TRIGGER WARNING: I speak honestly about depression in this post, at great length.
I’ve been thinking all day about the word “grace.”
In fairness, I’ve probably been thinking about it for the last 20 years. If you go to church, it’s almost unavoidable. But it seems to have caught up with me today. There have been times where I thought I understood the word. I’ve written on the topic a lot. I’ve talked about it a lot. Like many of you, I’ve sung about how “amazing” it is in churches, funerals, and concerts. But even in understanding it, I don’t think I’ve ever really grasped it up to this point. But tonight I feel like I may have, so I’m writing about it before it gets away. And then in another 20 years, I’ll probably have another epiphany about it. Grace, friends, really IS amazing in that way.
Some of you reading this might not know what the word means in a theological context. Since that’s the context I’m exploring, I’ll go ahead and clarify up front. Most people seem to use the word grace to describe the fluidity with which a dancer dances, or the elegance with which a dignified person carries him/herself. And that’s fair. But that’s not the grace I’m talking about. If we’re speaking theologically, there’s a lot more going on. It doesn’t describe a physical action or an act of dignity or an item or person of particular beauty. Theologically, grace describes the furious, dumbfounding, inexplicable love of God. Grace describes a love that did not spare itself. A love poured out in blood that led to death, just for a wretch like me. A love poured out for murders, rapists, thieves, ex-husbands, and Justin Bieber. A love that needs only to be accepted and is your literal “Get Out of Hell FREE” card.
I’ve been having a bad couple of weeks. I don’t think it’s any secret to anyone who’s ever met me that I am prone to fairly serious, fairly lengthy bouts of depression. I don’t want to bore you with the sob-story… But in the past few weeks, I’ve felt worthless, useless, unhappy, and–I’m willing to admit it–I’ve been doubting my faith. My specific form of depression has the added upgrade of being theological in nature.
I tend to continue praying through my doubts. It’s all I know. (I long ago decided that it would be foolish to be angry with God if He didn’t exist…so in my anger, I often find my faith.) So I prayed. And prayed. And yelled. And swore. And then we stopped talking for a while… And the stress became overwhelming, and the fear became debilitating, and the feeling of worthlessness became an identity.
I don’t know exactly what started snapping me out of it. I never do. But I started talking to God again, in little ways. Then in bigger ways. I made the decision to go back to using tools that I knew WORKED in my prayer life, and worked my way through intentionally finding ways and reasons to tell God that even in my anger, I do still love Him–which is actually kind of at the root of why I’m angry. (You can only hold a grudge against someone if they MEAN something to you, after all.) I further decided to find the humility to admit that–shocking though it may be–SOME of my problems were my own fault, ha ha. That I’m a sinner. That I have betrayed God countless times before breakfast, and I am in need of forgiveness. I intentionally went out of my way to THANK Him for things–even things I wasn’t sure He had anything to do with–just to get back into the abandoned rhythm of attributing things to Him. And I made an effort to ask Him for things, but only if HE wanted me to have them. I asked Him above all for patience and that I would accept His “yes” or His “no” with praise on my lips.
There was no miracle. There were no immediate answers to prayers. I still have not received a clear answer on if I will or will not be blessed with the things I want–or even the things I am on some level convinced that I need. That’s not how this story goes–and a lot of the ones you hear that DO go that way are complete fabrications. So, so few are blessed with a burning bush. Most of us have to piece it together for ourselves.
But what of grace? It’s starting to sound like this didn’t work out at all…
I went to see my friend Bruce last week and we talked for about an hour and a half. He told me a story about an event in his life that he is convinced God was using to teach him patience. And I read Brennan Manning’s memoir, and much of it is about patience. And I had a discussion with a colleague at work, where they described ME as being “not very patient.” And that word kept coming up again and again and again. And I realized that the conflict I’ve been having with God isn’t that He doesn’t answer me…it’s that I don’t really deserve an answer, because I’m DEMANDING it of Him. In recent weeks, I have very literally said to God, “I expect You to let me know one way or the other by the end of the day.” Who am I to ask that of God? If He shook His head at me, that’s the least I deserved.
After it dawned on me that maybe I’M the problem, I began to earnestly pray for patience, as I described above. And it’s a struggle, but I feel like I’m learning it–after all of these attempts He’s been making to teach me. I’m going to fail at it…but I’m working on it. And then I prayed a very different kind of prayer. I prayed to God, apologizing for failing to recognize who I was talking to, and asking for HIM to speak. I seem to always do a lot of talking and very little listening. So I made an active effort to listen for God. And for a day or two, I didn’t hear anything. And then I still didn’t hear anything. And then I continued not to hear anything…and then I remembered–duh–I hadn’t been listening in the right places. The Bible IS called the “WORD” of God, after all, right?
I prayed. I asked God to come to me in my depression, in my anger, in my sadness, in my defeat, and in my worthlessness, and even if He would not provide an answer to if I will ever receive the things I have asked Him for, to please let me know that whatever happens, it will be okay. I asked for His help, and for His reassurance. I said “Amen” and–in an act I was CONVINCED would lead absolutely nowhere–I opened my Bible to a random page and read a random verse. And the very first words I saw are now burned into my brain:
“God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'”
…to save a wretch like me. THAT, friends, is grace.
And then yesterday, I had some time to myself. My roommate and I had discussed a few weighty things before he’d gone out for the night (nothing worth anybody out there losing sleep over–just big topics). And my head was filled with cloudy thoughts and memories of past struggles and people who’d caused me pain. And in the silence of my house, I took a moment to pray. I made an effort to bring those specific circumstances and people into clear focus in my mind. Faces, names, and wounds. And as I got a clear picture of each person in my mind–I swear this happened–I said aloud that wonderful word, “grace.” And I didn’t know why I was saying it, but I knew that as soon as I said it, the first person disappeared, and the next person came into focus. “Grace.” And another. “Grace.” And another. “Grace.” And partway through, I realized that for the first time in DECADES, I was recognizing people who’d hurt me as people who deserved forgiveness and kindness, and JESUS. And I was letting go.
I lost at least a half hour before I thought I was out of people…but God wasn’t done. I heard the voice of my own feelings of worthlessness and anger and pain still echoing…and I saw myself. I got a firm picture of myself the way I see myself in my mind–which is fairly (or maybe unfairly) unvarnished. And I hesitated…
And my hands were shaking. And my eyes had clouded with tears. And I realized a deep truth about myself.
I have been depressed for 20 years. In that time, I have said and done things I deeply regretted, and I have never forgiven MYSELF for being…well…me. “Grace.” For 20 years, I have refused to admit to myself that I deserve to be loved. “Grace.” For 20 years, I have not believed that anything I will ever do will amount to anything or matter in the long-run. “Grace.” For 20 years, I have doubted my faith, spit in the face of Christ Almighty, and rejected the urge to even PICK UP my Bible, much less read it. “Grace.”
…and for 20 years, I have been convinced that God does not actually want me to be happy.
“GRACE! GRACE! GRACE! GRACE, DAMN IT…GRACE!”
I’m not out of the woods…but I felt something leave me yesterday afternoon. I’m still not totally sure what it is, and I don’t know if it will come back. But I know that there is love. There is hope. There is a peace that surpasses understanding. There is blood, shed for me, to cover my regrets, failings, feelings of worthlessness, pain, anger, impatience, doubts, faithlessness… And God LIKES me, and wants me to be happy–even if I don’t know or even yet agree with what He means by “happy.”