If it was okay for the apostle Paul to worry, where does he get off telling us we can’t?

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Paul suffered anxiety

Paul was a worrywart at times.

He felt a great obligation to bear the Gospel to the Gentile world (Romans 1:14). Even with the Holy Spirit’s enablement, his service at times felt like a UFC match (Colossians 2:1).

There were good moments, for sure. At times Paul was proud of his work (Romans 11:13).[1] He was pleased by the Gospel’s progress (Romans 15:17).

But he seems to have been constantly concerned for the welfare of the churches he planted (e.g., Acts 15:36). Anxiety was a “daily pressure” that weighed him down, affected his mood and even sidetracked some of his mission opportunities.

And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28).

What are we to make of the fact that his anxiety for the churches is the capstone of Paul’s litany of misery? While defending his ministry to the knuckleheads in Corinth he detailed some of the ordeals he endured in behalf of the Gospel.

  • Countless beatings
  • Often near death
  • 39 lashes on 5 separate occasions
  • Thrice beaten with rods
  • Stoned (but there’s no evidence Paul was ever in Colorado)
  • Shipwrecked and adrift
  • Beset by constant danger
  • Toil and hardship
  • Sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, cold and exposure

That is an impressive list of dangers (all of which accrued to preaching the Gospel in his day), but anxiety for the churches that tops the list

That was the worst suffering of all.

Anxiety[2] draws attention from physical danger to psychological turmoil. He could handle the beatings, the deprivation and grinding poverty. Worry and fear over what had become of the churches was the real burden.

How bad was it?

At one time Paul was so anxious for the church in Corinth that he was unable to preach in Troas (2 Corinthians 2:12-13). On another occasion he stranded himself in Athens to send Timothy to see about the Thessalonians who were under the persecution for the gospel (1 Thessalonians 3:1-8).

Paul lived with anxiety.

Pastors suffer anxiety

It’s an occupational hazard these days.

A 2008 study by the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School, published August 2013 in the Journal of Primary Prevention, found that a minister’s job contains many powerful predictors of depression and anxiety:

  • Job stress
  • Grief counseling
  • Navigating competing demands
  • Weekly exposure to criticism (the sermon)
  • The need to rapidly switch roles without relief

Furthermore, the study found that pastors’ sense of guilt about not doing enough at work was a top predictor of depression, and that doubt of their call to ministry was a top predictor of anxiety. Pastors with less social support—those who reported feeling socially isolated—were at higher risk for depression.[3]

Was Paul’s anxiety qualitatively different than ours?

Yes.

Paul’s anxiety wasn’t related to personal deprivation, hardship or being disliked by members of the Pipe Organ Preservation Committee. Complaints about his preaching bounced right off.

His anxiety concerned the welfare of young believers cast adrift in a world hostile to the Christian faith. So hostile that loss of property, personal effects, liberty and in some cases even life itself was not unusual.

Paul’s anxiety was more akin to what many Western believers feel in behalf of Pastor Saeed Abedini, wrongfully imprisoned by an immoral Islamic regime.

Our anxiety is different in kind.

We’re anxious because of the ridiculous, impossible demands we willingly accept. When the Duke study was announced in an August 27, 2013 press release, it led with this:

The demands placed on clergy by themselves and others put pastors at far greater risk for depression than individuals with other occupations, a new study by the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School has found [my emphasis].[4]

Pastors accept unreasonable demands for many reasons. In the course of mentoring, coaching and training ministry colleagues, I’ve heard numerous excuses – some of them were pretty good! – for accepting ridiculous demands from self or congregants.

But at the risk of using a brush too broad, my simple mind sees one overarching reason: ego need.

The need to be important.

The need for affirmation.

Or the mistaken notion that we’re up to it.[5]

Or the need to prove something to someone. That business about a “sense of guilt for not doing enough at work” gives this one away.

We forget who we are in Christ. We fall back into the old ways we learned while living in the Meritocracy. Paul Tripp puts it this way.[6]

When you forget who you are, you quit resting in the Father’s provision, you start relying on your own wisdom, and you try to do God’s job. All this results in functional ministry anxiety and a catalog of bad personal and ministry choices. Jesus’ diagnosis is quite stinging. He says that the problem is that no matter what we say we believe, there are moments when we essentially live like pagans.

Conclusions

  1. Paul felt legitimate anxiety for the welfare of Christian churches that often faced grave danger because of the Gospel.
  2. Pastors today experience inordinate and illegitimate anxiety because they don’t know how to say, “No.”

Question

Under what circumstances is it biblically permissible for a pastor to experience anxiety, and how should those feelings be handled? Click here to leave your comments below.

Other Resources


  1. Paul wasn’t proud of himself, but proud of the work to which he had been called.  â†©
  2. The term may refer to needless worry (e.g., Matthew 6:25, 1 Peter 5:7) or legitimate concern.  â†©
  3. https://divinity.duke.edu/news-media/news/2013-08-27chi-depression  â†©
  4. Ibid  â†©
  5. If it’s a task you’re “up to,” is it worth doing? If it’s not a challenge that quickly exhausts you and forces you to call on God and wait for his answer, why bother?  â†©
  6. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2011/08/29/were-pastors-and-were-anxious/  â†©