Embracing Awkward

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  • Holy Saturday and My (and Your) Depression

    When I became a Christian I was sure I would never be depressed again. How could someone who knows the love and joy of Jesus be so sad that getting out of bed seems like a feat of enormous strength? Sure, I had been so depressed in my middle school years, but that was all going to change now. There’s no room for crippling depression in life with the Risen Jesus. Or so I thought, before two devastating bouts of depression upended my life like a sequence of punches from Mike Tyson, the first in college, and the second in my third year of ministry. 

    If you’ve never personally struggled with depression, it’s hard, and exhausting, and risky to try to describe. David Foster Wallace once likened it to an extremely painful disease that attacks your legs and throat simultaneously, causing both complete paralysis and an ability to cry for help. He called it, “The Bad Thing,” and said, “This is the way the Bad Thing works: it’s especially good at attacking your defense mechanisms. The way to fight against or get away from the Bad Thing is clearly just to think differently, to reason and argue with yourself. Just to change the way you’re perceiving and sensing and processing stuff. But you need your mind to do this, your brain cells with their atoms and your mental powers and all that, your self. And that’s exactly what the Bad Thing has made too sick to work right.” It makes me think of how one of my friends describes it as like having a bully living inside you, constantly reminding you of what a loser you are. 

    Years ago (in 1947 to be exact) Robert Penn Warren described it like this in All the King’s Men: “[Jack Burden] laid aside the great journal and entered upon one of the periods of the Great Sleep. He would come home in the evening, and because he knew that he could not work he would go to bed immediately. He would sleep twelve hours, fourteen hours, fifteen hours, feeling himself, while asleep, plunge deeper and deeper into sleep like a diver groping downward into dark water feeling for something which may be there and which would glitter if there were any light in the depth, but there isn’t any light. Then in the morning he would lie in bed, not wanting anything, not even hungry, hearing the small sounds of the world sneaking and seeping back into the room, under the door, through the glass, through the cracks in the wall, through the very pores of the wood and plaster. Then he would think: If I don’t get up I can’t go back to bed. And he would get up and go out into the world which seemed very unfamiliar, but with a tantalizing unfamiliarity like the world of boyhood to which an old man returns.” When I first read that last spring I felt I finally understood my depressed self in college, who I judged as being incredibly lazy, without understanding that this is how depression works. I have so much more compassion for him now. 

    We could keep going. Jeffrey Eugenides describes it like having “a bruise in your mind.” Sometimes you know how it got there; sometimes you genuinely have no clue. Charles Spurgeon described it as a “shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness.” William Cowper wrote about his own struggle with it, “I was struck with such a dejection of spirits, as none but they who have felt the same, can have the least conception of. Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horror, and rising up in despair.” This is just a taste of what living with depression feels like. Sprinkle that dark appetizer with some good old fashioned shame, and you have a better taste of what it’s like for a Christian to live with depression. 

    In that second devastating bout with depression I mentioned (my third year of ministry), I remember going to see a local counselor about it. He was what you would call a biblical counselor, and genuinely believed that most common psychological struggles had a biblical solution. One day we were meeting at Ruby Tuesday for a session (spoiler alert: Ruby Tuesday only leaves you more depressed), and, as I was trying to describe my depression, I will never forget what he told me. After a bite of the saddest burger in the world, he said, “The good news is that because the cause of depression is sin, it means the cure for it is repentance, which is hopeful because all you need to do is repent.” It was like one of Job’s counselors had teleported and was sitting with me at Ruby Tuesday, eating a sad burger, adding the weight of shame to the already heavy load of depression. 

    It’s taken me a lot of good counseling to know better. To know that depression is more complicated than that. To know it has spiritual, emotional, and physical roots. To know that it seems to be passed down through generations of families, like an heirloom you can’t seem to get rid of. To know that medicine can be amazingly helpful. To know that the gospel indeed speaks to it, yet doesn’t cure it. To know that sometimes the Lord, for reasons known only to Him, asks us to learn to entrust lifelong, unwanted struggles to Him. To know that the Lord is gentle with bruised reeds, and refuses to join me in condemning myself. To know that one day my depression will cease, when all the tears get wiped from our faces, and we enter fully into the presence and likeness of our Risen Savior. But not yet. Not yet. I’ve always loved the way David Murray says it: “Christians get depressed, too.” 

    It’s Holy Saturday and I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means for my depression. Holy Saturday feels like the most overlooked of Holy Days, sandwiched between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. And yet it is so important. It’s the day that says God’s silence doesn’t equal his absence. It’s the day that says there is room, so much room, for our lingering doubt, confusion, struggle, and despair. It’s an uncomfortable day. Our Lord is lying in a caved tomb. We know the darkness will not overcome him. But sometimes it’s just good to know that he knows what our darkness is like. 

    It makes me think of the closing scene in Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev. Asher has grown tremendously as an artist, and is hosting his parents to his first show. He wants to show them a piece of art that he is afraid will offend them, but yet it is so important to him. Though growing up a devout Jew, he has been drawn to Jesus and is terrified of how his parents might respond.  The struggle of his life has been watching his depressed mother live a life of tremendous suffering. Asher brings them to the masterpiece, “Mama, it's a crucifixion. I made our living-room window into a crucifix and I put you on it to show the world about your waiting, your fears, your anguish. Do you understand, Mama?” 

    Asher, like us, was looking for someone who could bear the weight of his sadness, who could hold the sadness of his mother. He found the dying Jesus. He is the only God who knows what to do with our tears. The good news of Holy Saturday is that the Lord does not break bruised reeds because He knows what it is to be one. Holy Saturday is a day we can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that our depression, which often feels too much for us to take, will never be too much for Him.