Fleeing God

Ragged gasps fell offbeat with steady footfalls on the pavement, harmonizing with the water splattering behind them. It had been a long time since I had run. But my eyes forward, squinting against pellets of rain, I was determined to run. It was the only thing left I could do. Though a stitch was ripping through my side and blisters were forming against my drenched tennis shoes, I ran on. My life depended on it. I had to get away. I ran as far as my feet could carry me, from everything I had grown weary of, hated, or knew, until I was lost. By that time, it had stopped raining, and my body finally shouted loud enough for my mind to hear it complaining of my blistered and bleeding heels. I removed my shoes. The fresh air cut across them like a knife, but I didn’t stop moving. I limped into an empty field-  except for a lone oak tree. I collapsed beneath it and gazed into the sky, then closed my eyes.

I had been back on American soil for thirty-eight sleepless nights and thirty-nine restless days. I had been sent back to get better. Doctor after doctor made contradicting proclamations, switching me from this medicine to that medicine, but nothing helped. There was no rest here. I was prayed to and prayed over. I read my Bible and went to church. I was exhorted and encouraged with every popular New Testament scripture preached to the suffering. But as the days passed, the Word and spiritual ‘medicine’ became as bitter as vinegar, and faith as heavy as lead. It’s much harder than you think to count on answers with confidence, when it feels as if you have drunk its medicine to the dregs, but to no avail. I just wanted to sleep. I wanted to leave this world, yet still be able to wake up in it each day. But my hope in that reality was waning by the thirty-ninth day.  

Depression can be a difficult thing to escape, perhaps because it is so ambiguous in nature and transcends and subverts every type of circumstance. It’s unpredictable and formless, capable of besieging you without warning or direction. Its sinister breath can penetrate body, mind, and soul, and when unyielding, can overcome the logic of a any mind, the chemical force of any pill, or the comfort of any friend, should it want to. I’ve heard it said depression has the potential to be one of the most horrific types of pain, because it can convince anyone they are beyond another’s reach, even the divine. And separation from God, according to Christian teaching, is the definition of hell. I’m soberly hesitant to put such a declarative on the magnitude of a particular type of suffering, but I do not deny that God feels most distant when depression kidnaps me and drags me down into the abyss of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wastelands. I’m not sure if hell is a wasteland, but the wastelands I’m acquainted with are horrifying. It both robs life from you and robs you from life, pulling you apart from everything that brings joy and meaning, even in the calmest of seasons.

I have wrestled both long and hard with how to engage with depression as a Christian. There is a spiritual power we proclaim in knowing Christ. Being one with the very Word said to have created us should give us confidence as we endure and journey through all kinds of suffering, and pushes us to cling to the refuge and support we possess while in its midst. We are urged to hold unswervingly to the sacraments of our faith –  body, word, prayer, communion – believing God’s redemption is working in and through these things. And it is. I have seen the power of the Gospel first hand create warriors out of women and men who are literally transformed through being inundated in its midst. I have experienced it in myself, as fruit of His Spirit blooms from no success of my own discipline, but by the sheer grace of dwelling in His midst. We are spiritual creatures, made by a spiritual God. When we are submitted to the Spirit, our perspective of life takes a new dimension. Who would not have joy and peace completely transcendent of life’s circumstances when one is convinced of His protective presence which anchors us in life’s deadliest storms?

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Depression pulls us from all presence, burying us beneath whatever horrors our minds create or our bodies experience, and in doing so, overwhelms the soul beyond endurance. Yet we act as if to ‘consider these sufferings not worth anything in comparison to the glory that awaits us’ means not to consider them at all and so neglect the parts of us looking to the soul for their good. It seems as if we believe the best course is to treat ourselves as if we are already in eternity. If only the soul was given the gifts of redemption and healing at the exclusion of all other parts, death would be preferable, even honorable, and not a travesty. We could abandon the suffering and infection for living eternally in freedom and wholeness now.

Depression gorges on such imbalances. It feeds off of half-truths and poorly wielded spiritual encouragements meant to shine a light on our lost hope, yet sometimes at the expense of our other parts. Depression loves to turn the soul in on itself and diminish the contributions the other parts make, to rob the soul of its enjoyment, its gratitude to possess a body and a mind, to forget how they too embody great worth in their creative expression, especially as a Christian. I am not suggesting anything apart from the Gospel is salvific in an eternal sense – and after all, we are chiefly speaking, eternal beings. But for now, though it is primary, I am more than a soul. I am a soul possessing a mind, a spirit, and a body. As a created being, my soul has always been charged to steward those parts of itself which are dependent on its existence. And before sin ravaged them, they were meant to be an advantage and crowning of the soul, a set of precious possessions to imbibe life and emotion and creativity and strength within itself – and with which to reflect our Maker.

And though I am told as a Christian all I need is Christ, in the moment I pop a pill to ensure I make it to work at in the midst of the unyielding darkness, I am more needy of the bottle in my hand than the Bible on my nightstand. In the moment I go on a run, releasing the endorphins my body craves into my veins, I am more energized by the exercise and sun than I am  by praying on my knees in a closet. It is not hard to feel as if fighting depression begins to shroud my faith in shame, not because I don’t believe what God’s word said was true, but because it was all people seemed to think I needed. The Christian life and all of its pronouncements of what I should believe, what I should cling to, all the reprimands when I didn’t or couldn’t cling to truth resounding in prophetic exhortation seemed to only crush me further. Eventually, even the mention of faith brought forth bitterness and hurt that spilled over into the eternally divine. And even though my mind perceived there lived a lie, understanding the temporal nature of suffering, my soul was not strong enough to hold it or cast it. Even knowing it was inherently untrue did not lighten the burdens I carried; it tired my soul, until it seemed to threaten to collapse and go no further. All I could think of was escape, and escape routes from depression are limited.

