The following is the story of my completely unexpected struggle with depression during my first semester of seminary and the important lessons that I learned along the way. It is much better to be overwhelmed with God than with your circumstances.
The Unforeseen Darkness
“Suffering exposes the sin in our hearts in a way that few things can. When our lives are trouble free, we can confuse personal satisfaction for faith. We can think that God is good, and we are pleased with him, though we might be pleased less with him than we are with the ease of our lives. Then, when life is hard—especially when life remains hard—the allegiances of our hearts become more apparent.” -Ed Welch
A Major Transition
In the summer of 2014, I uprooted and moved my family of five across the continent from the small towns of New Hampshire to Los Angeles County in order to pursue pastoral training at The Master’s Seminary. Although this was an exciting time in my family’s life, I did not anticipate the intense emotional turmoil that would engulf us upon arrival.
We willingly sold our house and left everyone and everything familiar to us. My wife and I left both our families we depended on, the friends we grew to love, and church we helped plant. I left the family painting business where I had worked since I was twelve. Not knowing where I would live, where I would go to church, what I would do for work, or how I would complete my homework and still find time to be a husband and father—I moved our family in faith that God would provide for us.
A Major Disorientation
When we arrived in Santa Clarita, we were completely disoriented and overcome with intense feelings of fear, regret, and even abandonment by God. We moved into a culture radically different from the one we were accustomed to. We moved into a condo that was half the size of our house with the rent alone twice as much as our former mortgage. Our kids no longer had a yard to play in. They literally paced back and forth in the condo and complained it was “too tiny.”
After moving all our boxes and furniture into the house, we were completely overwhelmed and felt trapped in a place completely foreign to us. We did not unpack for a few days. Instead, my wife and I cried together and seriously started to contemplate what going straight back home would look like. After studying Matthew 6 together and getting some encouragement from friends, family, and pastors, we finally unpacked and began to settle down and settle in. We were reminded of God’s presence as he promised to be with us wherever we go.
God had even revealed Himself to us in some clear, providential ways. While still in NH, we applied to the condo on Craigslist and were chosen out of a large pool of people because we were from NH. We found this to be odd and the owner explained to us that her father had lived in Manchester, NH, and also that a family from NH had lived in their condo for six years. We had never met this other family, but knew of them and even had some mutual friends back home.
Further, our new landlord actually called this family because the husband just happened to be the Director of Campus Safety at The Master’s University. He called to invite me to interview for some potential security guard positions—a very coveted job by seminarians. Although it paid much less than I was used to, it worked around my classes, provided health insurance for my entire family, and afforded me much homework time—allowing me to actually spend time with my family during the week. God had proven himself faithful once again!
A Major Obstruction
Over time though, those stubborn feelings of fear, regret, anxiety, and abandonment remained—they persisted privately in my own heart and I pushed them down. Although I had always believed in the sovereignty of God—that He is all-powerful, infinitely wise, and completely good—I felt myself doubting Him for the first time in my life. There was a lot of intense pressure on me—all at once—as a husband, a father, the sole provider, and now a graduate student. Because of the regret, homesickness, culture shock, sleep deprivation, academic pressure, and financial burden that I faced daily, I fell into a deep depression. All these things combined were like an unbearable weight upon me. Feelings of anxiety and melancholy were present all the time (and at this point) I couldn’t diagnose the problem. Never had I had such an acute sense of my own weakness and inability, and it was crushing me—emotionally, physically, spiritually.
I was not eating or sleeping well. I was losing weight. I was constantly crying for what seemed like no reasons at all. I was just sad and didn’t really know why. I remember pushing the cart in a Sam’s Club behind my family, looking up at them and weeping for them. What had I done to them? Why did I uproot them? How would I lead them when I’m such a mess? Part of me thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life and I was struggling to figure out how in the world I was going to provide for them. For months I cried in my car on the way to and from seminary. It wasn’t because of the traffic, it was just everything. This was totally out of character for me. I was never an emotional person prior to my move and had never experienced anything like this before in my life. That is why it was so shocking—so difficult to ignore.
I am a rugged, self-sufficent, introverted New Englander. Maybe this was part of the problem. I found myself to be like the disciple Peter. I had willingly stepped out on the water in faith to follow Christ, and I too suddenly became overwhelmed by the waves of my circumstances. I felt like Moses, who had seen an amazing manifestation of the glory of God, yet I too could not get over my own weakness and inability. This was an unexpected tempest, an unforeseen darkness in my life.
The Unexpected Light
“Afflictions are as nails, driven by the hand of grace, which crucify us to the world. Afflictions are then blessings to us when we can bless God for afflictions; whose single view in causing us to pass through the fire, is only to separate the sin He hates from the soul He loves.” –Augustus Toplady
Halfway through my first semester, I had a major illuminating moment. In chapel, one of my professors, Dr. John Street, preached a message from Hebrews 12 which I will always remember. He underscored the comforting truth that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. But then he deduced that the difficulties and hardships in a believer’s life are intentionally used by God as discipline—in order to reveal to us the sin in our hearts so that we might share in His holiness. He explained that after discipline has done its intended work it brings forth the peaceful fruit of righteousness. I began to see my predicament as discipline from the Lord. This promised peace was palpably missing in my life and I strongly desired to have it. I began to search my heart and try to diagnose what was going on inside me. My paradigm had now shifted. I was no longer looking outward at my circumstances for answers, but inward at the beliefs, hopes, and values of my heart.
