There was a time I stopped going to church. Years, if you want to know the truth. It’s not something I’m proud of, and I’m not even sure I understand why it happened, except to say that the Christian church I was going to turned me off, and the thing that did it the most was the joy. I know this sounds crazy.
I’ve struggled with depression for as long as I care to remember. When you’re depressed, it’s easy to think the world is utterly miserable and everyone who doesn’t act accordingly must be faking it. I caught myself using words like “phony,” and resented everyone I saw clapping their hands and singing like everything in the world was just wonderful. It didn’t ring true at all to me, it didn’t seem genuine, and I’m not saying it wasn’t. That cynicism is a weakness of my own heart. I distrusted any religion that offered complete, utter happiness. The Christ I thought I knew didn’t address my human suffering, He only brainwashed me into being stupid and happy. It was like how you hate those couples who seem to somehow have it all together only to suddenly separate and you hear there had been infidelities that went on for years and the happy couple thing was only an act they put on in public.
The Bible tells us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, but it is just as full of men cursing God, crying out to Him in anguish. Paul tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. I had never seen this before. There was no fear and trembling in my church. I started to see that there was a dark side to the Christian walk as well, that it addressed the innermost darkness of the soul. It wasn’t all rainbows and handshakes, there was real suffering, real questions. This seemed much more true to me. If this was the case, I was dumping my cares onto Christ, who would care for me and show me answers. Previously, I thought being a Christian meant ignoring your problems, not confronting them.
I was watching The Passion of the Christ last week, and I got to thinking about the pain of Jesus, not there in the end, but day to day pain throughout the whole of His life. I thought about being in heaven, in the glory of God, and then having to come to earth filled with sickness and sin and people who hated him. When I thought about that, I couldn’t imagine the loneliness and depression he must have felt. It’s likely he was a bit angst-y at times. In many ways, Jesus was the most alienated man who has ever lived.
Many Christians may not like to think about Jesus in this way, but I do. This was a Jesus I could approach. When you wrestle with depression, people with answers who are bubbly and cheery all the time are just … annoying. So many people talk about His crucifixion as proof that He understands human suffering, and I agree, but if that is human suffering, then I don’t understand it; I’ve never died. So much of our understanding of Jesus’ suffering is based on the end of His life, but I think the Passion of Jesus Christ started with His birth.
Before, when I thought about Jesus, I thought He was perfect. The Gospels tell us He never succumbed to sin, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about “her gorgeous fiancé is a doctor and he works in an animal shelter and loves kids” perfect. I thought Jesus looked like Brad Pitt, could tell a joke and knew His way around a guitar. But none of this has to do with sin. Really, all we know about Jesus’ appearance is that Isaiah tells us “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him.” Do you know what this means? It means Jesus was probably ugly. Pictures and films always have this handsome, Jim Caviezel Jesus with a good, even beard and clean hair, and then all the disciples are looking pretty rough, but I like to think it was opposite. Jesus probably wasn’t a good-looking guy at all. Also, I bet He got bored. Not slothful, but bored. Maybe He grew to dislike carpentry work. I like this because I don’t like my job sometimes either, so Jesus and I have that in common.
I was listening to Five Iron Frenzy while I was writing this, specifically their song “Hurricanes.” The chorus of that song cries, I am so lonely / They say You were lonely too. If I am lonely, if I am depressed, it means Jesus probably was too.
My renewed relationship with Jesus is not a party, like I thought it had to be before. I am finally honest with Jesus, honest even when it means I am angry or unhappy or full of doubt. He is a real person, and so sometimes I get mad at Him and we don’t talk for too long, and then I come back and apologize. He is always very understanding about this. But even at our best, when my soul is at its most joyful, things are still relatively quiet. After all, I’m a quiet guy; I get awkward and self-conscious at parties and … actually I get awkward and self-conscious almost always, but Jesus doesn’t mind this about me.
To me, the joy of Jesus Christ is like a drink, like the first breath of air. It’s the feeling of finally stepping inside when it’s cold, or diving into a pool in the heat of summer: hands, then arms, then shoulders. He is a feeling of relief. I am comfortable around Jesus, able to actually be weak, broken me, knowing He will love me regardless. He is always there, always patient, always empathetic.
And that, to me, is real. That weakness and frailty is freedom.
Ty Russell is a student at the University of Pennsylvania.