Suffering and surety

At the recommendation of a couple people who are smarter than me, I’m currently reading Fleming Rutledge‘s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.

You know, just a little light, Lenten reading.

It’s dense stuff, but I’m slugging through it because I love Rutledge’s insistence that we cannot talk about the resurrection without talking about the crucifixion. She put it in this way:

“The setting of Easter over against the cross and its significance is in conflict with apostolic preaching. There was no thought of separating cross and resurrection, or of elevating one over the other. If you’re making a ham and cheese sandwich, you don’t ask which is more important, the ham or the cheese. If you don’t have both of them, it isn’t a ham and cheese sandwich. Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, you can’t have the crucifixion with the resurrection–and vice versa. The resurrection is not just the reappearance of a dead person. It is the mighty act of God to vindicate the One whose very right to exist was thought to have been negated by the powers that nailed him to a cross. At the same time, however, the One who is gloriously risen is the same One who suffered crucifixion.”

I appreciate her position on the matter–and this particular passage–for two reasons. One, I will always get behind any attempt to explain elements of faith with the help of sandwich references. Two, her argument that glory and suffering go together speaks directly to my experience as a Christian and as a human.

I used to hesitate to refer to my depression as suffering. This refrain would bounce around in my head, looped over and over: I’m a middle class white person living in the United States. My husband and I are both employed. My family is healthy. We want for nothing. My problems are nothing compared to what other people go through.

Well, Present-Val calls bullshit on Past-Val. As my friend Kristin told me once, “Your potatoes might seem small compared to other people’s, but they’re still your potatoes and you still have to carry them.”

Suffering implies pain and hardship that someone must bear. It’s both a verb and a noun. It’s ongoing. It’s relentless. And even if the context of your suffering is different from someone else’s, that doesn’t make it any less terrible–or any less important to God.

So, yes. I suffer. I suffer every day. Every single day. I like to believe that my suffering has made more empathetic to the suffering of others. And I know that my suffering has given me little-to-no patience for those who seem to think that pain, sadness, and despair are somehow failure of faith.

I will say I’m fortunate in that I’ve been spared the platitudes so often thrust upon Christians when they share their struggles with depression, but I might be an exception there. You know, statements like ,”You need to focus on all of the good things God has given you” and the SUPER HELPFUL “Have you tried praying about it?”

Those statements aren’t bad things to say and suggest. We all should meditate on how God cares for us, and prayer is good. But when uttered in the context of someone bringing his or her burden and pain to you, they’re dismissive of the very real suffering being felt. And, in my opinion, these statement carry with them the implication that a person can’t experience true faith and true hardship at the same time.

I can love God and hate my illness at the same time.

I can glorify His presence and grieve for my losses at the same time.

I can believe wholly in God’s goodness and in the world’s (and my) brokenness at the same time.

I can rest in His care and wrestle with my pain at the same time.

I think God wants us to bring both the “good” and “bad” to Him; He wants to sit with us in both. And I know I would not be able to approach the realities of my depression were it not for the assurance that I have in who God is and what He has done. I could not even entertain approaching the abyss of my mental illness were it not for knowing that I am tethered to God as I do so.

Were it not for my suffering, I might not know God’s glory.

I don’t say that to imply that I think my depression is a gift. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. I don’t think I can ever know that this side of heaven. But my faith has never been of the happy-clappy variety. There are moments of inexplicable awe of peace, make no mistake, but at this point in my life, it’s typically very raw and fraught and complex. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it feels like suffering.

But Jesus suffered, too. I find comfort in that. It was through his suffering that He was brought to glory–and brings us to glory, too.

***

I’ll leave you now with some scripture that I refer to as “A Psalm for the Depressives.” I’m mostly joking when I say that, but when you read it I think you’ll find that I’m not wrong. For me, it’s one of those parts of the Bible where I just nod the entire time I read it.

Psalm 77

1 I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, and he will hear me.
2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
3 When I remember God, I moan;
when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah
4 You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
6 I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
7 “Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah
10 Then I said, “I will appeal to this,
to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
11 I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will ponder all your work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is great like our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
you have made known your might among the peoples.
15 You with your arm redeemed your people,
the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
16 When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
indeed, the deep trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water;
the skies gave forth thunder;
your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lighted up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Hama

When JR was around a year old, he started doing this thing when he needed help. It was sort of a whine, sort of a goat-ish whinny.

Eeeeehhhh. Eh. Ehhhhhhhhhh!

As you can imagine, hearing that on repeat day in and day out gets to a person. So in order to preserve my sanity, I offered him an alternative that was a little more verbal, a little less guttural.

“Help, Mama,” I suggested. “Say ‘Help, Mama,’ and I will.”

We practiced it–me showing him how to shape the sounds in his mouth, him pushing out his interpretation of them: “Hep-ama.”

As time went on, he eventually mashed those sounds together, and they became “Hama.” And because much of a mother’s (or parent’s) role in a child’s early years is to provide help, I soon became “Hama” to him. When he needed help, I answered. To him I was no longer Mama; I was Hama.

***

For the last several years I’ve participated in a weekly Women’s bible study at our church. We’re studying Mark this semester, and today we looked at Chapter 10. Jesus teaches about quite a few things in this chapter, but we spent a good chunk of our time talking about three short verses:

“And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.”

Most of the women who attend this study are mothers to young children, so it was easy for us to imagine how children receive things: relentlessly and joyfully, without pretense or hesitation, and with unfiltered expectation and acceptance.

That’s how Jesus wants us–all of us–to receive Him. That’s how he wants us to come to Him.

What if I could approach Him in the messy, grabby, stoked way a child pursues what he or she wants? What if I accepted His grace in that way? What if I believed–like really, deep-down-in-my-gut-believe–in what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit in John 14?

Oh the have that kind of faith. A faith that changes His name to Help, Jesus.