“Why Didn’t You Just…?” – Thoughts on Spiritual Struggle in Retrospect

Photo by - Jesse Weiler Creation Swap
Photo by – Jesse Weiler Creation Swap

It’s the most frustrating part of the movie, right? There’s a simple solution – an action the main character could have taken (or avoided), that would have circumvented the whole, messy thing.

If she’d just said that she loved him, he never would have left. If he just hadn’t raided the hotel mini-bar the night before his hearing, he would have gotten off Scot-free.

If Uncle Billy had just paid attention to the giant pile of cash in his hand instead of accidentally sticking it into Mr. Potter’s newspaper…

If the lovely (but kind of dumb) blond protagonist hadn’t wandered alone into the dark house…

We’re a little more patient with complications that come from the outside. The protagonist is really no match for a car crash, after all, or a lost job or King Kong or a sudden tsunami. It’s easier to have compassion for a narrator when the nosedive that she finds herself in is brought on by Some Terrible Something that we can understand.

But when she is her own antagonist? When she is sabotaging herself just as much as any antagonist ever could? What then?

*

In my memoir, When We Were on Fire, I wrote the story of growing up “on fire” for God…and of the spiritual landslide I found myself in when the constructs of the evangelical culture (where I’d always felt at home) began to crumble around me.

I won’t tell the whole story of my slide toward cynicism here (because, you know, I want you to buy the book.) I will tell you this: Disillusionment with church and barbed interactions with Christians was the loose rock that started the avalanche. But it was the Depression – clinical, serious, unnamed – that kept me there.

In those really dark days, there are a million things that I might have done. But what I actually did was to keep hurling myself into different evangelical, community, and nondenominational churches that seemed like they might be like the church I knew and understood and wanted.

The one I had once known and loved before it all went to hell.

My youth pastor used to say it all the time: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  I was insane, mad with my own darkness. I was lonely. I threw myself against the doors of a dozen different churches, hoping that finally, the community I wanted would open up around me.

Instead, I ended up bruised. Broken. Bitter.

*

I’ve been asked, before, why I didn’t find another kind of church? Why didn’t I try a Catholic Church or a Quaker community? Why not try the more mainline churches, the ones who might not see a pressing need for a separate music genre called “Christian Alternative”?

I rarely read reviews of my book, but I stumbled across one the other day that said this:

“I at times wondered why she couldn’t more easily adjudicate the cheesy and superficial and odd aspects of American fundamentalism, and why she didn’t realize that most Christian theologies and communities aren’t like that.”

The answer is as simple as it is frustrating. Because I didn’t.

Because that’s not how the story goes.

Because I was my own antagonist, my anger as powerful as any real life enemy.

Because Depression was warring against my mind, and I was so tired, and I didn’t want to fight anymore.

In the end, there are lots of ways I could have approached my spiritual struggle. Healthier ways. Looking back, I can see the first dark threads of Depression winding their way around my soul, and Lord, if I’d have known that’s what it was, I would have seen someone right away. I would have started taking those little pills. I would have begun talking through my spiritual baggage right that second with a person who could help me sort it out.

If I could go back in time, I’d hand myself The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle and Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace and Paul Miller’s A Praying Life. I would hand myself a mix tape of Sleeping at Last and All Sons and Daughters and Josh Garrels. I would have pointed myself toward the mystics and the poets.

I would have flipped on the computer and pointed out all the writers there, struggling through the same things themselves in this strange, public sphere. I would have whispered in my ear, You are not alone.

Instead I failed, faltered, struggled, sank. I drank a lot of wine and margaritas and stumbled drunk around my own life. I came to the sharp edge of an affair and I might have fallen straight down into it if Grace hadn’t grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me back.

I don’t know why I couldn’t separate the bad of the Christian culture from the good in one simple cut. I think it’s because the whole thing is tangled for me, wrapped up in nostalgia and first love and heartbreak. Because people I loved and respected and meant well said really untrue things. Because I still remember all the words to every Christian rock song and can’t seem to throw away my Christy Miller books.

For me, the process of rebuilding and redefining has taken time, and it’s something I continue to struggle with and work through. And looking back, there’s a million other ways I could have done it.

But I didn’t.

And Grace found me anyway.

