Forgiving God

Depression is hell. I always heard it described as that. Throughout me having a YouTube channel, so many people have written those words to me. Teenagers and kids as young as elementary school— they have so many questions for me of all these things hurting them. And through the years their messages have taught me so much wisdom about the world: that it’s filled with hidden brokenness and masked insecurity, confusion and chaos and divorce and betrayal and mental illness. Everyone has their set of demons.

Starting when I was fifteen I replied to every single message. I internalized their emotions and wrote back paragraphs. I prayed for them. And cried with them. When I was sixteen I opened a message from an 11-year-old boy. It was just a few lines. He thanked me for saving him. For saving his life. He told me he had thought of me right as he was about to kill himself. That he’d thought of my videos, of my happiness and decided to live. Suicidal messages became a constant and I saw my ministry of helping these people as urgent, that I needed to reply to as many people as possible.

Four years later it was me. I was the one describing depression as hell. I wrote it in my journal entries. I thought it again and again those rare times I cried, rather than feeling numb. I said it out loud when I had enough motivation to pray— the few times when I could think of anything I wanted to say to God.

I was in college at the time taking all of these Religion classes.   There were PowerPoint’s and handouts, lively discussions about etymology and Hellenistic culture, textual criticism and the existence of the soul. On the days I did wake up and go to class, I was laughing and debating—all reactive to what everyone was saying.   It did feel genuine on occasion. But I wasn’t there. My mind was autopilot.

I skipped church most weeks. Either I slept through it or intentionally avoided going. The sermons were too complex for my depressed brain to process and the songs had this positivity in them that stemmed from some close relationship to God that I couldn’t at all relate to. Hearing everyone around me singing and processing the joy in the meanings of the songs would make me cry. I was so physically close to all these Christians— sitting in-between my best friends within this metaphorical City of God— but it was all a hoax, because my soul, my mind was far away. My essence locked away from them, locked away from God.

There are all these metaphors throughout the Bible of God’s love for us being like a parent and for me depression felt akin to how a child would feel if their mom or dad left for work in the morning, but then never returned. The child is worried, calling them, texting them… but there’s no reply. The next day you wake up and they’re still gone. You contact your siblings and neighbors, the people at your dad’s job and they tell you He’s fine, that He’s been showing up. Your older sister tells you she contacted Him and asked Him to reach out to you, but then He doesn’t.   You send longer texts, write out full blown physical letters— trying to reach out… You miss Him intensely and keep reminding yourself that your Dad loves you, that He’d never try to hurt you... but you have no logical explanation for why He has deserted you when you need Him the most.

A couple months in something really awful happens and you run outside crying and your Dad is standing right there, waiting for you. You mumble some disjointed sentence about what happened and he sits with you as you cry, neither of you needing to say anything. He holds you and let’s you cry more and it feels like he really understands. You both sit there in silence as you cry and you feel so secure. But then before you’re able to explain to Him that you’ve been crying so much since He left and that you miss Him, that you just need to know why, He’s gone again.

He doesn’t come back for several months. You feel it is pointless to keep reaching out when you know He won’t reply. So you stop thinking about your Dad and promise yourself you’ll reinstate the relationship when your medicine kicks in, when your depression is gone. You’ve been hanging out with your Christian friends a lot and they speak passionately about how He’s visited them and have such a strong relationship. You have photo albums that you look through, memories that you think back to and you struggle to remember everything, to stay faithful when you’re in the worst mental anguish you’ve ever experienced.

A year passes and I’ve graduated from college and still find myself avoiding church. When I do have the courage to go, I inevitably cry during worship and then feel disconnected from the sermon. In the churches I go to we never talk about those angry lament Psalms or the time Jesus did nothing when his cousin John the Baptist was beheaded or all the times in the Old Testament when God completely ditches His people for decades at a time because of one mistake they made.

Four different times that summer I was sitting in a Bible class and as we were discussing the Book of Job, it felt like my wound from God’s betrayal was opened up and stabbed into.   Each time the meaning of Job was brought up within this framework of an explanation of suffering: Why do bad things happen to good people? God’s response to the problem of evil. They taught that the story of Job tells us: God allows Satan to unveil all this evil into the world to tempt us and attack us and make our faith stronger. He kills people in our lives, puts us through awful illnesses that almost kill us and through all of that our faith is being strengthened and through all of that the question is: Will we remain true to God or will we curse Him and die?  

