As we move through the season of Lent and consider Christ’s path to the cross, I’ve been reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’s suffering — not just physical torture and execution but his experience of inner desolation, of feeling utterly alone and abandoned by God. I wonder what Jesus might say to people in our midst who may experience God more as absence rather than comforting presence.
A lot of the evangelical church culture I grew up with emphasized that anyone who was “right with God” would always be overflowing with faith and peace. The culture implied that “strong faith” was consistently accompanied by cheerfulness and intellectual certainty regarding the tenets of Christian doctrine. We tended not to speak of faith as an ongoing process of conversion that might involve long seasons of desolation, doubt, or — at times — even feelings of being totally abandoned or rejected by God.
In our faith walk, there is much to celebrate, but insistently characterizing life as a triumphant march from glory to glory can alienate people who don’t find life quite as sunny. Church culture can feel painful for people who deal with various health issues or certain kinds of inner suffering that make it difficult to sense God’s presence. There’s little discussion in church of the “dark nights” that are a normal part of the faith journey, or the fact that such nights can last for years in some cases.
Churches have grown in awareness around issues of mental suffering over the past couple decades, but we still often lack understanding about the complexities of mental illness and the enduring repercussions of trauma. Some leaders still teach that depressive tendencies are signs of spiritual inadequacy and that God’s response is one of displeasure rather than compassion. The commonly prescribed remedies call for more prayer, holier living, and more Bible-reading. None of these disciplines are bad in and of themselves; on the contrary, they can be sources of great consolation in the day to day. The problem is more specifically in the common belief that lack of “successful” results (in the form of decisive deliverance from emotional struggles, for instance) and the potential need for other resources — like medication or therapy — indicate failure or insufficient effort on the part of the sufferer.
I personally used to think that my ongoing battles in this area were sinful and despised by God. After all, there were clear commands throughout scripture: “Do not be anxious” and “Rejoice always.” Since there were long seasons of distress when I didn’t feel God’s love, I feared that I fell outside the reaches of God’s mercy. For many people, these issues can’t be reduced to matters of spiritual effort, but admitting to these kinds of struggles can feel the same as confessing to being an awful Christian. Perhaps it’s simply an acknowledgment of being human.
My view on how Christ might see my inner struggles has shifted in recent years. I no longer believe that Christ withholds compassion from those whose suffering is emotional and may affect one’s capacity to trust in God. I think that Christ identifies with us in our ordinary existential angst, even when we’re in a kind of pain that shakes our faith and makes us feel abandoned. As other writers have mentioned, his cry on the cross — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — suggests a complex coexistence of faith and doubt that is familiar to so many of us. It seems to me that Christ has more compassion on the depressed and those lacking in faith than we do with ourselves or with others.
The enduring stigma around mental suffering and our tendency to oversimplify and overspiritualize complex emotional needs can unnecessarily magnify the distress of those who are struggling emotionally. And so many of us are seriously struggling. Rates of suicide in the U.S. have been on the rise over the past two decades. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those aged 14 to 35, and rates for those experiencing suicide ideation or who have attempted suicide are even higher. Since the consequences of ignoring or mishandling these issues are potentially lethal, we need to tread softly and more openly discuss the complexities of faith and inner pain.
I’ve never made an attempt at suicide; but during difficult periods when depression was so intense that it felt excruciating to be in my body, my mind would turn toward thoughts of escape, and I’d wish that I could just disappear. My own most crippling depression in adulthood was during the postpartum months after my son was born. My breakdown was such that I ended up needing as much care as the baby, and it was challenging for my entire family. I believe the gracious support from my family and faith community may have literally saved my life. Even people I barely knew from church brought us meals, and so many friends came to visit, pray, and help with the baby while I was falling apart. I don’t know that I would’ve survived if not for the help of all these friends and the vigilant care of my husband, mom, sister, and aunt.
In times of severe depression, I’ve always berated myself for being down and having no right to be depressed, but my family and closest friends have been consistently gracious. They don’t rebuke me for my failings. They refrain from admonitions to be grateful that I’m not worse off. The most helpful ones consistently offer their gentle presence and show love in a multitude of concrete ways — without judgment.
Despite what so many go around saying about how “God will never give us more than we can handle,” the reality is that life often drives people beyond their breaking point, both Christians and non-Christians alike.
Rather than demonizing inner struggle, perhaps we could acknowledge that doubt about oneself and even about God are just par for the course. I’m not suggesting that we morbidly brood over discontents or give in to any despairing tendencies we might have. I do believe, however, that we could do more to extend grace and to acknowledge our own woundedness so that people don’t feel so alone in their existential pains.
We aren’t necessarily called to “fix” people’s problems or respond to every need, but we are invited to love and carry each other’s burdens. It could help if we stop dealing in trite platitudes and stop shaming people who are in pain. We might try to be more discerning when we speak, since even well-intentioned advice can come off as judgment. Sometimes we may be called to simply embody God’s gentle and expansive welcome.
As the church, we must do better to become community that offers more hope than judgment to those who experience oppressive inner turmoil. It may help to attend more to the fact that Jesus’s own path defies common narratives regarding what it looks like to be “blessed” by God. I believe that insofar as Christ identifies with “the least of these” among us, he also identifies with all those laden with heavy inner burdens or trapped in various prisons of the mind. Perhaps we could view our coming alongside these “least” as a way of standing with our suffering Savior at the cross. For Christ holds us even when we wrestle with despair and may lack faith in God, and what we do to those who are emotionally or spiritually afflicted, we do unto him.