“For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (
Discouragement, depression and despair are feelings to which the minister of the Word is not immune. In fact, we may face such feelings more than our fellow believers and more than non-believers. As well as the normal pressures and perplexities of life that confront all people, the servant of the Lord has spiritual battles to cope with of which others know little.
Those who are called and commissioned by the Lord to a ministry of preaching step into the front line of spiritual warfare. As we lead people to faith and maturity in Christ through the regular proclamation of Scripture, the enemy notices and we become targets. This is not just ministerial paranoia. If the preacher is not being assaulted by Satan, it is because he is not preaching prophetically or pastorally.
To preach prophetically is not necessarily about foretelling future events, though we may do this when we preach from Scripture about eschatology (end times). Rather, to preach prophetically is about forth-telling the revealed mind of God. This we do frequently in expository and evangelistic preaching.
Depression is a tool in the hands of God, sculpting character in His image. However, I suspect many preachers fear their congregations will see it as a sign of weakness. A great deal of stigma is attached to this form of suffering. Some people tend to think all suffering comes from sin or immaturity in the life of the believer. This is not so (see
The Purpose of Pain
Paul, an experienced evangelistic preacher, wrote 2 Corinthians from Macedonia on his third missionary journey in the middle 50s A.D. This letter gives us very interesting insight into the personality and emotions of this seemingly tireless servant of God. One major theme in this epistle is suffering and its tremendous value in the life of the believer.
We can summarize the central truth of
Paul learned something about God’s limitless compassion and never-failing comfort. God’s purpose was for Paul to become dependent on God and to shed the spirit of self-reliance. That is God’s purpose for us, too. Our personal struggles keep us humble. They keep us from arrogance and conceit. Puritan John Flavel said, “a crucified style best suits the preacher of a crucified Christ.” As we share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings, we become better preachers. Though we might prefer a life without struggle, such a life would make us weak.
The Vulnerability of the Mind
In 214 B.C., the emperor of China, Shi Huang Ti, began to build the Great Wall of China. The work went on for generations until this rampart stretched for 1,200 miles across the north of China. It seemed as if everything was secure behind it. The wall was intended to keep out the Mongol enemy; but it failed do so, because the enemy finally bribed a guard and walked through the gate.
The mind is similar to that gateway, and it is there the enemy will seek to gain access, bringing doubt, discouragement, depression and despair. This trespasser will intrude wherever possible and especially wherever he is likely to cause most damage. Thus, many fiery arrows are aimed at the preacher of God’s Word.
Preachers cannot merely sit complacently behind the works of their hands and the works of previous generations where stone was laid upon stone and feel the job is done. Our enemy is a strategic and cunning adversary. He does not come as a red-skinned, horned creature with cloven feet, carrying a trident as depicted in some caricatures. Rather, he can be found in the common traffic and ordinary commerce of life.
Becoming Equipped as Comforters
We have a tendency to think God can’t use us because we are weak, but it is often at such times that God accomplishes His best work through preachers who are aware of their own inadequacies and conscious of their utter dependence on God. I dread becoming complacent as a preacher and thereby casually sauntering into the pulpit. I dread becoming self-reliant and depending on either my experience or theological education. This drives me to prayer, for it is only there that these terrors can be stilled.
Depression actually can be a tool God uses to purify and refine those who minister in the Word. Perhaps there are incidents in your life where you have seen this principle at work. Scripture helps us to be more reflective about our experiences, and such self-awareness is necessary in developing a coping strategy in difficult situations. Central to that coping strategy is fleeing into the presence of the Lord and resting in His power, provision and protection.
Paul sees his suffering as personally beneficial, driving him to a deeper trust in God. He also sees it as beneficial to others. To experience God’s help, consolation and encouragement in the midst of one’s affliction is to become equipped to communicate comfort to others in distress. Sermons crafted in the heat of the furnace of affliction have an authentic tone and a temper that will penetrate the hearts of others.
Triumphant in Trouble
The Bible tells us that our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (
Preachers do not live in ivory towers that protect us from trouble. We might be facing present difficulties or future uncertainty, but we can be triumphant in trouble. The psalms are a great comfort in times of discouragement. They were not written in a vacuum. They came out of the crucible of the real life experiences of the people of God; as such, they have an appealing authenticity.
They are not the detached, theoretical reflections of religious philosophers. They are the prayers of real believers in the midst of real problems. They are the praises wrung out of real situations. They are quarried from real experience of God and they have much to offer by way of comfort in times of discouragement. They are a deep reservoir that will refresh the weary minister of the Word.
The great apostle Paul experienced discouragement, but that discouragement was a momentary and relatively light affliction in comparison to the joy that awaits the redeemed in the eternal presence of the Lord. Paul was honest in his correspondence with the Corinthians. He unashamedly told them that he was discouraged to the point of despair in Asia. How many contemporary missionary newsletters contain such honest statements? There is a tendency to report only the positive and keep everything upbeat.
Paul wrote: “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8). There is no need to read between the lines here! However, he regained perspective, which is reflected in the verses immediately following:
“Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. On Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again” (1 Cor. 1:9-10).
