“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Psalm 42:5).
These are not the words of a spiritual infant. They are not the cries of a neophyte believer. This was a spiritual leader, involved in the daily ministry of the word of God to the people of God. Even so, his struggles with sorrow are deep.
It’s no secret: spiritual leaders can battle with depression. The more pastors I talk to, the more common this seems. I’ve worked jobs from lumber mills to heavy construction to engineering to research labs, and I have never encountered sorrow in those like the pastorate. Pastors, if you struggle with sorrow, chances are, things are pretty normal. Christians, chances are, your pastor has, or will have, bouts with soul-sorrow. It’s just normal.
And we need to avoid parochial conclusions when it comes to battles with sorrow. The presence of depression does not always mean the presence of raging sin. Strong saving faith and deep discouragement are often found in the same soul. Ed Welch has rightly said, “It is a myth that faith is always smiling. The truth is that faith often feels like the very ordinary process of dragging one foot in front of the other because we are conscious of God” (Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, 31). Jeremiah had his bouts (Jer. 9:1-2, Lam. 3:48). Elijah probably did too (1 Kings 19:4). Though Paul always rejoiced, he was also sorrowful (2 Cor. 6:10). The great apostle even experienced “great sorrow and unceasing grief” (Rom. 9:2). And Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). Likely he could have been diagnosed with clinical depression by the standards of our modern psychiatrists. Charles Spurgeon said, “No sin is necessarily connected with sorrow of heart, for Jesus Christ our Lord once said, ‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.’ There was no sin in him, and consequently none in his deep depression.”
In fact, it’s reasonable to be concerned at times for the individual who seems constantly giddy. If we were in heaven, that would be understandable. But for the spiritual-minded individual with the mind of Christ, they see the cursed world as it is and care for its good. There is sin within and without. Brokenness within and without. Death within and without. Deception within and without. The world, the flesh, and the devil do their thing. Those with the illuminating presence of the Holy Spirit carry the instinctive response of righteousness to unrighteousness, whether within or without. It’s impossible, then, for God’s people to never experience sorrow. Pastor, if you struggle with discouragement, it very well could be due to your love for souls.
A pastor without sorrow may not be sufficiently acquainted with the fallenness of the world. He could be out of touch; perhaps not adequately caring about the destruction all around. We could almost say that seasons of sorrow are inevitable and necessary for biblical pastors.
And to be sure, depression is often due to sin (cf. Ps 32:3-4). We may be harboring things needing confession. We might be craving an idol that we are not getting (cf. 2 Sam. 13:4). Or we may be getting something we are not wanting. A soul check-up is necessary in sorrowful seasons. There is no virtue in discouragement. And seasons of sorrow are no excuse for us to wallow in self-pity or ferment in our bitterness.
But oftentimes, sorrow is just the norm. The purpose here is not to be a Debbie-downer, but to consider why it’s normal for many pastors to battle with discouragement. With that, here are a few reasons why church leaders may experience sorrow: