Did you hear any of these phrases growing up?
“Hard things in life are like squeezing a tube of toothpaste–they show what’s really inside a person.”
“Christians should be the happiest [or most joyful, if you were extra-spiritually-correct] people in the world.”
“Christians shouldn’t worry, because that’s a sin. Don’t you believe God is in control?”
“Christians shouldn’t get angry, because anger is a sin.”
“Don’t ever retaliate. Christians should always turn the other cheek.”
This is a sampling of the “Christianity” I remember being taught as a child. Whether that was the intended message or not, that’s the message I understood. Live a certain way, check off all the little boxes on the list of rules, then (humbly) congratulate yourself for being a good Christian.
But is that really what following Jesus is all about? Putting on a fake smile, suppressing and denying your anger, refusing to fight against evil, and gritting your teeth while you determine to never worry about the rampant evil raging all around you (and inside of you)?
When I was about 11, my entire world turned upside down. My parents announced we were becoming missionaries and would be leaving the small town I had always known. I would be leaving all my friends; my church; my school that I could walk to; my grandparents whose house I could walk to; and everything I had ever known. I was devastated.
I remember covering papers with dark, angry strokes expressing my anger, my confusion, and my fear. I’ve always been an introvert, meaning that “new” does not equal “adventure” in my mind. The absolutely last thing I wanted was a new country, a new language, and a new culture. But I was powerless to change the mind of my parents (or, it seemed, the mind of God). Additionally, I was becoming a “missionary kid”–one of those kids that other kids are supposed to look up to as a fascinating role model. I wasn’t allowed to express my anger or fear. Good Christians trusted God and smiled when things were hard.
So I stuffed all the anger, fear, and doubts inside. They kept trying to spew out, so it took a lot of work to keep them safely out of sight.
First, we moved to Virginia for a couple of months so my parents could receive training. I missed the second half of 5th grade due to that move. I eventually made friends, but then we all left for different countries across the globe. More anger, more fear to stuff down.
Then, we moved to Costa Rica for a year to learn Spanish. I, once again, made new friends–which isn’t easy for me. I liked Costa Rica–except for the giant bugs–but we left again, and so did my friends. More anger and fear to stuff down.
We then moved to Mexico City, and I once again made good friends. But then they left after less than a year, and by this point, I knew something was wrong. I was decently good at hiding that anger and fear, but I began noticing how I didn’t seem able to feel much anymore. It was almost like I was numb. It was hard to pull out that fake smile, and I was starting to feel like I couldn’t keep all of this up. What was the point of it all? What was life about? Who was I, anyway? And for that matter, Who was God and why was He putting me through all of this chaos?
We moved two more times in quick succession, and I ended up in a large city in central Mexico called Leon. By this time, I battled feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness every day. I was too shy and too perfectionistic to make new friends in the new city–I still hadn’t mastered Spanish and felt embarrassed to make mistakes when trying to communicate. I was also completely done with investing my heart and life into friendships only to lose them soon after. I turned more and more inward, but that wasn’t much solace, because inside I just found all of that suppressed anger and fear, and what was I supposed to do with it? I knew it wasn’t supposed to be there, because good Christians don’t worry or get angry, but I had no idea what to do except keep stuffing and denying.
I was severely depressed, and I existed in that state for a solid 4 years or more. It was a living nightmare. I have journals somewhere from that time, but I can’t bring myself to read them and revisit that time of my life.
I was never suicidal–I never thought about killing myself or had a plan to do so–but I remember thinking that it would be easier and better to just not be alive. If God could take care of that, I was basically fine with it, but I knew death was something He decided, not me. I figured that no one would want to be around me, anyway–I didn’t even want to be around me.
My journey out of depression was slow but steady. I made the most progress when I went to college. I met friends who were patient and kind, who started coaxing me “out of my shell.” I realized that I would soon have control over whether or not I moved, and that was a relief. About a year after graduating from college, I married my best friend and first date, and I breathed a sigh of relief that this best friend, at least, would always stick with me. I would never have to move away from him.
We started having babies that infused my life with a mixture of joy, purpose, overwhelming love, and utter exhaustion. I love my family so much.
But I think the biggest component of stepping out of the darkness of depression and into the light of life was finally understanding Who God is, who I am, and what life is all about.
For years, I stuffed my anger and fear deep down inside because I wasn’t “supposed” to feel those things. For years, I envisioned God as Someone who had a lot of rules that He apparently cared a lot about and expected me to follow. If I didn’t follow them, I would be punished. If I did follow them, I would be rewarded with heaven (and potentially some good things here on earth, as well). Even if I did follow the rules, God might still throw some hard things into my life to test and purify me (so that I could then follow those rules even better). I had to work hard and would be rewarded for my labor. If all this sounds miserable, it totally was.
Finally, I had a breakthrough.
When I finally understood that God cares about PEOPLE, not rules; that He prioritizes RELATIONSHIPS, not sacrifice; and that He loves me and wants good for me…my entire paradigm shifted. It was like the dawning of a breathtaking sunrise after an achingly long and dark night.
