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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

When Preachers sing the Blues

September 11, 2015 •

There is a subterranean dimension to being a preacher that those who are not preachers often do not see and those who are often try to keep buried. It’s the fact there is a dark side to ministering God’s word and it has a profound impact on those whose calling it is to do so.

A preacher friend of mine captured it well in terms of his own experience when he said, ‘Every Monday morning I resign from the ministry; but by Tuesday I’m back, because I have nowhere else to go!’ What surprised me about his comment was that the friend in question was by no means a bad preacher; quite the opposite. He was and is a delight to listen to and the benefits of his ministry are plain to see in the churches he has served over the years. But his remark resonated with me and I have seen it echoed repeatedly in the lives of many other men who preach – not least in those who are just starting out in the ministry.

It might be tempting to try and analyse this phenomenon psychologically and link it to the statistics of the kind of temperament those who enter the ordained ministry often have. But I suspect that would be of limited value – not least because the conclusions to which it led would not make sense. Not all ministers who struggle in this way are temperamentally prone to depression. Indeed, the opposite is often the case.

Interestingly, this issue comes out in the Bible in relation to men whose calling is to proclaim the word of God. Elijah is a case in point. His experience after the contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1Ki 19.1-18) certainly involves a deeply psychosomatic reaction to the intensity of what he had just come through bound up with a sense of perplexity over what God was doing through it all.

Something similar emerges in the experience of David in Psalms 42 and 43. Even though he was not called to be a prophet; there was, nevertheless, a prophetic element in the psalms he composed that were to find a place in Scripture. Here too we find a dark complexity in David’s response to his situation, trying to make sense of God’s purpose in how it was unfolding.

As with what Elijah experienced at Mount Horeb in Kings, so here it would be wrong to try to explain this merely in terms of what clinicians today would call ‘depression’. A careful reading of the psalms together does not allow for this. However, there are clearly deep mental and emotional components to his reaction to the circumstances he was facing.

Perhaps the most potent example of the kind of struggles bound up with word ministry is found in Jeremiah’s ‘complaint’ to God in chapter 20 of his prophecy. It is expressed in a very candid monologue addressed directly to God and begins with a statement that verges on the blasphemous: ‘O Lord, you have deceived [seduced] me and I was deceived [seduced]’ (20.7). The prophet’s choice of words took him to the very edge of what was appropriate in speaking to God; yet he reached for them as the only way of expressing the turmoil he was experiencing within his soul.

He goes on to expand on his assertion by linking it specifically to his calling as a prophet tasked with proclaiming the word God had given him, summing it up with the claim, ‘So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long’ (20.8). The fact that this statement is included alongside the record of his being placed in the stocks in Jerusalem as punishment for the message he was proclaiming well explains how literally true it was. But the twist comes in what he says next: ‘But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot’ (20.9).

Even though every fibre of his being was crying out to quit, he knew he could not. The very thing that caused him so much pain – proclaiming the word – was too much part of him to walk away from it. And that is the paradox that so many ministers face. They almost certainly will not have found themselves shackled to the local pillory and may not even have had a ‘bad sermon day’, but nevertheless part of them wants to just walk away from this calling God has given them. Yet almost in the same instant they feel its overwhelming constraint to keep on with the work they’ve been given. Even to the point, like Jeremiah, of feeling as though the word was like a fire in their bones burning to be declared. (Or as with my friend: resigning every Monday only to be reinstated every Tuesday!)

As the monologue continues, so Jeremiah continues in this more positive vein. Even though the external discomfort of his opponents is all too real he declares his confidence in God who is ‘with [him] as a might warrior’ (20.11). He knows he will be sustained and protected, not through what he is in himself, but through what God has promised to be to him and do for him. Indeed he escalates his confidence even further with an exhortation for all who believe to, ‘Sing to the Lord! Give praise to the Lord! He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked’ (20.13).

Yet amazingly – and seemingly irrationally – in the very next breath he declares, ‘Cursed be the day I was born!’ (20.14). And he continues into an outpouring of apparent despair right through to the end of the chapter with no apparent relief. And that is where the paradox of Jeremiah’s experience is felt in a way that is all too familiar for many of the Lord’s servants through the ages. Much as he and those who, like him, are entrusted with the ministry of the word long for relief from the darkness that so often seems to accompany being an agent of light, it does not always come.

There is a discussion all in itself as to why this is so. In no small part it is bound up with the very real existence of the prince of darkness and his dark minions who have a vested interest in disrupting the work of the gospel wherever it is proclaimed – Paul certainly knew that. But that is for another time.

There is, however, a strange comfort for us ministers – even in the gloom of our ‘Preachers’ Mondays’ – to know that if the Jeremiahs of this world (not to mention the Martin Luthers, John Calvins and Charles Spurgeons) went through such periods of darkness and despair, we are not alone. And just as God, the Mighty Warrior, stood by them, so too with us and fulfill his strong purpose through our weakness!

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