The Song of the Suffering Servant
Seeing my mental illness through Isaiah's eyes
Welcome to part 4 of "tmi about Colin's mental health!" You can find the first three parts below:
And here are some disclaimers:
This post will talk about mental health and depression, and in particular will contain references to suicidal thoughts. I am okay and have an unbelievably wonderful support network and am receiving professional help, and so you do not need to reach out.
(If you have questions about specific triggers before reading, please ask!)
If you're struggling with these sort of thoughts, please please please get professional help. At UChicago you can walk right into SCS and make a confidential appointment in a matter of minutes. It's quick, easy, helpful, and they will walk you through the whole process. I imagine it is similar at other schools. I'm told you can talk to your primary care doctor about this in the "real world" to get referrals, but I don't know a lot about the process. Please please please take care of yourself, friends <3
This post represents my experiences. They may differ from yours, and from your loved ones'. When I read writing about depression, some stuff resonates a lot and some stuff feels way off. That is okay and normal and your experiences are still valid and important!
Here’s a short story, based on something a three-year-old once told me:
Jason and Tim were friends. They went to the park. Suddenly, Tim exploded. Jason ate ice cream.
It’s a bad piece of writing for many reasons, but one of the biggest problems is that it’s arbitrary. When Tim explodes, we have no context to work from – is the scene set in a war zone? Did the characters expect this to happen? Is Tim dead now? Why is Jason eating ice cream: is he callous, or oblivious, or perhaps allergic to dairy?
This failure in storytelling means we as an audience don’t know how to react. When we have a developed plotline to work with, and when we understand the world it takes place in, we can have genuine emotional reactions as we start to identify with the characters and their motivations. Without that basic foundation, the “story” just becomes a list of sentences and we feel unsatisfied.
This is kind of how depression goes. Feelings and thoughts just kind of happen, for no particular reason:
Colin wakes up. Colin eats breakfast. Colin wonders if he's up high enough to kill himself. Colin eats ice cream.
and it’s hard to identify with the main character because he’s whiny and poorly written and his motivations don't make any sense, so in addition to the general feelings of sadness and hurt there’s this fundamental feeling of absurdity, of feeling unsatisfied with and disconnected from yourself.
The goal of this post is to work towards a narrative that depression fits into in the context of faith. I've found this helpful. I don't know if you will or not.
Today is kind of an “ehhh” day
is what I’d say if you were to ask.
It’s a way of deflecting Because I don’t want to make you uncomfortable Because “I’m just really sad” makes me feel insecure. Because no matter how many times I (or you) say “It’s okay to feel this way” I still feel like I’m doing something wrong.
because if i'm honest about how i'm doing it’ll ruin your party but when i smile i feel like a fraud.
because if i know i have no reason to be angry does treating you kindly make me a hypocrite?
because i know you’ll try to help but you can’t fix this
and i’m tired of feeling like that’s my fault.
A real Christian wouldn’t feel like this.
Jesus wouldn’t feel like this.
The story of (the second part of the biblical book of) Isaiah is fundamentally one of hope and redemption. God’s people have been living in exile, far from home for many years, and God has promised to act to make things right.
The coming hope starts as a small voice
A voice alone in the wilderness calling Prepare the way for the Lord!
But slowly it starts to grow
Awake, awake, arm of the LORD, clothe yourself with strength!
And it starts to get bolder
Who are you that fear mere mortals, human beings who are but grass, that you forget the Lord your maker, who stretches out the heavens and lays the foundations of the earth?
And it builds, it builds, for twelve chapters it builds, before finally this promised savior, this warrior of the Lord, this beacon of power and goodness shows up and it says
[he] will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted
and the day has come and he's finally here and he's ... sad.
He's God himself come to save the world and he's hurting. He's lonely. He's outcast.
And it's not portrayed as a bad thing! It's not "God sent this guy but he was too sad so everything failed"
It's more like "Jesus came, and he was sad because this broken world hurts, but he saved us despite the pain."
Scratch that. Not "despite the pain." Through the pain.
The suffering was central to the whole thing.
That's a big claim.
As many were astonished at you— his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind— so shall he sprinkle many nations.
I've never had any real understanding what makes men look good, so I don't know how "objectively" attractive or unattractive I am. But most of the time, pre-depression, I would look in the mirror and be reasonably satisfied: maybe not "aw yeah so sexy" but at least something like "oh yep, that's me. cool."
Depression has changed that. Now I look in the mirror and mostly feel like "he's too tall" or "too skinny" or "kind of weirdly shaped" or "what's up with that guy's face."
And it's hard to make go away because it very well could be true. I have no idea if I'm at all good-looking or not, and I don't think that's likely to change any time soon.
But where I sometimes feel ugly, Jesus definitely was.
