Self-Loathing Ruined My Easter — And I’m Sort Of Glad That It Did
This past week, leading up to Easter, I disliked myself more than I have in twenty years. I had reached a point where I was tired of and just about done with me. Call it my Isaiah 6 and Romans 7 moment, if you will.
During my Easter sermon, I decided — perhaps against better wisdom — to go off the script and confess this reality to a whole lot of friends and, because it was Easter, a whole lot of strangers, too.
(If curiosity gets the best of you, the sermon can be downloaded here)
Toward the end of the week, my self-loathing got so bad that I pulled my wife aside and asked her, in all sincerity, if she thinks I am a fraud. She was the one person with a direct, daily glimpse into the darkness I was feeling, as well as the specific reason I was feeling that darkness. She knows me better than anybody, having been married to me for almost twenty two years. If anyone was going to call my bluff, it would be her.
My heart is black. Last week I really felt that…to the point of sleeplessness, depression and dark thoughts. It was bad. I have been deeply depressed and down on myself before. For a few days, it came back.
So the week before Easter, I asked my wife if she thinks I should quit ministry and go into vinyl repair. Since I have no idea how to repair vinyl, I was grateful for the answer that she gave. She told me that I do a good, consistent job preaching both sides of the gospel to others — (1) that we are all busted up, strung out sinners who have no hope apart from the mercies of God, and (2) that God has met that need richly through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
“Scott, now is the time for you to preach the second part of the gospel to yourself in the same way that you preach it to the rest of us week after week. Yeah, you are a mess. But the darkness in you can never outrun, our outcompete, the grace of God.”
I told our congregation (plus about a thousand strangers because, well…Easter) that I have a theory about why my week was as dark as it was. I think it’s because God wanted to be sure that people who entered our sanctuary on Easter encountered a pastor with a limp instead of a swag. When we preachers limp into and out of our pulpits, God tends to do a lot of really terrific things in the lives of our congregants. But when we hop up there with a swag, when we turn the pulpit into a pedestal or a stage instead of an altar, it’s only a matter of time before God loses interest in doing anything significant or lasting through us.
Anne Lamott aptly said once, “It’s okay to realize you’re crazy and very damaged. All the best people are.” That’s just another wonderful way of saying that God’s grace flows downhill to the low places, not uphill to the pompous and put-together places. All the fitness Jesus requires is that you feel your need of him. All you need is nothing; all you need is need. This Easter, for me, all these statements became more than cliches. For me, in front of a whole lot of friends and a whole lot of strangers, they became a fresh and sorely needed lifeline. When you feel like you’re the most jacked up person in the room, and you are the one with the microphone, that’s a time when you need some serious help from the outside. And, by the grace and mercies of God, that help came.
I was then reminded by a friend of a prior reflection I wrote called “Anxiety and Depression: My Strange Friends,” and upon revisiting that reflection I became convinced — ironically by my own words there — that my vinyl repair career will have to wait. Because God uses duplicitous sinners who simultaneously love and betray Jesus, not once in a while but every day of their lives.
On a related note, a kind-hearted member of our church sent these words to me this morning — words written by a pastor to his anxious and depressed son — but this time the words were meant for me, the gracious sender’s anxious and depressed pastor. These words provided the biblical muscle and backing to the things I am saying here:
I continue to pray for you in the struggles you face. I’ve been so helped as I’ve thought about some of the following things. I don’t want you to ever forget that Moses stuttered and David’s armor didn’t fit and John Mark was rejected by Paul and Hosea’s wife was a prostitute and Amos’ only training for being a prophet was as a fig tree pruner. Jeremiah struggled with depression and Gideon and Thomas doubted and Jonah ran from God. Abraham failed miserably in lying and so did his child and his grandchild. These are real people who had real failures and real struggles and real inadequacies and real inabilities, and God shook the earth with them. It is not so much from our strength that He draws, but from His invincible might. I am praying that He will give you courage in this quality of His.
