I was quite surprised by the response to part one of this post a few months ago. A little vulnerability about my story of ongoing depression seemed to resonate with a lot of people. I’m sure some of that was the surprisingly fresh air of remembering that none of us are above dark nights of the soul, even those in church leadership. But it also appears that honest Christians feel low, and feel it often.
A significant part of my melancholy road has been knowing God better by knowing myself better. John Calvin famously wrote, “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Institutes). Yet self-awareness, as Kevin DeYoung remarks, is not an end in itself. My darkest internal discoveries have instead been the means by which God has led me over and over and over again to himself. Their bittersweet rebuke has been, “You desperately need God!”
Here are a few eye-opening fails that helped the dark clouds linger.
Misunderstanding the gospel I would describe some of my spiritual journey as the Christianity of a dead Christ. The gospel, as I understood it growing up in the church, was walk the aisle and then be good. I did that, but I wasn’t good. I conformed, but it was boring. I was following the footsteps of a crucified Savior rather than a risen One. I needed the constant corrective surgery of the gospel:
You must obey perfectly—but you can’t—good news: Christ did it for you—now receive him freely with the desire and power to obey!
Instead, however, I just kept trying. In great ignorance and youthful energy I tried to retrace the steps of Jesus, sometimes even pushing my body to the point of death (stress-induced illness, foolish risk, guilty overwork, etc.). How sad when you consider that a Savior already did that, and rose again to hand over his achievement for free.
Going it alone The standard I fashioned for being a Christian—and more than that, a Christian leader—was nothing less than perfection. I lived in the crevasse of thinking that other leaders had it all together while knowing secretly that I was a mess. My outward dedication in ministry was really inward frantic hope-groping. So I hid. Saved up all my turmoil for behind closed doors. And though appearances carried me just above drowning, I couldn’t tread water much longer. I needed honest, vulnerable brothers and sisters in Christ. I needed broken leaders who were just as desperate for the gospel they preached. I needed confession and repentance and restoration. But I just hid.
Finding other refuges In addition to ministry, I chose several other lovers. I tried to keep them (1) noble, (2) excusable, or (3) secret. Most (1) noble was my desire to be involved in international missions. My false gospel said that to be acceptable I needed to go and suffer. As strange as it sounds, missions was partly a place for me to find refuge from the storm inside. And the nobility of it camouflaged me perfectly. Most (2) excusable was the treatment of my body. I went from being healthy to having no concern for self-control in eating, sleeping, or exercising. The neglect (or worship) of the body is typically excusable in Christian subculture, and it seemed a safe place to run for help. Most (3) secret was sexual immorality. When despair cornered me, I gave in. Looking and longing was conveniently secret. However, the guilt, shame, and condemnation only heaped up all the more as these refuge posers crumbled.
Overdoing introspection Allow me a little Sunday School digression. I’m bonkers for the story of Jesus walking on water. I still put myself in the narrative. Not in the walking, but the drowning. As Peter steps out of the boat, the Scriptures say that “when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!'” (Matthew 14:30). He plummets the very instant he focuses on himself. Bro—story of my life. Too much introspection coffins the soul ocean-deep. As R.L. Dabney put it, “The habit of introspection may be abused, to divert the eyes of the soul too much from Christ.” Is it good to realize my wretchedness? Heck yeah! Only the sick seek the doctor. But when I fail to lift up my eyes, I miss the Savior who’s lifting up my hands, pulling me from the plunge.
Now is he a sight to see.