Let me begin by saying that if you are struggling with depression and/or suicidal thoughts, get up right now and get help. Don’t wait. Don’t assume you can handle it on your own. And don’t let anyone give you that “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” malarkey. Find a therapist. And if you are contemplating suicide, go to a hospital. It will be the best thing you will ever do for yourself.
Now–on to Judas.
Judas is a difficult subject, and as such, so many Christians avoid him for the better part of the year. And then comes Lent and Holy Week and Judas gets a spotlight all to himself for a moment, and we all start trying to figure him out. For a moment. And only for a moment before sweeping him back under the rug and waiting until next Lent to glance his way.
“His sin was taking his own life,” someone will invariably say. And they really believe it. But if you are the pastor of a community that has been touched by a suicide (which is pretty much a guarantee, given the statistics of suicides and attempts), this is not exactly what you want people to take away from the story.
The last thing you want, as a pastor, is a family leaving in tears, assuming God’s love and mercy was not given to their struggling, suffering beloved. And you certainly don’t want everyone else leaving with some weird sense of superiority that because they can presume to know the mind of God better than God and judge for themselves where a soul has landed for eternity.
“Judas’ sin wasn’t really the suicide,” I point out, “But it started when he wasn’t willing to accept the Messiah as the Messiah was, but tried to force the Messiah to become the warrior he had wanted all along. And even that wasn’t as great as what he did next, which was to refuse to accept the Messiah’s forgiveness. When Jesus asked God to forgive us from the cross, that was universal. It was for Judas, too. And he couldn’t accept it.”
And maybe that sounds good to folks, because it seems to pacify the “what was Judas’ sin” conversation.
Sometimes someone will ask me if I think Judas was meant for hell from his creation or if he might have made it to heaven after all. As a good little Methodist, it’s unfathomable for me to say that God created a person for condemnation. And as someone who works very hard to not be judgmental, I have to trust that God has judged justly and fairly and with love and mercy. And that’s where I leave it.
Except, in my life, it isn’t really left there. Judas is always with me. He doesn’t get a spotlight once a year, but is always lurking in the shadows near me. His name is one I ponder more often than I care to because I am person who has attempted suicide. Twice.
The first time was when I was sixteen. It was a cry for help.
The second time was when I was twenty-four. It was more serious. I wanted to die.
I had been married for a few months, and I had realized I had made a terrible mistake. The red flags had been there before the wedding, but I had ignored them because I was so in love. Or thought I was. I might have just been in love with the notion of being in love. And like too many women, I assumed that whatever was “wrong” with him could be fixed in marriage.
It wasn’t. You should never marry someone you want to change. And he and I both wanted each other to be something and someone other than who we actually were. As a result, we did a great deal of damage to one another.
Having struggled with depression all my life, it sank its teeth into me with a great ferocity and wouldn’t let go. My marriage was doomed to be a failure, and I couldn’t handle that. I had stood before my church family in my church, in the presence of God, and I had vowed “to death do us part.” How could I let them all down?
My father had given me away. My parents had been married (at that point) thirty years. Teenage sweethearts who had made “happily ever after” seem like a real and attainable goal for a little girl. How could I let them down? The first of their children to marry and the first to divorce? No way.
My friends had become his friends. His friends, for the most part, I had never met. So he had an escape, but I did not. My friends didn’t want to hear me moan and groan and vent about the husband they had all come to care about, too–so I was completely alienated.
I couldn’t turn to a God I had let down. I couldn’t turn to parents who had no clue what I was going through. And I couldn’t turn to friends who didn’t want to be put int he middle.
All the hurt and hatred and anger turned inward–and that is the worst and most dangerous kind of depression.
I had failed as a wife, as a child of God, and as a woman.
Then, one day, I was standing in the kitchen of the house my husband and I had bought. It had been my grandparent’s home. It was the center of family life all through my childhood. It was where we went after school to wait for our parents to get home from school. It was where the family gathered for holidays. My parents had gotten married in the living room, their vows exchanged in front of the fireplace I used to lay before as we watched after school cartoons. I used to sit in Grandma’s shadow and work a sloppy needlepoint, emulating the grandmother who could make anything out of anything.
I was washing dishes and thinking of all the happiness that house had represented to me and to three generations of my family and I had betrayed it all.
A glass slipped out of my hand and broke in the water. When I fished out the first jagged piece, I found myself holding it so tightly I cut my hand… and I couldn’t let go. It would take so little. Just a quick cut. It wouldn’t hurt for long. And it would look like an accident. I could just sit in the floor and wait to bleed out and everyone would assume I had cut myself while washing dishes–being home alone, there was no one to help. It would be a tragedy. And no one would have to know what really happened.
