Five years ago today was a nightmare for me. I had been the Pastor at The Brook for just over a year. There were some difficult changes that needed to be made in what we were doing and how we were doing it. As I had spent months laboring and praying over this taking place, I had come to realize that ultimately I was going to have to be the one with the target on his chest - to step out, make this decision, and move forward. Man, do I wish it was all as simple as that sounds.
Part of leading is pursuing a vision of the "preferred future", casting that vision to those you're leading with the hope - the prayerful hope - that they will buy into, own, and catch that vision as well. No matter how big, small, old, young, traditional or progressive (you think) your organization, church, or business may be, you are rarely ever going to have everyone trust, embrace, and follow your lead - catch your vision. Five years ago today was no exception. Not everyone wanted to go where we were headed. And just being honest, it kind of hurt a little.
And then...it began to hurt a LOT!
An email went out. To lots of people. It was passive-aggressive. It was undermining. It was manipulative. And it worked. It was like a torch thrown into a dynamite shack. And what that looks like in the world of email is one person after another hitting the Reply to All button. The only thing that most of the folks who joined the bonfire didn't realize was that I was one of the people on the email. Every single Reply to All that lengthened that email chain was delivered right to my Inbox. And for about 3 hours that day I just sat there, reading one message after another after another. It was painful. It was like sucker punch after sucker punch right to the gut. As I mentioned a moment ago - it hurt a LOT! But when I say that, I think I need to be a bit more specific about how that hurt and pain expressed itself in my life.
The next day I took a road trip with my son to Knoxville. The only thing I remember about the trip was the misery I was in. I was dazed. I was not fully present. I missed an opportunity to simply be with my son.
Two days later I stood before our church family, broken & in tears, but boldly attempting to own my decisions and lead us forward. I was humbled. I was overwhelmed by the support in front of me, beside me, and behind me. I knew that while the minority report felt like the war cry of the masses, we were going to get through.
The next day I sat in my doctor's office, explaining to him everything that I had experienced over the last several days; not just the situations and decisions, but the conflict, pain, and emotions I had carried. Whatever was happening to me didn't feel like it was getting any better. And after just a few minutes of questions and conversation, he delivered news to me that I had never expected in my entire life:
You've just experienced an anxiety attack. (Say what!?)
I've written about this before (NO MORE SECRETS!) and talked openly for several years now (whether in conversations, other blogposts, and even sermons) about what it was like to walk through a season of mild depression. I am always open to sharing that with anyone. But that's not what this post is about. So that begs the question: Why am I sharing this with you? Why bring this all up again? To dig up what's already dead & buried? To try and re-infect my own healed wounds? Absolutely not. I'm not writing this today to condemn or even complain. I'm writing this to confess.
It took a couple of years after all this happened, but one Saturday night while sitting in my chair reading, the Holy Spirit all of a sudden revealed to me why this had all hit me so hard - why, like never before in my life, I was so paralyzed and affected by other people's reactions and responses. (What I'm about to share with you in no way is an attempt to diminish the reality that I have genuinely walked through and experienced anxiety and depression. It's a reality. It doesn't discriminate. But for many, it's also vulnerable. It can be defeated!) As I sat that night reading JD Greear's book, Gospel, the Lord began to expose something to me. Through JD's confession came my own realization. As he is openly confessing the sins he most struggles with, he goes further in sharing that he believes they are all rooted in a much deeper issue & sin. His tendency toward anger, worry, lying, and even depression are all symptoms of a greater sickness: the need for other people's approval. Allow me to share with you what he wrote:
"My problem is that my heart so craves the approval of others that these sins come as instinctively to me as breathing! My insecurity makes me fearful. It makes me be short-tempered. It makes me willing to bend the truth for personal advantage. And even if I could discipline myself not to get angry or worried or lie, I would have only covered up the real problem: I delight more in the approval of others than I do in the approval of God. I am an idolater. That is my depravity."
As I read this, I broke. I wept. I remember my wife walking into the room, looking at me and asking, "Are you OK?" And while it was an incredibly painful realization, it was a liberating one as well. It was so clear to me. Almost every sin that I deal with in my life is rooted in or birthed from the deeper sin of seeking the approval of men. For many years of my life as a youth pastor (especially at my former church) I very rarely faced opposition over anything. To be honest, I was golden boy! I never realized I was idolizing other people's approval because I almost always had it. (And if I didn't, I wasn't aware of it.) So when, for the first time as a pastor, I was faced with what felt like a wave of opposition from people whom I simply thought I was trying to lead and shepherd (but didn't realize I was also secretly trying to win their affection and approval), I was wrecked. I was heartbroken. In truth, I was exposed. My idol had come tumbling to the ground in front of me. The thing I was worshiping had all of a sudden turned its back on me. And as I stated a moment ago, this was actually one of the most freeing and liberating realizations of my life. Why, you might wonder? Because I could now see the enemy. I could stop spending my time putting a Band-Aid on a head wound - dealing with the symptoms - and I could take an axe to the real heart of the disease. To put it bluntly: I could now repent.
The Apostle Paul told the Galatians, "If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ." (Galatians 1:10) Sort of crazy if you think about it, that a pastor - a servant of Christ and shepherd of God's people - could become seduced by the desire for those same people's affections, and in doing so (as Paul states) essentially disqualify himself from effectively being a servant of Christ. My affections have to be for the One who pursued me, bought me, and redeemed me with His own life. His approval is all I need. JD Greear goes on to say:
"The Gospel shows me a God who is better than the approval of others and a God more valuable than their praise. The Gospel shows me that God's presence and approval are the greatest treasure in the universe. The Gospel reveals God's mercy toward me, and that makes me more merciful with others - not because I have to be so to gain God's acceptance, but because I am so overwhelmed by His mercy that I can't help but extend that to others. We must saturate ourselves, therefore, in the truths of the Gospel."
I had not lived my life saturating my mind and heart in the truths of the Gospel - that the only acceptance and approval I need in all the world are from God. And I have found those given freely to me in and through Jesus Christ. This changes everything.
Do you struggle with this?
Is your heart secretly longing for - worshiping - the approval of others?
If so, I understand.
If so, I encourage you, repent.
If so, I encourage you to take Psalm 51 & Psalm 139 and meditate on them, pray through them, and cry out to the Lord.
There are so many invaluable things I have learned from that experience five years ago. (That's another four or five blogposts.) And just to be clear, I would walk through it all over again. It was a hard decision. It was the right decision. I would make the same decision even now. But I would also make sure to have my heart and mind anchored to the unwavering truth that there is only one person's approval I live for.