Back in 2019 I was becoming increasingly irritable and snappy. I found that my patience was in short supply and that I struggled to find joy and delight in things. Perhaps it was no surprise then when towards the end of the year I found myself diagnosed with Mixed Anxiety and Depressive Disorder. Things had built to a head so that I found myself one Sunday morning after church in tears and unable to carry on. I’ve written a bit of my story as part of a book published last year “The pastor with a thorn in his side” (edited by Steve Kneale).
Now, it would be easy to hide behind that diagnosis and use it as an excuse for my mood and behaviour at the time. Indeed, perhaps pressingly so because there has been a tendency at times for some Christians to talk about depression itself as sinful or at least a consequence of sin. As I’ve argued before, yes one potential cause of depression can be sin, both where someone carries guilt and shame for their own sin and where they experience the trauma of sinful behaviour such as bullying and abuse against them, however, there are all sorts of reasons for depression and sometimes it is simply unexplained.
So, it would be easy to say that my irritability and grumpiness was an outworking of my depression and a warning sign that things weren’t right. To some extent that would be true. I certainly wasn’t my usual self for much of that year. However there are two things that counter that. The first is this, an illustration I’ve used with others in pastoral counselling.
Take a glass of water and fill it to the brim. Knock against the side of it. What happens? That’s right, water spills out. Now, here is the all important question. Why does water spill out? We are tempted to say “Because I knocked it” However, the true answer is that water spills out because the glass was full up with the stuff. The water has to be present to spill. This illustration reminds us that our behaviours come from within (Matthew 15:18-20).
Secondly, I’ve learnt through life that health conditions don’t really tend to alter our personalities, they tend to highlight or magnify what is already there. Finding myself in a stressful, difficult context and becoming ill may have brought out the worst in me but that’s the point, it was the worst in me, not the worst in someone else.
Why does this matter? Well, I think our tendency in life is to try to excuse our sin. That is telling because it shows how much we continue to struggle with forgiveness and justification. When I remember that I’ve been forgiven and justified by faith not only for past sin but present and future too, it should help me to be open and honest about where my ongoing struggles are. It should encourage me into the daily battle of putting to death sinful desire.
Every day, we find ourselves in the pressure cooker of life. That’s where temptation comes, not through the devil turning up with cloven hooves and pitchfork to whisper in our ears or offer us an enticing deal but as we find ourselves facing different challenges. It’s here that the devil uses our circumstances to tempt us and God uses them to test us and refine us. For most of us, the biggest example of that in recent times has been the pandemic. Looking back over the past 2 years we may see lots of examples of encouragement, where God has tested and proved us through the pandemic. We may also look back with embarrassment at some episodes where the pandemic brought out the worst in us.
We may be tempted to blame our reactions on the stress of pandemic lockdowns. However, we would do better to see how the pandemic shone a light on our lives and highlighted things that were already present there, Then we can go to the Lord in repentance knowing that he is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us. We can ask him through his Holy Spirit to work in our lives so that those responses are replaced with the fruit of the Spirit.