When I first went on antidepressants as a senior in high school, I told my youth pastor about it before going on a long youth trip, so he would have a heads up in case I wasn’t feeling good or had a reaction.
I remember that he was very encouraging and said something about how it was good that I was getting treated. The key phrase that stood out to me, though, was that he said he thought God wanted us to be happy.
And I didn’t believe him.
That, right there, shows you a few things: First, that I really needed those antidepressants, ASAP. But second, it also shows that my thinking had been warped by the idea that God cares way more about my holiness than he does about my happiness. “Holiness over happiness” is a well-meaning Christian teaching, but when taught to those who struggle with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, it can quickly become toxic.
Before I continue, let me just say that I get what this expression is saying. I really do. I’ve even enjoyed reading a book that explicitly uses this phrase (Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas, the tagline of which is, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”). The idea is that becoming more like Christ is a better pursuit than chasing the idols of the world, the things that we think will make us happy. The reality is that the more we pursue and become like Christ, the more truly happy and joyful we become.
But the problem is that when you’re struggling with low self-worth, it’s very hard to hear any of that. What you hear is this: God puts his stamp of approval on your unhappy thoughts that say “You’re worthless and no good!” because God doesn’t want you to be happy, he wants you to be holy. Self-worth will get in the way of pursuing God and his holiness, so it’s selfish and prideful to feel good about yourself. It’s better to keep that nagging sense of “failing to measure up” in your head, because that will make you try harder (or at least know that you should try harder, if you’re too overwhelmed and give up).
I honestly still struggle at times to not think this way. What I’ve had to remember is that the Bible, and Christian teaching in general, assumes that its listeners have normal self-esteem. I just wish there was a translation available for those who don’t, something that says, “I know that this sounds like you should think that you’re garbage,* but that’s not what it means.” Yes, we are sinners who are unworthy of salvation based on our own merits. But we still have worth, incredible worth: We’re made in God’s image, and he values us so much that he sent his Son to die for us.** And we pursue God and holiness from this place of worth and confidence. Fortunately I have my husband and others who have been able to act as that translation for me as I try to get strong enough to be able to self-interpret correctly.
So yes, friends, God does, in fact, want us to be normally happy human beings. He really doesn’t think it’s cool when we’re depressed. He wants us to be holy, too, but ironically, it will be a heck of lot easier to be more Christ-like when we’re living joyfully in response to God’s love for us than when we’re feeling like we’re the worst.
*as Kimmy Schmidt would say
** This post by Dale Fincher says this way better than I can: http://newlife.id.au/christian-living/unworthy-but-not-worthless/ . He is also referenced in this excellent post by Beth Caplin about the same topic: http://sbethcaplin.com/2015/03/31/unworthy-not-worthless/