I was diagnosed several years ago with depression and am receiving treatment to manage it. I’ve been told that I probably shouldn’t be so open about that. I am a pastor, after all, and I wouldn’t want to give people personal information that they could use against me. That last sentence makes me sad for two reasons. First, the Church is to be a community of healing and encouragement, not a place that shoots the wounded. Many people struggle with mental health and are afraid to share it, even at church. Second, I wouldn’t hesitate to share a diagnosis of diabetes, or cancer, so why should this health concern be something that brings shame and distrust? I recently attended a youth ministry festival where teens were given the opportunity to share their stories of how God was working in their lives. These kids were a true cross-section of our communities, but the one thing most had in common (in addition to God) was a diagnosis of depression. That tells me that my struggle is shared by more people of faith than we realize.
I don’t know what causes this, whether it be genetics or stress. Other members of my extended family have their struggles too and I have experienced my fair share of stress over the years. I guess it doesn’t matter where it comes from as much as what I choose to do with it because it affects my faith in God. It doesn’t destroy my faith, but it does influence the way my faith is practiced. Here is what it looks like to be “blessed and depressed” at the same time:
TONE DOWN “THE JOY OF THE LORD IS MY STRENGTH” ALREADY!
I know joy and happiness are two different things. Happiness often depends on what happens to us while joy is rooted more deeply in the big picture of God. Paul was not happy being beaten and thrown in jail, but he could accept it and look past it because it did not stop the Kingdom from coming. It takes faith to accept a reality beyond the one we are experiencing. That faith leads to joy, which is the consolation that it is going to be OK after all. It is not always a bubbly lampshade-on-the-head, life-of-the-party happiness. Sometimes it is not a feeling at all but a thought. It is the simple knowledge that this pain is not the end of the world and we will survive. That probably sounds bleak, but to someone dealing with depression it can make all the difference in the world.
On dark days (depression days) I rarely feel happy or joyful. I also know that this feeling is not real. The anxiety and hopelessness that I feel is not inspired by anything bad in my life, but by a medical condition. My life is fine, better than fine actually, so I must consciously remind myself that life is fine, I am fine, and this will pass. It is actually the same act of faith that makes joy possible. It takes faith to accept a reality beyond the one I am experiencing. Life is still good even though I don’t feel good. I can choose to take my pain in stride because it pales in comparison to my ultimate Reality of the Good News of the Kingdom of God. I don’t often get crazy happy in my faith, but who ever said that the authenticity of our faith is proven in the way we feel? Whoever said that being a real Christian means being happy all the time? Sometimes, my biggest victory is simply the decision to keep going.
“LEAVE ME ALONE.” -Jesus
OK, Jesus never said that, but he got up early and tried to find a quiet spot to be alone for awhile with his Father. Sometimes, it is wise for me to avoid people when I’m having a dark day. I have plenty of work to do as pastor that requires me to sit quietly at a desk instead of meet with crowds of people. I am blessed to be able to shift around what I do on different days so I am usually able to meet all my obligations. Also, in ministry, I need to be available to people when they are in need. It requires giving some love, energy, and attention to them which requires having enough energy to give. Depression can sometimes make it hard to get yourself through the day let alone to carrying someone else.
Prayer helps. In particular, I practice contemplative prayer (see my blog post on August 11, 2017 https://5x5discipleship.com/2017/08/11/trying-to-hear-god-part-2-silence/) which is not only a way to connect more deeply with God, but a way to remind my thoughts and feelings who’s boss. I hear a lot of thoughts in my head on dark days telling me I’m no good and that everything is a mess. It is hard to make your brain stop thinking, but we can learn how to stop giving every thought our complete attention. I can actually tell my brain to shut up by ignoring it and it does.
GOD LOVES ME ANYWAY
Grace means a gift. Everything God gives is a gift. We are saved by grace through faith and not by our own works, which is good because even on my best days I can’t get over God’s bar. Grace is God’s unconditional acceptance and love. We can never do enough to earn it. We can never be good enough to deserve it. It’s not about us at all. God gives simply because God chooses to give. God also has a soft spot for those who need it most. Liberation theologians from Latin America call it “God’s Preferential Option for the Poor.” It doesn’t mean God loves the poor more than the rich, but that God offers the most help to those who need it most. Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, and raised the dead. Jesus did not avoid the needy crowds but sought them out with compassion. Jesus doesn’t avoid the depressed because we can’t seem to get it together some days. He simply loves us, just the way we are, especially on dark days. After all, Jesus is the Light of the World that shines in the Darkness.