Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Does Christianity Make You Happy?

    Recently a friend asked me this very question: does Christianity make you happy and give you peace?
    I was taken aback by the fact that I've never heard this question before. You'd think if you followed a religion you'd want to consider if it makes you happy. But I haven't.
    Why? Well, I guess I've always equated happiness with frivolity and selfishness. After all, happiness doesn't necessarily equal good - for example, getting drunk would make me happy, but I wouldn't consider it good. And Jesus did imply that following him equaled suffering. So I'd long dismissed my happiness as unnecessary, something secular people chased after, but not us Christians who knew better (I know, how condescending - I'm sorry). But as A True Christian, I had joy, which was somehow deeper and more fulfilling than happiness.
    Except I've never actually had joy - well, not for long. People say it's a fruit of the spirit, so because I'm a Christian, I assumed I had to have joy.
    But guess what? I don't. All I've got is a gritty, bleeding hope that keeps me crawling forward (And, gee, I wonder if my dismissal of happiness has anything to do with my depression, hmm).

    Anyways. Back to the question.
    There's your answer. Christianity doesn't make me happy. I am far from peaceful for a variety of reasons, but religious turmoil is a significant contributor.
    So what do I do? What do I do when the religion that gave my life meaning inflicts misery?
    As an evangelical with low self-esteem, I would have told myself that I'm putting all the misery on myself. That it's not the religion that is the problem, that it's my depression and anxiety and my haunted past, and maybe it's my fault, too. Clearly, I just don't understand something about God.
    Except ... I don't actually think God or religion itself depresses me.
    Christian people do.
    It's like I'm hiding every time I see them. Because I'm not a typical evangelical anymore.
    My mother, for instance, doesn't know I can't do daily Bible readings without panic attacks. She still thinks I attend church on Sundays. And she still thinks those are the marks of a dedicated Christian, so how am I supposed to tell her I can't do those anymore without losing my sanity?
    The church I grew up in, the church with the people whose encouragement probably saved my life, doesn't know I've shifted to a more progressive stance (feminism, LGBTQ+ equality, evolution, leans towards Christian universalism, etc.). And I'm scared to death they'll reject me. I'm scared I'm a disappointment, that they'll use me as another example of a proverbial young innocent led astray by liberal college professors. Because that's not what happened - changing my opinions has been one of the most traumatic parts of my life. It was anything but easy. I changed because I honestly believe this way - the supremacy of love, justice for all mankind - is the way of God.
    But I so fear being misunderstood, especially by people I've loved for so long. So I keep up this appearance of the good evangelical Christian - though I'm not her, and I can't be her.
    And so anxiety plagues me and depression haunts me and fear chains me.
    No, Christianity itself is not the problem. Because you know what gives me that gritty hope?
    Jesus. A God so good and personal He lived among us, who died blessing his enemies, a God so powerful he rose again, a God so beautiful he was plain. A God who provides a physical resurrection, who is Love itself.  A God of never-ending redemption.
     So, do your beliefs make you happy? Or joyful, or both?


Friday, April 10, 2015

The Depression Catalyst

    Depression, for me, is primarily a de-motivator. Why write, why read, why research, why arise each morning, when the world is suffocating in sorrow? Let's go cry into a fluffy cat, for, like, eternity.
    Yet, paradoxically, depression has catalyzed more changes in my life than almost anything else.

    See, where I grew up it wasn't uncommon to hear or read a pastor saying that depression was a sin, the result of selfishness or jealousy. After all, if the fruit of the Spirit was joy, and I had no joy, I was clearly having problems in my relationship with God.
    And since I assumed the pastor spoke for God, I accepted their teachings. When I was down and compulsively following the Rules, surely my problem was guilt for all my sins. When I wanted to die, I was just ungrateful and selfish.
    "I hate myself," I spat out.
    "No you don't. God says that's impossible: Ephesians 5:29," was the response.
    "You'd be glad you felt bad if you truly hated yourself," said the preacher from the pulpit, and he made sense, so I kept quiet.
    How terrible I must be, unable to rely on God enough. Deceived enough to think that I hated myself, when the problem was selfishness to begin with.

    Throughout college, my beliefs evolved to the point where I would have claimed I wasn't judging anyone who took antidepressants. But doubt still tingled the corner of my brain; in a sense, you could say I didn't quite trust their stories. And I couldn't quite believe that I myself, a girl who desperately wanted to please God, might need them.
    I couldn't quite believe my depression wasn't the result of my sin. After all, my suicidal tendencies were sinful and selfish, right?
    They told me truth would set me free. But if the truth was that depression was selfish, the truth was a prison. If depression was selfish, I was so sinful, so broken and rotten, I couldn't even know that I didn't hate myself. I wanted to repent of my selfishness; I prayed over and over for forgiveness and decided to "choose joy" - while praying for the strength of the Lord to help me be joyous, of course.
    Nothing took away the depression. No, this "truth" kept me in my chains.
    And then when I confessed my depression, well-intentioned people encouraged me to read my Bible more. They encouraged me not to focus on myself, but to focus on God.
    They didn't know that I couldn't do more. I couldn't be more.
    I was so lacking in joy and pretty much everything else by that point, I thought maybe I wasn't even a Christian. Which meant I was going to hell - not exactly a soothing thought.

    So when, after months of misery and desperation last year, I finally arrived in a pharmacy with a doctor's note for Cymbalta, I was really on my last hope. I wasn't even sure why I'd made it through the last month, or if I'd make it through the next.
   And - surprise - the medication helped.
   Turns out, everything I'd been taught about psychiatric drugs was wrong.  Therapy was usually ascribed to be the cure; antidepressants made it possible to remove the overwhelming misery so that I could heal. Like painkillers for my tortured mind.
    Like painkillers, they might not work for everyone (side-eyes to Tylenol). But that doesn't mean they're part of a pharmaceutical scheme, or a device of a lost, secular society who thinks science is the answer to all our problems.
    But if I had been taught something so wrong, what else could be wrong? To be fair, my beliefs had been gradually changing throughout college, but I'd resisted some of the larger ones.
    And so I began obsessively exploring faith. God, Jesus, religion, tradition. I began listening to the voices of those I'd held at arms length - the voices of the mentally ill, the ostracized, the marginalized. The dangerous LGBTQ+ voices, both Christian and not. The atheists, agnostics, Muslims and evangelicals. Those more progressive and more conservative than I.
    And, realizing I'd never quite trusted people who said depression wasn't their fault before, I began trusting their crazy, contradictory, beautiful stories.
    Depression had catalyzed some sort of breakdown inside - not just mentally, but spiritually.
    Depression taught me to listen. To give others the benefit of the doubt, to trust that they know themselves and their experiences better than I do. To repent of my arrogance, even.
    I'm not saying I endorse every viewpoint I listen to, for that would be impossible, but I value the chance to listen.
    Because, to be honest, I haven't found God's voice again in daily Bible readings. But I have heard Him whispering through others - through our myriad stories and intricate personalities, our contradictory opinions and desire for good, our smiles and tears and whimpers and dreams.
    Depression stole a lot from me, and I don't believe I'll ever be grateful for it. But depression also gave me a chance to listen for the first time.

    So, readers, thanks for listening. <3