Depression first came to me disguised as anger. At first glance, the anger was understandable as I was a new mom with a new baby, slowing losing my grasp on time, energy, sleep, and sanity. While all those precious commodities quietly slipped out the door, I still clung tightly to the faulty belief that I needed to keep up my morning quiet times somehow, and stay involved in ministry to please God. My anger intensified, pretending to be righteous, when I felt “held back” from these activities by the needs of my son.
My anger simmered quietly below the surface until I gave birth to my daughter. I couldn’t push down the anger and discontentment with my life any longer. Anger turned to despair as the challenges of mothering two small kids felt too overwhelming. I found myself diagnosed with post-partum depression.
While I recovered fairly quickly with the help of medication, I relapsed again last year and took much longer to recover as I chose a more natural route. This most recent experience with depression revealed new layers of selfishness and faulty beliefs that baffled even me. Frankly, what surfaced in my heart disgusted me and mired me in self-loathing. It brought me to a place of terrifying vulnerability.
If you want a glimpse into what depression feels like for me, see here and here. As you might imagine, I cried out desperately for rescue, but God didn’t take it away. As time crept on, I couldn’t shake the feeling that although he wasn’t delivering me in the way and the timing I wanted, he was close and loving me. Though I didn’t feel any warm fuzzies from his closeness, he continued to remind me the he was present and saw my pain. Through it all, I was incredulous to find him loving me even as I thought the darkest thoughts and ate my own bullshit.
A Light Shines in the Darkness
Depression revealed sins of my heart that I had previously hidden from myself. In this most unpleasant experience it also provided the opportunity to receive love in a place where I was most undeserving, but most able to receive it.
David Benner says that this is exactly the way love transforms us. It’s not until we are loved at our worst, in our vulnerability, that we truly learn that God loves us for who we are and not for what we do. In his book, Surrender to Love, Benner offers this illustration:
Suppose that with God’s help I am able to love my son unconditionally. But if he is desperately trying to please me, the unconditional nature of my love will not be noticed. And there will be no deep experience of knowing himself deeply and unconditionally loved. Receiving love while he is trying to earn it will only reinforce his efforts to earn love. And any love he receives will only be experienced as the fruit of these efforts. Genuine transformation requires vulnerability. It is not the fact of being loved unconditionally that is life-changing. It is the risky experience of allowing myself to be loved unconditionally.
I think Benner is onto something. I think this explains why the knowledge of God’s love seems to get stuck in our heads. We have not yet accepted it in places of vulnerability.
The crux of the problem is that I cannot feel the love of God because I do not dare to accept it unconditionally. To know that I am loved, I must accept the frightening helplessness and vulnerability that is my true state. This is always terrifying.
The key to spiritual transformation is meeting God… in vulnerability. Our natural inclination is to bring the most presentable parts of our self to the encounter with God. But God wants us to bring our whole self to the divine encounter. He wants us to trust him enough to meet Perfect Love in the vulnerability of our shame, weakness and sin… Until you stop trying to earn love, you’ll never grasp it.” (Surrender to Love)
So it is that all my efforts to please God actually keep me from experiencing his unconditional love. When I was helpless and vulnerable in my depression I could finally receive his love without feeling like I had done anything to deserve it. It radically changed my experience of Him.
Living with Dark & Light
Eventually God brought healing and recovery from depression. You can find that story, here and here. Now and again, I still see how prone I am to try to clean up nice for God. The temptation going forward is to think the work is behind me. But as I look back on my journey, I see that I cannot leave the dark behind for good. I will carry dark and light together within me always. I must learn to draw the courage to expose the dark and sit vulnerably with God and receive his love. Again and again.