I have fled in the midst of depression’s onslaught a few times in my life. Once, as I told at the beginning, to an open field, and most recently to the shore of a lake. Both times I have been reminded of Hagar, who fled the abuse of a jealous woman, after being forced to act as surrogate of her master’s heir. I’m sure she felt some sense of despairing helplessness, caught in the middle of the capricious whims of her mistress, and now she was pregnant by her mistress’s husband. All she could think to do was flee into the desert. Desperation sometimes looks like a death wish, but when you are desperate for relief, you don’t think further than your next step. Fleeing requires very little thinking anyway. I don’t know if Hagar knew the land. I don’t know if she was running home or running nowhere, but I do know God didn’t stop her, though he did eventually find her. He let her flee.

When I fled, I spent no time in God’s Word, or even in prayer. I did not acknowledge my Creator or Savior even once, and yet I began to breathe. I was grateful to breathe in air I did not normally breathe, to forget for a moment who I was. I was grateful to do nothing, to be nowhere that reminded me of any part of the road I had been traveling. I had suffered under depression’s tyranny so long that even acknowledging Him had become a source of poignant grief- so in fear and shame I fled even that – toward exile – in retreat to something that felt other, that felt foreign to my circumstances. I ripped everything away I could from myself which carried pain, and hid by the lakeside. I read books. I drank. I slept. I ate. I sat by the water. All at leisure. All at craving, without thought or demand. I sat at times in the company of one or two friends, who would graciously mimic my rhythms, or at least would not hinder or redirect them. I was free from expectation or custom. I didn’t have to think about all the little things I needed to do each day to survive, to keep my tiny world turning, to process and file each oozing wound, and make a concoction of forgiveness and grace to apply each morning before I began my day. I was content in the absence of “have to” in my current vocabulary, even the sense of having to do spiritual things – like praying or reading my Bible. Though the active thought fills me with some sense of internal shame and guilt, in the moment I was grateful to be free of holy expectation. I spent Sunday as if it was Saturday, acknowledging nothing except visceral needs, and taking in everything that was offered me with content. Every book, every plate, every drink, every ray of sun, every gust of wind – I took as it was offered me, without apology, yet without greed. I was grateful without effort, because my soul was at rest.

I didn’t realize until I had left its refuge, but my mind and body had been holding sword and shield for so long in battle, they could not remember how to relax, how to not constantly be on guard for attack. Every part of me lived under the threat of depression and other triggers or anxieties; they could not afford to be anything other than watchmen, awaiting the dragon’s return and steeling the fortress faithfully to ensure I would survive it. I had been tirelessly protecting my soul for too long. Here, though, there was no threat. Here, I was no one; here I was hidden, even from myself. And being no one, thinking about nothing – it allowed me to be grateful for every little thing around me, for I was no longer in the way.

And though I closed my eyes to Him, though I fled even from acknowledging Him as His creature, He still quietly acknowledged me, keeping my being ever before Himself.  He was not loud or calling from the sky to beckon me to behold His glory; He gave me no visions or prophetic dreams of His power in my midst. He stood in the shadows, unobtrusive, yet faithfully working, unseen and unheard, guarding my rest – allowing me respite, yet not looking away from me. I fled from Him, and He rescinded just far enough to allow me the freedom to run into a different kind of refuge, not of Word, but still of life, still of His making. He pulled back the despair with Himself and stood unseen as I struggled to remember how to breathe, uneven at first, lungs burning, chest heaving. He watched and waited from a distance, as my breath began to slow to a resting cadence. I needed the space. His hand had been heavy on me. I was grateful to have it lift – grateful to have fled from the life He and I had been living, so I could be reminded that my body mattered too. My mind and my spirit mattered too. My soul rested while we cared for those things which I, in my own sinful depravity, could not steward well, be it from my sinful pursuits or the sin of the world.

I don’t know why God would make a vulnerable slave woman like Hagar return to the tyranny she was living under to experience more abuse and hardship. However, I do know He could’ve stopped her before she left and made her turn around, yet He let her flee. When she did, God did not bombard her with His spiritual wisdom and authority; He waited in the distance until she had taken refuge by a spring. And when He found her, we are told He listened to her cry before He did anything else.

I was reminded, as I put my tennis shoes back on in that empty field, that living is not easy in the world I’d fled from. There is no formula to living well, even a spiritually-led life, and sometimes our God walks us into things our souls simply cannot bear. So, whether I am needy or helpless, I am free to flee. Sometimes depression demands that I do. That’s what refuge is for anyway – for the overwhelmed and the desperate, and God’s Word is littered with references to such imagery. So, I believe sometimes fleeing is the bravest thing you can do for yourself. It takes humility. It takes knowing that you are all that a human is – mind, body, and soul – broken and breaking all the time, and in need of constant healing, so that you can believe again that God is near.

On the thirty-ninth day I fled from everything that reminded me of why I had failed as a missionary. My soul could not bear the weight of the grief and disappointment which had rendered every part of me helpless, which had robbed me of sleep and appetite and energy. As I lay on the wet grass, my ankles throbbed in tandem with each heartbeat. I had fled a long way from home. By the time I got up and walked back, my breath was even and slow. I think it might have rained again, or it might have been sunny as a summer’s day – I don’t remember. But I do remember, though every part of me revolted returning to a world I hated, on the thirty-ninth night of my return to America, on the day I fled, I slept, and woke up on the fortieth day rested for the first time. I had never been more grateful for a good night’s sleep.

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