In the past two weeks, three core families left our church. We’re not a big church. And because we’re only eight years into the battle of planting in a very secular suburb of Washington D.C., their departure hurt corporately and personally. To keep my head high by “trusting in the gospel,” or to be thankful that we’re a “sending church,” felt like hollow platitudes as I began to spiral.
Maybe you’ve been there. Perhaps your boss’s disapproval, an employee’s continued disregard, or the COVID holiday isolation has you teetering. We’ve all spiraled in moments like these. What do we do?
In a few years I’ll begin rounding up to 50. It’s only with a handful of deep personal and pastoral scars to evidence my trustworthiness that a younger planter in our network asked a day ago, “What do you do when you’re down?” Similar to my experience, a cluster of families in his core team had just exited his church after three years of service, sweat, and friendship.
I sighed, remembering the past two weeks and how God’s grace was pulling me out of my descent. Here’s what I told him.
First, I guard myself. When I’m going down, I easily cling to sin. I lash out in anger, jump at knee-jerk reactions, avoid, isolate, condemn, or dive into far less fulfilling cesspools. I must guard myself from sin that so easily entangles, sin which crouches at my door, Satan who prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (Heb. 12:1; Gen. 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:8). So I set up barriers immediately when I start to spiral. I know the broken instinct of my flesh, how I easily live according to the patterns of this world, and how I have an Enemy ready to destroy my joy and mar God’s glory. I get “legalistic” about it: shutting doors, turning off social media, stepping out of isolation and away from the narratives in my head. This gives me breathing room to run toward community.
I also confide in my closest friends and my wife. When I’m spiraling downward, I need someone to bear my burdens with me––a friend who sticks closer than a brother, one who will lift my eyes to the ever-present Savior (Gal. 6:2; Prov. 18:24; Heb. 12:1). I do this for three reasons. One, my friends and my wife help me to keep my guard up and my sin out. Two, they remind me of the gospel—that my worth isn’t contingent on failure or success, and that my worst realities and future fears have been remedied in Christ. Three, they help me discern possible self-inflicted reasons for the descent. There’s often a lesson to be learned, character to be shaped, and changes to be made. Community helps me sustain obedience, gain security in the gospel, and begin my ascent.
Third, I stop everything and do something I enjoy. Though I haven’t seen Christ, I know what cultivates my love for him, where I taste and see his goodness, how I particularly embrace the joy of my salvation (1 Pet. 1:8; Ps. 34:8; 51:12). I don’t do this to ignore my present condition. Rather, I consider Christ who endured far more than I currently face, that I might enjoy his fellowship today. I sing a good hymn, take a good long walk, sit by the fire, or enjoy a good meal with others. This is where I taste and see that my Lord is good. The process isn’t linear and often lasts longer than I’d like. Ultimately, God must lift me from my sadness.
For three or four days I sat in it: I questioned my pastoral skill, my faithfulness to the body of Christ, my strength to keep at it. I missed my friends who had chosen to leave our church. God’s grace and sturdy walls kept me from secret sin—or lashing out in anger and condemnation. I did lash out pretty good once, but his grace drew me quickly to seek forgiveness. Two friends and my wife listened to my spew and melancholy. They pointed me to Christ and areas for needed change.
Come midweek, it was refreshing to sit by the fire alone, talking to God, when the first guy showed up for Bible study. He asked how I was, and I shared. Probably too much. He’s new to the church, not yet a believer, and he’d become a dear friend. He commended my leadership, the community of the church, and the impact in his life coming from these “new teachings” in the Bible. Over the years, I had grown to love this guy, and was longing for him to know Christ. I relished the things he shared but had to push a bit further.
“These are all really encouraging to me, but I’m kinda just wondering what you believe about who Jesus is?” I asked him. My friend replied, “Matt, I believe he’s my Savior.” I couldn’t control my joy and laughter at the news of his salvation.
God’s kindness struck me later that night, again by the fire, after my wife shared how good it was to hear laughter seep through the kitchen window. What a sovereign, good, tender, present King we have—one who builds his church though sinners like me. One who rescues sinners I’ve grown to love. One who goes with those who move from one church to another. One who gives such detailed present attention to my situation and chose, in his kindness, to reveal my friend’s salvation that very night.
This is our God, the transcendent King who stoops down to lift us up into the heavens of his grace.