The Gospel Coalition India Council members reflect on how they have experienced the power of the gospel in their weakness.
Akshay Rajkumar: We’re living in this world of deep sin and struggle and brokenness. And we are serving people who are in that world. And we also are facing sin in our own hearts and struggle, in our own lives and brokenness. So, I want us to just think about how has the gospel been the power of God in these times—in our sin, in our brokenness, in our struggles.
Ranjit David: So during the pandemic, I really struggled with anxiety. People who look at me would not think of me as an anxious person, and I’ve never experienced this before. So it took a while for me to really figure out what was going on.
So once things moved online, initially, we were very excited about different activities for the church on Zoom. But then soon it kind of took a toll on me. I would even become anxious before a Zoom meeting, I didn’t want to meet people at all.
I started becoming very quiet. I started sleeping less in the night and more because I was scared of what’s going to happen to the church, right? People are leaving Delhi. The offering was coming down. How am I going to meet the needs of the church? What was going to happen to all the ministries?
So I was thinking about this again and again, and it came to a point where I really felt like I was sinking right. And the image I had is, it felt like I was standing in front of an abyss.
And if I look long enough, I’m going to fall in and I’m not going to come out of it. And I would do different things to kind of forget about that abyss. And I would start preaching a series and I would start preparing sermons, but every now and then, I know it’s there. And it was kind of pulling me inside.
Around October-November 2020, I kind of crashed. I feel like I’m not going to make it. I thought, I’ll have to quit ministry. I’ll have to leave because the anxiety was becoming very real. I didn’t want to preach.
And I remember one particular day, I was awake till three in the morning, and I couldn’t take it anymore. So I messaged a couple of guys. Thankfully, one guy was in the US, so he was awake at that time. So he quickly called me.
And I kept telling him just one thing. I said, “I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what’s happening to me.” And I was just sobbing in the middle of the night.
And thankfully, he has been through something like this before. So he asked me a few questions to kind of think about what was going on. And then that’s when I realised I was really suffering from anxiety, right?
Anxiety, and just kind of triggered by fear, of what’s going to happen in the future. Well, as a response to that, I did a few things. One, I stepped out of social media for a year.
And I told my church and my leaders in the church who prayed with me, who stuck with me and who encouraged me, and I also went to counselling. I want to do it right. So for the first time, me and my wife, both of us went into counselling. And that really helped me understand what I was going through.
Well, the good thing is last year, 2021, we were able to go through the pandemic in a much better way as a family, as a person, as a pastor, I’m in a much better space.
I still understand what leads me to anxiety, but I think even the counselling has helped me to pick up some tools to really deal with that and also serve people.
And I think it’s helped me understand people who are struggling with anxiety better. And I’m able to shepherd people a little better, with more grace. That’s been my story.
Anand Mahadevan: You talked about counselling, Ranjit. In India, we tend to have, either a view that counselling is not needed—it’s not even there in our frame of reference—or we actually, maybe even have a negative view of counselling.
So how would you encourage people to consider counselling if they go through things like this or if they really feel a need for it?
Ranjit David: Yeah, absolutely, right? So for me as a pastor, we always counsel people, right? And it is good. And through the anxiety, one thing I realised is maybe some of us need to just talk to a friend. Maybe some of us need to just talk to a pastor.
But if anxiety is really hampering and hindering your day-to-day work, I mean, it’s good to talk to a professional, right? And especially, somebody who’s gospel centred and who’s a biblical counsellor.
So for me, I came to a point that I felt like I needed to really understand what was happening, and I needed some way to have lasting change. So I decided to go to counselling.
And the funny thing is, somebody outside the church, when I kind of shared this with them, they said, don’t tell your church, don’t tell people that you are going to counselling or you’re dealing with anxiety. And I thought, man, that’s exactly what we do.
As pastors, we don’t want to talk about our brokenness or be vulnerable before the congregation. We want everybody to be vulnerable, but we won’t be vulnerable, right? But right up front, I said, I’m going to tell the church, I think they’re going to be part of this journey with me. And in a beautiful way, God used the community to also help me.
But now what happened is there are many who understand their anxiety, and they’re open to counselling. And I think India needs more counsellors. There’s a statistic that says almost 45% of professionals are anxiety-driven and depressed.
And I think there is a space for that, there’s a space for counselling, and my marriage is encouraged by that.
Anand Mahadevan: I’m really so glad we are taking time to reflect on and talk about our own struggles and our own brokenness. I’m so glad. And each of us are going to take turns. What’s been your journey, Akshay?
Akshay Rajkumar: Yeah, I think after I gave my life to Christ, I thought the next most important decision I’m going to make is who I’m going to get married to. So I really built this idea up in my mind about what marriage is going to be like and what I could expect from marriage.
And in hindsight, I had really unrealistic expectations of marriage. I had this fantasy of being the perfect husband and having the perfect wife and having the perfect children and the perfect dog and what not.
