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 moved my family across the continent from the small towns of New Hampshire to Los Angeles 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 our arrival.
We willingly sold our house and left everything and everyone 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 business that I had worked at for years. I moved our family in faith that God would provide for us 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.
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 and the rent cost twice as much as our 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 contemplated going straight back home. 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 that God 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 a condo on Craigslist and were actually 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 lived in 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 about them and had some friends in common from back home.
Further, our new landlord actually called the husband of this family, who happened to be the Director of Campus Safety, and got me a job at The Master’s University as a campus safety officer—a very coveted job by seminarians. He called me offering the job! 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 feelings of fear, regret, anxiety, and abandonment continued privately in my own heart. 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 pressure on me personally 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. Never had I had such an acute sense of my own weakness and inability, and it was crushing me—physically, spiritually, emotionally.
I was not eating or sleeping well and 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? 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. I was never an emotional person whatsoever and had never experienced anything like this before in my life.
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 heard a sermon in chapel by Dr. John Street from Hebrews 12 which had a profound impact on me. After emphasizing that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, he explained that the difficulties and hardships in life are 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. I knew I did not have this peace promised in the passage, but I strongly desired to have it. I began to search my heart and try to understand what was going on inside me. My paradigm was shifting from looking at the circumstances outside of myself to the beliefs and values in my heart.
After a few days of prayer, soul-searching, and heart-introspection, I came to a sudden realization—all of my fear, anxiety, and regret had to do with my finances. Every little bill I had to pay and every glance at my bank account stung and made me feel like I was being wrung out like 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, and stability that it brought to my life. These are the things I had lost, the things I could no longer feel, the things that my heart desperately desired.
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 my 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 continue to crush me, but I have begun to see them as a golden opportunity. The financial burden, the academic pressure, and the sleep deprivation together are like a wine press exposing me to heart issues 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. It is alarming to think that if I had stayed back home, I would 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 knowledge. 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. Never had I been so in tune with my own heart and never had I 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 rather than 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, dependency, and contentment and seeing their value in my relationships to God and others. I am content to be a simple, plain, and ordinary individual and to serve such an amazing, faithful, extraordinary God.
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 and a mind fixed on Jesus Christ, firmly founded on and structured by the objective truths of Scripture. I had given up a lot of things for the Lord and I also realized that I should not be looking for Him to reward me with more of these things that I had given up. My reward was Christ alone and I was 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. 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 whole heart was not His, but it needed to be in order for Him to use me and fully support me. I did not defeat depression and anxiety. They are feelings that often rise within my heart and still tempt me to despair. I realize that 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
“For the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.” 2 Chron. 16:9a