I was in my late teens, working at a summer camp. Enjoying a rare and brief moment away from the kids at the end of a long day. Walking through the trees with another counselor, one of the few fellow Christians at the camp. I don’t remember exactly what led up to it, but after several minutes of warm and deep conversation, she turned to me and asked, “What’s your life goal?”
I hadn’t ever thought about that question. I stopped to ponder it.
I had some specific goals and dreams.
Goals: Become a Special Needs teacher. Move somewhere other than my hometown after college, but not too far away. Travel.
Dreams: Get married and have children. I’d never attracted much interest from guys, though, and I was comfortable being alone. I imagined I could (reluctantly) accept it as God’s will if I never fell in love.
But a life goal?
One overarching target that would encompass all the lesser goals and last until the day I died?
Then I realized what I enjoyed the most: Learning. I’m a nerd. I actually like school. Not for the social time but for the education. My high school counselor had predicted that I’d be a professional student.
My response to my friend at camp: “To never stop growing.”
Shortly after I’d become a Christian in my early teens, I’d started reading the Bible, going to church and Sunday school, carrying on lengthy conversations with friends about the meaning of life and how to live for Jesus. Of course, I’d immediately picked up on the verses God’s Word has exhorting us to continue growing and maturing in Him. Obedience wasn’t difficult for me in that area.
My view of growing was to fill my brain with information that could translate into action. A pleasant challenge for one who cherished learning.
More than forty years after that campground conversation, I’m still growing. But it doesn’t look like I had imagined. Books and teachers could only take me so far. In addition to those resources, my loving, gracious Lord has placed me in difficult and painful circumstances beyond my ability to cope with apart from His compassionate and powerful presence.
An excruciating five years of suicidal depression. The loss of a precious loved one long before his time should have come. Health issues that fog my brain and slow my body, whittling my teaching career (my calling!) down to ten short years.
I don’t like the fact that God designed us so that we grow the most when life is hardest. (Did Satan know that when he tempted Adam and Eve? Or did he think that once they’d fallen, they’d have no choice but to spend the rest of their lives shrinking to his level, unable to grow in their relationship with God?)
Years ago I thought I knew how much God loved me. (After all, I’d studied His Word, and I’d seen His hand in my easy American life.) But I didn’t. I still don’t. I realize now that I can never stop maturing in my understanding of it—His love will always be bigger than I think it is.
One giant step in my flourishing understanding of that love came through my experience with suicidal depression. As a result of my messed-up brain chemistry, I was no longer the committed Christian making serious attempts to love God and love others as He desired. I had become a brooding, hateful, mean, angry, self-pitying, unhappy wretch, estranged from God and man.
And yet—He loved me still. God made that very clear through one powerful encounter. He truly loved the broken, ugly, rotten person that I’d become. I wouldn’t have known this kind of love without suffering through that brokenness and ugliness and rottenness.
I didn’t relish the idea of growth through pain when it was actually happening. I begged God many times to relieve me of the depression instantly and supernaturally. But afterward, I can look back and say that it was worth it.
Still, I’d hoped that I’d learned enough, not just of His love, but also of my weaknesses, so that I wouldn’t ever really need to suffer much again. And honestly, nothing that’s happened to me since has been as difficult or terrifying as the depression was.
But additional challenges have hit me. Further pain that I would gladly have avoided. And with it, additional growth in loving God and loving others that couldn’t have come about in any other way. He used that pain to draw me into deeper, richer, more intimate relationships with Him and with people. Now, I can honestly thank Him for my sufferings because the multitude of blessings outweigh the pain.
Ann O’Malley is the pseudonym of a new author seeking a publisher for her memoir of suicidal depression. Her pen name comes from “anomaly,” that feeling of being different, of not really belonging, which plagues so many of those who suffer from depression. For more of her writing, check out her blog, “Those Who Weep: Not-Quite-Evangelically-Correct Thoughts on Suffering,” at https://thosewhoweep.blogspot.com.