Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on anxiety and depression in pastoral ministry. Click here to read part one.
Some of the greatest heroes of the faith battled anxiety and depression. Paul once said he was so burdened beyond his strength that he despaired of life itself, feeling he had received the sentence of death (2 Corinthians 1:8-9a). Likewise, David once prayed, “I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me” (Psalm 69:2). And Charles Spurgeon once said, “I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to.”
We can all say that we are no David, Paul, or Spurgeon. But are you not comforted by the fact that these men of God faced the same battles you and I do as pastors? I know I am.
But I am not only comforted by their experience; I am challenged by their fight amid their battles with anxiety and depression. Particularly, I am challenged by Paul’s words in Philippians 4:4-9. While some ministry leaders may need professional help from Christian counselors or psychiatrists, I have found Paul’s instruction to be helpful in my struggle.
Keys to Victory Over Anxiety and Depression
The following are the last four of the seven keys Paul gives to unlocking the experience of victory over anxiety and depression.
4. Prayer (Phil. 4:6b) Paul instructs, “But in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God…” This should almost go without saying for pastors. The way we experience the peace of God that surpasses all understanding (Phil. 4:7) is by simply praying. It’s simple, yet profound.
As Joseph Scriven wrote so eloquently in what became the hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus, “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear; All because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.”
Peace is what we experience when we pray to God. Anxiety is what we experience when we pray to ourselves. When we fret about what is happening or what might happen around us, our hearts and minds are not directed heavenward but inward. As a result, we are laid bare and exposed to anxiety. But when we pray, taking all our requests to the Lord, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7).
Pastor, have you prayed about it? Have you really cast all your anxieties on the Lord, knowing that he cares for you? (1 Peter 5:7). He does care for you. Don’t forfeit his peace. Pray.
5. Perspective (Phil. 4:6c-7) But it’s not merely about praying. It’s about how we pray. Notice how Paul instructs us to pray in Phil. 4:6. He doesn’t say, “In everything by prayer and supplication and thanksgiving…” No, he says, “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving…” A couple of years ago, this one little word fundamentally changed the way I pray. Paul is saying that every prayer and supplication we offer up to God should be offered with thanksgiving. This means no prayer should ever be offered to God without thanking him.
How does praying like this help us battle depression and anxiety? I used to believe that what Paul meant here was that if I am anxious about something, I should pray about it. Then, I should wait for God to answer my request, and once he does, then I should thank him for it. Give the request, wait for the answer, then offer thanksgiving. But that’s not what Paul says, is it? If we pray this way, it will likely create more anxiety and depression in our hearts.
In the waiting period, as we wait for God’s answer to our request, we will likely find ourselves asking, “What if he doesn’t answer my request the way I want him to? What if he doesn’t answer soon? What will that mean for my life? My family? My ministry? What if? What if?” You see, when we are dwelling in the realm of the hypothetical “what if?” our heart and mind become a factory churning out threads of obsessive, nervous thoughts that will soon produce a life that is choked by a thousand knots of anxiety. Also, once God doesn’t answer our prayer the way we wanted or when we wanted him to, we will likely fall into depression over the thought of not having what we had hoped for. That’s not the life that the God of peace has called us to. That’s chaos.
How do we avoid praying in a way that produces this kind of anxiety and depression? By simply doing what Paul said—in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. With every request we lift to the Lord, we should accompany it with this sentence, “Lord, whether you answer this request the way I think you should, and whether you answer when I think you should, I nevertheless thank you in advance for whatever your answer will be because I know that you have good and loving and wise control over my life and anything you give or withhold from me will be for your glory and my own good.”
This is similar to the way Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. While his sweat became like great drops of blood as he faced the reality of what would soon take place at the cross, “in everything by prayer and supplication” he lifted his request to God: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). But he did not wait for the Father to answer this request before he yielded to God’s good and loving and wise control over his life. Instead, he immediately followed his request with, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
We know how things played out. The Father’s will was for Jesus to go to the cross to bring about the greater glory for God and the greatest good for the world. Jesus made his request known to the Father, but not without submitting to the Father’s control over his life. Likewise, we should let our requests be made known to God, but not without demonstrating our trust in His good, loving, and wise control over our lives through humble thanksgiving.
