True Stories of Service in the Midst of Suffering
“Your greatest area of usefulness to God may stem from your greatest area of pain.” Ron Dunn
Thursday, December 3, 2020, 6:00 a.m. MORNING GLOOM
I awake with lethargy of mind, body, and spirit. I plod down the hallway, I don’t walk. There’s nothing on the carpet impeding my steps, yet it feels like I’m trudging through foot-deep mud. Why is it taking so long to get to the kitchen?
This isn’t the mental fog so many people have when they get out of bed, the kind that dissipates when they gulp their first cup of coffee. This isn’t merely a physiological phenomenon of comatose brain cells that need caffeine to start firing again. No, this is an all-pervasive mist or gloom that blinds me to hope, obscuring my capacity to view the day ahead with optimism. I can’t see a reason to tackle the tasks on my “To Do” list, to go through the motions of another day without passion to work or to serve. I figure I’ll never see the light of day again, no matter how brightly the sun shines.
It isn’t that I just can’t seem to get going today. I don’t want to get going. If only I would have died in my sleep. Nothing matters anymore. There’s no use pretending that my life will ever be joyful and fruitful again.
December 3, 10:00 a.m. and Beyond A CRY FOR HELP
A message appears on my phone, originating from my penetratingthedarkness.com website. (It’s a blog on depression and faith. How ironic can things get?)
It’s from Chad, a local man I don’t know. He says he’s extremely depressed and unstable, binging on alcohol, distraught over separation from his wife. Six months ago, he viewed an online worship service of his church and saw a 30-minute interview with me, my testimony of God’s sustenance during recurring bouts of depression. A former student of mine who co-pastors the church used the interview that Sunday in lieu of a regular sermon. My testimony included lots of Scripture that God’s Spirit employs to minister to me. Chad wants to talk, to meet for breakfast the next day.
We meet at a restaurant almost filled to capacity despite the COVID-19 pandemic. I listen as he talks and weeps. He doesn’t seem to care that others nearby may see his tears. He’s desperate, expressing a willingness to see any counselor that I recommend or accept any means of intervention I think he needs. Chad feels safe talking to me, figuring I’ll understand the horrific despondency he’s experiencing.
Realizing that he needs someone above my pay grade to deal with his complex, intertwined issues, I offer to make some calls and find him the right kind of professional help. Before we separate for the day, I ask him to join me in my car while I pray for him. As I drive to my office, I pray for discernment in finding the right professional to help Chad.
I contact a Christian counselor with vast experience dealing with all three of Chad’s problem areas: depression, addiction, and marital problems. The counselor says, “How neat that he’s on the verge of getting help because of a church’s interview with you posted on its website six months ago! Your own pain isn’t for naught.” Chad sees the counselor on Tuesday, December 8. Right after he leaves the counseling session, Chad thanks me for my intervention and prayers. He really likes the counselor. They’ll meet weekly for a while. For the first time in months, hope penetrates the darkness inside Chad.
Pray for Chad (not his real name) and for discernment on the part of his counselor.
I didn’t feel deep compassion for Chad, since, as I previously described, I was in a spiritually dry and emotionally numb state myself. Yet I knew he needed help, and God’s Spirit clearly nudged me to meet with him and to act as a go-between.
Tuesday, December 8, 11:30 a.m. DEBILITATING DESPAIR
Not long after I heard from Chad about his initial visit to the counselor, a smothering gloom descends on me again. I sit on my office couch and stare out the window, looking at nothing in particular, emotionally immobilized. Sometimes my heart breaks when I’m depressed and tears cascade down my cheeks, even when I can’t identify a reason in my circumstances. On other occasions, I’m robotic and can’t feel a thing. I conclude that I’m merely taking up physical space. I can’t imagine feeling joy or anticipation ever again.
This is one of those days when numbness of spirit dominates. With a slow gait, I walk up and down the hallway outside my university office. I pass by a classroom where faculty in the College of Education will be meeting for a Christmas luncheon and fellowship. Though no one is in the room yet, I see that they spaced the seats to allow for some degree of physical separation. I see the decorations, notice the candles already lit and hear Christmas songs playing in the background. Oh, how inviting! For a moment I wish I belonged to that department of the faculty so I could attend.
The despondency suddenly shifts in its manifestation, away from a nonfeeling state to a deeply rooted heart pain that generates a few tears. Familiar gospel music has a way of penetrating my heart when it’s cold or hard. Aching loneliness quickly engulfs me.
It hits me that I don’t feel any sense of excitement or anticipation about Christmas this year. My mind assents to the incarnation of Jesus, to His death on the cross that dealt with my sin problem, and to the resurrection that gives an objective reason for hope in this fallen world. Yet “Joy to the World” is an abstract concept as I pass by that classroom, certainly not a description of my mood at that moment.
As I walk back toward my office, a loud yet inaudible inside voice taunts me. “Things will never get better for you, Terry! Your chronic back pain will only get worse the older you get. The loved one for whom you’re burdened will never return to faith. Your insomnia isn’t ever going away. The joy that is supposed to mark Christ’s followers will always elude you. The temptations to sin that you face will only grow stronger, while your resistance gets weaker. What’s the use of living!? End your life now before your term life policy expires. Think of what’s best for your wife!”