Although the servant of the Lord may experience affliction, anxiety and discouragements, he should not be driven into a permanent state of despair. Christians have an eternal perspective which gives us hope. Hope may burn dimly, but that flame never should be allowed to go out. God can surround that flickering light with His loving hands and protect the vulnerable from the winds that blow in the dark and bleak places.
Once when I was in a foreign city, a local believer tried to explain where certain places of historical and architectural interest were in relation to each other. I found what he was saying difficult to remember and more difficult to imagine. Then I saw a tower where one could go to have an elevated view of the city. When I climbed the tower and looked out over the area, it all made sense. I could see everything that had been described to me earlier.
It is beneficial to get an elevated vantage point in order to understand the infrastructure of the physical landscape which also applies to the spiritual landscape. As preachers, we need to get above the things that obstruct our vision and hinder our understanding. This is what happens when we get close to God in prayer and by reading His Word. From that lofty place, we have a panoramic view that enables us to see further and better.
I have wandered around many cities trying to find certain places of interest, mostly with success; but there have been times when I got lost. Being lost is a miserable experience that deprives us of enjoyment; but if we live in the moment, even in times of confusion there is much to be experienced that can be pleasant. Sometimes there is an oasis in the wilderness that we can miss if we are looking for an ocean. Sometimes we live in the inner landscape of our minds and dwell on the past with regret. Other times, we think too much about the future, which can cause anxiety. We need to learn to live not for the moment but in the moment.
Injuries of the Soul
We are complex and vulnerable people; our emotional, physical and spiritual lives are interconnected. We all are susceptible to injuries of the soul. Somewhere along the way, the preacher can lose his vigor and confidence, finding himself discouraged, depressed, lonely and isolated. Few can boast of never feeling down. Few are without dark moods and periods of anxiety. Shadows creep into our souls. Even if today we feel on top of the world we will meet people who are drowning in a sea of despair. Tomorrow it could be you.
Consider Elijah (
In this passage of Scripture, we have a cameo of one of God’s servants under pressure. In it we see the problems he faced. Our spiritual battles might have a physical and emotional dimension due to our neglect of the basic need for rest.
Elijah was a prophet in the ninth century B.C., serving God in one of the darkest chapters of Israel’s history; but Elijah overexerted himself. He spent much of his time and energy travelling back and forth in his home territory of Gilead, a mountainous region on the eastern shore of the Jordan.
He certainly had an extraordinary life that involved many remarkable experiences. On one occasion, he was fed by ravens (bread and meat in the morning and evening). This was God’s amazing provision. On another occasion, he was fed by a widow who hadn’t any food to spare (the miracle of the jar of flour and jug of oil). By God’s enabling power, he raised the widow’s son from the dead; but the highlight of his ministry was the contest at Mount Carmel, which saw the defeat of 850 false prophets (450 of Baal and 400 of Asherah).
So, how do we account for Elijah’s flight from Jezebel? Apart from the obvious spiritual dimension, the Mount Carmel battle must have been emotionally draining. The connection between fear and fatigue might not be immediately evident, but when we are tired we can suffer anxiety and stress. Is it possible that Elijah’s physical overexertion affected his ability to think clearly?
We should not overlook the obvious fact that he had to climb to the top of that mountain. Apart from that physical hike, there was his 16-mile run to Jezreel (
It seems Elijah was physically exhausted, emotionally drained, fearful, isolated, stressed and spiritually depressed. The servant of the Lord had entered a time of discouragement. He went from the high of Mount Carmel (the pinnacle of victorious living) to the valley of despair.
In the Wilderness
In the face of strong opposition (Jezebel’s anger), his victories were all forgotten, and he felt low. He was literally and metaphorically in the wilderness. He did not want to face anyone. He did not want to talk to anyone. He did not want any responsibility.
He even lost the will to live. He was confused because he fled death, yet sought it. If he really wanted to die, he could have stayed where he was and Jezebel would have taken care of it! In such a state of mind, his judgment was impaired.
Elijah eventually flopped down under a tree and went to sleep, but God was watching over him as he slept. God provided rest and food. Then the Lord asked him, “What are you doing here?” Here is God’s question to his servant defeated by fear, one who thought he had no purpose in life and was overwhelmed by problems.
Elijah had an amazing ministry. Yet he experienced discouragement. This is a stark contrast to his illustrious and courageous past. He was human as Scripture tells us: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (
The Process of Discouragement
Although Elijah had the comfort of the Lord’s abiding presence and was commissioned to a meaningful role in the work of the Lord, he became downhearted. The process of discouragement started with flight. His understanding became distorted so he thought he was the only one who had remained faithful to the Lord. In reality, there were 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal.
His words dripped with negativity each time he spoke. He withdrew from others and actually appeared to be withdrawing from God. This resulted in his personal isolation and loss of perspective. Ultimately, it led to morbid ideation to the point he thought he wanted to die.
Transcending our Limitations
God wants us, as ministers of the Word, to be victorious and transcend the debilitating limitations of our circumstances. In order to do so, we need to have a divine perspective. This is attained not only from the summit of Christian experience but also from the valley of despair, for it is often in the slough of despondency that our experience of God is deepened.
Here we come to realize that although we would prefer to live without affliction—and pray to that end (as Paul did three times)—that God says: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (