He showed up in the middle of the afternoon, sat down on the couch, and began to read from the notes he had taken from sermons preached by his pastor. He was reading words that had brought him hope out loud to the very man who had preached those words. The pastor sat there expressionless and numb; hardly able to hear him. I know. I was that pastor.
For the first time in my life I was experiencing the sharp daggers of depression. The pain was screaming so loud I couldn’t hear what he was reading. Not only did I have no hope, I wanted out of the pain and suicide seemed like the only way. Days were long and nights were even longer. Despair was a close friend. I had fallen into a deep hole—bottomless—that seemed to have come straight from the pits of hell.
That day was fifteen years ago. It’s been a long and at times a very slow journey since then. I’m thankful to have experienced all the pain and difficulties because today my life has more meaning and hope than ever before. Yet I never want to have to walk through that kind of pain again!
Fifteen years ago I was a pastor in a large growing dynamic church. My whole life was wrapped in and around that role. I was driven to do; to succeed; to conquer. Truth be told, the church was my idol. My relationship with the Lord was one of necessity so I could worship my idol and find my worth in my accomplishments. The church had grown from 800 to thousands in worship on Sunday mornings. While those close to me knew I could be demanding and hurtful, and had a long line of broken relationships behind me, they were most likely too afraid to say a word about it. By the time I crashed and burned I had most everyone around me convinced that they needed help, not me.
I had cried out to the Lord over and over to help me. The faster the church grew the more my private life reeled out of control. I felt like I had a monster inside of me that I couldn’t control anymore. On a Monday night in early May 1995 the Lord answered my prayer for help. Because He loves me He allowed me to feel the consequences of my out-of-control actions and risk-taking behaviors during an extended manic episode which ended in a very public humiliating way.
Now the pastor who had preached forgiveness, mercy and grace, desperately needed it himself. I needed hope. Hope was awfully hard to find in those initial days. However, there was a small group of people who understood that the accusations I faced were a result of being bipolar. The diagnosis that came some four months later was not an excuse for any of my crazy behaviors. Instead it was the explanation for them. Today I am a joyful and healthy pastor of the church started by that small group of people.
There were those at the time who said my career was over and that I was no longer fit for ministry. However, going through that pain and hurt makes me a much better pastor today than ever before. Today I am able to comfort others with the comfort that I experienced in those days so many years ago. There are so many things that I have learned about recovery and faith. Here are just a few of those things:
Having a mental disorder is not a moral issue nor is it a faith issue. It’s a physiological issue.
Since we are both body and spirit (the brain is part of the body- its organic) the best way to minister to our spirit and our mind is to read or listen to the word of God. I found in my deepest depression that simple music taken directly from the Scriptures seemed to sooth my soul. I listened to the same songs for months. Because concentration was such work hearing the songs over and over helped my spirit, mind and soul to absorb them.
The book of Psalms is a storehouse of truth and hope. Psalms like 23, 37, 42 etc. gave me great hope! It sure helped me to know that David most likely faced some pretty significant depression himself.
Mental illness affects our actions and behavior. Sometimes those actions are inappropriate and may even be sinful. But, those actions and behaviors are symptoms of the illness. Many of the things that many of us have done over the years were not choices that we made so much as the results of messed up brain chemistry. However, I’m still responsible for my actions and behaviors.
Never ever stop. The Bible is full of this kind of encouragement. When you are going through hell, don’t stop! Or you end up there! When you are catching hell, don’t hold it. The only time it’s over is if you quit. When you fall, get back up; that’s what the Psalmist says.
Choose to forgive (which of course is a process) those who have hurt you because they don’t “get it”. However, if they continue to hurt you they are not safe people and it’s OK to end the relationship. There’s nothing unchristian about that.
Just as there are people who are not safe, there are churches and pastors that are not safe. If a church doesn’t recognize mental health as a health issue but as a spiritual issue—run! There are toxic churches and toxic leaders. Recovery is hard enough. You don’t need it to be harder within the very place that is to be a safe place of support.
Watch out for “shame-based-grace” within the church. You’ll find it in any and all demonstrations and non-denominations. Jesus forgives. He offers grace. And He NEVER adds a “but” after he forgives. If you hearing things like, “Oh yes, of course you are forgiven. And yes, we love you. But…” watch out. A lot of people in the Christian church have a much distorted view of God’s grace and forgiveness based on a performance orientation in their lives.
Never forget how much God loves you! He loves you. He won’t leave you. He’s for you. And with Him for you—who can be against you? No one! Not even yourself!!! You may not always feel like these things are true. Don’t confuse that which is true with that which you feel. Faith is based on truth not feelings. Let God love you. I’m convinced that the hardest thing that most of us have to do is to “let” God love us.
Laugh at yourself. Take yourself less seriously. Laughter is a great gift from the Lord and sometimes I look in the mirror and think, “Oh Lord, what a sense of humor you have!” I’m convinced we need to laugh and be hugged more!
Stay away from Christians who act as though they have it all together. No one has it all together. We are all in process. No one has “arrived”. No one gets to cast the first stone. It’s too easy to feel like we are second class citizens in the body of Christ. But, we are not! In fact, we are all a bunch of beggars telling other beggars where to find the food.
Know that people’s opinions are like belly buttons—everyone has got one! Really the only opinions that matter are the opinions of those who love us and most importantly what the Lord has to say about us! And He has only good things to say about you through and because of His Son!
Brad Hoefs is the pastor of Community of Grace Church in Elkhorn, NE. ( www.communityofgrace.net ) He has a beautiful wife, Donna, who has put up with him for over 30 years. Together they have two grown children, both married, and two grandchildren. They also head up an online subscription based worship resource ministry called WorshipOutlet. Last year Brad started a Christian support group for those who suffer from mood disorders plus their loved ones called Fresh Hope ( www.FreshHope.us ). Within 9 months of starting the group they had reached twice as many people as they have in the church! A second Fresh Hope group started this past January with more being planned. One of the blogs Brad writes is called “Fresh Hope” and can be found by going to: www.fresh-hope.blogspot.com Brad serves on several task forces for one of the leading health care systems in Omaha, Nebraska