Broken Brains, Bait-and-Switch Jesus

Last week, my brain broke.

It happened in the midst of an ordinary weekend, with my family around me. It wasn’t a permanent break, nothing that cannot be mended (hopefully). But when it’s your brain, even the tiniest fracture has the feeling of shattering.

you are a failure you are failing your children your husband they would be better off without you you are failing them your issues are hurting them you will never get better you will probably get worse your kids will never have a normal childhood because of you they need a different mom your husband deserves a better partner you can’t handle adulthood you are failing you are a failure

The running narrative, for a time, drowns out everything else, and I sit in the closet and cry and cry and cry and try to believe that it will pass.

I can tell myself that it’s all a lie. I can tell myself that Jesus loves me. I can tell myself that it’s an “attack of the enemy.” I can pray. It doesn’t matter. It’s like trying to convince myself that the dark is light, up is down, red is blue. In this moment, my brain is broken and I can’t fix it, and I have to wait until the levels of serotonin go back to a level that will allow me to function instead of sitting in the closet and crying and shivering and trying to block out the images my brain gives me of taking a knife and slicing my arm so that I will get locked in a psych ward where at least my blackness won’t touch my children.

I didn’t. So far the images have never been anything but that– images that I push away. The chemicals in my brain tell me that I’m being selfish, that it’s selfish to inflict my issues on my family. It’s like ignoring a heckler on the street. You can know on one level that the person calling you a stupid bitch is an ass, and yet the words still hurt, still leave a sting.

This weekend was better. I went to the doctor, she came up with a new medication plan, I haven’t had any more black attacks, and yesterday Nate and I got to go to a wedding of one of his coworkers. It was really fun– I had a new dress, and it was the first time we ever had our babysitter put the kids to bed so we could stay out late. We don’t really know how to dance, but we’re both amateur musicians, so we’ve got good rhythm and it’s not too hard to shimmy to Uptown Funk and have a good time.

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The wedding ceremony was very sweet and very centered on the bride and groom’s commitment to Jesus and to each other. There was a lot of emphasis on how their whole lives they had prayed to meet someone like each other, and now here they were, with the perfect God-given mate. At one point, the pastor made a remark to the effect that because the bride and groom were centered on Jesus, they were going into marriage spiritually whole, and so their marriage was going to be wonderful.

And I squirmed a little bit.

I am sure that the furthest thing from the pastor’s mind was implying that Jesus = wholeness, brokenness = no Jesus. He was just giving a somewhat evangelistic wedding homily. He wasn’t speaking for the benefit of people like me who take one tiny sentence and analyze it to death.

But it brought to mind a text from my friend Kristen about how she sees more and more of the prosperity gospel in the evangelical church. Not the blatant, con-artist, swindle-the-elderly-widow-out-of-her-savings prosperity gospel, but the far more subtle and just as damaging gospel that lures people with the promise that Jesus = wholeness.

Jesus is the answer.
There is no problem that Jesus cannot fix.
No brokenness Jesus cannot heal.
No mess too big for him to clean up.

So the Christian life being advertised is one about solutions, about things being fixed and healed, chaos becoming order, brokenness becoming whole.

And what happens when that doesn’t happen?

What happens when people faithfully strive to do all that their pastors and teachers and Christian authors and Bible studies have been telling them to do, and the questions remain unanswered, the problems unsolved, the brokenness unhealed, the chaos unordered?

Maybe it’s your own fault. What about that sin you’ve been struggling with? How much are you reading your Bible? How often are you going to church? How’s your prayer life?

God’s just trying to teach you something. You have to have faith. You need to trust him more. Read this book. Listen to this sermon. Go to this conference. Practice this spiritual discipline.

God’s more concerned with your holiness than he is with your happiness. Your suffering is for his glory. Who are you to question God? His ways are not your ways. He has the right to do whatever he wants. 

And so– we hide our mess. We put on our polished, smiling masks. When other Christians ask us how we are, we say “fine.” We become good at camouflauging pain and projecting wholeness. Because, after all, Jesus = wholeness. Mental and chronic illnesses, addictions, grief, regret, bitterness, destructive relationships, absent support systems, systemic poverty, abusive authority structures, toxic teachings– the list could go on and on of the kinds of problems that we keep hidden. We are afraid, and with good reason, that to admit to them will bring shame, suspicion, and exclusion from our Christian communities, because, after all, there is a life-giving, problem-solving, Mr. Fix-It Jesus to sell to the world, and the world won’t want him if we all get up and talk about all the broken places he hasn’t healed, all the chaos that still remains. So shut up, just be happy about how holy you’re becoming by bringing God so much glory through keeping quiet about your suffering.

