(Take up your Cross and the Truth Shall Set You Free)
(An extract from “Angels in the Wilderness – hope and healing in depression”
by Katharine Smith and published by Redemptorist Publications.)
I’d like to take a moment now to think about how depression can affect the way we interpret things. For example, because our emotions are flattened and our mood is low we can’t enjoy the things we used to: radio or television comedies won’t make us laugh, thrillers won’t be exciting, music won’t be relaxing and difficult problems that once we might have coped with can assume huge proportions and seem insurmountable.
Being depressed can also make us totally self-centred in the way we perceive things: everything relates to us and our condition. Or the opposite can be true – we are totally out of touch with everyday life.
The following passage is an example of one of the sayings of Jesus that I have often struggled with and find very difficult to read or hear without applying it to my own state of mind when I’m depressed.
Then Jesus called the people to him, as well as his disciples, and said to them, “Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must renounce self; he must take up his cross and follow me. Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the Gospel’s will save it. What does anyone gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his life? What can he give to buy his life back?
I’m not sure that anyone finds this passage easy to understand. What does it mean to take up your cross (a hideous instrument of torture and death) and to lose your life for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel? How on earth does this fit in with Jesus saying he came that we may have life in all its abundance?
For me depression, with its negative and destructive characteristics, casts a very dark shadow over these words. We may find during the healing process that some sort of denial or quashing of ourselves is behind at least part of our problems with depression. For example:
- Perhaps we learned very early on in life that it wasn’t safe to be angry, sad or afraid. Such emotions were frowned upon and brought disapproval and reproof.
- Perhaps our gifts and talents were never recognised or encouraged and so we never developed them.
- Perhaps we were never considered to be worth attention or love and we grew up with such a low opinion of ourselves that we never attend to our own needs or consider ourselves to be in anyway equal to others.
The chances are that if we have had to deny ourselves in this sense we also carry an awful lot of anger. If we then have to keep that anger suppressed as well, it’s no wonder if eventually we erupt like a volcano and spew out all the negative stuff that’s been building up under the surface.
Depression very often carries with it a huge amount of suppressed anger and it can be very frightening for everyone when that anger starts finding outlets for its expression. If this is the case then part of any therapeutic intervention must be to find safe ways for anger to be experienced and released safely for all concerned.
If in this process of releasing suppressed feelings and aspects of our personalities we’re suddenly faced with the demand that we renounce (or deny) ourselves and carry our cross, we might well feel as if we’ve hit a brick wall. What happened to the compassion, love and wish for our healing? Is that now withdrawn, leaving us to face yet more hurt and misery?
Everything that’s healthy in me protests that that interpretation can’t be right. It just doesn’t fit with the image of Jesus that’s been forming in my mind over the years of recovery.
I’ve reached a place now where I can read commentaries about this passage and gain some intellectual insights into what Jesus is saying and what it might mean to us when we follow him. However, I haven’t yet got past my earlier emotional reaction. Instead, I’ve found a way of honouring my perception of these words and making sense of them that is in keeping with my image of Jesus and his way of truth.
I fully accept that what follows may bear no relation at all to what Jesus is “really” talking about here. However, it comes from a lot of struggling and thinking and might make sense in the context of this book, even though it wouldn’t belong in any scholarly or academic essay on the subject!
When we follow Jesus we are following the one who is “the Way” and “the Truth” and we, too, are called to be true and honest. The truth will show us realities about ourselves and our lives that may well be painful to acknowledge, but which we need to see and understand before we are free to be the people God wants us to be.
I think that, whether or not we suffer from depression, we’re all aware that we fall far short of our own ideals, never mind God’s perfection, and at some time we all experience a sense of regret and sadness and the wish to change for the better.
So let’s set out on this part of our pilgrimage with a willingness to be truthful about ourselves and to receive God’s truth, which really can set us free.
Our first step is to think about what our “cross” is. What is it that we have to pick up and carry in order to follow Jesus?
Men who were to be crucified would be made to carry the cross beam, to which their arms were to be nailed, to the place of crucifixion where it would be fixed to an upright to form the shape of a cross.
So to carry our cross means to carry an instrument of our own torture and death. It represents shame, guilt and an agony that will torment body and mind. There is no hiding from the meaning of this cross, no running away from its reality or avoiding our inevitable fate.
Is it over-stating the case to say that being ill with depression brings upon us something of these experiences?
Psychological torment and mental pain are impossible to measure and invisible to the human eye, but they are real and frightening. Feelings of shame and guilt are also often present and we cannot run away from ourselves or avoid our distorted thoughts and emotions.
The next stage is to consider what it means to “take up” this cross, this darkness we call depression?
Perhaps it’s about acknowledging and accepting that we are ill and need some sort of specialist treatment. Facing up to this reality can be very scary. It means perhaps feeling powerless against a disease that can’t be put right quickly and easily, feeling that we have lost control of our lives and facing a lot of uncertainty about the future.
We may carry in our minds the idea that “Christians don’t/shouldn’t get depressed,” which is manifestly not true, but has often been said by people who may not realise how cruel and damaging their words can be.
For some of us, though, realising that what we’re experiencing is an illness which involves imbalances of certain chemicals and hormones can come as a huge relief. If we’ve been battling with debilitating symptoms and struggling to cope with everyday life not understanding why we can no longer do so, it can make all the difference to hear a doctor tell you that you have a recognised illness and there is medication to help. In that sense the truth does set us free to begin dealing with the illness itself.
“What does anyone gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his/her mental health, sense of well-being and personal fulfilment? What can s/he give to buy those things back?”
Quite often, I think, going through a prolonged period of depression can lead us to reflect on what’s really important in our lives. We are not likely to wish to repeat the experience and indeed will look for ways to prevent this happening. Some of us may have to examine our lives very carefully, being prepared to do whatever’s necessary to bring about a change in our circumstances or ways of being which will improve our state of mind.
In this sense we may have to be prepared to “lose” at least part of our lives as we know them. We may have to accept that we need to “lose” certain attitudes and ways of relating to people if we are to enjoy more healthy and meaningful relationships and lifestyles.
As we work to “lose” what is unhealthy in our lives we are also searching for the good, the wholesome and fulfilling life which God has always wanted for us. This God-given life is our true life that can be saved when we make it our treasure, worth everything we have and all of who we are.
It may appear that looking at this passage in the way we have in this chapter is very self-centred, very self-absorbed and therefore contrary to its “real” meaning about selfless love and suffering for the sake of the Gospel.
That may well be so, but it’s also true that until our “selves” are healthy and strong and free from the constant pain of mental distress we are unlikely to be able to give of ourselves or to love as God loves us. For a while, at least, we will need to make our own health a priority, and I believe God knows that and understands with compassion – “he will not break a crushed reed or snuff out a smouldering wick” (Isaiah 42.3).