2 March, 2024

A Path for Healing in the Midst of Despair

by | 1 January, 2024 | 0 comments

By Chris Philbeck 

Having served as a pastor for more than 43 years, I know how challenging ministry can be to a person’s mental and emotional health. I also know how difficult it is for pastors to be honest about this challenge. A tension often exists between despair we feel over certain realities of life and our commitment to faithfulness. Tension can also be found in the pages of the Bible. 

LEARNING FROM DAVID 

In studying David’s life, we see he experienced times of great despair even though he’s described as a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). He wrote, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:11). David clearly showed us how to respond to life’s difficulties (put your hope in God), and at the same time exposed the reality of wrestling with despair while holding on to our faith.  

Even Jesus felt this tension. On the night he was arrested, Jesus told Peter, James, and John, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34). After walking a little farther, “he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (vv. 35-36).  

In his prayer, Jesus revealed the tension between the reality of what he felt in his humanity and his commitment to being obedient to the will of God. It’s that tension that often keeps pastors from being honest about their mental and emotional struggles.  

A friend recently sent a link to a blog post titled “Departure: Why I Left the Church” at restorativefaith.org. The column made me sad, but I appreciated the honesty of the pastor who wrote it. Here’s an excerpt:  

I have become part of what is known as the Great Pastor Resignation that came in the wake of the pandemic. Barna did a national survey of pastors and, as of March 2022, 42 percent of pastors considered quitting. The reasons for this are myriad, but the top five reasons given are as follows: 

1. The immense stress of the job: 56 percent 

2. I feel lonely and isolated: 43 percent 

3. Current political divisions: 38 percent 

4. I am unhappy with the effect this role has had on my family: 29 percent 

5. I am not optimistic about the future of my church: 29 percent 

The author went on to say that the top two reasons on that list, along with other more personal reasons, are why he chose to resign.  

THE HEALING POWER OF THE WORD 

So, what can pastors do to deal with the mental and emotional challenges that come along with ministry to help them persevere in difficult times?  

That question has many possible answers, but here’s one thing that has worked for me during my ministry. Let the reading, meditation, study, and delivery of God’s Word bring healing to your soul.  

When I pour myself into God’s Word to write a sermon, I gain great, personal appreciation and knowledge for why Jesus called the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of truth” in John 14, because he pours truth into my life. Sometimes that truth confronts me, sometimes it comforts me, and sometimes it challenges me, but it always changes me. And there’s something about taking that truth and crafting it into a message to be shared with others that encourages and sustains me, regardless of how I’m feeling personally.  

I was struggling emotionally a couple of years ago. During my weekly sermon prep, I studied 2 Corinthians 4:  

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (vv. 16-18). 

I love Paul’s reminder that no matter what we are experiencing in our lives on the outside, God is at work on the inside. But that final sentence is what really spoke to me in my struggle. The phrase, “So we fix our eyes” can be translated as, “While we look.” That was meaningful because it reminded me our ability to not lose heart is conditional upon our willingness to look not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  

As Paul so powerfully shared, “For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” That word temporary means, “anything associated with time.” Anything that begins and ends. So, Paul indicated the best way to not lose heart is to focus on eternal things, and that includes the work God is doing in your life as you serve him.  

God works in my life through preaching, because in the work of preaching I hear the counsel of God, I receive the comfort of God, and I am reminded of the call of God.  

I assure you, I’m not trying to reduce something as serious as mental and emotional health to simply writing a sermon. But I do believe in the power of God’s Word and the impact it can have on every aspect of your life.  

David wrote, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). I feel the presence of God and even the pleasure of God in preaching, and it strengthens my life. 

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