About six months after my wife and I married I was diagnosed with depression. I have been known to make the rather obvious joke about the cause of my depression being married life, in reality this couldn’t be further from the truth. I likely suffered with depression for years before I ever met my wife. I can look back at my teenage years, those that followed and at life events and identify periods that were unexplainably bleak for me and I would now recognise the symptoms of depression. Before I met my wife I was free to run away, to change my situation, to attempt to hide from the depression. Once I was married a different kind of freedom developed. I found myself for the first time in a relationship that offered me the liberation to be myself and that included the freedom to recognise, accept, acknowledge and to face the black dog, dark cloud or demon that is depression.
Liberation is not easy. Liberation is not pain free. Liberation often involves difficult battles and suffering. It may well be liberating to swim naked in an ocean but true liberty is the freedom to be ourselves; to accept and love ourselves for who we really are.
In John 8 Jesus is in a discussion with some of his Jewish followers when he says, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ There is some debate with Jesus because those who Jesus is speaking to don’t fully understand what he is saying. They are not slaves or captives but are living in relative freedom in their birth country. My situation is the same. I am free to choose to my relationships, work, study, travel, social activities and so on. However, my mental health, my own feelings and thoughts about myself are constantly being influenced by others.
The society we live in constantly tells me in a multitude of different ways that I need to better myself. I need to wear the right clothes, have the right body weight, style my hair just so, and so on. There are immense pressures to look “perfect” and yet the images people portray are fake photoshopped, makeup heavy, Instagram ready, blemish free portrayals of themselves. Those of us who care less about fashion and personal grooming find pressures in different spheres be it academia, music, sport, and so on. In some groups of people I feel stupid because I have not read a particular book or author and in another I feel stupid because I have. As I have written before, the words of a single person can either trap or liberate us. We live in a world of instant judgement and the only thing we are not allowed to be is who we really are.
The church should be haven from these pressures. God created humankind in the image of God; we are created fearfully, wonderfully and beautifully. The church should be a celebration of the diversity and beauty of God’s creation and yet all too often the church adds to the pressures. We are told we are not living in the right way, the biblical way and yet there any multiple biblical understandings and interpretations so identifying the correct biblical way is part of the challenge. We are told we need to stop certain behaviours, start others, to act in a particular way, to think, feel and to speak in way that those who arrived first have determined is the biblical way of being. All too often the church tries to make us into something we aren’t and something that God did not intend for us to be. Therefore when (or if) we walk through the doors on a Sunday morning we put on the plastic smile and pretend our faith is strong, our lives are joyful and we are peacefully managing all the crap that life throws our way. Underneath the façade there are many who are just about holding it together. The church should offer the liberation to be true to ourselves with one another and with God.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Far too often the church adds to the burden and requires more work, labour and performance.
My wife did not marry me with an expectation that I would change. My wife loved me and continues to love me for who I am. I both love this and find it mindboggling that anyone would choose to love me as she does. My wife permits and blesses me the freedom to be me; I am continuing to learn what that means I am continuing to learn who I am. So often I put on masks, I tell myself it is for the benefit of other people or because of a certain situation where I have a particular role or responsibility. In reality I wear the mask to hid myself from me. I wear the mask so that I don’t see my true self because I am not sure I can cope with the disappointment of who I might find. Yet, my wife loves me and she sees straight through the masks and so I am learning to trust her and to accept the person I am.
God loves in the same way. God knows me and accepts me for me. God is not looking for a church consisting of compliant people trying to be something or somebody they aren’t. The church should be a community that offers liberty to be ourselves as we are and who we are created to be. Genuine church is not be a body of monochrome artificial clones but a vibrant and diverse community at liberty to be who we are in Christ. The church must not coerce nor entrap but should enable people to experience the freedom of being themselves. There must be freedom to explore, freedom to doubt, freedom to question, freedom to disagree and freedom to grow.