When I arrived at Southern Seminary’s campus in August 2013, I’d already been living in China for eight years and was leading a small missions organization there that I’d helped start a couple years earlier. I’d taken some classes online at Southern, but to get the MDiv I knew I had to squeeze in as many classes as I could during our year living on-campus. So I studied day and night, 7 am to 10 pm, 7 days a week, stopping only to go to church and to class. I continued this pattern okay for about three months, then suddenly hit a serious wall, which was in the form of intense anxiety which lasted from late November to early February.
During that period, I hated being around people, dreaded going to church or class, or really doing anything at all. I’d feel great anxiety and fear in those situations. It was an incredibly dark and lonely time for me. Previously I’d imagined that our year living on the Southern campus would be a year of great encouragement and growth. I didn’t imagine at all that I’d be living in such a dark and lonely time while at seminary.
As I think about that period, I thank the Lord for pulling me out of that dark psychological state that I was in. At that time, I wondered if that was just going to be how I would be for the rest of my life, struggling with great anxiety. I had fears that we actually weren’t going to be able to return to China after all, because of this debilitating anxiety. But the Lord is faithful, and he restored my spirit. It wasn’t immediate, but over time the Lord really did pull me out.
Less Is More
There were a few things that really helped me during that time. I started to do a twenty-minute workout each morning, just two sets each of push-ups and sit-ups. Though very simple, doing this daily went a long ways for refreshing me. I’ve found that doing some kind of regular physical exercise is so important for persevering in ministry. When I’m regularly exercising, I just feel better physically and have more energy. I wonder how I could ever get away from exercising. But once I get away from it for a period, it’s so hard to get back to it.
On top of starting to exercise daily, the Lord convicted me — through the kind and blunt intervention of my wife — to take appropriate rests. I stopped studying on weekends and weeknights. I only studied from seven to five, Monday through Friday. I started to have family days each Saturday where my family and I would start going out to explore different places or parks in beautiful Louisville. We took a family trip together for spring break. When I was studying all the time and not taking any breaks, my schoolwork was all-consuming to me. It was all I thought about and it was a huge burden for me. But once I started taking breaks each day and each week, my schoolwork suddenly was no longer all-consuming like it had been before.
Making this simple adjustment helped the schoolwork to no longer be such a burden for me. Oddly enough, once I started taking appropriate breaks, I was able to take as many classes and still get the same grades as before, though I was studying much less. Taking breaks helped me study efficiently.
Since I enjoy making charts — I studied Engineering in college — I kept an Excel chart in which I would keep track each day if I had peace, hope, and joy in the Lord that day. If I did for the most part, I’d write “Yes” in my chart. If I did not, I’d write “No.” This practice helped me in having a very simple goal for each day, to strive from the beginning of the day to the end to fight for peace, hope, and joy in him for that day.
Cling to Jesus and Community
Another key part of the Lord pulling me out of the pits was that I had close accountability with a few guys at our church and I didn’t just have to keep my struggles stuffed inside. I had two brothers that I would meet with at 6:00 each Thursday morning and we’d have accountability time together. Being able to pour out my heart to them each week and have them pray for me was incredibly powerful.
In such a situation of dark depression or fierce anxiety, it is critical to daily be clinging to the Lord for his salvation. He is greater than our circumstances. When in psychological anguish, it can be natural to just think about our own problems. But we must pray for mercy from him to be able to keep our eyes focused on him, rather than ourselves. When we concentrate only on ourselves, we wallow in self-pity. Rather, we must keep our eyes on him and his glory.
More from Desiring God
Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist | God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Look here for more on the possibility and essentiality of joy in the Christian life — even and especially in the midst of great suffering. (book)
Joy Is Not Optional | It is good news that joy is not optional in the Christian life, because the final weight falls not on our weak backs, but on the almighty shoulders of God himself. (article)
How Do I Pursue Joy in Christ? | Theologian Michael Reeves answers the question, How do we pursue our happiness in Jesus? (interview)