In My Weakness, He Is Strong
group magazine: November-December, 2012
Depression is a scary word. But whatever the friction points of weakness in your life and ministry, it’s through these portals that God brings “beauty out of ugly,” moving through those weaknesses to bring His strength.
By Shawn Harrison
Since the day I gave my life to Christ in 1996, my “life verse” has been 2 Corinthians 12:9: “But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” In my 35 years on this Earth I’ve experienced a smorgasbord of weakness for his power to feast upon—divorce, abuse, addictions, bullying, suicide attempts, drinking, death, abandonment, and depression.
But in the fall of 2004, everything heated to a boiling point, when depression consumed my life and my family.
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
Eight years ago my wife, daughter, new son, and I moved from Indiana back to where I grew up in Pennsylvania—we relocated so I could enter Bible College, but after one year I left to take a part-time position as a youth pastor. The job wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it was the best offer I’d received after two years of rejections. My wife, Emily, and I prayed—we made lists of pro’s and con’s and even put faith “fleeces” before God. Everything pointed to us taking the position, so we did. Little did we know that this decision would change our lives forever, and not in the way we were expecting.
Since the church position was part-time, I had to find full-time work that included benefits. I applied at a place I’d worked at before I was married—it was a job working with disabled adults in a workshop setting. My role was to find paid jobs for our clients. While I loved working both jobs, and while it looked like a great fit, the stress was piling up. I’d arrive home from work acting like a zombie—I’d lash out at my family, shut myself in my room, and not come out until my kids were in bed. With no real outlet to talk about what I was experiencing, depression moved in for the kill. And that depression intensified my self-hatred, addiction to porn, deep-seated family issues, stress, and simmering anger.
I remember justifying my erratic and destructive behavior with twisted logic—my first priority was doing God’s work, my second priority was earning an income, my family came third, and my relationship with God brought up the rear.
• Since I’d distanced myself from Emily, I justified looking at porn.
• Since I was teaching youth and sometimes preaching in “big church,” I justified not having my own quiet time with God.
• Since I was doing good things for God, I justified that I was a good person getting beat up unjustly by the enemy.
• And since I was a pastor, everything had to look pristine on the outside. I couldn’t allow the church to see that my family and I were a mess.
DISAPPOINTMENT WITH GOD
Early in 2006, everything fell apart. Depression had so infiltrated my “pristine” appearance that even strangers could tell I was falling apart. I met with my friend and counselor, Barney—it took him 10 minutes to diagnose me with clinical depression. I drove home that night, furious at God:
“Why did you let this happen to me? I’m doing all of this for you, and this is what you give me?”
I quickly transitioned to questioning my calling:
“How can I minister to people and take medication for depression? I’m supposed to be the one who has it together—doesn’t taking medication mean that my faith is weak, that I’m not trusting the power of God? How can I be a pastor and not trust God?”
In the whirlwind of the next few months God moved in mighty and mysterious ways. The Prozac was kicking in, and I started talking to people (including my wife) about the raw realities of my life. I signed up for a guys-only “spiritual retreat” to get away with God. Even though the weekend’s focus was on sexual brokenness, God worked on many areas of my life in those four days. I came home refreshed—I’d spent the days reading my Bible, praying, worshipping, confessing, repenting, and accepting the things God was doing in my life. The time gave me the space I needed to feel okay about taking medication, surrendering the lie that I was of no use to God because I was living in Prozac Nation.
The night I returned from the retreat, Emily and I talked for hours. For the first time I realized just how far I’d pushed things with her. “If you weren’t going to change, Shawn, I was ready to divorce you.” Talk about a wake-up call. Emily and I had decided before we got married that divorce wouldn’t be an option for us. So I knew her words meant that we were in a “do or die” moment. I still praise God that he herded me toward the right choice. My wife’s words are an “Ebenezer stone” (1 Samuel 7:12) to me. They remind me of what could have happened, and the way God took the mess of my brokenness and brought healing and strength into my life and marriage—“Thus far the Lord has helped us.” That scary moment with my wife reminds me of a place I never want to return to, and has radically changed the way I am as a husband, father, and youth pastor.
FOR VS. FROM
Soon after this tipping point in my life, I quit both of my jobs and moved my family back to Indiana—back to an unknown future. We had no house, no job, and no money saved away. Yet Emily and I both knew this move was God’s hand at work in our life. From our move in July of 2006 until now, God has not stopped surprising us. By his grace we have grown closer as husband and wife, as a family, and as sons and daughters of the King. By his grace, he has made it possible for me to finish school. Emily and I have ministered in Uganda, started an online ministry, and are discipling other young couples and students.
I look at the past few years and wonder, “Who am I to receive such blessings, Lord?” And then I wonder, “Who am I that I shouldn’t receive God’s blessings?” If grace is getting what I do not deserve from an all-loving, all-powerful, all-fulfilling God, then who am I to question how he blesses me? God owes me nothing—I don’t deserve any of what I’ve been given—yet I am so thankful that God has moved in the ways he has.
