“Oh,” but you ask, “why not despair? Surely, if anyone has a right to it, I do. Who would not if he were me?”
Well, there are many who have known your pain. “I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to,” said Charles Haddon Spurgeon to his people in 1866 when his ministry was actually at its peak. Out of the same gloomy experiences John Henry Jowett protested to a friend, “You seem to imagine that I have no ups and downs. By no means! I am often perfectly wretched and everything appears most murky.” David Livingstone’s father-inlaw, Robert Moffatt drooped over the absence of results on his pioneer mission field of South Africa. “Our labours might be compared to the attempts of . . . a husbandman labouring to transform the surface of a granite rock into arable land,” he grieved. And Adoniram Judson actually dug a grave in the Burmese jungle where he sat for days on end, musing morbidly on death. “God is to me the Great Unknown,” he mourned. “I believe in him, but I find him not.”
I appreciate the candid humanness of these revered heroes. They testify to being touched with the feeling of my infirmities. But sometimes I need something sterner than their sympathy. Many years ago I found and grew from two wonderfully bracing chapters on ministerial depression in a little book titled Quiet Hints to Growing Preachers. The book was written by Charles Jefferson, pastor of the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City from 1898–1937. Nearly 40 years in a city church is time enough to know intimately every sort of ministerial depression. It’s no wonder then that Jefferson, though unfortunately not a Fundamentalist, could nevertheless write so insightfully of certain ministerial fundamentals. Here then, with just slight editing, is Jefferson’s challenge to the minister in despair. But prepare for a stiffening exhortation. There’s no sad wiping our- eyes commiseration here. My prayer in reissuing Jefferson’s stout tonic in this form is that the Lord will Himself use it to put heart back into at least one despairing brother.
A wide reader of ministerial biography has declared that “a gently complaining and fatigued spirit is that in which evangelical divines are very apt to pass their days.” If this be true we have found an explanation of many a pulpit failure. For no man can be masterful as teacher or leader whose spirit is either plaintive or fatigued. The message of the preacher is glad tidings of great joy, and unless there is joy in the herald his message will have a broken wing. Whatever else a minister may be, he must be pre-eminently a man of good cheer. His presence must be a constant exhortation, “Rejoice, again I say unto you, Rejoice!”
The Character of Ministerial Depression: Complaint
But who has not known ministers whose voice and face seemed to be always saying, “Let us cry!” Such a man goes about shutting up all the Eastern windows which look toward the sun. In his presence the singing swallows become silent and the brooks of morning dry up. Those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death find no deliverance in him for he is in darkness himself. He abides not in the light because there is no light in him.
It is surprising how many ministers live in a petulant and peevish mood. Even men who are able to carry a serene exterior are often found on closer contact to be morbid and glum. Life is going hard with them. Things are all wrong. They are not appreciated. Church affairs are in a snarl. The world has not treated them fairly. And so in private they bleed and pout and whine.
The age gives such men no end of trouble. It is a materialistic, sordid age and they wear themselves out shrieking, “The time is out of joint!” The world has grown indifferent to spiritual voices, and as it rushes to destruction the poor preacher looks helplessly on and blubbers. But why these tears? Ours is not the only materialistic age. When was there an age since the great flood that was not more materialistic than this one? The apostles grappled with a generation more sodden far and brutish than the one now on the stage, and not a whimper escaped from one of them. Preachers are not ordained to preach to golden ages but to ages of stone and bronze and iron. A minister sometimes gets the impression that his town is wicked above all others. Its inertia and stupidity first sadden him and then make him mad. He rails at it. He cuffs it as though it were a wayward child. In a town of greater intelligence his work, he thinks, would receive a more generous recognition!
But is not such complaining unmanly? All places are wicked. Men who live in great cities are ready to confess that the devil has made the city his headquarters; but men who live in little country towns declare that towns are even worse than the cities. Sodom and Gomorrah lurk under the thin crust of civilization everywhere. A man engaged in religious work soon discovers that the world is possessed of seven devils. But this discovery should not dash or damp him. If humanity were clothed and in its right mind the occupation of the preacher would be gone. It is because men have lost their way that a guide is needed. It is because men are sick unto death that God has raised up physicians. They that are whole have no need of a physician. The more godless a community the greater need of a man of God to work in it. Saul of Tarsus was not daunted by the rottenness of the cities of Asia. Their squalor and wretchedness made him all the more desirous of preaching the gospel in the world’s darkest center, the godless metropolis of the Roman empire. Paul said, “I must also see Rome.” Our faint-hearted modern brothers wail, “This place is wicked, I must get out of it.” O what a fall this is, my brethren!
to be continued…
Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.
(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)