Can you imagine? Not only are you ugly, not only are you so unimaginably bad-looking that people are "astonished at you" and despise you, but a centuries-old prophecy has foretold that you would be "marred beyond human semblance." Imagine reading the bible and you come across a passage that's just like "this Colin guy in 2018? UG-LY. Also nobody likes him."
It's kind of funny, but remember that Jesus was a real person this really happened to. That's the sort of thing that makes you feel rejected. That's the sort of thing that really, really hurts.
But God chose to go through it.
And that means when I complain to him, when I tell him how I feel, He really understands. He's been there too.
Kings shall shut their mouths because of him, for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand. Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
Sometimes I feel like I'm going to be lonely forever.
And of course what I actually mean is that I won't find romantic love, because I'm not actually alone - I've been blessed with a wonderful assortment of deep and meaningful friendships. But after being rejected a few times it's easy to feel like the possibility of someone looking at you romantically or (do you even dare to say it?) falling in love with you is simply out of reach.
On the couple of occasions I've expressed these thoughts to people, I usually get some combination of "nooo you're a catch", "the girl for you is somewhere out there", "you just have to keep trying", etc. etc. etc. These are all kind, well-meaning sentiments from friends who really, honestly care about me. They're also pretty much impossible to convince depression brain of, but I do appreciate the effort.
But I also think the problem runs a little bit deeper.
I feel like I've elevated romantic love over platonic love in a way that's kind of unfair. I don't mean to denigrate romance--- marriage is a wonderful and very important institution. But I feel like I sometimes carry an unspoken feeling that romantic relationships are somehow more "real" or more important than platonic or familial ones.
And this means I construct a lot of my self-worth from whether or not women like me back
And this sometimes means I lean back from pursuing intimacy in platonic relationships because it feels like I might be leading someone on.
And this sort of thing makes a lot of people surrounded by friends feel very alone.
And it excludes so many people! What about people who won't get married? What about monks and nuns? What about those LGBT Christians who feel called to chastity? What about straight people in single-gender prisons? What about people who just never meet the right person? What about Jesus, of all people?
If your whole system of ranking people says Jesus should feel worthless and alone, it's a garbage system.
Usually the things depression brain says are possibly true --- things like "everyone secretly hates you" or "you're unattractive" or "you will never find love."
But here's a case where it's just plainly, objectively wrong.
That doesn't really make me feel less worthless.
But it's still nice to know.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Here is the crux of the servant's suffering: the world is messy and evil and broken and we're all a part of that. And this has real, painful consequences: depression, pain, loss, oppression, injustice, and death do exist and are painful and harsh and sad. And somehow, somehow, Jesus has taken this brokenness upon himself and borne its wrath by dying on a cross. This is a God who's been through everything we could possibly face and shown that he's stronger than it.
The cross is enigmatic in many ways. How could God let himself die? How did his death save us? Why does he love us? You could write literally millions of pages on the subject and not exhaust its deep and beautiful mystery.
Nothing can equal the miracle of my salvation A few drops of blood redeem the whole universe
But I want to focus on just a small piece of it.
We sometimes summarize Jesus' saving work on the cross as something like "We deserved punishment for our sin, but God punished Jesus instead of us." And this is true and beautiful and important, but it's incomplete.
Because the cross isn't just the story of God punishing Jesus: it's the story of the universe's evil --- the forces of death, of greed, of injustice, of suffering, of demons and satanic forces coming together to attack the universe's king with everything they have.
It's an insurrection.
And it failed.
And in this great cosmic war, when one side mounts an assault and fails, that's a victory for the other side.
Someday God will vanquish evil once and for all and we'll live in eternal love and happiness. But until then? There are more battles.
"Come, take up your cross" "We have been crucified with Christ" "Consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds"
We're called to die with Jesus.
For some, this is literal - the early church was full of martyrs, and even now there are countries around the world where people are dying for their Christian faith.
But for many of us, it's a call to keep living.
Just like Jesus, we'll face sadness Just like Jesus, we'll face rejection Just like Jesus, we'll face loneliness Just like Jesus, we'll face depression Just like Jesus we'll face pain and sorrow Just like Jesus, the other side will mount assaults
And just like Jesus, we will win.
Not because we're so strong that depression won't hurt. Not because of anything to do with us at all.
It'll hurt. And we'll need our friends and faith and family to get through it.
But God is stronger and bigger and greater than anything we might face.
And suffering well: maintaining faith and goodness when it's hard is a powerful force. is a redemptive force. is our role in fixing this cruddy, broken world.
So even if you weren't feeling right So even if you didn't know what to do So even if your love wasn't perfect
Celebrate the fact that you showed love at all.
Loving when it hurts and you don't want to doesn't make you a fraud.
It makes you victorious.
On earth as it is in heaven.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
He was depressed, and she was anxious.
He needed pills to get through the day, and she was using all her willpower not to hurt herself.
He was struggling with addiction. She was struggling to forgive. He was overextended and guilty and she didn't believe anyone could love her. They were afraid and scared and sad.
