The Pastor's Spring of Tears

I have been in ministry for twenty years. And I have warred with clinical depression just as long. This is going to be a bittersweet article.

I’m told that soldiers go home seeking long and happy lives in peace. In this world, however, there is no such thing for the pastor. Do they have the right to retire? I don’t mean from work. I’m talking about retirement from that which Paul defines in 2 Timothy 2:3:

“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”

Are we allowed reprieve from the skirmishes of severe joys and sorrows that accompany conforming to Christ and adhering to his mission?

Are we allowed reprieve from the skirmishes of severe joys and sorrows that accompany conforming to Christ and adhering to his mission?

Unfortunately, this question wasn’t explored at the outset of my faith journey. Christianity was preached and displayed solely as God’s provision of a long and happy life in peace. What a challenge it was to grow up and find that to be only part of the story.

I understand the reasoning. Awakening to sin and Savior is worthy of “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8). As a friend once said, salvation suddenly makes the grass greener and the sky bluer. It brings freedom and purpose and hope and rest. It restores to Christ—so, really, it brings everything. The life saved from God’s wrath should indeed be esteemed, while the poor soul still forsaken must surely be pitied. It’s stirringly true, and thoroughly real.

Yet I find that the Scriptures give space to another complex layer of the pastor’s life. Despite our eternal destination, we stay on in this world to wage war with Satan, sin, and flesh. Though battles are fought for us and our ultimate victory is sealed, we win some and lose some in the daily human experience. This is not to mention the disciplinary rod, with which God lovingly shepherds us as sons, sometimes feels overly-chastening.

Meanwhile, those apart from Christ, though flailing and puppeted by Satan, sin, and flesh, seem to enjoy the unhindered freedom of civilian life. Sex and motive and gain and leisure, though not without consequence, are commonly wielded by unbelievers to the maximum of their pleasure. Their anthem is, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). A hopeless song indeed; yet, a siren song for too many.

Let’s be honest, for pastors there are moments in which we couldn’t drum up a song-in-our-hearts if the whole angelic choir accompanied us. Perhaps that was too hyperbolic, but the Scripture bears witness to our struggles:

“You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again.” Psalm 71:20

“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” Ecclesiastes 7:2–4

“He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.’” Lamentations 3:16-18

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4

“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” 2 Corinthians 1:8

“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” James 4:8–10

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 1:6–7

So there is room in the Scriptures for the often sad and consistently hard realities of the pastor’s experience.

So there is room in the Scriptures for the often sad and consistently hard realities of the pastor's experience.

Reflecting on Charles Spurgeon’s debilitating struggles with depression, Zack Eswine says, “In this fallen world sadness is an act of sanity, our tears the testimony of the sane.”

Artists Shane and Shane mourn this earthen oxymoron in song:

"It haunts me so this gloomy weight

That comes and goes without a trace

A thousand times my flesh embrace

A thousand more but if for grace

That I might see this day, this waging war

Might go away and be no more

That I might see his face and hear him say,

‘Son, welcome home, the war is over’ "

Even John Steinbeck acknowledged in East of Eden that “joy and sorrow [are] felted into one fabric.”

Sorrow should not and shall not have the final word for the pastor, but it will have a periodic word nonetheless. Why would we act as though all is always well? Though peering through a dim mirror of tears, can’t we take strength in those tears being fed by a common spring of joy and sorrow?

Though “ordinary mourners [may] sip at sorrow’s bowl…[Jesus] drains it dry.” This is how we are fully endeared to a Savior who suffered for us.

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