According to those interpretations of Job, I bowed to Satan and cursed God. I was in the second category where I literally cursed out God, ignored Him, walked away, stopped going to Church, wanted with so much of me to stop believing, for God to not be real, for my life to end. According to these evangelical interpretations, I was condemned. I saw no meaning in my suffering and still see no meaning in the anguish and confusion I experience in mental illness.

During Depression the connection between my body and soul feels as if it is hanging on by this fraying string and sometimes it is cut off completely. Mentally and physically I feel cut off from the world around me, as if there is a great fog or body of water severing me from everything around me and severing me from my own thoughts. When I finally got out of my severe depression episode in 2016 as all of my medicines kicked in, my “back to normal” sense of self was so damaged, twisted up and fractured that I felt even more lost and confused than when I had been in depression. Some nights when I would be up late laying in my bed, not able to sleep, crying about my diagnosis, trying to process it and process my sentence of lifelong intermittent depression— I would conceptualize it as parts of me had been murdered.

One of my friends from Pepperdine studied Job in-depth, wrote his masters thesis on it and rejects that the Satan figure is speaking of the Christian conception of the Devil, but instead that this sah-tan is an angel, a servant of the Lord. As I re-read Job the year after I graduated college, an alternate meaning of the book stood out to me, that none of these characters even existed, that Job is an allegory for how God wants us to love Him for Him intrinsically, not for anything He blesses us with like emotions, Christian community, comfort, joy, possessions, peace… but loving and worshipping God alone for who He is.

The “hedge” in Job 1:10 stood out to me and seemed to be the key to understanding it, “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?” I thought of everything in my life that was a hedge around me: the extreme emotions of feeling physically surrounded and comforted by God, the intense joy and peace and love I felt from my relationship with God, so strong that I often cried. The Christian community of my family and close friends, the intense intellectual rush of spiritual growth that would fill up dozens of pages in my journals all at once. God’s challenge for all of is for us to discover who He truly is, to love the core of Him apart from everything He blesses us with.

I’ve learned that the last part of Job can be translated in dozens of different ways, that the ambiguity of Hebrew has been dumbed down to make us believe it must be enclosed into a single meaning. Job 42:6 is often translated as, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” But it can also mean “I’m giving up mourning, I give up lamenting and I am comforted.”[1] Interpreting Job within the scheme of the entire Old Testament tells a much deeper story. Questioning and struggling with God was always a core part of Judaism. In Genesis 32:22-31, Isaac’s son Jacob physically wrestles with God. And He is chosen by God, His name changed to Israel because of this struggle.   Genesis 32:28, “Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

40 of the 150 Psalms that teach us how to pray and have relationship with God are Lament Psalms, calling out to God and questioning within brokenness and struggle. Ecclesiastes also goes in-depth into suffering and injustice, in assessing the meaning of life, often concluding that good and evil circumstances randomly affect people with no purpose. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3, “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors— and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.” Ecclesiastes does not end with some brilliant gold nugget of truth on why evil happens, but merely tells us to “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” -Ecclesiasts 12:13-14

If you try to solve the problem of evil with a simple answer, you’re wrong. You’ll leave people who go through deep suffering discontent and feeling invalidated, with little peace or hope. There isn’t an answer. An idea called “Skeptical Theism” was a creation in Philosophy of Religion in the late 90s. It is something we talked about in my Philosophy classes at Pepperdine and is what kept me believing in God, within my mess of feeling so deeply wounded and confused. It is best illustrated visually with two circles, one big circle of God’s omniscience and a smaller circle within it of all of human knowledge. If God is being put on trial for allowing so much evil and pain in the world, based upon our limited human knowledge, God IS guilty. But because there is so much we don’t know, won’t know until Heaven, Skeptical Theism tells us that we can have an agnostic outlook that God would be good if we knew everything in God’s circle.

But Skeptical Theism is not a modernist creation, it is embedded into the literary structure of Job. After dozens of chapters of Job’s friends invalidating his emotions and coming up with seemingly brilliant, but flawed arguments to explain why God has allowed so much evil to happen, there is this beautiful section of God speaking to Job starting in Chapter 38, in which He describes these depths of the universe and physical creation and the inner-workings of the soul. Essentially, God is explaining some of what it is in the larger circle that we do not have access to.

God is not belittling Job’s questioning, but affirming that His wisdom is far above any human knowledge, that we can trust Him and that He’s strong enough to handle all of our doubts and questioning and anger toward Him. Job 38 begins not a scolding of Job’s struggle, but allowing Job to enter into further depths of God’s wisdom. God doesn’t resolve Job’s “problem of evil” struggle with a neat answer, but through asking him to enter into dialogue and relationship with Him.

