Once during a time of especially deep depression, I drove out of the city to a deserted area where nothing but cornfields surrounded me on all sides. I got out of my car and walked down a tractor dirt road into the nearest field, looked up at the sky, and screamed at the top of my lungs, “What do you want?” I kept screaming the same words until my throat was raw.
Though it may not sound much like prayer, this was my effort to pray in the only way I could pray when depression had driven me to the point of believing that God was punishing me or had even abandoned me as useless. A tough position for anyone to reach, and especially tough for a pastor, as I have been for more than 30 years. Pastor or not, however, I found that depression brought the greatest challenge to my faith I ever faced.
In my work as a pastor, I often see people waver or even lose faith in times of suffering, as they struggle to reconcile their beliefs about God with the harsh reality of the suffering that is inflicting them or persons they love. While some individuals are able to ride through suffering and loss and draw closer to God, stronger in faith as a result of such difficulties, more often suffering seems to bring challenges to faith. The same questions rise again and again, as they have for people since the beginning of time: why is this happening to me? Why is God bringing this on me?
Mental illness of any kind can set off intense faith struggles, especially in terms of the profound disruptions of emotion and rational thinking it often brings. For me, depression eroded my capacity to hope. Day after day I saw nothing changing, saw myself still feeling lost and isolated, saw my prayers for healing go unanswered. I wish I could say that the day I yelled at God in the cornfield had finally elicited a divine reply, but no such luck: I heard nothing, saw nothing, that I could claim was God’s answer to my question.
Yet I write today, in these posts and in my memoir, as someone who recovered from mental illness and has gone on to enjoy a full life. I still work as a pastor, with a faith that not only returned from the darkness of depression but has grown. Though I rarely saw it at the time, I now look back at my depressive experiences and can find God’s presence there, again and again, showing up in ways that I did not recognize as being sacred because I was looking elsewhere, intent on seeing God only in certain specific ways. Where God reached out to me was through the patience and compassion of others who did not abandon me during my times of depression, who listened to me voice the same hopelessness and desire to die again and again and each time encouraged me to hang on a bit longer. I wanted some magical and immediate cure; what I received instead was the real and abiding miracle of ordinary human kindness.
A spiritual director once told me that “God comes to us disguised as our life.” I did find God present even in my depression, disguised as the faithful people who never gave up on me, just as God promises never to give up on any of us, no matter how lost we might be.