Why Christian Leaders Struggle with “Dark Nights of the Soul”

January 15, 2020

By Chuck Lawless 

If you read church history at all, you’ll learn that men as faithful to God as Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon struggled with bouts of at least heaviness, if not depression. I’m convinced more church leaders than we know face these battles. Here are some reasons we do, followed by a simple suggestion when we struggle: 

  1. Our calling is a calling of God. We’re blessed to have that calling, but we still answer to the Creator of eternity. That’s a weighty reality that sometimes gets really heavy.  
  2. We work with life and death. In fact, we work in the light of eternity, reminding people of life and death matters. Just that fact can pound on our shoulders.
  3. We live with our own sin. No church leader I know wants to be hypocritical in front of church members, but all of us know our own sin issues. Our desire to be leaders of integrity  increases the burden of our own sin.
  4. Sometimes, few people respond to our leading. Jesus warned us that many would not choose the right path, but His warning doesn’t lessen the pain when few people respond positively to our ministry.
  5. We carry the weight of the burdens of others. Yes, we can pray and turn them over to God – but our heart still hurts when others hurt.
  6. Many of us have few real friends. Sometimes we’ve made that choice (wrongly, in my opinion), but it’s still lonely when you bear ministry alone.
  7. We don’t always use spiritual disciplines well. For some, disciplines are sporadic at best. For others, we turn to them only as a Band-Aid to try to legalistically fix our issues. Neither takes us closer to the God who wants to heal us.
  8. We tend to be perfectionists. I don’t know many pastors who like to mess up. We want to do well, to please others as we serve God. Any failure brings pain.
  9. We haven’t learned the power of 2 Corinthians 12:10. We preach about strength in weakness, but we haven’t learned how to live it.
  10. We struggle with the dark night, and then beat ourselves up for being depressed. “No strong believer should feel this way,” we think – and the cycle continues.

If you’re struggling with this kind of anguish, I plead with you to talk with a brother or sister in Christ. You’re not the only one facing this battle, but you won’t likely win it if you battle alone. For all of us – let’s say a prayer today for our church leaders.  

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29 Comments

  • Identification of problems or “whys” is an easy task. The hard task is finding good workable solutions. Perhaps some future blogs on each of these ten would be in order.

  • Michael Gray says on

    Yes, this list is very accurate and it certainly describes me!

  • Depression is not the same thing as a Dark Night of the Soul.

    Characteristics of depression can include:

    Trouble concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
    Fatigue
    Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
    Pessimism and hopelessness
    Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or sleeping too much
    Irritability
    Restlessness
    Loss of interest in things once pleasurable, including sex
    Overeating, or appetite loss
    Aches, pains, headaches, or cramps that won’t go away
    Digestive problems that don’t get better, even with treatment
    Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
    Suicidal thoughts or attempts.

    Just what you indicated. And these need professional medical, psychological, even psychiatric expertise and assistance.

    The Dark Night of the Soul, on the other hand, is a deepening of life with God who is working in ways we can’t see at the depth of our being doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. God takes the initiative to perfect us by his grace and mercy, so that God becomes the sole light of our lives, more sure than the midday sun. It is the death of all that separates us from God in our senses and “knowledge” and our union with God in Spirit and Truth. It is God who holds us.

    This time also needs spiritual companionship and conversation, spiritual direction, for the Dark Night is disconcerting even disorienting for the person who has come to depend on the consolations and felt presence of God.

    • I dont think the distinctions are as water tight as you say here. Even when there is medical intervention for depression, there is still an aspect of dealing with it spiritually, as you would with cancer etc. It throws you on God. Of course, complete rest, sunshine and exercise can be key in depression, but all in context of our relationship with the Lord. The wrestling in both can be the same. The feeling of abandonment in both can be the same. We are physical beings, there isn’t much that affects us mentally and spiritually that doesn’t in the end effect us physically. Talking as someone with years battling depression.