Once we were settled in Indiana, I took a year off from ministry and sought out mentors who could fuel my new momentum. I was still a mess, and I needed a deeper understanding of my experience and some direction on the way forward in my marriage and ministry. One couple who’d committed to walking beside us taught us the difference between working for God’s Kingdom and working from God’s Kingdom. They helped me understand that in working for God’s Kingdom you rely on your own strength, guidance, knowledge, and abilities. In working from God’s Kingdom, you rely on God’s strength, guidance, knowledge, and abilities.
The first approach is all about me, while the other is all about him. The first approach had screwed-up my life—I was performance-driven and determined to win God’s approval. I set myself up for failure by using this formula for “success.” And I was tired of failing, tired of performing, and tired of trying to win the approval God had already given me, free of charge.
I’m now learning and leaning into a life that is boundaried by grace—a grace that does not condemn (Romans 8:1), a grace that calls me his child (Romans 8:15-17), a grace that gives me hope and strength (Romans 8:26, 37), a grace that assures me that God is for me (Romans 8:31), and a grace that shouts aloud God’s unconditional and unrelenting love for me (Romans 8:38-39).
• In Titus 2:11-14, Paul says that God’s grace has not only brought us salvation but also the means to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.”
• In Hebrews 12:3-4, the author reminds us to consider the endurance of Christ when hard-pressed with trials and sin.
• In 1 Peter 4:1-2, Peter exhorts Christians “to arm themselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.”
This is the work of grace in our lives, for those of us who invite it past our front door and into our “living space.” Of course, we still sin and face trials and temptations. But God’s grace allows us to face these things in victory. Even more, God’s grace calls me to fix my gaze on Jesus, who has already won the battles before me.
For Christians, especially those of us in ministry, grace calls us to set boundaries in our life, develop accountability, and fuel our endurance as we run the race before us. As I’ve re-entered ministry I’ve had to re-
prioritize the way I live my life. I’ve had to learn how to say “yes” and “no” at the right times and to the right people. And I’ve had to live the following practices as a bulwark against falling off a cliff, again.
1 I frequently talk with my wife about my schedule and youth calendar. Together, we make it a priority to elevate family ahead of ministry.
2 I make sure Emily and I date—my marriage is too important to put on autopilot. There is only one thing that trumps the priority of nurturing my relationship with my wife, and the last time I checked God told me to love and cherish her as Christ does the church (Ephesians 5:25).
3 I have committed to put myself in a “posture” of continuous learning. Whether it’s through Scripture, books, conferences, or videos, I am doing something every day to ensure I’m growing as a son, a husband, a father, and as a youth pastor.
4 I keep listening. Whether I’m in the shower, the car, the office, or talking with students, I want to continually press in to hear what God is saying and where he is leading me. I want to follow his ways above my own. I’ve tried my way and I almost lost everything. I don’t mind “losing everything,” because in the end I gain everything.
5 I strive to keep this question before me: “Who am I mentoring, and who is mentoring me?” This is still a work in progress for me, but one I don’t want to quit leaning into. I need to be investing in someone’s life, just as I need someone to invest in my life.
6 I’ve placed myself under accountability with it comes to purity and how I spend my time. Check out www.x3watch.com for more information.
Have I mastered these six practices? Nope. But mastery isn’t the point—forward momentum is. The goal is to guard against a backward drift, because I never want to return to old ways. Some days are better than others. I still take my happy pill, I still mess up my priorities, and I still ask God, “Why?” Yet he is carrying me through this journey, reminding me of this overshadowing truth: “My grace is sufficient for you, Shawn, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.”
Shawn is a longtime youth pastor in Indiana, a member of our In the Trenches Team for our conference (youthministry.com/symc), and author of the new book Ministering to Gay Teenagers (Group/SYM).
LIVING WITH WEAKNESS
by Emily Harrison
There have been many tough issues my husband and I have had to deal with in our life together, and one of them is depression. I knew the signs of depression and adjusted to the dips that characterized Shawn’s life. The roller coaster of depression seemed manageable until our move to Pennsylvania—a time of high stress and little accountability. It was like a perfect storm in our life. As the stress grew, there was less communication and, therefore, an exponential increase in our issues with each other. I was walking on eggshells around Shawn. I couldn’t understand his actions, which made me feel like he didn’t care about his family. Everything else in his life seemed more important than the people he said were most important to him.
I was hurt, angry, and frustrated. And I spent a lot of time in tears, crying out to God. The man I thought I married was not the man I was experiencing. After two years, I told him he needed help, and he needed it now. The Lord had given me grace and patience, but I also knew this dark hole was not getting smaller.
God’s grace has carried us through our tough times. In his grace, I have learned that God’s Word is sustaining—without it, we sink deeper into the hole and have no ledge to find our footing. Through all this, God has taught me what it means to depend on him, for everything in my life.
• He’s taught me to trust Him when the situation seems impossible.
• He’s shown me how powerful and important it is to pray for my husband.
• He’s helped me learn that when I live in grace, it gives others the freedom to share their struggles.
Things aren’t perfect, and we both need continual refinement. But as we live under the covering of God’s grace, Shawn and I have the strength and means to press on. By God’s grace, the man I married has reappeared. ●
Emily and Shawn have been married for 11 years.
• One in 10 U.S. adults report depression
• People 45-65 tend to be most depressed
• Nearly half of those diagnosed with depression also have an anxiety disorder
• Insomnia is common in youth with depression