Run Away to God
60 Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly (Lk. 22:60-62, NIV).
Sometimes, I just feel like running away – that is, running away from the church.
Maybe you’ve felt the same way during certain seasons of life.
My dilemma denotes a little irony to the situation: I’m a pastor. In one form or another, I have been active in ministry since 2008.
And yet, there are those moments when all I want to do is to bundle up my raw emotions, my spiritual convictions, and my most cherished ambitions into a theological knapsack, tie it to a pole, swing it over my shoulder – and to just run away. I often tell myself that “I’m really going to do it this time!”
Of course, I always change my mind after a few self-reflective steps down that rocky path of discouragement — perhaps even after stumbling across a few of those slippery stones of disenchantment.
The problem is that I don’t ever want to really leave “home.” Home as in the “la casa” of God’s problem-penetrating, truth-declaring presence deep in my soul.
But let’s face the harsh reality: discouragement (even for the most resolute Christians) can become pervasive enough to make us question our self-worth, and ultimately, to question our faith.
I’m sure that Simon Peter felt like running away after his three-fold denial of Jesus. Not in a million years, even by the ancient standards of time-keeping, did Peter intend to forsake his relationship with Jesus. Sure, the warning signs had indicated potential danger. Earlier, Jesus had stated that Satan had asked to sift the disciples as wheat. Jesus even prayed that Simon Peter’s faith might not fail (Lk. 22:31-32). But even the best determination and resolve does not prevent a fall.
A potent dose of discouragement (when fully internalized) leads to a sense of self-defeat.
Why does this matter?
As Christians we can sometimes place faith into a separate category of experiential knowledge (the process of experiencing and thus learning that something is trustworthy and reliable). For example, if we hope (through faith) for a certain outcome that does not come to fruition, the result can make us feel a sense of failure. “If only I had more faith … it would’ve worked out.” Or, “God, I believed that you would do this … but it didn’t happen.”
For spiritual leaders, the consequences seem more dire. Let’s face the truth: ministers who deeply care about their congregations often make significant sacrifices of time and family life.
And often, pastors are viewed as being culpable for the current state of a local church. Whether it is right or wrong, success seems to be shared corporately and failure is assigned individually in life.
Add up enough of “the mistakes,” and “the missed opportunities,” and “the messiness” of church life, and the cumulative effect is a prevalent sense of failure. And in all honesty, it's a sense of failure that permeates into all aspects of the person’s life - at church, at home, at school, or at work.
Here’s one of the unofficial litmus tests to see if continued discouragement has led to a sense of helplessness:
How often have you stared at the wall and replayed difficult scenarios over and over in your mind?! How many hours have been spent thinking about events that cannot be changed?
(I can’t even adequately count the number of times those thoughts have run through my mind, but I’m sure my wife has kept a tally somewhere!)
So, what do we do? Some helpful advice:
Reverend Dr. Jan McCormack, an ABC-ordained chaplain in our region and chair of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling programs at Denver Seminary, has often shared in her classes that healing starts with recognition — and self-reflection.
The reality of our continuing Covid-19 pandemic — or post-pandemic life (dependent upon your definition) — is a changed world.
The socio-political environment has bled into the church atmosphere. Polarization and division (and just the frustration of daily life) has seeped — like stealthy long shadows — into what should be the light and airy chambers of our sanctuaries. Pastors and church lay leaders struggle with the fears (and the frustrations) of declining membership, declining attendance, declining influence, and as a result, declining revenue.
How could we NOT take all of that personally? But a healthy starting point is to realize that our world — both locally and globally — has changed.
But everything that has gone wrong in the world isn’t "all our fault.” Failure isn’t "all your fault.”
The one person that bullies us the most is the one who looks back at us in the mirror each day.
Christian leaders and ministers are told countless times over the years that a good community of some trusted friends, a good counselor, and a good doctor are necessary for a healthy physical and spiritual life — which is all true!
But if you’re like me, you need something more pragmatic to do when the emotional weight is too overbearing.
So, here’s my favorite practical technique (no, it’s not a reinvention of the wheel, but it does help to break the cycle of despair):
Make a list — on scratch paper or on your tablet — of two categories: the things “in your control” and the things “out of your control.” More than likely, the latter column is going to have far more items, which is perfectly okay. It helps us to see that what we “can control” is often the very things we are doing.
Failure is not always fatal. Mistakes are not always missteps forever taken in the wrong direction. A setback can be a “setup” for a comeback.
And if those platitudes don’t offer even a hint of inspiration, remember that Simon Peter, who after his denial of his “knowledge” of Jesus — and who, after having to see that painful grimace on Jesus’s face AT that denial — is the same Peter restored to his faith.
He is the same Peter restored after breakfast on the shore following Jesus’s resurrection. He is the same Peter the Rock upon whose faith is the determination of the church to prevail against the gates of Hell.
Even when there are times when we weep bitterly and want to run away.