When the Foolishness of the Cross Collides with the Embarassment of Depression

Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens; and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions.

It is much easier to tell people that I suffer from lupus than it is to admit that I also suffer from depression and anxiety. And it is far easier to just admit to having depression and anxiety than it is to talk about how that wounds one’s faith; leaves one empty and spiritually thirsty and fills one with the cries of the psalmist in Psalm 13:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed.”

The Psalmist cries “How Long?” but for people like me who have suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression off and on for as long as they can remember, another question is far more difficult to answer: “How are you?”

Nearly 100% of the time I have no idea how to answer that question.

Because we clergy types are supposed to have our stuff together.

To be strong for others.

To embody steadfastness.

To be an exemplar of a faith that is always sunny and shining and untarnished by the reality of life, like some Thomas Kinkade painting.

And we hate to not take the question seriously and we long to answer honestly and deeply and we just can’t.

People have run up to me before worship with their neighbors and friends in tow and offered introductions like: “This is my pastor and we love him so much! You are so going to want to join this congregation like I did.”

It is much harder to imagine someone saying, “This is my pastor, he suffers from clinical depression and occasional paralyzing anxiety, but don’t worry, he takes medication regularly and is in therapy and is doing quite well.”

Because no one likes to admit that they have depression.

And so they hide it and in hiding it give it power in their lives.

Paul writes later in 1 Thessalonians 5: 9-11

“For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

Encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

God equips us with the Holy Spirit and then sends us out into the world to encourage others in and with the hope that comes from Jesus: a hope of life from death. As Monica A. Coleman, Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions, at the Claremont School of Theology, tells it: “Many people describe depression as a kind of intense grief. It is a deep sadness. It’s like heartbreak, agony and despair all at once.” She continues: “I think depression is worse than grief. Grief usually has an identifiable cause. There are stages. People understand why you are sad. It eases with time.” And she concludes: “I find that depression is more like death. In every depressive episode, something is lost.”

“For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

As disciples of Jesus and a resurrection people; a hope-filled, hope-shaped and hope-equipped people, we are called to encourage faith in the midst of despair; to proclaim hope in the face of death. To walk the extra mile with and for our brothers and sisters.

If you have been down the rabbit hole of depression, perhaps you, too, have attended your own private funeral for hope. Of course a loss of hope is not limited to the depressed: it may include those who have suffered debilitating illness or painful disease, lost a friend, a loved one, a child, a parent, the life you once cherished, faced the struggle of aging, struggled to raise children or make ends meet or find your place in this world. As I said last Sunday, I say again here: Everything and everyone seems to want to nail our hope to a cross and declare it crucified, dead and buried. But the foolishness of the cross is that every expectation is turned on its head: hopelessness gives way to hope; life comes from death; our mourning gives way to dancing. But sometimes in our grief, our woundedness, and our brokenness we feel as if the only dance we know is the foxtrot, but the soundtrack of our lives is urban hip hop and we never quite make it onto the dancefloor.

As a disciple of Jesus, to encourage someone is not to invite a person to dismiss the reality of their life or minimize their suffering or tie their suffering to a lack of faith or to place it in the hands of a judgmental God. To encourage someone is to gift them hope. Not the unknowable hope that things will get better because what happens if they don’t? Sometimes healing does not come. Sometimes the struggles do continue or return. Hope is in the knowledge that we do not suffer alone; the knowledge that God is not the root cause of our suffering, but that nothing in heaven or on earth is beyond God’s power to transform and redeem. To encourage is to un-isolate. To proclaim community. To listen and acknowledge and respect where people have been; their experiences and the stories that unfold from their struggles and their faith.