Depression. Anxiety. Suffering.
What are the first things that come to mind when you hear those words?
It’s no secret that I was raised in church, my Dad being an associate pastor for much of my childhood, and I knew a lot about the Bible. I could tell you what it said about any issue, well, almost any issue. You see, in my formative years, I knew a few things about my faith but firmly rooted myself in the notion that I knew everything. I was that kid.
And I was wrong.
1.) I knew that God was good.
2.) I knew that Jesus loved me.
3.) I knew that Jesus wanted me to be happy.
I knew that the first two were true, and by extension, the third is true. And if people weren’t happy, well, obviously they were lacking in understanding the first two. Because duh. Because Jesus. Because good Christians don’t get sad. Good Christians don’t get depressed. And good Christians certainly don’t take medication for it. So if words like depression or anxiety flew across my radar, I chalked it up to a blatant misunderstanding of who God is.
Because for me in those days, the Gospel was wholly contingent on happiness, on how I’m getting along, on how much faith I had and the sincere belief that if something was wrong in my relationship with God or in my life, it must be my fault.
I believed that lie until I was old enough to comprehend that my Dad, a pastor, suffered through the very things I decried as faithlessness.
The echoes of Job’s friends had been my theology, the cries of Jesus’ disciples asking whose sin caused the man to be born blind had been my theme song. I was the Pharisee, antagonizing the son of God with my disbelief because I believed that I could be justified in myself, because my goodness depends on me.
Let me be clear: Depression, mental illness, or a general suffering is not sinful. It is not selfish. It is not evil.
Countless people I know and love have suffered with crippling mental illness. I myself, though I don’t know what living with a chemical imbalance feels like, have seen grief and pain and felt the sting of an emptiness in losing someone I loved. Until you have walked through the darkness with someone who can’t explain the gnawing depression inside of them, until you have stood by them at their most dire moments, do not assume to know what it’s like for them. And if you have walked with someone through their sickness, you know better than to assume anything.
In the church, we don’t have an excellent track record with ministering to people who are depressed. We’ve made words like “anxiety” and “mental illness” into bad words, symptoms of our lack of trust in a God who is good, who loves us, who wants us to be happy.
I no longer believe those criteria are the proper formula for ultimate joy. Ultimate joy rests in Christ and his work on the cross. And feelings are fleeting, joy is a constant understanding of those truths without having to moralize every little thing that happens in our lives.
So I won’t judge a fellow Christian who is suffering with depression, won’t tell them to just be happy, won’t tell them that if they are hurting, they aren’t trusting God enough. Because I believe that God is greater than your depression (that he is good), I can trust him to one day help you find resolution, and find peace. Because I believe that the love of Christ is stronger and better than anything this world can offer (that he loves you), I can trust that he is with you in the middle of your struggle. And because I believe that God wants you to know the difference between finite happiness and everlasting joy, I can trust that no matter what you’re feeling, Jesus is better and I will sit with you in your pain and cry with you and pray with you and suffer with you.
Back to John 9, when Jesus’ disciples asked him about the man who was born blind:
“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi,who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam”. So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.”-John 9:1-7
It was a popular idea in that day that suffering came because of someone’s sin. Jesus cleverly debunks this myth and shows his power over stigmas by saying “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” and proceeds to upset the status quo even further and rub his dirty spit on the mans eyes. After rinsing them in the pool of Siloam, he was healed.
No, I do not believe that depression cannot be healed. But when we moralize chemical imbalances it’s no better than moralizing blindness or a broken limb. I read somewhere before that when someone gets a cast, people flock to sign it, and when people say they are depressed, people run away.
This stigma is everywhere, but it bothers me the most that it exists in the church. We claim love and mercy and grace, yet many of us cannot be sensitive to hurting people because we have sterilized the Gospel. But I serve a Jesus who holds you in your pain. I serve a Jesus who breaks protocol and in the sight of a sterilized, sanitized congregation and rubs muddy spit on your broken heart.
A Christ who doesn’t care where you’ve been, only where you are.
A Savior who saves us from our darkness and loves us in the midst of it.
A God who commands us to mourn with the mourners and rejoice with the rejoicers.
A Lord who tells us, time and time again, to come as we are and be made whole.