Last summer I was watching back a lot of my old videos. One of my subscribers wrote to me earlier in the year—told me if I ever feel lost, forget who I am within the bipolar that I need to spend time listening, remembering my younger self. I watched back my videos coming out about depression and then bipolar and I cried, wishing I could go back to my younger self and hug her— tell her she’s doing enough. I’ve gone back and watched videos of when I was in high school, starting college and I’m talking all about my favorite parts of the Bible, all my enthusiasm in learning Koine Greek and talking about the cultural context of the Bible. I’m giving advice about praying and prioritizing and sometimes I feel so jealous of my teenage self.

She was so close to God and she was growing, being changed and feeling so encouraged and loved. There was this intensity to annotating her Bible and going out in nature to pray out loud about her friends and emotions, expressing all her opinions and experiences and crying so much to God, being so vulnerable when she was hurting, but having this purity and innocence and naivety to her of having no concept of what future pain and brokenness and chaos was about to enter her life. There’s always this pureness to when we’re younger. A beauty in the naïve. A calm in not understanding what it is to be fully scarred and emotionally wounded beyond recognition.

Sometimes when I think back to my younger self it feels like I’m looking at a whole other person. I feel so disconnected from who I used to be. From who I am. 2015 and 2016 was a year and a half of my life feeling locked away from God. And I’m back now. I’m healed. I’m on my medicine and it’s over, all of it is supposed to be over and I wish I could feel safe knowing that and not be scared anymore, not feel hurt whenever I think of God.

In Evangelicalism it felt there was not a place for me to cry in church. The messy, suffering, permanently marked essence of struggling through a chronic mental illness… did not have a place of rest for me within my Christian communities. We always would pray for things to go away, for God to intervene, to heal….but with Bipolar it’s different. People would misinterpret 1 Corinthians 10:13 and tell me God will never give me something beyond what I could handle or isolate Romans 8:28 and says all of this is for God to do good, and those simplistic misinterpretations as the answer to my suffering hurt me and pushed me away from God even more.

I thought of the one in four suicide rate of bipolar, the one in two suicide attempt rate. People in severe depression kill themselves because it is too much for anyone to handle, because there is no good, no answer coming out of being born with a broken, twisted soul. God can’t heal me of this; because there’s no cure. And if there was, it would erase my identity, because bipolar is an intimate part of me. I don’t want to be healed, but I need to be loved. I need God. I need to feel God. And I need to be understood by God in my suffering.

I never felt anger toward God. That would be so much easier. I wasn’t confused or scared or betrayed, I just felt hurt. I missed God so much through my depression when my brain was incapable of staying connected to Him and that hurt me.  I wrote to Him, thought of Him every day— heard updates from other people of how He was visiting them but for me, He only showed up a few times and then was gone again, without explanation.

It felt like an abusive relationship.  The Cimorelli song "Acid Rain" perfectly emulated how I felt toward God.  I told myself over and over again that it wasn’t real. That God leaving me, deserting me wasn’t real. That it didn’t actually happen. It was all in my head. Literally all in my head.   God was with me when I couldn’t feel Him; He’s always intimately a part of me. It was just my brain damaged because of genetics.

And I thought of how God prepared me so much in advance to have a healthy, loving internal world as I lived through depression. Throughout my life growing up, He shaped me into someone who would be unconditionally gentle and forgiving with her self talk. He gave me a half dozen extremely loyal friends who helped me to feel alive and motivated when I was at my worst. He worked the most through several of my friends who don’t even know God exists, is alive and active, He loved me through them.   What God did is amazing. He helped me so much. All throughout those months, I told Him that, acknowledged that, thanked Him for that.

But for a year after there was still this emotional block, this build up of hurt that I couldn’t get past.

I thought that all I’d need to do was verbalize that I felt hurt, talk it through with God, pray and cry and discuss how I wanted things to change moving forward (like how I would with any other relationship) and then I’d be able to forgive emotionally. I did that. I did it several times. I let myself cry so hard at night to God that I could barely breathe. I told God that I forgave Him, that I understand— that I just want us to be close again.

But I still felt deeply wounded.

Forgiving is usually so intuitive for me. I have this restrictive view of free will: If someone hurts me, I understand how their past experiences are affecting their current behavior and I overlook and forgive. With emotionally forgiving, it’s easy too. I am so in the moment—have these huge, overwhelming emotions but then when a few hours have passed I’ve processed and moved on.