It’s a story as old as time, told in a million different ways: We are our own antagonists, desperate for wholeness yet bent toward self-destruction. And still, God comes back for us.

It’s a story worth telling in as many imperfect, broken versions as we can.

And mine is one of them.

71 thoughts on ““Why Didn’t You Just…?” – Thoughts on Spiritual Struggle in Retrospect

  1. Again, this is beautiful. Thank you for sharing. We are our own antagonists. Thank you for using your story to light the way.

  2. Beautiful. I feel like the “why didn’t she just…” (or the “why didn’t you just…”, as the case may be) is almost another twist on the Christian pat answers of “read your Bible more” or “join a small group.” Either way, it’s a simple, easy answer applied to a complicated situation. Would the things that worked for you (gradually, over time, and with a lot of struggle) have “worked” as instant cures? My freshman year of college I went through my own sort of crisis, as I realized the Christianity that I felt dominated my evanglical Christian college was the opposite of what I wanted to be. I wanted nothing to do with it, and at the same time I wanted something to “fix” the increasing rift I felt between myself and all I had ever believed, I distrusted anything that would have fixed it quickly.

    I think more communities are “like that” than a lot of people want to believe. Flawed. And maybe that’s not all bad. But neither are they all good. They’re both. It’s not easy, and not a quick fix.

  3. yeah, I think a lot of us get caught in it on the future side too. Or at least I do. “What if what I’m doing right now is the if-only point in the story?” What if this thing I am doing is the moment I will look back to and regret and say “that was when It happened. That was the calm before the storm…” It’s a terrible way to live, but we also have been to that place of hindsight saying “if I only would have just…”

  4. When all you’ve known is a specific kind of church experience, it doesn’t even occur to consider a different type of experience. You can hardly separate it from the rest of your life. When your entire spiritual existence is informed and shaped by the atmosphere, terminology and subtle cues of one dialect, it is a radical idea to abandon that entirely.I know this has been true for me. It is so easy to just suggest solutions to someone else, and not understand the ways implementing that solution is suggesting something that feels almost impossible. “The whole thing is tangled for me” says it so clearly. Thank you for inviting us into your story, because in it we find echoes of ours.

    1. “When all you’ve known is a specific kind of church experience, it doesn’t even occur to consider a different type of experience.” — yes. This was absolutely true for me. Only now am I beginning to integrate more contemplative practices, Common Prayer, and liturgies into my life. But then? It would never have occurred to me. Thanks for these kind, gracious and understanding words Nita.

  5. Are there churches out there that don’t tell teenagers that dating is sinful, and that you have to pray a certain way to maintain your salvation, that “radical” living is how we please Jesus? Sure. I’m currently studying church history to figure out where I fit in this big God picture. Maybe I am more of an Episcopalian, or a Lutheran. I don’t know.

    But what I do know, is it’s scary to leave the only thing you’ve known. In the midst of Depression, it doesn’t seem like an option. For years I thought “fundamentalist evangelical or nothing at all.” So I threw it all out. No God, no Jesus, no Holy Spirit to guide me.

    But can you really blame us?

    Isn’t it partly because that evangelical bubble we grew up in teaches that they are the only ones who have got it right? That two thousand years of church tradition have culminated at the very church you sit in on Sundays? No wonder I didn’t see other Christian traditions – or other religions, for that matter – as an option. In the evangelical church, you had all the answers. Why would you throw that away?

    I was stuck for many years.

    1. YES. “But what I do know, is it’s scary to leave the only thing you’ve known. In the midst of Depression, it doesn’t seem like an option. For years I thought “fundamentalist evangelical or nothing at all.” This is it exactly. Well said, Carly.

  6. Written almost as beautifully as the very story of your life, the story of Grace. Keep up the good work.

  7. Beautiful post-thank you! Your words and humble clarity remind me of an amazing book:

    Written by Brennan Manning in his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel”

    “Often I have been asked, Brennan, how is it possible that you became an alcoholic after you got saved? It is possible because I got battered and bruised by loneliness and failure, because I got discouraged, uncertain, guilt-ridden, and took my eyes off Jesus. Because the Christ-encounter did not transfigure me into an angel. Because justification by grace through faith means I have been set in right relationship with God, not made the equivalent of a patient etherized on a table”.

    We, who are honest, can admit that we, too, have lived much of your experience. Grace can even reach and save those who destroy themselves.

