The Pastor & Despair

Maybe a discouraged pastor will do a search and find this article.  I’ve been there.  It’s hard to be transparent and acknowledge it, but I am a pastor who is subject to periods of despair.  Sometimes I know what is causing it, other times the cause is not evident.  I lose my sense of direction and motivation for ministry.  I’m ready to walk away. I tell my wife, “My demon is back.”

I’ve received help from various sources during these times.  I want to share two here.  Maybe they will help a pastor in despair. The first is from a book, the second is from Scripture.

A few months ago when I was going through such a season, something prompted me to read a chapter in Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures To My Students. The chapter is called, The Minister’s Fainting Fits. He’s an old guy, it’s an old book, and even the chapter title sounds archaic.   But this chapter is gold for the despairing pastor.  He gives some explanations for why pastors experience despair, and he offers practical and spiritual help.  It is helpful to hear a man like Charles Spurgeon acknowledge the experience of despair in the life of the pastor and lovingly lead our dark thoughts in a brighter direction. Dig your copy out (or order it if you don’t have one), get alone for a few hours, and mark this chapter up.  My pencil found these bits of encouragement:

  • “Fits of depression come over the most of us . . . Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited therewith at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts thereon . . . “
  • “Being men (we) are compassed with infirmity . . . Most of us are in some way or other unsound physically . . . . As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off the balance? Some minds appear to have gloomy tinge essential to their very individuality . . . These infirmities may be no detriment to a man’s career of special usefulness; they may even have been imposed upon him by divine wisdom as necessary qualifications for his peculiar course of service.”
  • “Our work, when earnestly undertaken, lays us open to attacks in the direction of depression. Who can bear the weight of souls without sometimes sinking to the dust? . . . Such soul-travail as that of a faithful minister will bring on occasional seasons of exhaustion, when heart and flesh will fail.”
  • “Sedentary habits have a tendency to create despondency in some constitutions . . . To sit long in one posture, poring over a book, or driving a quill, is in itself a taxing of nature; but add to this a badly ventilated chamber, a body which has long been without muscular exercise, and a heart burdened with many cares, and we have all the elements for preparing a seething cauldron of despair, especially in the dim months of fog.”
  • He encourages walks in nature, which I love and always find refreshing. He says, “The ferns and the rabbits, the streams and the trouts, the fir trees and the squirrels, the primroses and the violets, the farm-yard, the new-mown hay, and the fragrant hops – these are the best medicine for hypochondriacs, the surest tonics for the declining, the best refreshments for the weary.”
  • And one more: “Be not dismayed by soul-trouble.  Count it no strange thing, but a part of ordinary ministerial experience . . . Cast the burden of the present, along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future, upon the Lord, who forsaketh not His saints . . . Put no trust in frames and feelings . . . Trust in God alone . . . “

(Quotes from Charles Spurgeon, Lectures To My Students, Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.)

The second source of recent help for me has been 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.  I was in a dismal state of mind a few months ago, wondering how in the world I was supposed to shepherd my church with all of my past and present sins, my weaknesses and inadequacies, the overwhelming responsibilities.  My heart came to rest on this:

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it.

I take from this that:

  • God is at work in my life, enacting a process of sanctification – growth, if you will.
  • His work touches every aspect of my being.
  • He has called me to this process, and whatever path my life takes is His design in bringing this process to completion. His calling for me includes a life of ministry.
  • He is the faithful one. He is. Not me. He is.
  • He will perform this work in my life. He will enable me to fulfill my calling.  My “success” rests on Him.  Not me. Him.  He is faithful.  He will do it.
  • I can pray these things, because that’s what Paul was doing. So I turn these promises into prayers.  And I am lifted from being a pastor in despair to a pastor with hope.

10 Facts about Divine Election

This Sunday morning I’ll preach, God willing, on 1 Thessalonians 1:2-5.  Paul had heard of the effects of the gospel in the Thessalonian believers’ lives.  The fruits of their faith, love, and hope confirmed to him “their election of God” (v. 4).  I want to make some statements about the biblical teaching of election as I preach but I don’t intend to spend a major part of the sermon on it.  So I’m placing some thoughts here so those who wish can go over them at their convenience.

These statements are simple, and that is on purpose.  I usually think in pretty simple terms, and I think it helps the average person to see a complicated concept like this presented as clearly as possible.

They are also presented without much in the way of comment, explanation, implications, logical conclusions, etc.  I don’t intend to try to explain or defend the doctrine of election, just state facts.

There is one clarifying point I’d like to make.  There are three categories of election in the Bible.  God elected the nation of Israel for His special favor and blessing.  God elected people to offices or positions, the supreme example of which is Jesus’ election to be the Messiah.  And God elected individual lost sinners to be saved.  It is mainly this third category of election that I am writing about here.

1.  Election is in the Bible.

I count 19 occurrences of words in the vocabulary group associated with election (elect, election, chosen) that clearly refer to individual salvation.

Key verses include Romans 8:33; Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:2; 2 Peter 1:10.

2.  Election is an act of God.

God is the subject.  If God does it, it is good and should be accepted and revered.

3.  Election is a choice.

There’s no way around this.  The word “elect” in Greek is eklegomai and means to choose or select.

4.  Election favors some and not others.

Using the other categories of election as examples, God chose Israel and not other nations.  God chose Jesus and not an angel or another man.  And in the category of salvation, God chose “the elect” and not everyone.

5.  Election is based on God’s sovereign will and pleasure, not on anything we do.

Ephesians 1:4-5 says of God’s election of believers, . . . He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will . . .

1 Peter 1:2 says we are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.  God’s foreknowledge in the Bible is not merely His awareness of what will happen in the future.  It is a knowledge that views something or someone in the future in a positive way.  See Acts 2:23.  God did not only know ahead of time that Jesus would die, He ordained it. His plan for Jesus to die was not conditioned on what someone else would do. Regarding our individual salvation, God did not merely know ahead of time that we would believe and base His election on that.  His foreknowledge is not merely cognitive.  It is determinitive.

6.  Election does not preclude human responsibility.

It is the responsibility of Christians to preach the gospel to every creature.  It is the responsibility of sinners to repent and believe.

7.  Election is a source of assurance.

See Romans 8:28-39.  Verse 33 says, Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect?  The implied response is, No one, and the stated reason is that the ones God has elected, He justifies.

8.  Election is not Calvinism, it is Biblicism.

Whether you embrace or eschew the label of Calvinist, believing in election does not make you one.  If you are a Biblicist you will accept and embrace the truth of God’s election.

9.  Election forces us to accept things about God that are uncomfortable to us and don’t make sense to us.

People struggle to understand how God could elect to save some and not others.  If we attempt to shape God’s character, decrees, and acts in ways that fit our finite logic and feelings, we will be frustrated or will redefine the terms to our satisfaction.  To do so is to diminish the nature of God.  We must be willing to accept who God is and what He does as the Bible presents Him.

10.  Election glorifies God.

Ephesians 1:6 states that our election and predestination is to the praise of the glory of his grace.

It is not our place to dispute election, nor to make it any greater or any less than what it is.  It is not necessary for us to grasp it or to make sense of it.  God is eternal and sovereign, and what He does is right and just.  He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).  He has chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).  You must give diligence to make your calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10).  All are true.  Our place is to say what Paul did in Romans 11:33 after he expounded the truth of God’s election of the nation of Israel, Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!