After a few days of prayer, soul-searching, and heart-introspection, I came to a shocking realization—all of my fear, anxiety, and regret had to do with my finances. I discovered a pattern: every little bill I had to pay and every glance at my bank account stung like I was being wrung out as a wet towel, releasing feelings of fear and anxiety. It became clear that I was not trusting in God, but in my resources, to provide for my family’s needs and fulfill all of my responsibilities. I realized that I did not know how to trust God because I had always had plenty of monetary means and comfort. I realized that I loved money—not that I desired to be rich or to accumulate a lot of it, but still—I loved the security, comfort, hope, and stability that it brought to my life. I was looking to finances to give me what only God could provide.
I confessed my love/worship/idolatry of money as a serious offense against God and I repented of it. For the first time in my life, I realized just how godless, prideful, and self-sufficient I was. As soon as I confessed it to the Lord and forsook it, it was as if a huge, crushing burden was removed from my back and a thick, blinding fog was lifted from my mind. I moved from self-sufficiency to finding total sufficiency in God alone. I moved from disorientation in the storm to being completely oriented on my Savior.
The rigors of this busy, uncertain life continued to crush me, but I began to see them as blessings rather than curses. The financial burden, the academic pressure, and the sleep deprivation together were like a wine press exposing me to heart issues that I was unaware of in my state of comfort back home. We cannot begin to repent from and mortify the sins rooted deep down in our hearts until we are made aware of them.
Praise God for the pressure of trials! They are truly for our good. Emotions are not a sign of weakness, but of spiritual vitality. They show that God is intimately and actively at work in our hearts. He is transforming us into the image of his Son. It is alarming to think that if I had stayed back home, I could still be unaware of my pride, self-sufficiency, and my idolatry of comfort and ease. This trial has turned my head knowledge of God into experiential and practical wisdom. My theology is no longer intellectual only, but it has become useful for my life. And I now have a deeper affection, dependence, and desperation for my Savior in my heart and in my daily life.
Those first six months in CA were very difficult to say the least, but I would not give them up for anything. They were the most revealing and rewarding of my life. Although excruciating, I had never been so in tune with my own heart. Although intensely distressing, I had never been refined so much in such a short period of time. God had freed me from much fear, anxiety, and frustration, but more importantly, He had freed me from myself.
Financially, he had freed me from my self-sufficiency—I learned to eagerly seek after his kingdom and not momentary and monetary gain. Relationally, He had freed me from my self-consciousness—I learned not to be enslaved by other people’s opinions of me and to serve them and seek their help rather than simply seek their approval. Academically, I had been freed from my self-doubt—I learned that I am capable of more than I give myself credit for. Domestically, I had been freed from my self-centeredness—never had I been so engaged at home as a husband and a father.
The Unforgettable Lessons
Jesus, I my cross have taken, All to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken, Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition, All I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition! God and heaven are still my own.
I am continually learning the art of weakness, vulnerability, and dependency. As uncomfortable and counterintuitive as they are, I clearly see their value in my relationships to God and others. I am content to be a simple, ordinary—and weak— individual and to serve such an amazing, faithful, extraordinary God who cares deeply for me and my family.
There are certain things that provide us with a considerable amount of momentary security and comfort—a life filled with familiar people and places, a bank account filled with money, a tank filled with gas, and fridge filled with food. But there is something far greater that provides us with the grandest sense of security—a heart filled with the Holy Spirit, eyes fixated on Jesus Christ, and a mind firmly founded on and structured by the objective truths of Scripture. I had given up a lot of things for the Lord. I now realize his promise of provision was not to replenish the things that I had given up. He provides what we need, not what we want. He replenished my faith. My reward was Christ. I am content with Him. He is enough.
I am daily learning more and more what it means to trust Him. Pleading with God to increase our faith is a difficult thing. Should we be looking for more substance and more sight when the very thing we are asking for is quintessentially the absence of these things? Reckless faith, deep convictions, and a robust optimistic hope are neither blind nor irrational, but rooted and grounded in something—namely Someone—much more reliable than substance and sight. We must look beyond the substance that is tangible and beyond the circumstances that are visible to our the God who loves us, sees us, is with us, and is completely committed to our good—and ultimately our holiness. No matter how difficult the circumstances, we can be confident that He is seeking to purify us and make us like His Son.
The biggest lesson I have learned in seminary is that the two extremes of pride and despair are the direct result of an intense focus on self which must be replaced with an intense, unrivaled focus on Jesus Christ alone. In the difficulties of seminary life I found freedom, not from my weaknesses, but from my self-sufficiency. I have learned the benefit of weakness. Weakness is not at all a disadvantage if it makes us dependent upon God.
I came to seminary pridefully thinking I could do it in my own strength and I was dead wrong. Seminary was physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, and spiritually exhausting. But for the first time in my life, I was brought to the very end of myself only to discover an infinite and inexhaustible fountain of resources in my God. We walk a fine line between diligence and dependence, but the former is worthless without the latter.
These were necessary life lessons I know God brought into my life at the right time to prepare me for pastoral ministry. My life verse through seminary was 2 Chronicles 16:9a which says, “For the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.” My whole heart was not His. He revealed this to me and then fully supported me when I needed him most. I did not defeat depression and anxiety. They are feelings that often rise within my heart and still tempt me to despair in times of trials and unfulfilled desires. Faith and repentance are life-long pursuits, but because of the trials I’ve been through and the lessons I’ve learned along the way, my reaction time is much faster. I look back on this difficult time and I thank God for my depression.
“Although the Word of God tackles not only obvious problems, but unearths, and ultimately solves, hidden ones too, the living Word thoroughly, adequately, and graciously deals with us and our people, problems and all. Through death the pastor must die to self, the life of Christ appears in His people. There it is: Conflict! Cost! Crucifixion! ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ None of us. ‘Our sufficiency is of God.’ But it is when we see the cost of a real work of God in terms of human agony and sacrifice that we see whether our calling to the ministry is of God or is a mere romantic notion.” –William Still