    • I have to disagree with your assessment. You state the characteristics of depression – not what it is. You also state what passing through the Dark Night of the Soul produces – a sense of wholeness and oneness with God. The poem by St. John the Divine which is called the Dark Night of the Soul describes the work needed to pass from Darkness to light – not unlike the treatment in recovery from depression.

      An issue I have is simple: emotions are. Emotions cannot be explained but can be experienced and mitigated. The fear and darkness Christians feel is real, and puts the psyche at risk. But, as you relate, if the Christian works through the Dark Night they are better at the other end – more faithful to their calling as children of God.

    • Mark Klitsie says on

      John Farley, in my experience, depression and “Dark Night” are so entangled, trying to untangling them is futile—we are incarnational beings.

  • Cotton Mathis says on

    We pastors are not game show hosts.

    Everything can’t be zippidy-do-dah.

    Rain falls on the just and the unjust.

    We are not following prosperity powder puffs; we are following a crucified, a beheaded Paul and 11 disciples who were killed for their faith (only John, on Patmos, lived to be older),

    All who will live Godly will be persecuted.

    Not easy, but that is the way it goes.

  • Glad I saw this not because I don’t think it’s true but because there is still that stigma that being human isn’t okay for us as church leaders. I see colleagues in ministry struggling with issues and yet they just won’t turn it over to the Lord and/or colleagues or professionals who can help. I am blessed with a wonderful colleague who is also an excellent listener.

    • Gregory Lynn Ross says on

      I think that many church leaders should be honest and open with the congregation. Pew sitters will then feel free to express their honest opinions. When people get real with each other – the more healthy the organization. This may be why some leaders crash and burn – true feelings can’t be expressed. “we all have to be holy, righteous, speak the jargon, etc.” Leaders have to set the tone. Sick leadership, sick congregation. “hey, put the beer away, the pastor’s coming up the drive!”

  • Pastor's spouse says on

    Seeking help from a Christian counselor is also an option.
    Maybe this page should have a resource list of “recommended by pastors for pastors” counselors….just a thourght.

  • Scott Johnston says on

    I think this is spot on. However, I do wonder if it is good for us to at times have those dark nights that cause us to wrestle with God. It has been those times that I have walked away not necessarily feeling revived in my spirit, but certainly strengthened in my dependence on God to fulfill that which He has called me to.

    • Scott,

      I concur with you. I’m just beginning to see the light of day after a season of darkness. I can’t say that I’m on top of the mountain and ready to take on the world, but I am assured of this, though I felt alone, confused, and even defeated at times, Brother, that groping in the darkness, made me lay hold of my faith in a whole nother other way. (I wrote that the way I felt it) lol

      If we can just make it till morning.

      I think this medium serves as a tool to assist us in knowing that we are not alone, while giving respect to the alone seasons, that there’s a venue of expression here, that safe and needed for many that carry the Good News, even on days when it’s not good with us..

      Life to each of you,

      Dre’

  • Sometimes we are simply overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done–and because what needs to be done is scattered across many categories.

  • Jerry N Watts says on

    I would like to say “Good Word”….but better said, ‘accurate’ and ‘overwhelming’ at times…Thanks..

  • This is a beautiful reminder that the battle belongs to the Lord and that as pastors we need to be open to fellowship with other pastors. I have 4 churches within a couple of blocks that I need to reach out to as a result of this article!
    Thank you!

  • I would add that we often set our expectations too high and also that many pastors have an unrealistic martyr complex that thinks their efforts will save/change the world.

    • Rod,

      You address a serious point. I’m not pastoring in this season, but I sense that I’m being positioned too soon. I’ve been healing and recovering from a season of unrealistic expectations from others, and even thought I could handle it, and model some sense of just what you stated, and it almost killed me.

      The weight of it caused me to have to back up, seek God for myself, reevaluate myself, change my eating habits, and seek a new lifestyle change of exercise, meditation, and returned to school. It was a divine time out.

      Even this tool has been a source of encouragement and learning for me as well. I can’t save a soul, I must rest in the salvation provided to me and available for others, in Christ Jesus, not in Andre’

  • Sigh. Please come soon Jesus.

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