I have always been a person of gloom. Even as a small child, I suffered bouts of depression salted with anxiety before I even knew what the words meant. From toddlerhood on, insomnia overtook me as I tried rocking myself to sleep. I didn’t want to get up in the morning. I wouldn’t brush my hair. I didn’t want to go to school.

But I did go to church. Until I didn’t.

I’m a cradle Christian, raised on Sunday school classes with picture books of Moses bobbing in the basket in the reeds and Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in the straw-dusted manger. Christmas Eve meant candlelight services, and the rest of the year was punctuated with youth group performances of schlocky Jesus-pop musicals. I attended Bible study after school, and in the summer our teacher toted us to rallies where I’d win scoops of candy for correctly reciting Scripture verses.

My sensory memories of church were always profound: the heady scent of stargazer lilies on the Easter altar, pine boughs and candle wax at Christmas. When “Do You Hear What I Hear?” played on the stereo, hearing “A star, a star, dancing in the night / With a tail as big as a kite” felt like having a hand wrap around my heart and give it a loving squeeze. I even liked the zing of fear I got from scary biblical lore. Watching The Ten Commandments every year, my favorite moment came when I’d superstitiously hold my breath as the spooky Angel of Death drew across the sky, bypassing houses that had lamb’s blood painted on the lintel. Whew, close one!

Depression, Sarcasm, and Cynicism

Meanwhile, the darkness within kept creeping. Way back in second grade, an upsetting session with a school psychologist had given me the impression that I was crazy and would be watched (and possibly institutionalized). My depression, still unnamed, deepened as I grew older. I became less interested in church, and by adolescence, depression, sarcasm, and cynicism had become my holy trinity, which might sound impressively edgy if it weren’t so miserable.

Punk rock, beatnik poetry, and outsider art helped me build an aesthetic around the rage and emotional murk churning inside me every day. At 17, I dropped out of high school and moved to New York City’s East Village, where the closest I got to a church was throwing on my thrift-store leopard trench coat and meeting my friends on the benches of Tompkins Square Park to swill shared 40-ouncers and hunt for half-smoked cigarettes on the ground before going to a midnight show.

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To this day, I cherish my travels among the freaks, losers, ragers, and least-of-these-ers. They offered necessary ballast for a life set adrift. But my explorations into alternative spirituality yielded less satisfaction. Dipping into Paganism, I saw an appealing exaltation of nature, mysticism, and female sacred power, but in the hands of the teenage girls in my crew, it felt superficial and put-on, like a school play staged under a full moon. Yoga I loved, but the rudderless New Age philosophy permeating so many classes felt self-indulgent and strangely pretentious. So I settled on being an agitated agnostic, parked somewhere between “spiritual but not religious” and “New Age dilettante.”

While my outsider status provided an important measure of belonging and consolation, it wasn’t a lasting answer to the problem of living with steady depression. I moved to the West Coast and back again, married, and started working as a writer between dark spells that froze me into writer’s block for weeks at a time. At times, you could say I was passing for normal.

But a few years ago, when a dangerously deep and rocky depressive spell had me in its grips, I teetered on the brink of suicide. Even with the cosmetic appointments of a full and happy life—husband, family, health, career—I felt desperate, alone, scarred, stained, and worthless. At my lowest low, I asked God for a sign that my life meant something, that I meant something, and God delivered, in the form of a bald eagle soaring across my sightline mere minutes after I’d requested that exact omen.

I cautiously returned to church, keeping my expectations low. Would it be anything like I remembered (decent snacks but occasionally boring)? Would it be a veiled call to conformity, like a zombie march crossed with a fish fry? Would it be a waste of time?

What it turned out to be was fabric softener for my soul—something rough and stubborn inside me was gentled. Biblical teachings, delivered with theatricality and interpretive depth, helped me examine my depression with deliberate care and no judgment. I loved hearing about how God not only redeems us but emboldens us: Think of Hebrews 13:6, which quotes from Psalm 118 (“So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’ ”).

All my life, I had fought my way toward healing, in one form or another. But it turned out that what I needed was gentleness. To stop spurring myself with negative self-appraisal that bordered on abuse. To dial down the obsession with keeping up the appearance of functionality and, if need be, normalcy. To no longer grit my teeth and play the tough customer who could do or withstand anything. God helped me get off my own back and ease up on myself. Being restored by grace doesn’t feel like some cloud-walking bliss-fest or levitation into an upper stratosphere of piety. Instead, it feels like comfort, acceptance, and resilience. A place to retreat, to just sit, breathe, and be.

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Believing and Seeing

I would love to tell you that God reached down and whisked away my depression. Wouldn’t that be swell? But faith has only made living with it more manageable. Of course, it helps that I take my meds with something approaching religious fervor. But I can’t lay full credit for my wellbeing at the feet of Big Pharma, for nothing has helped me recover more than receiving God’s grace.

Depression is most often an invisible illness—people don’t know you have it unless you tell them, and unfortunately, your disclosure may be met with skepticism. (“But you always have a smile on your face!” “Really? Are you sure it’s not just a bad mood?”) But I can talk about it now in ways that I couldn’t before.

Through faith in Christ, I feel less alone, less ashamed, and less likely to conceal my suffering. Because I know it is heard and believed by God. Laying down your burden is as central to Christian faith as charity or testimony. When you’ve been standing on your own for so long, falling into the arms of mercy is frightening at first, but then comes a whoosh of blessed relief defying explanation. How amazing, after sitting alone in the dark for so long, to be seen, known, and held.

Doubts about the existence of God closely resemble doubts about the existence of depression: Both are rooted in the conviction that things must be seen to be believed. Yet as the beloved writer Madeleine L’Engle once remarked, “Some things have to be believed to be seen.” My eyes are open, in that “was blind but now I see” kind of way, and I’m beholding things with a peace and depth I’ve never experienced before.

As a kid, I gravitated toward dweebs and troublemakers. How funny that now, in the church of all places, I’m blessed by the company of both. As a Christian, I’m here for the weirdos, the outcasts, the sloppily reformed, and the still-pretty-broken. To affirm that we outsiders have a place to belong. We are loved. And through Christ we are redeemed, our slate wiped clean.

Lily Burana is the author of Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith (Thomas Nelson).

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Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith
Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith
Thomas Nelson
256 pp., 5.65
Buy Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith from Amazon