A friend of mine who is a pastor’s wife recently wrote a blog about her experience with depression and anxiety and I would like to share it with you today.
“You struggle with depression and anxiety? But you’re a Pastor’s wife!” This is the usual response I receive when people discover I have been diagnosed with bipolar depression. Over the years, well-meaning brothers and sisters in Christ have tried to encourage me to overcome my illness with statements such as, “You just need to read your Bible and pray more.”, or “I know of a deliverance ministry that has dealt with all kinds of mental illnesses and they would be willing to pray over you and cast out your demons.” Some individuals have even suggested that a particular sin in my life must be the cause of my troubles, or that I lack enough faith to “believe for my healing.” Many who lacked understanding of my situation would offer cliche statements they thought would encourage me or suggest ridiculous comedies for me to watch on television to help me laugh again. This only made me feel more tormented.
A bit of confession here—In the years before depression entered my life, I was completely ignorant of how pervasive it was in the daily lives of those suffering from it. I questioned their inability to function. Why did they stay in bed all day instead of going to work? Why did they refuse invitations from friends for a fun evening out? They take drugs to help them get better. What a crutch! In my critical, judgmental heart I was convinced these were simply weak people who lacked self-discipline and a determination to just get over it. I was wrong. It still pains me to admit I thought those who claimed to be Christians had even less of an excuse to be affected by depression than non-Christians. Why weren’t they appropriating the abundant, victorious life that Christ has purchased for us? I was young, insensitive, arrogant, and completely misinformed.
Then, in the early 80’s I began having what I thought were panic attacks, lasting anywhere from 24 to 48 hours. Depressive episodes would occur following each panic attack and I continued to suffer with these over a period of 20 years. You may be wondering why I waited so long to seek help. I was too ashamed and embarrassed to admit that I, as a Christian, was struggling with a mental illness. Not as much was known about bipolar depression at the time, and people were fearful of me, almost as if I had a contagious disease. I had become the victim of my own judgmental perceptions. In 1998, I suffered my first bout of clinical depression along with a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. This was the first of four hospitalizations over the next 10 years. I thank God for the doctor who correctly diagnosed my condition by discovering on my fourth hospitalization that I was genetically predisposed to bipolar depression (several family members suffered with it) and prescribed the right medications for me.
Attempting to describe what being clinically depressed feels like is usually met with a puzzled look. Those who have not experienced this class of depression cannot grasp the magnitude of a condition that alters your thinking, steals your emotions, and wreaks havoc with your body. It is spiritually crushing as well, with an overarching component of despair that you are sure will never end until you leave this earth.
Having painted such a gloomy picture so far, I must continue by sharing the positive lessons I have learned while living with depression and anxiety. The Lord has taught me much about Himself, His word, and His people but I will share three main ideas.
1. GOD HAS NOT ABANDONED ME
God has always been with me during each anxious or depressive episode, even when my feelings cry out that he is nowhere to be found. C. S. Lewis said, “God’s presence is not the same as the feeling of God’s presence, and He may be doing most for us when we think He is doing the least.” I try very hard not to question His motives when I am suffering, because over the years I have learned He is a good Father with only the best intentions toward His children. When anxious or sad feelings are especially strong, I try to remind myself that they are just that–feelings. I resist them, and the temptation to doubt that God is with me and cares for me.
2. OTHER PEOPLE HAVE FELT THE SAME WAY
I used to think I was the only person who felt such strange emotions; certainly, no one could be as angry and disappointed with God as I was. But over time, He has shown me that many people in the Bible struggled, even argued with Him in their suffering. We are all weak, faulty, sinful humans who cannot fully appreciate the love and grace of God. But guess what? We are the ones He works through to accomplish His plans here on earth!
There are two people in the Bible I resonate with most. Moses, when completely overwhelmed with his responsibilities for Israel in the desert cried out to God,
“If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.” (Numbers 11:15)
Can you imagine saying this to God? Because I am human, weak, and flawed, I have said similar things on occasion. David, who was called “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22) was often in an anxious or depressed state. He said things like:
“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1) “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” (Psalm 6:6)
I love the way David speaks with God in Psalms. He begins with a complaint, then a confession of trust. Next comes a petition for deliverance, along with a confident expectation of God’s response, and finally he ends with praise. David is very candid with God concerning his emotions, but he continually reminds himself that God hears and answers prayer, and He is always worthy of praise no matter what he might be feeling during his struggles.
These two leaders who were greatly used by God struggled repeatedly under the weight of personal responsibility, their own sin, and attacks from others just as you and I do. As pastors’ wives, not only do we share their experience, but we also have an enemy– Satan who is determined to destroy us, our husbands, our families and ultimately our witness for Christ. Even as I was writing this article, I received a text from my husband asking for prayer because he was stressed and felt under attack.
3. MY SUFFERING IS NOT WITHOUT PURPOSE
My husband and I have ministered on countless occasions to men and women who were suffering greatly. Some have lost loved ones to death – a spouse, parent, sibling, or child (whether born or preborn). Others have had to face losing a job while trying to provide for their families. Many have been thrust into the process of going through an unwelcome divorce. Fighting chronic and severe health issues was a daily occurrence for many. Because of the knowledge and experiences my husband and I have gained during our own battle with depression and anxiety (yes, you go through it together), we are now prepared to
“… Comfort those who are in any affliction by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:4)
God has taught me great compassion for those who suffer and given me insight into their despair. I am more supportive to those who are incapacitated by their battles because I know how difficult and tiresome the fight can be.
Does it cause you stress when you are faced with ministering to people in pain? Do you feel there is an unspoken expectation in your congregation that you should have all the answers when, many times you haven’t a clue? Let me help ease your anxiety by sharing what I have found to be helpful when I need comforting or when I minister to others in crisis.
- Do not begin by giving advice. People in distress are not able to hear much of anything at the onset of a crisis. This is especially true when they have not asked for your advice. I have good news — You are not required to have all the answers!
- Do not use cliché phrases. They became cliché because they are not original and have lost their effect. These overused phrases tend to exacerbate the situation and cause pain to those they were meant to help.
- Do not try and fill silent moments because you feel uncomfortable. Remaining quiet is all right.
- “Call me if you need anything.” is not helpful. That puts the burden on the one who is suffering to ask for help when many times they do not know what they need.
- Do pray and ask God how to minister specifically to the one in who needs comfort. Please note: This does not mean that as the Pastor’s wife it is your sole responsibility to meet every need of every person.
- Do delegate to others who are close to that person and want to help but are not sure quite what to do. It gives them an opportunity to be an instrument of comfort and blessing as well.
Often, the most effective way to minister to someone who is hurting is to go and simply sit with them. My husband likes to say, “Just be there. God will take care of the rest.” Job’s friends sat with him for an entire week before opening their mouths! (Job 2:13) Pray silently while there. Be a sounding board, a listening ear. I cannot tell you how many times people have said they feel so much better after speaking with me, yet I have not uttered a single word! I know as women, especially women in ministry, that our desire is to help people avoid pain. But we do not know God’s mind or His motives. He is a wonderful communicator and if He wishes to use you to speak into someone’s life, He will certainly let you know.
If you are currently experiencing pain or suffering, remember that you are not alone, that your experiences are the same as the Saints who have gone before you, and that one day, whether it be in this life or the next, you will understand your Heavenly Father’s intentional, unshakable, everlasting love for you.
I pray what Naomi shared with us today will be an encouragement to you that if you are dealing with depression or anxiety that you will reach out for help. We are here to walk with you on this ministry journey.