I pause outside the office of a colleague who’s familiar with my emotional ups and downs, who often encourages me. Her door is open. I tell her from a socially-approved distance, “I’m walking the hall looking for it. I’m turning my head this way and that, yet I cannot locate it. It’s too elusive. I just can’t find it anywhere…. a reason to live.”
She says, “You know that’s a lie of the enemy, don’t you?” As I walk away, I tell myself, “Yea, I know cognitively that I have good reasons to keep living. I know that the inside voice I heard was Satan speaking. I know not to live by feelings, but by what God says in His Word. But right now, I wish with all my heart that just once what I believe would seep into my affective domain and instill joy and carve on me a face-splitting grin. I saunter back to my office, sit on the couch, and stare blankly out the window again.
Wednesday, December 9, Noon MUTUAL MINISTRY
The week before I had read a Facebook post of a former student. He had been in my undergraduate major 30 years before. Frank lives alone, 40 miles from my hometown of Columbia. He needs a lung transplant due to a diagnosis of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). Before they’ll put him on a waiting list for the transplant, Frank needs a commitment from a caregiver who’ll take care of him for three months after the surgery. No blood relative is available to serve in that capacity.
I remember Frank well. I recall that, like me, he is prone to despondency. In his Facebook post, Frank said that he wishes God would come and sit beside him, to proclaim His love for him, to hold and to hug him. He yearns for an experience of divine presence that will convince him of God’s providential care and power.
Immediately, the Lord whispered, “Terry, My method of loving others is still incarnational. Contact Frank. I’ll be wearing your skin when I meet with him.”
Many years had passed since I had seen Frank. I messaged him on Facebook to see if I could treat him to a meal. We met for lunch on December 9. He carried a portable oxygen generator into the restaurant. For over an hour we caught up. My intent was to encourage him through my presence and my words. Yet He took a great deal of time informing me of how he had utilized the training in Bible teaching I had given him when he took my classes. For years, since I had last talked to him, he had taught an adult Sunday School class, up until his health forced him to relocate to be closer to a relative. He had lacked confidence when he entered my course on “Leading Bible Studies.” But he kept saying over lunch that my classroom workshops, my one-on-one encouragement as we discussed his lesson plans, and being forced to teach in the class had given him hope that God could use him as a teacher.
God knew full well that there were two men sitting at that table who needed encouragement.
Before we parted, I prayed for him and asked him to keep me updated on his health. I pleaded with him to call me if he became extremely depressed over his situation. I emphasized that I would come to him if he needed me for any reason. Yet as I drove away, I realized that he had encouraged me more than I had encouraged him. A simple chicken salad had never tasted so good!
Pray for Frank (not his real name). For a caregiver, for a successful transplant, and for a venue where he will eventually teach the Bible again.
Exegeting These Experiences
As I mull over my recent depressive episodes and the two encounters I’ve described, here are lessons I glean, in no particular order of importance.
- Satan is and always will be persistent in whispering lies to God’s people. No matter how long I live, teach, and write, he’ll always try to exploit the vulnerability caused by my depression to skew my thinking. He’s as determined to attack me (and you!) as a lion is when he’s seeking his prey (1 Peter 5:8). I’ll never reach a spiritual plateau high enough to escape his attempts to defeat me. My recourse must ever be “preaching to myself” the truth of God’s Word, reminding myself that its promises are far more reliable than my feelings. Fruitful living for a Christian requires a wartime mentality. As John Piper puts it in Future Grace, “No matter what causes despondency, we have a spiritual battle to fight. It is a battle of belief.”
- God doesn’t always choose to remove our physical or emotional affliction, but He’s always capable of redeeming it (Romans 8:28). That’s why I often pray, “Father, please don’t waste my pain!”
- Weaknesses of body, mind, and spirit do not disqualify us from usefulness to God and to others. In fact, those afflictions may explain our usefulness (1 Corinthians 1:26-29; 2 Corinthians 4:7, 12:9-10). When others see someone they know who’s weak, yet who’s accomplishing things for God, they instinctively realize that God’s power is the reason.
- I don’t have to feel like doing something good for others in order for the Lord to bless my action. When He coaxes us to do something for Him or for others, He honors obedience, no matter how we feel, as long as our motive for doing it is right. I’m slowly learning not to wait on a feeling to prompt me.
- God honors discreet transparency about our pain, and stories of how He sustains us in the midst of it. It’s okay if others see us as weak, so long as they see our Savior as strong.
- Our willingness to disclose struggles makes others who hurt more prone to come to us for help. They see us as a safe harbor in which to anchor their battered ships. The Lord comforts us in our affliction for the sake of others (2 Corinthians 1:3-11). Yet we must describe our pain before we explain how God has comforted us.
- Serving others is one means God uses to take our minds off of our own pain or troubling circumstances.
- If in response to others’ need for encouragement, we reach out to them, God may turn the tables and use them to boost our spirits (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Ministry isn’t usually a one-way venture. We receive the most when we give.
The Holy Spirit put a cap on my reflections by whispering, “Terry, I’ve chosen to use your depression instead of healing you of it. But don’t forget….your day is coming!” Then Revelation 21:4 popped into my mind. In the new heaven and the new earth, “He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall no longer be any death, there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Revelation 21:4).
Eternity is a whole lot longer than any of my depressive episodes.
When has the Lord unexpectedly used you to serve someone else, not in spite of your affliction, but because of it? Write to me and share your story.