Keeping Your Soul Whole
Tony Cooke

We hear periodically about how ministers can get discouraged, even overwhelmed at times. And it sure is a good thing for all of us to have friends and people we can turn to in really difficult times. In that sense, we need to be our brother’s keeper!
I recently found a question that was presented to John Wesley at a Methodist conference in 1763. “What reason can be assigned why so many of our Preachers contract nervous disorders?” Wesley’s answer was fairly short and simple. He essentially said (#1) that they don’t get enough exercise, and (#2) they eat too much and they sleep too much.

 Wow! That’s blunt! Next time someone comes to you with a problem, just tell them it is because they’re a fat, lazy, sluggard. (No, seriously—please don’t). But that was Wesley. He was not known for being diplomatic or charming in his communication.
AW Tozer (who died in 1963) addressed the exact same issue, but from a very different perspective:
Attention has recently been focused upon the fact that ministers suffer a disproportionately high number of nervous breakdowns compared with other men. The reasons are many, and for the most part they reflect credit on the men of God. Still I wonder if it is all necessary. I wonder whether we who claim to be sons of the new creation are not allowing ourselves to be cheated out of our heritage. Surely it should not be necessary to do spiritual work in the strength of our natural talents. God has provided supernatural energies for supernatural tasks. The attempt to do the work of the Spirit without the Spirit’s enabling may explain the propensity to nervous collapse on the part of Christian ministers.

Then Tozer prayed, “Lord, today I pray for that pastor who is about to give up and quit from sheer exhaustion. Give him that supernatural enabling. Amen.”
A couple of points of interest:

  • Both men were essentially acknowledging that a high percentage of ministers struggled, at least at certain times, with the emotional load of ministry. 
  • Wesley’s response was entirely natural, while Tozer’s response was more spiritual.

In the book I’m currently completing, I address “keeping your soul whole,” and the following is from that section. Please note especially Rick Renner’s translation of a particular verse that I share toward the end of it. It’s really powerful.

Over the past few years, there has been a rash of pastors taking their own lives, with some of getting national publicity. As tragic as each of these have been, it is important to remember that for every pastor that has actually committed suicide, thousands of others have struggled with emotional pressures and challenges.
Life and ministry sometimes take an incredible toll on people. If you have not experienced that, be grateful. The book of Psalms includes numerous examples of David expressing intense emotions, such as anger, disappointment, frustration, and despair. He also found comfort and encouragement from God to make it through those times, but the struggles he went through were real.
If we look further, we find that some of the great characters of the Bible faced such crushing despair that death seemed preferable to life. For example:

  • Moses told God “just go ahead and kill me. Do me a favor and spare me this misery!” (Deuteronomy 11:15, NLT).
  • Facing a great threat, Elijah “prayed that he might die” (1 Kings 19:4, NLT).
  • In the midst of his suffering, Job wished to have never been born (Job 3:1-16) and said that he would rather die than to experience what he was going through (Job 7:15).
  • Jonah was so upset at what was happening in his ministry that he told God, “Just kill me now…” (Jonah 4:3, NLT).
  • Jeremiah also cursed the day of his birth and expressed a desire to have not been born. He said that his entire life had been “filled with trouble, sorrow, and shame.” (Jeremiah 20:14-18, NLT).
  • We get a glimpse of the pressure Paul faced while he was in the province of Asia, “We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NLT).

In a yet-to-be-published version of the New Testament—The Renner Interpretive Version—2 Corinthians 1:8-9 reads:
We would not, brethren, have you ignorant of the horribly tight, life-threatening squeeze that came to us in Asia. It was unbelievable! With all the things we’ve been through, this was the worst of all — it felt like our lives were being crushed. It was so difficult that I didn’t know what to do. No experience I’ve ever been through required so much of me. In fact, I didn’t have enough strength to cope with it. Toward the end of this ordeal, I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t think we’d ever get out! I felt suffocated, trapped, and pinned against the wall. I really thought it was the end of the road for us! As far as we were concerned, the verdict was in, and the verdict said “death.” But really, this was no great shock, because we already were feeling the effect of death and depression in our souls….[1]
I am not sharing all of this to be negative or to be discouraging, but to demonstrate that even some of the great spiritual leaders in the Bible went through some tremendously challenging times.
Carey Nieuhowf, who coaches and trains pastors around the world, shares his own story from 2006:
I began to think the best way to get through this burnout was to not go through it. Because hope had died for me in those months, I began to wonder whether that should be my preferred option as well. For the first time in my life, I began to seriously think that suicide was the best option. If I had lost hope, was no good to anyone, couldn’t perform what I was expected to do, and was causing all kinds of pain to others (a conclusion that wasn’t coming from a place of objectivity), then perhaps the best solution was to be no more.[2]
Nieuhowf proceeds to share several helpful insights and concludes with this heartfelt plea:
If you’re married, tell your spouse, but don’t just tell your spouse. Your pain may be too heavy a burden for your marriage alone to bear. Reach out. Please tell a friend. Tell your doctor. Tell your counselor. Leaders, please break the silence, before the silence breaks you.[3]
You may or may not relate personally to all of this on emotional distress, but either way, it may be something that will help you empathize with and help others in the future.

If you are on top of the world and doing great right now, awesome! If you’re struggling, just know that there really are people who deeply care for you and are pulling for you. Maybe you can forward this to the pastors you know to let them know that you are their friend and that you are there for them.

Tozer’s simple prayer is worth repeating, and I pray it for you now: “Lord, today I pray for that pastor who is about to give up and quit from sheer exhaustion. Give him that supernatural enabling. Amen.”


[1] The RIV is an interpretive and conceptual translation of the New Testament that draws on concepts in the Greek language and interprets them in a contemporary way to provide a broader comprehension of what is being communicated through Scripture.