The days were dark. Not because the sun wasn’t shining. In all honesty, those days were beautiful summer days in the Oklahoma heat. But I didn’t experience them. For me, the days were black.
It was the summer months of 2016. I had been the Lead Pastor of my church for just under six months. I had previously served as Youth Pastor before eventually becoming Lead Pastor. I loved this church and they loved me. But things were getting unexplainably bad. I remember the week that the “plane crashed.”
I had made it through the first Sunday in June with great difficulty. I put on a good show of confidence and well-being that Lord’s Day. A friend later remarked that I even preached a really helpful sermon. However, as I went to bed that night, I had a mixture of relief and fear. I was relieved that I had made it through another Lord’s Day, but I had a fear that I had to get up and go back to do it all over again.
That following Monday morning I tried to make things as normal as possible. But just an hour into work I was crushed. In a fit of weeping, anxiety, and confusion, I hit my office floor in desperate prayer. I ended up leaving the office that morning hoping that time would heal what I was feeling. Little did I know, I wouldn’t come back to my office for months.
For the next several months I would rarely leave my couch or bed. At first, I just thought I would take a few sick days and get over this melancholy feeling. By Wednesday, I saw no hope. That afternoon, unknown to my wife, I called some of the leaders of our church to meet me. I told them I wanted to resign.
By God’s providence, one of those men had been caring for his wife who had suffered from depression for decades. He immediately recognized what was going on. They refused my resignation and the church immediately gave me as much time as I needed to recover – with no lapse in pay or care. Talk about love!
That next week, some church members pulled some strings and got me to see a great Christian doctor. He diagnosed me with severe depression and anxiety. My wife would later describe that summer as watching me waste away.
At the time, I had only heard of Martin Luther. I had no knowledge of any of his works nor of the life he lived. I knew he was a major figure in the Protestant Reformation, but beyond that I knew little. Beyond my recollection, I somehow found myself holding a copy of a Luther biography written by Roland Bainton. Unbeknownst to me, this was the definitive work on the reformer.
As I meandered through the first few chapters I became enamored with this German friar. I read of his struggles, his fear, his anxiety, his failures, and more. His question, “How can a holy God forgive sin?” was my exact question. His feelings were my exact feelings. All of a sudden, I found my experience being described and articulated in the life of a man who had been dead for 500 years. In short, I identified with Luther.
Luther lived in a dark period during human history. Modern luxuries and human rights were no where on the radar. In the German country of Luther’s upbringing, most were relegated to hard and laborious work to earn a living. Additionally, children weren’t regarded as having much value and so the average childhood gained less than desirable memories.
But for all the external hardships, it was the internal turmoil that plagued Martin Luther. He was a man of extreme emotions. He knew the joys of life. He also knew the pains of depression. Bright in his mind, his soul often felt the pressures of hopeless imperfection. He can easily be defined as a man of inward torture.
Throughout his early adult years, he worked meticulously to reconcile the teaching of the Catholic Church and his inward turmoil. He sought the indulgences, did penance, sought good works, and appealed to the relics of past saints. But in no way could he find relief from his spiritual anguish.
As I read of Luther’s unrelenting struggle a connection developed. Here too was a man who was immersed in church life yet completely hopeless without the slightest alleviation of his despondence. In an out-of-body experience, it seemed like I was reading of my own feelings.
As I continued to read of him, I began to mimic his methods to try and find the same alleviation for my fears. Like Luther, I read the Psalms, I read Romans, and I wrestled with his deep internal questions. Little did I know, God was driving me to the same discovery of faith that He gave to Luther almost 500 years earlier.
As Martin began to have a break through, so did I. The same understanding of justification that led him to question his religious upbringing, nail his thesis to the church door, and lead the Protestant Reformation, also became my understanding of justification. In other words, Luther had led me to meditate upon and understand what it meant to be right with God through faith in Christ. He taught me that true faith in Christ was a balm for the broken soul. Consequently, as his struggles began to dissipate, so did mine.
I made it through that summer by reading the Psalms and dwelling on faith. It wasn’t my perfection or my knowledge that would please God. It wasn’t my works or my contributions that would earn God’s approval. It was only my faith. Eventually, just like Luther, this turned in to my inward liberty.
Today, my church knows the depth of my depression and the importance of Luther for my life. He was a man that I could never agree with on every point. But he was a man that I could identify with. We struggled through the same things. And his previous experience and wisdom led me through the darkness of the night to the light of Christ and the warmth of God’s love. Seeing God liberate a fellow human being brought me hope that God could do the same for me. His example helped me to see Jesus as my only solution.
I missed those warm summer days in 2016. But by God’s grace, through the help of an old German reformer, I’ve enjoyed the warmth of Christ’s love ever since.