24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 25 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. 26 Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives?” –Matt 16:24-26, CEB
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It is a time for openness, truth-telling, and shedding light into the darkness for both suicide loss survivors and for those experiencing profound depression.
So I’ll begin with some truth.
I am an ordained pastor who has been diagnosed with situational depression (or major depressive disorder, depending on which doc you talk to). There wasn’t one moment that triggered it, but a build-up of many events that shook my foundation. I was completely trapped in cycles of thinking which caused such constant anxiety that I developed vertigo. My world was literally spinning out of control.
And for me, the voice that haunted me said one word over and over: UNLOVABLE.
So I hated myself, and had convinced myself that others should too.
You may notice I’m using a lot of past tense here. That doesn’t mean I’ve somehow overcome all of this. But a year’s worth of counseling and life changes have significantly equipped me to face much of it.
I am high-performing through depression. This means I work even harder to prove my worth to everyone around me. All the while I’m telling myself that I’m hardly working at all. I also tell myself that no matter what I do, if people knew the “real” me, it would undo all my pastoral work.
Because in those times, I convince myself that the only Gospel worth following is the one that I’m no longer struggling with depression.
Let’s Shine Some Light On the Real Gospel.
Christian perfection is a key doctrine for John and Charles Wesley in the Methodist movement. It’s completely rooted in scripture, starting with Jesus telling his disciples: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mtt 5:48). As a young preacher, Charles taught a harmful variation of Christian perfection that left him full of self-doubt and anxiety:
“First to show that in this world Christians are never absolutely certain of their crown of reward. Secondly, that it is never to be attained by resting contented with any pitch of piety short of the highest. Thirdly, that a constant progress towards Christian perfection is therefore the indispensable duty of Gall Christians.”
– C. Wesley, Oct. 21, 1735 (Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim, 231)
I mean look at that: Uncertainty. Always Giving Everything. An Eternal Demand for Constant Progress. I’m thankful we refer to this time as John and Charles’ pre-conversion.
At this time in his life, Moravian friend Peter Böhler asked: “For what reason do you hope to be saved?” Charles replied, “Because I have used my best endeavors to serve God.” When Böhler shook his head, Wesley wondered, “What! Are not my endeavors a sufficient ground of hope? Would you rob me of my endeavors? I have nothing else to trust to!”
For the Wesley Bros, conversion meant trusting Christ’s word and work above their own.
Something changed for Charles when he accepted that Christ died “for me.” What changed was Charles no longer believed he had to prove his worth, for Christ had already deemed him someone worth dying for. His zeal to please God went from working to be accepted to a gratitude that God accepted him before he was even born.
At first, this conversion experience was so profound that brother John would say he had not been a Christian before. Thankfully, the brothers softened on this understanding of conversion. Instead of going from damned to saved, the Bros’ moments of conversion were more like a grace awakening. They were already Christians deeply rooted in a desire to know God and live in Truth. What changed was a freedom in the Spirit that challenged every fear.
The Good News for Perfectionists
My life in Christ has been a series of conversions. Each new age and stage brings its own challenges and insecurities, where I find my faith tested. Sometimes I discover that the faith that got me through the previous challenge is still not robust enough to face what’s coming next. In one season, a rigid faith is necessary, where a flexible faith is required at a different time.
I reached a turning point in my own experience with depression a little less than a year ago. I call it my conversion.
No matter how strongly I believed in the Gospel of Grace, the perfectionist in me couldn’t separate my works from my being. In other words, I came to believe I was only worth my contribution to the church and the world. I believed people only loved and valued me so long as I was the best at my job. If even one person rejected one part of me, I took it as assurance that all of me should be rejected by all people.
But the Gospel was spoken constantly and bravely to me by my spouse, my closest friends, and my therapist. My conversion, so to speak, requires a fundamental change in the way I process the connection between my works and my being.
God does not expect or require me to feel constantly broken in order to humble me.
The fate of the Gospel, the future of the church, or the lives of those I’ve ministered to does not rest on my failures OR on my successes.
In fact, Christ already has won the victory. In fact, Christ has already been broken to set me free. In fact, the unchanging Father of Lights has already shined all over my darkness. In fact, this Light fears no darkness, and has braved far deeper darkness than I have ever known.
Whether I vote correctly, save the planet, get LGBTQ issues right, grow or shrink the church, nothing can separate me from the love of God in Jesus Christ. There is now no condemnation for those in Jesus Christ. Now that is good news that brings dimension, warmth, and color to my world.
When not drawing the Wesley Bros cartoon, the Rev. Charlie Baber, a United Methodist deacon, serves as youth minister at University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, N.C. His cartoon appears on United Methodist Insight by special arrangement.
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