With forgiving God it was so different, because I can’t understand Him like I can other people. It was frustrating trying to forgive Him with all of my mind, trusting with all of my thoughts and will, but still frozen in my emotions.

The only time I was angry with God in being Bipolar was the end of my senior year at college, I realized a minute into the prayer of complaining to God that it is completely random who gets passed on genetics to develop a mental illness. And then two minutes after that, I was thanking God that I’m dealing with this and not one of my friends. And I continue to pray that same prayer, that no one I love has to deal with this much pain and sickness and isolation and fear and disorder.

As I began intellectually trusting God again, I started praying smaller prayers, reading small sections of scripture, intermittently playing a worship song on my guitar, occasionally attending church. I didn’t know how to get my heart to fully trust, to surrender all the way, but I felt that God was patient. That He created me and knew that it was against my nature to keep going back to someone who was intensely hurting me.

It happened gradually, over months and months and months. I began to see God intervening through my prayers again, started doing my devotions and soon they became daily and for hours. I began to piece back the parts of my soul as I slowly recovered from the brain damage of severe depression. I went to therapy and worked out every day and started church hopping, trying to figure out what I believed. I got to know God all over again, as though I was a child or coming to the Faith for the first time. I re-developed my theology, started reading intensely about Early Christianity and reading in-depth through all these parts of the Old and New Testament.

I attended Orthodox and Catholic services for the first time and felt this immense comfort in staring up at the Crucifix and understanding that Jesus felt extremely disconnected and abandoned by God when He was on the cross, that on earth he physically experienced what I did when I was in depression. I watched people taking Real Presence communion and realized it was alive, tangible, physical in a way Jesus had never been to me before! I felt the stories of Jesus in the Bible come alive as I worshipped with all the icons surrounding us of the Apostles and Mary and Joseph and all these Christians through the years. I cried every Mass and prayed to God as I knelt during communion.

I read through intense stories of the Early Church and understood that the Martyr culture in the first few centuries demanded that they never would have intellectually abandoned God because of the Problem in Evil in the way a post-modern, Western Christian would. I began seeing aspects of the Prosperity Gospel in Evangelicalism and understanding that suffering is expected, accepted in Catholicism, I was amazed as I read through stories of these Christians who were martyred, how they saw their suffering and murders as sacrifices to God, as something that connected them more intimately to God. I felt spiritually healthy, immersed in a liturgy culture that equally read through the Old Testament, and found myself amazed by and immersed in parts of the Bible I hadn’t read in years.

When I began converting in I felt comfortable and at home crying every Mass as I knelt and prayed during communion and realized that my mind never would have been humble enough and intellectually open to the Truths of the Early Church if I hadn’t been broken down all the way by depression. I stopped viewing my relationship with God as emotional and about my perception of growth, but more as actions of worship. I understood fully that faith is not a feeling or mere intellectual ascent to beliefs about God, but actions of service and trust and love.

A year later as I received my First Communion at my Confirmation, I felt no emotion at a time when I thought I would cry out of joy. I was in a depression and felt stressed and confused and fear and even apathy, but as I took Real Presence communion and processed what it meant, I felt extreme comfort that it no longer depended on what I felt, but that Jesus being physically a part of me and every Catholic was real in a way that superseded and overcame whatever I believed or felt or was struggling through.

My hell and purgatory will be experienced throughout so much of my time on earth through me being Bipolar. An addiction to the rush of mania, a numbing of my true self through medication, and a loss of reality in depression. This is my cross to carry and I’ll never be healed and my full self until Heaven. So often it feels too much for me to bear and I have prayed to God countless times to take me into Heaven in that moment, so I don’t have to keep struggling through this in living. But He keeps me alive and listens to my lament prayers and sends me people to love and understand me and make me feel alive when I feel disconnected from everything around me.

At my First Confession, my Priest told me to not be so hard on myself, that God does not expect me to keep holding onto Him when I feel He has let go of me. How that is work to heavy for me to bear. He encouraged to not view reading my Bible as a duty, but rather as an opportunity to let God speak to me when I need Him the most. And I try to.

Bipolar continues manifesting in me in different ways and every day is hard in different ways. I try to stay on my medicine and pray and get enough sleep and be healthy. I experience God so strongly at mass and feel with my Priest and the Church Fathers like I have spiritual guidance and mentorship for the first time so long. I’m never fully at peace and I still feel confused and hurt by God at times. But I let myself wrestle and struggle, because I know God is big enough to handle all of my emotions.

 

[1] Hicks, John. “Forgiving God” Pepperdine Bible Lectures, Malibu, CA, May 3, 2016.

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