I love you, Dad
And this was swiftly followed, as if God knew I needed more reinforcements to convince me that grace is true, by an email from my amazing and long-time friend and ministry colleague, Russ Ramsey. Also wanting to encourage or “put courage into” me, Russ attached the following reflection that he wrote on Good Friday about his own hard, dark and dreary week. This is something that he wrote on the same day I was considering vinyl repair. He sent it to remind me that I am not alone.
Please read it, what Russ has written here. He is a magnificent writer and pastor with a magnificent heart. As you do, you’ll also get a sneak peek into one of my favorite excerpts of his new book, Struck, which my wife and I both agree is a masterpiece. It’s a must read.
A Hard Week: Depression and Easter
By Russ Ramsey, 04-14-17, Easter Week
I have come to anticipate spiritual and emotional struggle during this week. This is a common experience for pastors, I know—as I imagine it is for many Christian people. The week when we most specifically celebrate the events that secured the Christian’s eternal freedom seems like an obvious time for intensified spiritual attack. If I went back through my journals, those days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday over the past decade or so would be filled with notes indicating I felt particularly fragile.
In truth, this has been one of the most difficult Easter seasons I have had in a long time. It’s no one’s fault. I get this way sometimes. Maybe you do too. I wrestle with what the previous generations called melancholy—sometimes it’s depression, sometimes anxiety, sometimes lingering grief, sometimes inconsolability, sometimes bad dreams and the fatigue that comes from fighting all night in my sleep. Sometimes it’s a cocktail of each.
Earlier this year I released a book about a recent brush with mortality, which involved urgent open-heart surgery. I wrote a chapter about my season of post-op depression—trying to describe what I felt as I was walking through it. I close that chapter with these words:
Knowing my own tendency toward melancholy makes me regard this particular season of depression [which the doctors predicted would come] as a sort of gift. This time around I feel like the monster is in a cage, like an old silverback gorilla at the zoo. I can observe him without too much fear.
This is a gift because I need to know this beast. I need to study his movements, watch what he responds to, and learn what calms him down because I know that unless the Lord chooses to remove this thorn from my side, I will continue to battle with seasons of depression. The time is coming when the monster will not be caged, and he and I will live together in the wild. He will lurk in the shadows, and I will try to train my senses to anticipate his ambush before he pounces.
But there will come nights, no doubt, when I will hear the tapping and my soul will be gripped with fear. By the grace of God, I will use what I learn from this season of depression to feel my way around the room to the switch, find the courage to flip it, and expose my depression in the light of truth.
Sometimes that light will be enough to deliver me from fear. But sometimes it won’t. Such is the nature of the beast. God help me.
The particulars of what have made this season hard are varied and more for the pages of a personal journal than a public essay. But this week, the monster got out of the cage. We’ve been tangling in the dark, and I have been feeling for the switch.
Today is Good Friday—the day all of Jesus’ disciples denied knowing their Lord out of fear. It is also the day Jesus faced and accepted the cross even as Pontius Pilate tried to avoid it (Luke 23:20-21). Pilate pleaded with Jesus to defend himself so that Pilate could release him. But Jesus remained silent because he had no intention of abandoning his suffering road to Golgotha.
Why? Because the cross was the reason he came. He came to square off against death and all its minions, like depression and anxiety, break its power, and then give his resurrected life to those who put their faith in him. And this is precisely what he did.
I am one for whom Jesus came to die—duplicitous like Peter, doubting like Thomas, dismissive like Judas, and loving like John. During this stretch of melancholy, I have tried to talk about it with my wife, and other friends who know me. I have participated in worship services and written Bible studies about the terrible and wonderful week we call Holy Week. I have availed myself of various means of grace—the Word, the church, prayer, the sacraments, family, and friends. And they have helped. Focusing on Easter has helped too.
I still struggle. But I believe that the risen Christ is making all things new. I really do. This is one of the most significant ways Easter stirs me—it sets my heart and mind on the future. Focusing on the resurrection of Jesus, and that hope that is mine because of it, reminds me of something my friend Sandra McCracken once said: “This is not okay, so I know this is not the end.”
In this recent (and possibly ongoing, possibly recurring, possibly final) bout with the melancholy William Cowper, Charles Spurgeon, and so many others knew so well, I am cheered by the resurrection of Christ, because it reminds me, as John Newton said, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”