Spurgeon once said he was sure there is no remedy for anxiety and depression like a holy faith in God. God has sovereign control over every detail of our lives and ministries. He knows what to give us, when to give it, and when to withhold it. We can trust him with the holy faith Spurgeon spoke of, and we can express that trust through humble gratitude for whatever he chooses to do in our lives and ministries.
How utterly liberating this is! Pastor, do you have this perspective? The perspective that God has a good, loving, and wise control over your life and ministry and every single thing he does or doesn’t do in your life and ministry is for his glory and your good? Having this perspective has radically transformed my prayer life, and as a result, radically reduced my anxiety and depression.
6. Positivity (Phil. 4:8) Paul goes on to instruct that we think on whatever is honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Ultimately, Jesus fits the description of all these virtues. Certainly, he is the one we should be thinking of (Colossians 3:1-4). But we shouldn’t be ascetics. The God who is honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy is the same God who gave us the creation in which we find these virtues everywhere. Plus, Paul told us to think about “whatever” is honorable, just, and so on.
All these virtues have something in common—they all are positive; that is, they induce optimism and pleasantness. By thinking about these things, we can overcome the anxiety and depression that negative, discouraging, bleak thoughts so often produce. JP Moreland explains that if we allow perpetual negativity to pervade our thought life, then we will form habits that yield anxiety and depression. He states, “In some ways, anxiety is a learned habit that, through repeated flesh-forming activities (e.g., engaging in ‘what if’ thinking about the future and exaggerating what might happen if the ‘what if?’ actually happens), forms grooves on the brain, heart muscle, and nervous system that trigger uncontrollable anxiety.” Moreland believes heeding Paul’s instruction in Philippians 4:8 can help us here.
When we feel the triggers of anxiety and depression, we should fill our minds with any or all of the virtues Paul mentions. For example, we may think of the holiness of Jesus Christ, the faithfulness of God, or the purity the blood of Christ has brought to our hearts. Or we may simply meditate on the loveliness of a fresh cup of coffee or the smell of fresh-cut grass.
Instead of dwelling on the worst-case scenario, let’s put our minds on the positive virtues Paul lists here. Besides, as Moreland points out, “Some experts estimate that 85 percent of the things we worry about never happen! And the negative things that do happen are usually not as bad as we anticipated.” Thinking on these positive virtues over time can produce new neurological grooves in our brains to replace the obsessive thoughts of negativity that often lead to anxiety and depression. Pastors, with Christ at the center, let’s think positively!
7. Practice (Phil. 4:9) What good is an instruction to us unless we put it into practice? That’s how Paul ends this passage: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things…” It is not enough for us to listen to this instruction, or even teach it to others. What Paul has instructed and demonstrated with his life, we must practice.
We must be doers of the Word, not merely listeners (James 1:22). As we obey this teaching, it will be like unlocking a treasure chest of peace and joy from the Lord. Indeed, Paul said that as we practice these things “the God of peace will be with you.” Pastors, let’s listen to this instruction, and then let’s live it out.
The Treasure of Joy and Peace
While some pastors need to seek professional help, I have found these seven keys to be incredibly helpful in unlocking the experience of victory in the battle against the sharp thorns of ministerial anxiety and depression.
May we, like Paul David, and Spurgeon, acknowledge that we struggle in these areas. And may we heed the Scripture’s instruction to praise the Lord always, enjoy his presence with us, be prepared for hardships, pray with the proper perspective, think positively, and intentionally use these keys to unlock Christ’s treasure chest of joy and peace.
 Charles Spurgeon, “Joy and Peace in Believing,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (MTP), Vol. 12, Sermon 692, quoted in Zack Eswine, Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Suffer from Depression (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus, 2014), 112, Kindle.
 JP Moreland, Finding Quiet: My Story of Overcoming Anxiety and the Practices That Brought Peace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 43.
 Ibid., 76.