emotion is that my life is meaningless and all that I’ve been doing for Jesus and am now doing for Jesus has zero impact and there’s no reason to keep trying, to contribute anything — to say or write one word.
Sometimes it gets so bad I just sit with my Bible and my journal in my lap at four in the morning and weep.
How could this be? I’ve preached thousands of sermons, written books and hundreds of articles and blogs about the love and grace of God, led a church that turned from survival mode to significance in the kingdom, and raised three adult children who walk with God. I’m married to a ministry partner that rocks, and deeply connected to some of the coolest, most loving Christian friends a follower of the Savior ever had!
Here’s how this could be: I’m human. Redeemed? Absolutely. Christ in me? Yes! Assured of God’s love? Without question.
But sometimes I forget what the Father never forgets. He’s mindful that I am but dust (Psalm 103:14)
The writer of Hebrews says that God became human so that He could experience the dusty confusion and pain of humanness in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Most of the melancholy and depression we experience as spiritual leaders isn’t rational because it’s based upon a false expectation: Now that I’m a leader of Christians, I can’t be dust anymore. And our souls become too tired to process life accurately.
Spiritual warfare is complicated, and when our brain is tired the enemy uses his dark knowledge of brain chemistry to cause us to believe things, feel things, even agree with things that our Heavenly Father does not say are true about us. But they can spin you out nevertheless.
So here’s what I do when I feel the first symptoms of the paralysis of melancholy:
I journal. I sit with that journal in my lap and beg God for words from my heart to tell Him exactly how I feel. It gets pretty raw and I sometimes wonder what will happen if anyone reads my journals after I’m in heaven. “Can you say that to God?” I’ve discovered that He loves my dusty thoughts and words because He never fails to draw close to my breaking heart.
I reschedule the day I’m living. Not the next day, not a getaway date with Judy. I reschedule the very day that the melancholy begins to haunt me. It’s like when you feel a cold coming on and you get 13 hours sleep and wonder why you feel so much better. Sometimes I’ll just binge watch something I enjoy. Maybe take the grandkids to the park. Or just have one cup of coffee after another with my bride while she drinks her tea and we talk about life. Dust is a pretty descriptive term and if you think about it, unless something’s blowing dust around it does nothing. I believe there are times when the Holy Spirit doesn’t want me to feel even a zephyr of guidance, except to rest.
i read old favorites about the grace of God and my identity in Him. Nouwen, Lynch, Manning. There have been several dusty days when all I did was re-read my threadbare and tattered copy of Nouwen’s “Letters to Marc.”
I call the trusted friends who love me well and expect nothing from me. it’s one of the primary sources of fatigue for pastors and church leaders. Almost everyone we know is taking from us (we’re leaders, that’s just the way it is). It’s hard at first to admit that you just need encouragement and that you’re feeling like a shameful failure. However, I’ve learned that that the best place to take my shame is to someone else who loves me enough to force me out of its isolating power.
Some of you reading this post know that you need more than these, what must seem like simple steps to you. I’ve never been abused physically, never been abandoned by my spouse, never had to live with an addict or fear for my life or safety. Well, I did almost die of leukemia, so there’s that. My heart goes out to you and I hope you’ll find someone with far more skills than I have to help you through your emotional malaise.
For the rest of us, sometimes the best thing to do is to turn to Psalm 103:14 and agree with the Father. “Okay, my Abba, I admit it. I forgot what you never forget. I am but dust, and you don’t expect me to live as if I’m not actually human.”
May the love of the Father who scoops you into His arms and whispers in your ear how thrilled He us to let you rest on His lap overwhelm you enough to rest and receive His love.