I believe the life of a Christian is a life of fighting. We fight against sin and temptation. We wage a spiritual war against everything that exalts itself against the knowledge of God. But it wasn't until I found myself in my weakest condition that I had to fight the most intense battles of my Christian life. It was frightening? I was too weak to fight, but this was when God called me to fight in raging battles. My temptations were stronger, but my spirit was weaker. The Devil often accused me as a guilty sinner and one of weak faith. I struggled with crippling doubt concerning my own work, and was I fearful in all ministry contexts. I was anxious before preaching beyond a healthy fear that should be upon all who preach the word of God. I was uncertain after every message and meeting that I had done well. Most of the time I felt I was a failure, even when everything pointed to success. Even though I was certain of my calling I was equally certain of my frailty, which led me to a level of uncertainty about myself in every other area. I knew I was called, but was I still called to remain where I was? Perhaps I had done all that I could. This was terrifying, for there is no other place I want to be than serving my church.
This pressing anxiety was ever-present. It was literally hard to breathe. This drove me deeper into prayer and dependency on Jesus, but I found only small measures of comfort and relief after extended time in prayer. Or, when God's grace to seemed to calm all storms in my heart, it only lasted for hours.
There was no secret sin. Nothing for which I was unrepentant. I continued to believe, to trust, to fight, to worship, but those days were exceedingly difficult. I revisited classics works related to spiritual warfare like Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices, The Bruised Reed, Spiritual Depression, The Christian in Complete Armour, and others. But most rewarding was praying, and working through Scripture.
During this time I came to know and treasure Jesus as Shepherd, and to see just how important it is for me to hang onto him by faith; to not wander away; to trust what I know to be true even when I am not feeling it. In time my doubts were overcome by the truth of God's word. My fearful questions were eventually answered in his word and through the testimony of his people; especially my wife. I had to fight well, but I was forced to fight in the strength of God and not depend on my own power.
The year prior to all this I wrote, Note to Self, a short book that models how to "preach to ourselves." I have long engaged in this discipline, but it was the year of its publication that I had to engage in it, not just for my spiritual health, but for my very survival. The words I had preached to myself previously had more meaning now than ever before.
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
God does not promise to rid your life of affliction and difficulty, but he does offer to give you the grace needed to suffer well, and through grace to discover the riches and beauty of the gospel. It isn’t wrong to ask God to relieve you of your pain, but it is more important that in the midst of the pain that you rely on the promise of God to work such experiences for his glory and your good—to use these times as a means of perfecting your faith, strengthening your spirit, and transforming your life in such a way that you are becoming more like Jesus.
I know you want relief, but often relief comes, not in the form of the removal of the affliction, but in the strengthening of your faith. And that is what these trials are designed to do—test, prove, and strengthen your faith. In times of ease you have sometimes wondered just how real and robust is your faith. In times of your own weakness you have asked God to sanctify you, grow you, and strengthen you. Well, here is your answer. God accomplishes much of that through your “fiery trial” when you suffer well. To suffer well doesn’t mean you put on a stoic face and muscle through the situation without a word. It means that through your suffering you trust God, bless him, look to him, and point others to him.
When the world strips away your comfort and confidence in things temporal, when friends become enemies and attack you, when in the providence of God suffering enters your life like a flash flood, you are given an opportunity to see very clearly where your ultimate dependence lies and where you find your identity. And it’s not just something that reveals truth about yourself; it is also something God uses to sanctify you.
Do you want to be confident in God’s good purposes for your life? Then you must discover them in times of ease as well as times of difficulty. Do you want to become more like Christ? Then you must suffer, and suffer well.
Note to Self, Ch. 44 (emphasis added)
Today the anxiety and doubt are gone. I like to tell people I feel good (normal) for the first time in a year and a half. But get this irony: today I still recognize myself to be the weakest man I know, but I have more confidence than ever. I know I'm not "the man." I know I am helpless and frail. I used to think of myself as some kind of tough guy, but I now know I am not. I was forced to find all my hope and strength in Jesus, and this has saved me. Again.
There is much more to my getting healthy than what I wrote here. This was one part of it. Perhaps the central part of it. But, I know now that had this been the only area I addressed I would still have been ruined. I'll explain why in the next post.
Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices, Thomas Brooks The Bruised Reed, Richard Sibbes Spiritual Depression, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones The Christian in Complete Armour, William Gurnall Tempted and Tried, Russell Moore