Just a few days after Christmas, driving home from the holidays, I had a panic attack. My chest got tight, my heart began to race, my breathing got short, my stomach began to churn and the sick feeling of dread came over me. I’m okay now. I’m not discouraged by it. It came and went. In the summer of 2019 I went through around a month of experiencing a number of them, I thought that was that. It was quite a surprise to me that another hit me just a few weeks ago.
I’ve told a few people already and they were all surprised. A few people said things like “you don’t seem like the kind of person to go through something like that”. And yet I am. And that got me thinking: "how many other people don't look like the kind of person to be suffering or struggling with something right now - but are".
While I'm on the topic of mental health, I also faced a nervous breakdown in 2014 or "acute stress disorder". When I was 18 my GP prescribed me anti-deps and though I never took them, I know what it's like to be that low.
So I decided to write about my experience for a few reasons.
1. Pastor’s are People
I’m a pastor. I’m meant to have all the answers, right? I’m meant to be the very definition of godliness, right? Maybe it didn’t work, but when I was ordained to be in full time service and other pastors laid their hands on me, nothing mystical happened. I didn’t get a second wave of supernatural ability. They put their hands on me and prayed for me simply as a way of saying that they recognised God’s calling on and gifting in my life.
As a pastor I’m called to be an example to the church in how to live out the gospel. Often we confuse this idea of being an example with being perfect. But I'm far from that standard. Which leaves me with only a few options, one of which is pretend to be perfect by hiding all my sins and sufferings from everyone, which is very close to the definition of hypocrisy.
But think about it. Can’t we also be an example in what it means to ask someone for forgiveness when we’ve sinned against them? Can’t we be an example in being a weak, broken human being who needs the gospel every single day? After all, Paul said that in his weakness, God was strong in him (2 Corinhtians 12v7-10), so can't I be an example of what it looks like to daily rely on the strength of Christ?
I’m just a regular brother in Christ who has been recognised by my church to have certain gifts that God has given me to shepherd his people. One of the best ways I can think of shepherding people is to show them where I go for bread when I’m starving, where I go for water when I’m thirsty, how I repent when I sin, how I depend on Christ in my many weaknesses.
Paul, who was an apostle of Christ, writes with deep honesty in 2 Corinthians 1:8 when he says that life got so hard for him and the rest of the team that they despaired of life. He writes like this in a bunch of other places too. I think this gives us permission to do the same.
2. Others Suffer in Silence
I want to share this because I know there are so many people struggling with sin and suffering in silence. Mental health is still the taboo subject. Every one of my brothers and sisters in Christ is a work in progress. Yes we have been forgiven, yes we are transformed, but we are not yet the finished article Jesus is turning us into.
Relational challenges, emotional struggles, mental pressures, physical ailments, spiritual dryness, temptation and sin. Every one of us is a forgiven sinner, living in a fallen world, trapped in our sinful body.
Humpty Dumpty had his great fall, and the kings horses and kings men couldn’t put him together again. But King Jesus can, and yet he doesn't do it all at once. Gradually, over time, day by day we are changed from one glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3:18). One day I'll be presented before the Father faultless, with exceeding great joy (Jude v24). Jesus will have completed that good work he has begun in me (Philippians 1v6). But for now, he is continuing that work, day by day, glory to glory. Same for you.
And yet, in the meantime, we are so good at putting on the fake brave face. We are too prideful, afraid of what other people will think about us if we aren’t always smiling and don’t always have our lives together. Perhaps we've had bad experiences of trying to be open only for it to be used against us or for someone to offer very little compassion.
Even in our small groups our prayer requests can often be surface level needs, without ever getting to the heart of the matter. When we do sin in a way people notice, we are so good at excusing ourselves and blaming other people or our circumstances, rather than owning that yes, we actually are sinners, and need prayer and support to do battle with that sin.
I hope that my sharing of this potentially embarrassing thing that has happened to me will give my brothers and sisters the courage to open up and share the things that they are facing.
And hey, you know what, Jesus knows everything about me. Every weakness, every temptation, every sin, every moment of coldness. And he loves me.
John Bunyan said:
"...the object [us] of this Jesus’ love is so low, so mean, so vile, so undeserving…"
"...love in Christ decays not, nor can be tempted to do so by anything that happens, or shall happen hereafter in the object [us] so beloved..."
"...Christ loves to make us comely, not because we are so...”.
I am loved by Jesus. He loves me in spite of my ugliness. He loves me and is making me beautiful day by day.
In the horse and his boy CS Lewis writes so winsomely about the Narnian soldiers:
"They walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling. You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly, and didn’t give a fig for anyone who wasn’t. Shasta thought he had never seen anything so lovely in his life.”
They knew they were Narnians. They knew they were Aslan's. That identity was strong and sure. I'm a Christian. I belong to Jesus. So, to be frank, his fixed and constant love for me means a lot more to me than what you think about me. My identity is settled in how God sees me in Christ. What puny little you thinks about puny little me pales into insignificance.
3. The Body Bears Each Other
"Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ" (Galatians 6v2).
I have a wonderfully supportive wife. I have a beautiful church family. I have solid gospel centred friends. When I told them about my panic attack and asked for prayer, they encouraged me and prayed for me.
How could my brothers and sisters have carried this burden with me if I didn’t tell them about it? How can they encourage me if they don’t know where I am discouraged? How can they accurately pray for me if they don’t know what to pray for? How can they counsel me and point me to Jesus if they don’t know the areas of my life that I need gospel truth?
One of the beautiful ways Jesus ministers to his people is through his other people ministering to them. What a body we could be if we stopped hiding in the shadows, embarrassed to be real with each other, and learned what it meant to ask for help and prayer in our sins and sufferings.
My panic attack just served to remind me that I need Jesus daily. He's not my crutch to lean on, he's my solid rock to rest my whole weight on. Rather than leaving me in a place of fear, discouragement and despair it just demonstrated to me why it's so vital to maintain ongoing fellowship with Jesus. Good brothers and sisters push into that sort of thing with you.
Maybe you don’t want to go all out public like I have as you talk about your struggles, temptations, weaknesses. But maybe you can find a trusted brother or sister, or a small group of believers that you can confide in, who will confide in you, who can pray for each other and remind each other of the gospel.
May our churches come back to what they were always meant to be; communities of sinners being put back together again by Jesus and his gospel. May we no longer fake it until we make it. May we grieve together over our sins and sufferings. May we walk in the refreshing light of honesty together and so have actual fellowship.
I might have more panic attacks in the future or that might have been my last one. It changes nothing. God is still good. The gospel is still beautiful. My identity is still settled. The Spirit is still working. Jesus is still loving me and making me beautiful. I'm not a victim of mental health struggles, I'm more than a conqueror through Christ. My panic attack doesn't define me, Jesus does.