One day in my mid-twenties while studying at Covenant Seminary to become a pastor, I came across a suicide note published in the local newspaper…written by a pastor:
God forgive me for not being any stronger than I am. But when a minister becomes clinically depressed, there are very few places where he can turn to for help…it feels as if I’m sinking farther and farther into a downward spiral of depression. I feel like a drowning man, trying frantically to lift up my head to take just one more breath. But one way or another, I know I am going down.
The writer was the promising young pastor of a large, thriving Presbyterian church in Saint Louis. Having secretly battled depression for a long time – and having sought help through prayer, therapy, and medication – his will to claw through yet another day was gone. In his darkest hour, the young promising pastor decided he would rather join the angels than continue facing demons for years to come. The sign-off to his note, “Yours in the Name of Our Blessed Lord, Our Only Hope in Life and Death” brought a strange comfort, because grace covers all types sins, including self-harm and suicide. Yet grief and confusion remained.
The confusion escalated when another pastor, also from Saint Louis, asphyxiated himself to death because a similar, secret depression.
The news of these two pastor suicides rocked my world. How could these men – both gifted pastors who believed in Jesus, preached grace, and comforted others with gospel hope – end up losing hope for themselves?
Since that time, two more pastor friends of mine have taken their own lives – one of them also from St. Louis, and the other from Nashville.
For as long as I had been a Christian, I had also heard a teaching – which I came to understand as unbiblical and very destructive – that being a Christian and being depressed and suicidal aren’t supposed to go together. “Light always drives out darkness,” these teachers would say. “When you’re believing the right things, peace and joy will necessarily follow.” Based on these ideas, a worship song was released that became very popular among evangelical Christians. The lyrics included the confident declaration that “In His presence, our problems disappear.”
But when the real world hits, such teachings and songs hurt a lot more than they help. We are talking about flawed but faithful pastors, who prayed and read their Bibles every day, who served their churches and cities and counseled people and preached grace, ended their own lives…because in His presence, their problems did not disappear.
Affliction, God’s Kindness, and Me
I, too, have from time to time faced the demons of affliction, especially in the form of anxiety and depression. Most of the time, thankfully, this struggle has been more low-grade than intense. On one occasion, though, it flattened me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
How bad was it? I could not fall asleep for two weeks straight. Even sleeping pills couldn’t calm the adrenaline and knock me out, which only made things worse. In the evenings I feared the quiet, knowing I was in for another all-night battle with insomnia that I was likely to lose. The sunrise also scared me as an unwelcome reminder that another day of impossible struggle was ahead. I lost fifteen percent of my body weight in two months. I could not concentrate in conversations. I found no comfort in God’s promises from Scripture. I couldn’t bring myself to pray anything but “Please help me” and “Please end this.”
According to a study conducted by Thom Rainer, circumstance-triggered melancholy hits ministers at a disproportionally higher rate than the general populace. Due to the unique pressures associated with spiritual warfare, unrealistic expectations from congregants and oneself, growing platforms for unaccountable criticism and gossip toward and about ministers (especially in the digital age), failure to take time off for rest and replenishment, marriage difficulties, financial strains, and the problem of comparison with other ministers and ministries, Rainer concludes that ministers are set up as prime candidates for descent into an emotional abyss.