I was so tired of trying to hold on to friendships then having them ripped away; I was so tired of grinning and bearing it; I was exhausted from trying to keep all that fear and anger “safely” hidden. Life wasn’t about following the rules…life was all about LOVE.
I finally understood who God was, and He was beautiful. My question changed from: How the heck am I supposed to love God? To: How could I not love the One who came and died to rescue me and set me free?
I finally understood God, and then I could understand what life is all about.
We were made to love and be loved. Life really is all about love. But it’s about real, true love–love that meets the needs of another even at great cost to oneself. Love that wants good for another and then does that good.
But we have a problem: We are utterly incapable of real love. All of us are broken and selfish, unable to do what we were created to do. And that’s why Jesus came. He came to rescue us–all of us. He will rescue anyone who realizes their need to be rescued and reaches out to Him.
He came to make everything good and new again, like it was in the beginning. He came to restore our ability to love and know we are loved. He came to make all things right and bring us home–home to perfect friendships with Him, with others, and with all of Creation.
My illustrated children’s book, The Advent Storybook, starts with Creation and journeys through ancient history, tracing God’s recurring promise to rescue us. It shares the beautiful Story of our amazing God and His plan to rescue us–the Story I completely misunderstood for so long. It’s also the Story that finally freed me from both my depression and my endless striving to be good enough.
God did give us laws. But why?
He gave us laws to show us how to love Him and love others. He gave us a standard so we could clearly see that we can never meet it on our own.
I began to understand God; I began comprehending the purpose of life; and I began to really know myself, too.
I am broken. I am in need of rescue. I’m a sinner, but not because of depression. I’m a sinner because I consistently destroy my relationship with God and with others. I’m a sinner because I’m self-destructive and others-destructive. I’m a sinner because I cannot love God or others on my own. Sin isn’t primarily a broken law; it is ultimately a broken relationship.
I also understood more about the bundle of motives, tendencies, beliefs, and emotions that define me.
I’ve always been a quiet, mostly serious, and deep-thinking person. I love deep conversations, close friendships, and quiet places, especially out in nature. I love to read and study then share what I’ve learned. I love to laugh, but I’m not usually very silly, spontaneous, or carefree. And now, I love to share the beauty of my Rescuer. On the Enneagram, I’m a One: Reformer–I’m practical, always think ahead/consider consequences, and tend toward perfectionism. I want to fix what is wrong and make things right–and it bothers me when I can’t.
I’m really sensitive to a lot of things–caffeine (I can’t drink coffee), noise, horrifying news stories, etc. Small things can affect me deeply for days. As a child, I remember crying when I saw dead squirrels on the road. When my dad shot a deer and hung it up in our garage, I was horrified and insisted that I would never eat that meat. I asked before every meal if the food had deer meat. When my parents snuck it into a stew, and then told me afterward, I felt betrayed and furious. When I hear about a person (or animal) experiencing abuse, it still upsets me to the point of tears. My husband knows to not talk about anything remotely upsetting after 8pm, because otherwise I’ll dwell on it and not be able to sleep.
Because I’m so sensitive and so future-oriented, anxiety is a problem I struggle with frequently. I’ve discovered that my insomnia is directly tied to anxiety, so learning to cope with anxiety has been the most helpful thing in managing my insomnia.
Depression and anxiety are widespread. Though I don’t have research to back this up, I think people who tend to be more sensitive–or those who have experienced stressors and horrors far worse than me–are often the most prone to anxiety and depression. This world is horribly broken, and shoving all the resulting (often legitimate) anger and fear inside can result in depression. I think depression is an indication that you know, deep down, that something is horribly wrong with the world (and with yourself). You know things are broken, that things are not as they should be.
If you’re depressed or anxious, know that you’re not alone. And know that there’s a way out, because we really do have hope. One day, our Rescuer will make all things good and new again! And He’s working toward that goal even now. Those things that you are angry or scared about are awful, and you don’t have to pretend like they’re not.
If you’re sensitive and notice that some things bother you that don’t seem to phase others, know that God made you as you are. He has a purpose. You are broken–we all are–but you don’t have to stuff yourself or your feelings into a rigid box that stifles you. Jesus came to set you free, to enable you to love and know you are loved.
Emotions are not sins, but your reaction to them can be. Depression is a side effect of sin and this broken world…it’s not something you need to be ashamed of or hide. It can be very serious, so please get help if you need it, especially if you have thoughts of being better off dead. If you think about killing yourself, or have a plan in mind, tell someone you trust; go to the ER; or call the suicide hotline: 1-800-273-8255.
The beautiful Creator loves you and has wonderful plans for your life. He is making you, and me, and all things new! The horrors you’ve experienced, the abuses or stressors you’ve suffered, do not define your identity or worth. God does, and He loves you so much that He died to rescue you and set you free from evil and pain. One day, He will wipe away all our tears and restore what we lost in the Garden long ago.
There is hope! May His beauty, love, and peace shine upon you.