I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember.
This two-headed beast has taken many forms throughout my life. Sometimes it’s intense and raging. Other times it decrescendos to a pulsing throb. There are peaks and there are valleys. But it’s always there, lurking just below the surface.
One of my most distinct memories from childhood involves me lying in bed, terrified out of my mind after a recent panic attack, while members from my parents’ Bible study gathered around, laid hands on me, and prayed for God to deliver me from my anxiety.
And, miraculously, it worked…for about two days.
But the anxious thoughts crept back. The sleepless nights crept back. They always seemed to creep back. The two-headed beast would never lose its grip.
Throughout my entire high school career, I never slept for more than three hours the night before any sporting event. I was up until the early hours tossing and turning and sweating through my sheets, hot tears streaming down my confused and tortured adolescent face. It wasn’t so much performance anxiety. Rather, it was the fear of not being able to fall asleep at all. Slowly but surely, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforced by night after gut-wrenching night of existential crises. A well-meaning but exasperated friend once blurted out, “You know, if you can’t handle this kind of stress, how are you going to handle it when REAL life-problems come your way?”
I roamed the halls of my home long past midnight, calling out to a God who never seemed to answer, praying for my parents to wake up just so I could find consolation in the presence of another human being. For years this continued. It was hell. And I remember promising myself that, if this same anxiety followed me into adulthood, I’d end it all. Plain and simple. This much suffering simply made life not worth living.
Fast forward into my college years. The anxiety has not lessened. In fact, it’s increased, and it’s to the point that I seek out medical help. The doctor puts me on Paxil, which seems to do the trick. In fact, it seems to do something miraculous. I don’t know how to describe it other than that, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m going through life “without gloves on.” WITH gloves on, you can only feel the GENERAL contours of a thing. You can sense the hardness of a piece of wood. You can sense the roundness of a kiwi. But you can’t feel the individual grains of the wood. You can’t feel the fur of the kiwi. You can’t sense the wood in all of its “wood-ness” or the kiwi in all of its “kiwi-ness.” That’s what happened to my senses on antidepressants–it was like the gloves came off for the first time, and I could finally experience life in all of its fullness. I could speak up in class without my voice shaking. I could talk to a professor without feeling self-conscious. I could attend social functions and actually enjoy–rather than dread–interaction with other human beings. For about three years, the drug was a godsend. But there were side-effects, and right around college graduation, when I was entering the workforce for the first time, I went off it for good.
The anxiety and depression returned full-force, and this time the beast dug its talons in–deep. I was far from home, living in a new town in a new state with no trusted friends. A girlfriend nearing “finance-status” ended things the night before my birthday. And it was right around this time that I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms from the Paxil–notoriously one of the worst drugs to come off of. My anxiety, which was never far below the surface, now became painfully obvious for all to see. Social gatherings of any kind were too agonizing to attend. I stopped engaging in church. I stopped going to Bible study. It just hurt too much to be around people. Even leaving the apartment for my weekly grocery run pushed me out of my comfort zone. I sought counseling from multiple therapists. Eventually, I took a job closer to home, hoping this would provide the silver bullet I needed to put my anxiety out of its misery. Therapy continued. But the beast never ceased to hound me every step of the way, and it was all I could do to get through my days. I often spent morning and afternoon break-time alone in the bathroom stall, doing deep-breathing exercises and seeking some kind of relief from the general sense of unease I ceaselessly felt. I distinctly remember the continual sense of anxiety I sensed sitting in my cubicle, eyes darting this way and that, gut perpetually churning, just waiting for my boss to poke his head over my shoulder and give me some new task I was incapable of doing and inducing the next panic attack. Sometimes I’d just call in sick. Other days, I’d go home and cry.
Ironically, though, it was partly this same sense of restlessness and anxiety that God used to drive me OUT of that particular vocation and INto a new one: ministry. Weirdly, I feel less anxious in a pulpit than I do in a cubicle. This isn’t to say the anxiety is gone. It’s not. Far from it. It’s always there. Usually there’s a knot in my gut. I still toss and turn the night before the “big event;” I’ve preached sermons on zero hours of sleep. The beast never slumbers–though it does seem to go into hibernation more frequently. I have learned to cope. And YES, I would even go so far as to say that it has gotten better.
Reflecting on my battle with anxiety and depression thus far, the question I’ve wrestled with more than anything is this: Is it MY FAULT? Am I anxious and depressed because it’s in my blood (in which I can let myself off the hook), or is it something that, with enough muscle and enough positive thinking and enough “can-do” Tony Robbins-style “suck-it-up-and-power-through-it-ness,” I can pull myself out of (in which case I AM fault, and what does that say about my many hours of fruitless therapy)?
In theological terms, this question is known as “culpability.” In other words, who is to blame? Who is responsible?
And the short answer I received–almost universally from my well-intentioned friends and intelligent Christian counselors–was this: “YOU are. YOU are responsible. YOU are culpable. It’s on YOU. It’s YOUR fault if you’re not making progress, and if you just applied a little more elbow grease you’d be able to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Now, I don’t mean to imply that they lacked compassion. Most were extremely compassionate and cared deeply for my well-being. But the solutions they offered always seemed to be nothing more than a long list of instructions: “DO this. TRY this. TAKE these steps. And if you DO, things will improve. Your anxiety and depression IS within your power to change. You can DO it!” This is exactly what most popular CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) teaches: With the right methodology, with the right thinking patterns, and enough positive self-talk, you can do it. You can pull yourself out of that rut.
