Let Us Joyfully Share in the Suffering of Christ

Anyone can face mental health challenges. For all the blessings of the academic life, there are also many struggles, including stresses to mental health. Several writers in the ESN community shared reflections on mental health with us in the last few weeks, so we are sharing their stories as a way to encourage others in this stressful time of the semester. The stigma against asking for help can be strong in both Christian circles and academic ones, and we want to encourage readers to seek help when they need it and to know they are not alone. Thank-you to ESN author David H. Leonard for offering this piece in response to Andy Walsh’s recent post on mental health. At the end of the post you will find a list of help lines Andy included in his piece. We also recommend this recent post by Kateri Collins, A Poem/Prayer for Survivors of Mental Health Challenges.

“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:16-17)

According to Christian tradition, the words “I am thirsty,” uttered by Jesus on the cross, powerfully illustrate the extreme distress endured by our Savior on Calvary. Of course, Jesus was capable of feeling distress precisely because, in addition to being fully divine, he was also fully human. To be human, as we all know, is to experience a wide range of emotions, like joy, hope and wonder, but also anger, fear, and envy.

In the courses I teach, I often challenge my students to reflect deeply on the wonder and horror of the human condition. On the one hand, we have the potential to create breathtaking works of beauty and technological marvels, and perform heroic acts of self-sacrifice. On the other hand, we are also inclined toward acts of hostility, violence, and destruction.

The Greek intellectual, Aristotle, taught that it was rationality that distinguished human beings from all other members of the animal kingdom, and at least one component of rationality is the ability to think in abstract terms. In all likelihood, most non-human animals are incapable of abstract thought.

For example, as my Welsh Corgi, Zoey, lies on her mat all day, while we’re at work, and the boys are in school, I seriously doubt that she’s asking herself questions about the meaning and purpose of her life: “Am I living up to my full potential? How can I improve the quality of my life? What will happen to me when I die?”

Yet these are fundamental questions that humans, in different ways, have asked themselves for centuries.  But, it’s the ability to ask these questions that is both a blessing and a curse, for sometimes the answers aren’t immediately forthcoming, and therein we are confronted with the inherent tension of the human experience. We desire to be happy and we can imagine, in our mind’s eye, a scenario which is likely to achieve that ideal in our lives. And yet, sometimes our desires and dreams collide harshly with the brick wall of reality.

This is life East of Eden; this is, unfortunately, life in a fallen world. In this world, we behold vestiges of the true, the good, and the beautiful. But such glimpses are too often corrupted and polluted by the sin that engulfs us. Unlike our Father in heaven, who is “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we are finite, we are weak, and we are limited.

I’m reminded of the severity of my own limitations on a daily basis. Every morning I awake, slowly rise out of bed, and stroll into the bathroom. I take a small capsule, place it on my tongue, wash it down with a glass of water, and for the briefest of moments, I’m forced to confront the brick wall of my reality. The simple truth is that although I’m wonderfully and fearfully made in the image of God, I’m also a frightened and fragile creature, who regularly struggles with feelings of depression and despair.

I call them my “Happy Pills,” but not because I actually believe that they make me happy. They are necessary, but not sufficient. To employ a northern analogy, they are like the snow plows, in the dead of winter, that helpfully clear the roads and highways, thereby enabling people to begin the process of reaching their destination. Apart from the plows, one is completely and totally immobilized. But because of the plows, you stand a fighting chance. The pills give me a fighting chance. They help me fight the good fight of faith.

As such, when I look towards the cross and I hear the words of Christ, “I am thirsty,” I’m profoundly reminded that he too, in his humanity, was frightened and fragile, and that all his desires and dreams, at least in that moment, harshly collided with the brick wall of reality. Let us not, brothers and sisters, take for granted the miracle and mystery of the incarnation. As the author of Hebrews proclaims, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”

The humanity of Christ, expressed so movingly in this moment on the cross, comforts me in the present, and gives me hope for the future. You see, we were meant for this world, but for a better version of it. We were meant for these bodies, but for better versions of them. We were meant for the new heaven and new earth.  Although it’s true that our bodies yearn for their eternal dwelling place and that in a profound sense we are strangers in a foreign land, it’s also true that our earthly experiences and the bodies we now possess, in spite of the reality of sin, are just a preview of what is yet to come.

According to C.S. Lewis, “they are the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, and news from a country we have not yet visited.”

It is precisely the life and death of the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth, which has cleared the way, enabling us to reach our ultimate destination.  So let us joyfully share in the suffering of Christ, embracing the liberating truth that just as we suffer with him, we will also be glorified with him; that although we are presently thirsty, our thirst will eventually be quenched. Amen!

Help Hotlines

From Andy Walsh’s recent ESN piece My Mental Health Story:

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David H. Leonard

David Leonard teaches philosophy in the Atlanta area, is a freelance writer and editor, and is passionate about equipping Christians to discover their vocations. He has been published in Christianity Today, CASE Magazine, and the Southern Journal of Philosophy, and has spoken at conferences for the John Templeton Foundation, Global Scholars, and the Evangelical Philosophical Society. David holds the M.A. from Denver Seminary and the Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas. Follow him on Twitter @DrDavidLeonard.

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