And I really hoped and believed deeply that marriage would heal me of all my brokenness. It would save me from all my feelings of shame and inadequacy. It would validate me. It would justify me, all the things only Jesus can do for me. And I didn’t know that I was looking to marriage to do this for me.
And when I did get married, within a few years, I realised marriage isn’t going to save me. Marriage is actually exposing me, and it’s actually introducing me to who I really am.
And for the first time in my life, I had to reckon with the fact that I am a sinner because I was not the perfect husband. Far from it. I was a selfish, self-absorbed husband, very immature. And I realized that all my theology was just theology.
And for the first time, I felt the weight of sin and I had no power to change it. And what followed were feelings of isolation, and shame, and self-condemnation, and not knowing, how do I deal with the reality of sin and my complete inability to overcome it?
And what followed is that God in his sovereignty brought us into community with people who introduced us, my wife and I both, for the first time in my life, to a really robust gospel-centered paradigm and a really rich gospel-centred community where I was seen for who I am and received and also brought to Jesus.
And I began to see Jesus as the perfect husband. I began to see he is the perfect bridegroom, and he has sacrificed himself for his bride, and he calls me to be that kind of husband. So it really began to change my expectations of marriage.
I realised marriage is not the stage for my wife to sacrifice herself for me, which in India, you’ll hear a lot of men say, “My wife sacrifices a lot for me.” You don’t hear a lot of wives saying, “My husband sacrifices himself for me.”
But that’s what Jesus calls us to be, husbands who sacrifice ourselves for our wives. And I began to desire that. I began to desire that, and I began to see that Jesus does this for me.
And over the years, God has richly renewed our marriage and richly changed our marriage. The gospel has really been, I think, the only help I could have had in those times.
Arvind Balaram: Thanks, Akshay, for sharing so honestly about the struggles that you’ve had in your marriage. It’s so encouraging to hear the power of the gospel for marriage. So I want to ask just a question.
After having experienced all these things through marriage and coming into marriage with certain expectations, what would you say to the single people who are out there in your church or who might be watching right now?
Akshay Rajkumar: Yeah, I think lots of things. But I think the first thing is don’t be scared, because I think sometimes when I talk about these things, people think marriage is really difficult and awful, and I don’t want anything to do with it. But I would still say marriage is a desirable thing.
It’s a beautiful thing. It’s not a necessary thing. Not every single person needs to get married. And I think that’s one thing. That’s the first thing I would say to a single person.
The first thing I would say to myself as a single person, that you will never be complete by another person. Only in Christ, you are complete. And I believe this Jerry Maguire theology of we’re waiting for someone and being able to say to them, “You complete me.” That’s not true. And so my theology has to change. I am complete in Christ.
And so I would say enjoy that as a single person. Enjoy your completeness in Christ. It doesn’t mean that life is easy. It doesn’t mean that single life is easy. But marriage isn’t easy either. So whether you’re single or you’re married, you’re only complete in Christ. So I would say go to Christ, enjoy your marriage to him, and prepare yourself for marriage if you want it.
Anand Mahadevan: I think given that India is such a young nation, marriage and career are such important things. And so maybe I’ll talk a little bit about the struggles and more specifically, my own sinfulness.
In my career, I’ve worked as a business journalist for about 25 years before I moved into church planting. And in journalism, one of the things is that whatever story you write, it will be in print.
So whatever story you write, you get your byline on that story. And so when I began my career, the first time I saw my name in print, that was like, “Wow!”
And up till that point, I have never really been successful or known for anything or I’ve never been excellent in anything, but just seeing my name against the story. And maybe that’s what really started, that’s what really sparked my own sinfulness.
And from that moment, from my very first byline, I kind of made my work, my career in business journalism, all about myself. My work for many years, for decades, was all about telling the world how good I was; telling the world that I am somebody. I am good at something. I am successful at something.
I think it was maybe a good 15 years of just downward spiral in that sinfulness where I made my work all about myself. How can I be successful? How can I become more famous? How can I grow up the ladder? How can I get my next promotion? How can I get a better job? How can I get more increments? It all just became more and more about me.
And as that happened, as I kind of gave into this sin pattern, one of the things I really ignored and shoved aside was God’s creation plan for work. God created work to promote human flourishing, to promote human interdependence.
We were designed to serve one another through our career, through our work. And we were created to live out the image of God in which we’ve created. And God himself was the worker.
So all that rich theology of work kind of just got completely cast aside. And I was just chasing this dream of the successful me. And it was never enough. No matter how many by-lines I got or bigger stories I did, it was never enough. And because it was never enough, it became such a heavy burden. It led to anxiety.
Just the fear of failure just made me work harder and harder and harder, neglecting family, neglecting all the other interests I have. It just became about work and work for me.
So, I think, it was in this sin of mind that I really began to experience the depth of how much the gospel can transform us, the good news of who Jesus is and what he has done for us, how much it can transform us. And I think I experienced when I really finally figured that what I was doing was not helpful at all for me, or for others.
And somehow with the grace of God, how I began to kind of just understand that in Christ I can excel, but I can also rest. That in Christ I can celebrate my career, but I don’t have to be consumed by it.