Here’s the thing, though…what if I can’t? What if the sin at the root of my anxiety and depression isn’t just something I can white-knuckle my way through with right thinking or behavior modification? What if–no matter how many times I try to re-train my brain to think more correctly and truthfully–what if things don’t get better? What if the powers of evil and sin and darkness and pain and brokenness–both IN my own heart and OUTSIDE of it–what if they’re actually a lot more powerful and clever than that? What if this enemy holds us in bondage and won’t set us free and won’t be outtalked…no matter how much clever CBT-jargon we throw his way? What if we’re actually–as Scripture says–pinned down by “rulers and authorities” stronger than us (Col 2:15)? What if we’re captives in chains who need to be set free (Luke 4:18)? What if the forces of evil at work in this world are a lot stronger than we want to believe (Heb 2:14)? And what if we actually need someone ELSE to overpower the “strong man” who has bound and gagged us and thrown us in the basement (Luke 11:22), to rescue us, and to bring us out of darkness and into the light (John 8:12)? In short, what if we re-claimed Christus Victor?
Christus Victor views the Atonement as “the act of God through Christ, in which the powers of sin, death, and the devil are overcome and the world reconciled to God.” This is to be distinguished from the Penal view of the Atonement, which views Christ’s act as one in which He is punished (penal-ized) for the sake of sinners by taking their place on the Cross in order to satisfy God’s righteous requirements. Both of these views are true. Both are Biblical. Both are necessary for us to grasp the full implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Penal, however, places the accent on the individual’s guilt. In other words, culpability rests squarely on the shoulders of the sinner. Christus Victor, however, recognizes a third party–the Evil one–who is also complicit in the brokenness of our world, and it recognizes that there are some things that happen in life for which we should NOT hold ourselves accountable. In other words, Christus Victor says that we are VICTIMS as well as PERPETRATORS.
Think, for example of a woman raped in a back alley. Should she be held accountable because, in Adam, all (including her), sinned (Rom 5:12), and therefore she is complicit in the actions of her assailant? Or how about someone who commits suicide. While murder (even self-murder) must be called out as sin, is there not also the sense in which we can speak of this person as being a victim of forces too strong for him to overcome? Or what about someone who ends up in an N.A. program? Having grown up in an area of the country that knew nothing but poverty and after witnessing only failure and apathy in her own family, how much of that person’s situation is due to her own personal decisions and how much of it is due to circumstances outside of her control?
The question of culpability, it turns out, is more complex than we think. The primary difficulty with Penal when it comes to anxiety and depression is that its fixation on personal repentance and individual guilt puts an undue burden on consciences already overburdened by the weight of their own anxiety and guilt.
In an article for Mockingbird, Bonnie Zahl highlights this truth:
In my many years of speaking with people who are angry at God, I have never met a person who told me that what they needed was a reminder how to think correctly about their situation. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest the opposite: studies show that if people are made to feel judged, ashamed, or guilty about feeling angry at God, they are more likely to continue feeling angry at God, to reject God, and to use alcohol and other substances to cope.
In short, telling a depressed person that they are “guilty” and need to “repent” of their depression can cause undue harm. Culpability does not rest solely and squarely on the victim’s shoulders, and placing such a load on an already-broken back can be soul-crushing.
Instead, what we often need to hear more than anything are those four simple words Robin Williams spoke to Matt Damon in that classic scene from Good Will Hunting: “It’s not your fault.” In other words, I don’t need to blame myself for having insufficient serotonin in my brain any more than I would blame myself for being born into an abusive family. Many people who struggle with anxiety and depression do so because of factors outside of their control. Some experienced precipitating traumatic events during childhood which contribute to their anxious temperaments. Others are simply born with a biochemical imbalance in their serotonin or norepinephrine levels.
In a world absolutely shattered by the Fall, we are unavoidably VICTIMS as well as PERPETRATORS; guilty of wrongdoing yet also keenly feeling hurts and pains for which we are not culpable. We are all pinned down by forces stronger than us, unable to free ourselves, and we need a rescuer. We don’t just need someone to bear our guilt and die for us. We also need someone to defeat all of the forces of sin and darkness and anxiety and depression that overwhelm us. There is the sin within our own hearts which surely must be dealt with. But there is also the sin and death outside of ourselves for which we are not culpable–a whole world “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Rom 8:22).
I recently had my own Good Will Hunting-type moment as well. As I was sifting through some of my past with a mentor-friend, I suddenly experienced the most freeing breakthrough I’ve had in all of my years of wrestling with anxiety and depression, and the reality began to dawn on me: It’s actually NOT all my fault! I don’t have to go around feeling guilty and endlessly flagellating myself and shouldering the blame for factors outside of my control! I am in bondage. I can’t free myself. And I need a rescuer. Hallelujah!
In Jesus Christ, God has provided that rescuer, and He has provided a rescue in the shape of a Cross.
A Cross where forgiveness of my sins occurs–YES.
A Cross where my guilt is blotted out by the blood of Christ and I am credited with His righteousness–ABSOLUTELY.
But even more than that, A Cross where the forces of Sin, Death, Evil, Anxiety, & Depression are crushed once and for all–FOR YOU. And FOR ME.
And that makes all the difference in the world.
In the marvelous words of that hymn from Samuel Gandy:
His be the Victor’s Name
Who fought the fight alone;
Triumphant saints no honor claim;
Their conquest was his own.
By weakness and defeat
He won the glorious crown;
Trod all his foes beneath his feet
By being trodden down.
Christus Victor saved my life.