When your pastor gets depressed (3) Is it sin?

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You may remember that a few weeks back I wrote about being offered Biblical Counselling when depressed and the implication behind that approach to counselling that the cause of depression is some buried sin from the past. There is a real danger when dealing with the problem of depression that we immediately assume that the cause is some terrible sin, that the sufferer is harbouring a dark secret.

However, I want to suggest that we can go to the opposite extreme. This is true of suffering generally. When someone says “was suffering caused by sin” we instinctively and rightly want to reference Luke 13 and the man born blind to say that “no it was not caused directly by a person’s sin although we are all affected by the consequences of living in  a sinful world.”

Yet we know that sin can have more of a direct relationship to suffering. When my suffering is caused by intentional violence, bullying, abuse, slander of a tormentor or when it is caused by negligence and recklessness of others then we can see sin at work.

This does mean that my sin can either be the cause, play a part or exacerbate and prolong my own suffering, including depression.  Past trauma and grief can be the cause of depression and that trauma may well be that I’ve hidden guilt and shame, buying it deep for years.  It could be that I’ve nursed a grievance until the anger has grown into bitterness that has nibbled away at my heart and mind, consuming me over many years. Pastors are saved sinners and are just as capable as anyone else of burying sin and guilt deep.

Furthermore, it is possible to respond to opposition, persecution and suffering in sinful ways. We highlighted this yesterday when we talked about the risk of seeking solace and attempting to maks pain in substance abuse. Again, if I respond to the bullying and abuse of others by nursing a grievance and becoming bitter than that will not help my mental health.

Finally, pastors can be prone to the belief that the church is dependent upon them leading to unhealthy practices.  This can include

  • Becoming workaholics and failing to take time to rest, to care for your mind and your body.
  • Pursuing agendas at cost to the church believing that the success of its mission is dependent upon your plans, dreams and visions being realised. When this becomes the cause of conflict in the church then we need to take responsibility for that.
  • Beginning to see yourself almost as a saviour figure, putting yourself in at the heart of conflict, becoming the lightening rod as you try to be the mediator. You can convince yourself that if you don’t do this, lives will get damaged and/or the church will split. So you end up putting yourself in harms way, soaking up all the poison. 
  • Again by believing that the church is dependent upon you or even out of fear that you will become surplus to requirements one day, you can end up failing to share the burden with others.

In each example there, a pastor risks allowing sinful behaviour to cause him emotional harm. However, it is also important to recognise that even more than that, he risks causing damage to his own spiritual walk, causing harm to the body of Christ, the church and hindering the work of the Gospel by bringing dishonour to it.

It is important that we guard our hearts and minds. We need to recognise that depression is not a get out jail card to excuse our behaviours or to deflect scrutiny and accountability.  It is important that where we have sinned against others that we take time to repent, confess and to seek forgiveness and restoration. Indeed, this also is essential to emotional healing too. Recognising that pastors sin too is essential to healthy church life and dependent on a robust and deep understanding of the Gospel. It is because I know that the Gospel is about God’s grace and results in me being justified by faith that I can own and confess my sin. Confessing and repenting ones own sins is perhaps one of the best things that pastors can do in order to serve the church.

In other words, we need to get a greater grasp of grace. Without grace, without knowing that I’m justified by faith alone, then as a pastor, I’m more likely to bite my tongue and pretend that nothing is up. I’m more likely to fear the judgement of others. Without grace, as church members we are more likely to judge, we are more likely to be bewildered and demoralised when we discover that the man we put on a pedestal has feet of clay, we are more likely to make depression and the failings of our pastor taboo subjects in case that weakens the reputation of our church.

Grace brings love, compassion, honesty, confession, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation to the situation and these are great balms for deep wounds.

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