This has been a brutally hard month for me. I’m not going to get into the reasons—it wouldn’t serve anyone to do that—but the result, unfortunately, was not that I rose to the occasion. Instead, I relapsed into a pattern of escape behavior.
That’s a distinction I learned last spring from a colleague here in northern Indiana. Talking with a group of fellow pastors and our wives, he noted that we will inevitably have times when we are stressed beyond what we can bear. That’s true of many people these days, but it’s universally true in pastoral ministry—it’s just the nature of the work. When those times come, he told us, we have two choices: withdrawal and escape.
Withdrawal and escape might sound much the same, but they’re critically different. Like the US Marines, who define “retreat” as “advancing to the rear,” when we withdraw, we remain engaged with the fight; we’re just changing the nature of that engagement for a while. Our model for this, of course, is Jesus, who periodically withdrew from the crowds and even his disciples to spend time alone. He didn’t use that time playing games, reading a good novel, getting some sleep, or amusing himself in some other way; he used it to spend focused time with the Father. When we withdraw, we don’t try to get out from under the stress, we go to God to ask him to do in us by his strength what we cannot do by our own.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with sleep, reading novels, playing games, or enjoying entertainment, but there’s a major problem with the way we often use them. When the struggle in which we’re engaged—for pastors, the struggle against the Enemy to lead the people of God in the way of Christ—is stressing us beyond what we can endure, our natural tendency is not to do the work of withdrawal, but to try to avoid work. We try to escape the fight and the stress, because anything else seems like too much effort. We don’t think we have the energy for any sort of effort, so we run and hide.
Unfortunately, escape behaviors don’t replenish us, which is why people so often come back from a vacation feeling like they need a vacation. They do nothing to enable us to bear up under the stress of life and work once we return to our regular routine. If we depend on escape behaviors to help us deal with stress, we try to make them do what they cannot do, and in the end, we will break.
That’s about where I was for a couple weeks this month. I would have thought that I had learned better, but apparently not. On the other hand, God has taught me enough, and I’ve grown enough, that even as I was trying to escape the stress, I could feel it not working. Indeed, I could feel that my attempt was not only unhelpful but actively spiritually toxic—which, of course, just made me feel worse.
The saving grace was God’s saving grace. He gave me my head for a while, and then used his church to show me what I was doing and draw me out of it. God was faithful to me even when I wasn’t really looking to him for my strength. I went backwards and wasted time I didn’t really have to waste, but out of it, I gained two things. One, I came to see myself a little more clearly and know myself a little better, which is good even if I didn’t like what I saw. Two, I saw God being faithful to me, again, when I didn’t deserve it, again. Every time I see it makes it a little easier to believe in him for the next time.
As one of my presbytery colleagues says, “Life is hard and God is good.”
“Jesus Discourses with His Disciples,” 1886-1894, James Tissot. Public domain.