And as I began to understand that and realize that work became less about me and more about others. And I think I experienced real gospel freedom, how the gospel frees us from ourselves. And that was really helpful. It was an ongoing journey, a journey that’s still continuing.
And in the gospel, I actually found true significance. I began to understand that my story becomes most significant when I learn to, in Christ, place my story in God’s grand story. In isolation, my story, I think it’s significant, but it never is.
But when I learned to place my story in God’s grand gospel story, I realized that’s where I was significant. His significance and my significance was helpful and blessing people around me rather than being a curse to people around me.
So I think the area of career is where I think perhaps I’ve sinned the most. And then the area of career is also perhaps where I have experienced grace the most.
Ranjit David: Thanks. I think the professionals who are watching this, I’m sure, will definitely appreciate and resonate with what you’ve shared.
But you have a unique calling of being in the work, in the marketplace as well as in ministry. And ministry is not very different either. How has this shaped you or thinking about ministry?
Anand Mahadevan: Yeah, that’s so true, Ranjit. Actually, when I look back, I was no less susceptible to this sin of making everything about myself.
And so at different stages in my journey in ministry, I kind of went back to the same old sin pattern. Just as I made work about myself, I began to make ministry about myself.
In fact, I actually found that it was harder not to make ministry about myself than it was to make work about myself. The struggle with ministry idolatry was actually, for me, harder than my struggle with work idolatry. And one thing that really helped me, to me, I think this was kind of a transformational moment.
One day when I was just about to preach, I kind of found myself telling my own soul, my own heart, that if I preach, well, people will appreciate me. If I don’t preach well, they may not say bad things to my face, but in their hearts they’re going to think what a waste of time it was.
And then I remember telling myself that that’s how it’s going to be with people. But Lord Jesus, you love me just the same, whether I preach a good sermon or a bad sermon. And I could rest in that.
It’s real, both in career and ministry. And the solution is the same. It is in Christ that we experience joy and freedom to be free from ourselves and really love and serve others.
Akshay Rajkumar: It’s really encouraging for us to hear how we’ve seen the gospel, really meet us with power in the deepest areas of our brokenness and sin and struggle. Arvind, what’s your story?
Arvind Balaram: Well, I can certainly resonate with each of your stories and the struggles that you’ve had. One struggle that comes to mind in my life that I struggled with for years was this whole desire to please people, seeking the approval of people more than anything.
And maybe this came out of some rejection that I faced when I was younger, but I really resolved in my mind, subconsciously, of course, that I’m not going to feel that again, whatever I need to do, that people should like me, that they should be impressed with me, that they should be happy with me, that they should accept me. I was going to do that.
And I think for many years, even decades, and even till now, just the controlling influence that what is everybody thinking? Am I dressing the right way? Am I saying the right things? Am I funny enough? Am I cool enough? Am I, in certain contexts, am I holy enough?
And I think that led me very, very often to avoid conflict, to not get into a tough conversation that I knew I needed to have with someone, but just avoiding it so that I don’t have to go through that feeling of being rejected or so that everybody should like me somehow.
And I was moving into ministry. And yet the fear of speaking in public, feeling so anxious that I should say the right thing and that everybody should be happy with me, they should be impressed with me, that they should say nice things about me when they go home at night and applaud me and so on for many years that really, I would say enslaved me.
And it was really only through the gospel, honestly, that I’ve gotten freedom from that. And especially just to understand that God has accepted me in Christ.
I am already accepted deeply. God has put his stamp of approval on me, and ultimately, that I’m living for an audience of one. I just can’t please everybody. That will never happen.
But as long as God is pleased with me and he’s already pleased with me through the gospel, through Christ that has been so liberating in my life. And so I’m really thankful for the gospel.
Akshay Rajkumar: If you desire the approval of people, you’ve chosen the perfect profession because this will test that desire in every way. And you have to say things that people don’t want to hear.
What kind of rhythms do you have to appropriate the gospel in your own heart in these times?
Arvind Balaram: Yes. I think the turning point really came actually for several years, probably two or three years every day, I would very intentionally consciously go through this list that reminded me of my identity in Christ again and again and again each day, along with memorizing some scriptures, even just having a list of things that I’m grateful for.
And I think that’s when the power of this people-pleasing sin really started to break. And so this is a rhythm that I know that I need to continue regularly, just reminding myself, if not on a daily basis, at least on a regular basis – who I am in Christ, that I’m accepted, that I’m approved, that I’m justified, that Christ has done it all, that I receive it by faith, and it’s mine.
And yeah, that just makes all the difference.
Akshay Rajkumar: Yeah. I think the one thing we can conclude is that none of us here are good people. We are chiefs of sinners and evidence that the doctrine of sin is true, but also evidence that the power of God in the gospel is true.
And we felt his renewal in our hearts, whether it’s with marriage, or with work and ministry, or anxiety, or even our heart’s own desire to find validation. But so grateful that the gospel is true and powerful. And it’s everything it says it is.