The crosses they'd been handed felt like too much to bear.
And when eventually they died, some of them were remembered for a long time, as brave and faithful witnesses who'd given everything for the good news of Christ.
And some of them lived quieter lives and nobody remembered they'd ever existed.
But Christ did.
He saw their faith He saw their struggles He saw their doubts He saw their fears
And he loved them.
He loved them when they were good He loved them when they were bad He loved them when they were tired He loved them when they were hurting He loved them when they were angry He loved them when they were frustrated He loved them always.
And he promised them their pain would not be wasted.
Even when they seemed like nobody at all.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
I can't decide if this passage is comforting or terrifying.
If it was the will of the Lord that the servant should suffer If it was the will of the Lord that he should be crushed If it was the will of the Lord that he was put to grief
Was it the will of the Lord that I have depression?
It's the sort of question you don't really expect an answer to.
Certainly God has the power to instantly cure mental illness A few of my friends can testify to that. But most of the time he doesn't.
I don't know if we'll ever know why.
There have been times I've felt depressed and in hindsight I've seen God working through it.
And there have been times I haven't.
And some of my friends who've been through depression have told me they learned beautiful things about God and come out feeling like the experience (though undeniably a painful) was ultimately for good.
And some of them haven't.
And sometimes all we can do is muddle through and trust that God, literally the all-powerful guy who designed the whole universe, knows what he's doing.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
I feel kind of awkward talking about heaven.
I think it's partly that the "hope" part of my brain hasn't really made its way back yet, and partly that we sometimes think of heaven as "a reward for good works" and that feels like it cheapens the whole virtue thing, and partly that I don't really know what to say about it.
So I'll just say this:
Pain is not forever.
I know it feels like it is. Right now I feel like it is.
And I don't want to tell you to change your feelings because I know that doesn't work.
But please, as best as you can, please try to remember:
For most people, depressive episodes last less than two years. For most people, suicidal thoughts eventually go away. For most people, medicine and therapy can help.
You'll probably feel better in this lifetime. But even if you don't:
there's no depression in heaven.
only love intimacy satisfaction warmth comfort peace joy
and we can stick it out a little longer
it'll be worth it in the end
The (extrabiblical) book of 4 Maccabees describes a Jewish revolt against the Greek ruler Antiochus IV, with important roles played by a mother and her seven sons who are all eventually killed in their fight for freedom. But it ends with a chorus of praise to the martyrs I found encouraging.
O mother, who with your seven sons nullified the violence of the tyrant, frustrated his evil designs, and showed the courage of your faith! Nobly set like a roof on the pillars of your sons, you held firm and unswerving against the earthquake of the tortures. Take courage, therefore, O holy-minded mother, maintaining firm an enduring hope in God. The moon in heaven, with the stars, does not stand so august as you, who, after lighting the way of your star-like seven sons to piety, stand in honor before God and are firmly set in heaven with them. For your children were true descendants of father Abraham.
O depressed one, who supported by your friends dared to worship God when everything seemed hopeless, carried on through frustrations and pain, and showed the courage of refusing to give up! In noble communion with your church and family, you held firm and unswerving and you stayed alive. Take courage, therefore, beloved child of God, standing firm in a love you cannot feel. The moon in heaven, the stars and the sun, none of these shine as bright as the saints who lit your way to piety, and you are one of them! You will stand in honor before God, firmly set in heaven, for you are a true friend of the living Christ.
If it were possible for us to paint the history of your religion as an artist might, would not those who first beheld it have shuddered as they saw the mother of the seven children enduring their varied tortures to death for the sake of religion? Indeed it would be proper to inscribe on their tomb these words as a reminder to the people of our nation:
“Here lie buried an aged priest and an aged woman and seven sons, because of the violence of the tyrant who wished to destroy the way of life of the Hebrews. They vindicated their nation, looking to God and enduring torture even to death.”
Here lies nobody.
Nobody at all!
Because despite the violence of a mental illness who wished to destroy your life, and the torture of meaningless anguish, you held onto meaning, looking to God and making the brave choice to survive and endure even in sadness.
Truly the contest in which they were engaged was divine, for on that day virtue gave the awards and tested them for their endurance. The prize was immortality in endless life. Eleazar was the first contestant, the mother of the seven sons entered the competition, and the brothers contended. The tyrant was the antagonist, and the world and the human race were the spectators. Reverence for God was victor and gave the crown to its own athletes. Who did not admire the athletes of the divine legislation? Who were not amazed?
Truly the struggle in which you were engaged was divine, for on that day virtue gave the awards and tested you for your endurance, and your prize will be immortality in endless life. You were the contestant. Depression was the antagonist, and anxiety was the antagonist, and pain and suffering and death were the antagonist, and the world and the human race were the spectators. Faith was the victor and gave you its crown. Who could not admire you? Who would not be amazed?
You are worth something You are deeply loved
And you matter a whole lot more than you know.