Jesus hasn’t fixed my broken brain. I’m on medication. It’s possible I’ll be on medication the rest of my life– I don’t know, I haven’t thought that far ahead, I’m just thankful for a tiny white pill I can take at night so that the next day I’m not lost in a grey zombie fog of irritability and depression and black attacks that tell me I’m failing at everything. I’m thankful that I have people in my life who have repeatedly stressed to me that depression is not a moral failure, that needing medication for my broken brain is the same as needing insulin for diabetes, that I’m not lacking in faith because I can’t fight the blackness back out of sheer force of will. I am thankful that I have people in my life who reassure me that my brokenness is not the absence of Jesus. That I don’t have to be whole to know his presence.

These are the voices we need. This is the Jesus we need. So can we just stop with the Jesus bait and switch already? So often life is just absolutely crap, and Jesus doesn’t fix it. The orphan living in the slums of India, the third-world woman with a fistula who is socially stigmatized and has no access to healing surgery, the little boy sold into sex-slavery, the child bride, the single mom working three jobs to put food on the table, the woman trapped in a marriage with a man who believes he has a right to her body whenever and however he wants, the man who can hardly get out of bed in the morning because of the voices in his head making life hell– every person you know who is dealing with something crappy–  can we just stop with the idea that if we just sprinkle a little Jesus seasoning on the pain, things will be better?

I don’t know why Jesus doesn’t fix stuff. Some people say he could and chooses not to, some people say that his sovereignty is limited by his commitment to our free will. People have been arguing about it for thousands of years: I don’t think we’re going to figure it out. But we need to stop trying to sell Jesus, and start listening to the wounded people he hasn’t healed. We Christians need to stop being so zealous in defending God and start leaning into the uncomfortable chaos of suffering. The church needs to stop being a place of performance and start being a place of refuge, where the crappiness of life is something to be expected and named instead of sanitized and ignored. Masks should not be part of our Sunday morning attire. 

My faith is not in being fixed, but in Jesus, the Jesus who loved people, and cared for people, and reached out to people. And yes, he healed an awful lot of people, but he didn’t heal Lazarus, and when Mary and Martha came to him in heartbreak over their dead brother and cried to him, If you had been here our brother would not have died! he didn’t tell them they needed more faith or ask how their prayer life was or rebuke them for accusing the Son of God. He cried with themHe knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the freaking dead and he still cried with them. There’s a lot I don’t understand about Jesus, some of the things he said make him sound like kind of a jerk, but then there’s those times when his tenderness just echoes over the millennia and I think, that’s why people follow him. And it’s why I follow him. Not because he gives all the answers (in fact he raises a ton of questions). Not because of his complex and complete systematic theology (he didn’t leave one). Not because following Jesus fixes everything. It’s because somehow, as often batshit crazy as it sounds even in my own brain, I believe the idea that this Jesus, this God-Man, created me, and looks at me and all my shit, my broken brain, my sins, flaws, quirks, emotional baggage, angst, all of it– and he smiles at me because he loves me, and he promises– not answered questions, fixed problems, healed brokenness, ordered chaos– but himself. His presence. That in the blackness he is there. That in suffering he holds me. That in the brokenness he cries with me. That I am not alone.

There are people in my life who are really good at showing me that Jesus. They know they can’t fix me, and they don’t try. They just are present with me. They let me vent and let me cry. They aren’t shocked by my chaos. They don’t try to have the answers, they don’t defend God, they don’t question my faith. They listen to me, they love me, they offer what help they can. 

I want to be like those people. They are the vision for what the church ought to be; they image the Jesus we need to reflect to the watching world. Our strivings should be not to make Jesus look good, but to care for the hurting. May our efforts bend to being people who listen, who love, who default to compassion instead of defense or accusation, who are present in the crappiness of life, and who do what we can to push back against it. We don’t perform and we don’t expect others to perform. We set aside the masks and invite other people to take off theirs.  We move into the chaos and sit in the blackness with each other and whisper to each other, over and over and over, you are not alone.

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