Darkness and light is my personal journey of making sense of theology and mental illness. For too long, my study of theology has been merely a cerebral exercise. Refusing to be formed by the theological truth at my disposal, my heart loves the darkness. Depression, my psychiatric malady, takes hold of darkness and refuses all hope, light or truth. Depression is an illness just like the common cold is an illness. Both have physiological causes and treatments but death, including depression, has only one cure: the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Athanasius’ anthropology is formed through a Christological hermeneutic. Both represent their own form of decay. But depression willfully chooses death. Called out of the dust of nothingness, we are created through and for participation with God’s goodness. We are granted life out of His own Divine Life. This means we were created with eternity in mind. Athanasius writes, “God is good—or rather, he is the source of goodness. But the good is not begrudging of anything. Because he does not begrudge being to anything, he made all things from non-being through his own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Among all things upon the earth he was especially merciful toward the human race. Seeing that by the logic of it own origin it would not be capable of always remaining, he granted it a further gift. He did not create human beings merely like all the irrational animals upon the earth, but made them according to his own Image, and shared with them the power of his own Word so that having a kind of reflection of the Word and thus becoming rational, they may be enabled to remain in blessedness and live the true life of the saints in paradise.” For Athanasius, God gives humanity the law because he made humanity rational, reflecting Himself. Rationality entails free choice. We were given the law as a παιδαγωγὸς to protect the life we have been given. But because our life is sustained by His Life, a rejection of God is not just rule breaking—it results in death. We return to the nothingness through which we came. Humanity incurs a debt, not because of divine honor in the Anselmic sense, but a debt rejecting a life that was only a loan to us.
Paul in Romans 6:23 writes that sin is death. At the Fall, death permeated our world. According to Athanasius, we were created for immortality. We were created to live forever. The decay of our bodies from common colds to cancer is a physical reminder of the consequences of sin. Our heart recoils at sickness and suffering because something instinctual in our heart remembers it was created for immortality. My dad died of brain cancer and my family watched the decay of his body. We experienced first hand the consequences of sin. We don’t blame people for their illness. People don’t choose to have cancer. But in physical illness we see the physical effects of Sin in our world and can turn to the Author of life for healing.
Depression is the double edged sword of sin because it not only involves the physical effects of Sin in our world but also is an active choice to live in darkness. Depression is a physical issue. The distorted firing of neurons causes a myriad of symptoms. For me, depression physically hurts. I can feel it all the way down in my bones. But depression is also an active choice. It actively turns away from the Author of life and chooses death. I can choose not to take my medication. I can choose to take actions that I know will make me feel worse. I can choose to dwell in an unhealthy thought pattern. I can choose isolation rather than community. Instead of remembering my immortality, instead of remembering the source of my life, my heart loves darkness and even fantasies about death. It is, for me, a profound selfishness that understands my happiness to be the end of all things.
Athanasius writes, “The death of all was fulfilled in the Lord’s body, and death and corruption were obliterated because of the Word who was united with it. For death was necessary and it was needful that there be death on behalf of all in order that the debt owed by all might be repaid. The Word himself inasmuch as he could not die, for he was immortal, took to himself a body which could die so that he may offer it as his own on behalf of all.” Christ offers himself so that we might re-enter into communion with God. Athanasius writes, “For it was not the Word himself who needed the opening of the gates…We were the one who needed this and he carried us up through his own body. For he offered it to death on behalf of all, so through it he again prepared the way to heaven.”
Christ’s death is a reversal of our death. Christ changes the direction of our death toward God. Our death declines God’s offer of life and misses the mark by falling into the abyss of nothingness. The double edged sword of depression takes the sickness of Sin and actively chooses death and destruction in my life. What comes is a debt that owes God the life he offered. Khaled Anatolois writes, “Through Christ’s self-giving on our behalf and his extension to us of this posture of self-giving through our communion with him, our refusal of the gift of divine life is reversed to the point of our receiving this gift and responding to it with our own gift of ourselves to God through Christ. Through death, Christ enters into the extreme limit of humanity’s withdrawal and reverses this withdrawal by making it a gift-offering to the Father.”
When death was imminent and as father realized his body was wasting away he simply said, “Jesus take me home.” He felt the death in his body and knew to turn to the Author of Life. He knew that his immortality was secure in the person of Jesus Christ. Taking up all sickness and death in His body, we are healed through the power of His resurrection. Christ takes up my sorrow in his body and makes the choices I can’t make. While my selfishness chooses death, He gives Himself so that I might live.