I have never really believed in demons. Not as they are often portrayed in movies and artwork, anyway. But there is evil in this world and so maybe those artists who paint the shadowy figured perched menacingly at the corners of paintings depicting some horrible scene that is unfolding were on to something.
To be honest, if my depression had been a shadowy figure hiding in the corner of the house, it would have given me a target to battle. Maybe I would had a fighting chance if that were the case. But what I was up against was scarier than that. You couldn’t see it. You couldn’t touch it. You couldn’t scream Jesus’ name at it and chase it back into whatever snake hole it had slithered out of. You couldn’t even really describe it.
Some people thought I was exaggerating as I tried to explain what I was facing. Others thought I was whining. Some told me to just think positively. Some avoided me. Some shrugged it all off: “It’s just in your head!”
I began to wish depression could be a demon. I began to wish it could be some dark figure following me around, something I could point at and say, “That’s what’s menacing me!”
But it wasn’t like that. And I was struggling against it mostly alone. There I stood, holding a broken glass in my hand, seeing the blood from my cut finger dripping down the side…and the decision had already been made for me: I was going to kill myself.
That’s what people don’t get about suicide. They assume that a person just decides to “give up”. That we just wake up one morning and decide to end our lives. Except it doesn’t happen that way at all.
That evil thing that we can’t see, touch, or describe has already made the decision for us, and every second of every day becomes an endless, ruthless, brutal struggle against it. Every second that we cling to life is another second that we have just denied it. Every day that we make it through without collapsing under the weight of suicide is a one more day that we have fought the fight and came out on the winning side.
And most of us are doing it alone because it’s so hard to explain what is happening and there are so many stigmas surrounding mental illness, depression, and suicide–so many myths, so many lies, so many false ideas about how we can overcome it, and so little pushing and nudging us in the direction of real help.
I battled that darkness for another two and a half months until I got up one morning and called off from work. It was a beautiful day–I remember that. But I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t feel anything. I had been fighting so hard and for so long that I was just numb.
I went to a drug store and bought a bottle of sleeping pills. I had never taken a sleeping pill in my life and knew nothing about them. I bought the cheapest bottle because I didn’t see the point in wasting money, considering what they were going to be used for. And then I drove to visit a friend at work.
I wanted to ask her for help. She had known me since before the “cry for help” attempt in high school. But I couldn’t find the words.
I drove home, stopping by another friend’s house. We spoke for a while. I confessed how depressed I was, but couldn’t bring myself to say anything more. We had known each others since kindergarten–and that thing that should have been a dark and shadowy figure had finally won. I didn’t have anymore strength. There was nothing she or anyone else could do for me. I wasn’t strong enough to fight anymore. So I went home and took the pills.
I was almost asleep when I thought of my mother and suddenly found a bit of strength I didn’t know I had left in me to fight one more day–but it was just enough to get me to a hospital before I collapsed–and it was just enough to give me one more day of victory over that indescribable thing.
That’s why Judas follows me pretty much everywhere I go. He carries with him two thousand years of Christian judgement–the assumptions of people who have already decided Judas isn’t worthy of forgiveness and have relegated his soul to the worst possible fate. That is the judgement that follows me and haunts me–and that is why I think about Judas more than I want to.
What if I had not made it to the hospital? What if I had not found that last ounce of strength? What would people have said about me? What would they have thought in the privacy of their own thoughts when they crossed my mother’s path? Would they had assumed they knew what had become of me, what God had decided to do with me? Would they had dismissed the possibility of mercy and grace for me?
I guess it’s that lifetime struggle with depression and suicide that has caused me to talk about Judas in gentler terms–to meet people where they are, even in the messiest places, with love and compassion and understanding.
We always paint pictures of Judas with a demon hovering nearby, but if we had actually seen something so menacing, why didn’t we do anything about it? Truth is, if it had been that obvious and we ignored it, we would have been every bit as to blame for Judas’ sin. But it wasn’t that easy–and it’s not that easy when we look at people in our own world who are struggling.
Maybe, just maybe, we are looking at Judas all wrong when we put him in that spotlight. Maybe we are focusing too much on the things we can’t possibly understand and not enough on how we might prevent that sort of evil from taking over another life. Maybe, instead of trying to write him off because of his suicide, maybe we should be asking ourselves how we can intervene to give someone else a fighting chance–to help someone else know that no matter how far gone they may feel they are, that no matter how terrible their sin might seem to them, or how much the decision might have already seem to have been made for them, there is a love and grace and forgiveness for them to.
Maybe Judas shouldn’t bear the slings and arrows of all our hate and frustration. Maybe he should awaken in each of us the desire to do something to erase those demons from the corners all together.