How Long, Oh Lord?: Wrestling With an Anxious Heart in Ministry

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It has been said that there are only two guarantees in life: death and taxes. I believe we should amend this phrase and add anxiety to the mix of guarantees. Anxiety is an inevitable reality of existing in the fallen world in which we daily live. Anxiety is familiar to all, experienced by many and understood by few.

In my current season of life, I am learning more about anxiety than I have ever cared to know. Sometimes we walk with others through the tumultuous battle of anxiety. Other times, anxiety comes knocking on our front door. For the past year or so, anxiety has become a personal battle for me that I never imagined I would struggle with in my own life.

To provide a bit of context, during the last two years my family has experienced a good bit of difficulty. First, I served in a context that went through a turbulent transitional period in ministry. Second, my wife’s sister unexpectedly passed away just a few short days after giving birth to her son. Not long after that, my wife and I learned we were pregnant while simultaneously responding to God’s call to serve in a church nearer to our “home” in North Alabama. So, in the midst of preparing to bring a child into the world we were saying goodbye to one church, selling one house, shopping for another and starting a brand new ministry at a new church. Needless to say, my blood pressure suffered.

When we returned to North Alabama, I began to experience anxiety-related issues that I had never dealt with in my life. I struggled to sleep, so much so that I found myself rejoicing over just four hours of sleep in a night. I started having stomach issues, which upon further investigation turned out to be an ulcer. In my first 30 days at my new church, I lost 15 pounds because I was so sick. Many will be happy to know that I have recently “re-found” those 15 pounds, and they are back where they belong. The worst of the newfound issues I experienced were panic attacks. I began to have panic attacks that I couldn’t explain. One minute I would be watching television, and the next I’d be in bed in the dark, unable to move. The worst panic attack put me in bed for 48 hours.

I write all this to say: Sometimes in our desire to glorify God and serve the church well that we may face debilitating anxiety. As I reflect on this recent struggle, I pray that the lessons I am learning may be encouraging to you for the journey you are on in your life and ministry.

  1. My shoulders aren’t strong enough to handle the weight of my anxiety. Sometimes as ministers we unintentionally develop a hero complex. We get used to handling all sorts of issues and are often reluctant to delegating. The desire to shoulder the burdens of ministry is ever-present for those of us who serve the church. I am learning now, more than ever, that this is a dangerous disposition to have in ministry. I am truly learning what it means to minister in spite of my inadequacy. I am thankful for Peter’s words when he tells us to “cast all our anxieties on the Lord because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). In this text, Peter reveals that we are not strong enough to shoulder the anxiety that we will wrestle with.
  2. Crying out to God reflects spiritual maturity, not weakness. At the risk of stating the obvious, God’s Word is awesome. It is useful, it is encouraging, but most importantly it is sufficient to help us navigate difficulty. In this season, the book of Habakkuk has become one of my favorite books of Scripture. There hasn’t been a week in the last five months where I haven’t referenced or read through Habakkuk. Habakkuk was a prophet who found himself in a difficult situation. In the face of difficulty, Habakkuk cries out to God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you Violence and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:2-3). Here we see Habakkuk seek God in the face of great anxiety. And it is here that we see crying out to God demonstrates spiritual maturity not weakness. As we cry out to God, we communicate that He is sovereign and we are not. When Habakkuk has no answers, he looks to the One who does. It is here that I began to think about all the times the phrase: “How long, O Lord?” is mentioned throughout Scripture. The phrase is mentioned regularly throughout the Psalms. Psalm 13 is particularly poignant. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1). The context is similar: pain, desperation, anxiety. I have returned to this thought since wrestling with anxiety. How long, O Lord, will I be anxious? We must be willing to cry out to God when life gets heavy, it is only through Him that we will be sustained.
  3. Community is vital. In my new ministry context, my wife and I have found some of the best friends we could have ever hoped for in ministry. This has been so helpful in my battle with anxiety. I am learning the value of a faithful friend. I pray that every minister will have quality friends wherever you serve. It has helped anchor us when we are unsteady. Our friends have supported us, loved us and helped stir our affections for Christ. It has been a sweet season in that regard.
  4. Seek professional help if needed. When my anxiety was at its worst, I reached out to a mentor of mine who had been pushing me to seek counseling for a while. I called him and asked for him to be in prayer for my anxiety because it was beginning to be too much. His answer floored me. He said, “I will not pray for you until you finally go to counseling like you said you would.” I had been promising him for months that I would make an appointment and seek counseling but, for the sake of pride or embarrassment, I had not done so. Finally, because of his prodding and the encouragement of my wife, I made an appointment and began to go to counseling. I reluctantly went to my first appointment with my counselor (who ironically is a former pastor) and told him that I didn’t want to be there. A few months in, it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. It has helped me talk through some things and has helped me see things from a different perspective. To the minister struggling with anxiety or depression, please seek counseling. Get over your pride or embarrassment, and talk to someone.  For months, I was too embarrassed to admit I was seeing a counselor for risk of sounding soft or having others look at me differently. The opposite has occurred. I have learned that there are many folks out there who share the same struggle. I have even had a few Gospel conversations because I shared my battle with anxiety with someone. Talk to someone. Don’t shoulder the burden on your own.

Drake Whitten serves as student pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Hazel Green.

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