When I read the Gospels filled with stories of Jesus, it can feel at times like I’m reading a superhero comic complete with superhuman feats and perfectly scripted comebacks for every occasion. There are even super villains. But unlike superheroes, Jesus is without flaws. He is perfect. He is God! So, as a Catholic who has suffered from depression and anxiety, at times, I have struggled to feel like Jesus, savior of the world who can raise the dead, can understand what it’s like to be the imperfect human that is me.
We are told Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. It’s one of those Catholic mysteries we love to recite but is hard to actually wrap our minds around. If Jesus was fully human, in theory, he should understand our full spectrum of emotions and needs. We are told he wept and felt disappointment. He looked forward to things and loved. He felt tempted, exasperated, and angry. He even felt hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. Listing these, it seems he was able to check off all the human emotions on his “human experiences bucket list.” Though, while we can agree he felt these emotions, it’s hard not to resentfully question whether he was ever overwhelmed by them.
Depression and anxiety can and do overwhelm. It’s like your body is betraying you. You feel trapped and out of control. So, I can’t help but wonder, how can God feel trapped? He is God. He is fully in control. He has a divine plan. God can’t understand feeling helpless because he has never been helpless. He has never felt trapped. He may have been human, but could he truly have been that human? For a long time, the answer to that question for me was, “No.”
At least, that was what I thought until recently while reading the story of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. The Gospels tell us he is in anguish. He is desperately praying. He is panicking. The Pharisees are calling for his head. Judas is en route. Peter will betray him. His disciples can’t even stay awake with him. And as mankind turns on him, his own body, human in form, turns on him as well.
In Mark, Jesus explains to his disciples: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a pretty good description of depression. Depression can feel like the decay of death is eating away at you, overwhelming you, exhausting you, rotting your insides until you are like a walking corpse.
Luke’s Gospel also tells us of Jesus’ suffering in the garden: “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”
If that isn’t a panic attack, I don’t know what one is. The panic builds as the world closes in and you feel like you’re being both crushed from all sides yet exploding internally. And what’s worse, our body does it to itself. We are betrayed by the very vessel meant to keep us safe.
Reading these verses, I felt seen and understood in a way I hadn’t felt seen in a very long time. It clicked. God doesn’t understand depression and anxiety because he understands all things in some holier-than-thou-maker-of-the-world kind of way. Jesus didn’t just go through the motions of being human. Jesus understands these human experiences because he was fully human because he experienced them. Jesus is all-powerful and yet he still felt the dark death of depression grip his soul. Jesus is in complete control and yet he still felt his panic overwhelm him. Jesus understands the sometimes frail, weak nature of my human vessel because he once inhabited one of his very own.
Now, this realization does not cure depression or magically prevent panic attacks. That’s not how this works. But it does remind us, while depression and anxiety may lie and say God has abandoned us, Jesus tells a different story. Jesus tells us, “You do not suffer alone.” See here, in the garden, I suffer with you. I suffer for you. I understand because I have been there. There is nowhere, not the depths of depression nor the chaos of a panic attack, that you can go that I cannot, and do not, go before you.