  8. Yes. You described it perfectly. For me, it isn’t even about what started it anymore. It’s about what it became. It’s like pandora’s box has been opened and now I have to deal with it all. There are no simple answers any longer. Thank you for this, Addie.

  9. People who have never experienced true depression don’t know what it is like. In the grip of depression, it’s hard to even put your shoes on or button your shirt.

  10. I love posts like this from you, Addie. So poignant and raw yet still so hopeful. Thank you once again for sharing your journey with us!

  11. “Why don’t you just…?” Ugh, a bane of my existence. Honestly, as soon as someone says the word “just” in response to my pain, it’s an instant tune-out for me. Overkill? Perhaps, but I just can’t get past the “They have NO clue what it’s like” chorus in my head.

    I think one of the biggest, truest answers to “why don’t you just [anything]?” is: When you’re *raised* in this stuff, and when life doesn’t end up looking like what you were *taught was TRUE*, you can’t “just” get over it, quickly figure it out, repair all the broken places in one fell swoop. It’s a process, you have to unlearn and re-learn a lot, and you have to do an awful lot of damn. hard. work. There’s just no “just” about it.

    1. ” It’s a process, you have to unlearn and re-learn a lot, and you have to do an awful lot of damn. hard. work. There’s just no “just” about it.” YES. THIS. Thank you Connie.

  12. Beautiful post Addie. I read your book and when I finished I wanted to bawl. I relate to so much of what you write about and yet I was never a part of that Evangelical culture. Something about the way you write really draws me in. Thank you for telling your story.

    1. Thank you so much for these kind words Lolly. So glad that the story resonated with you even though your life looked different than mine. What high praise!

  13. This says so much – thanks . I recognise that same patten of being my own antagonist ! And God coming back for me. I am trying to tell my imperfect broken version of this too – mostly because I have been emboldened to do so by the writing of yourself and other women . I am a mess and I love Jesus 🙂 that’s my truth.

  14. Yes!!! I have heard this quite a bit from people questioning the sub-culture group of now-adults that I’m part of – fundamentalist, patriarchal, quiverfull, Gothardite. People ask why we don’t just “get over it” or why we haven’t moved on. Or they’ll even ask why didn’t we just break away sooner. Your answer hits the nail perfectly on the head – we just didn’t, for so many reasons. We just didn’t. But I am away now and still working through my past while continuing to heal. “It’s a story worth telling in as many imperfect, broken versions as we can. And mine is one of them.” I absolutely love this, Addie. Beautiful! *many hugs*

    1. When you’re inside a given world, you only see it *from the inside*; you don’t see it from the outside. Seems like that’d be a little more obvious to people. 😉

  15. I get what you’re saying Addie. I was so relieved when Grace finally found me too. I’d grown up in the evangelical culture and your phrase ‘the whole thing is tangled for me’ explains it well. I’d reached a desperate place before I finally ‘got’ God’s grace – understood it – heart, mind & soul. I remember going to my husband and telling him all about my new discovery. He’d known that I didn’t get it and had been patiently trying to explain it to me and show me grace for years! Yet I’d been oblivious to this. I have no idea why I hadn’t seen it sooner. I was definitely my own antagonist. Yet God is good and most definitely faithful!

  16. “I don’t know why I couldn’t separate the bad of the Christian culture from the good in one simple cut. I think it’s because the whole thing is tangled for me, wrapped up in nostalgia and first love and heartbreak. Because people I loved and respected and meant well said really untrue things. Because I still remember all the words to every Christian rock song and can’t seem to throw away my Christy Miller books.”

    Oh yes, that. I work smack dab in the middle of Christian culture at it’s finest (digital christian books of allllllll kinds), and every day I take prozac, while still struggling to separate the bad from the good. I love that you didn’t have all the answers, and that it’s taken you years and therapy and medication and all that to sort it out, because that seems so true to how life is. I’m not sure I trust people who have quick and easy answers.

    And Christy Miller…. haha! I spent several years worrying about her and Todd. Love it.

  17. “Because I was my own antagonist, my anger as powerful as any real life enemy.”

    Ah, there’s the rub. And Grace really is the saving grace. It’s the only force that can overcome whether it is in us, or in those we love, as we go through blindly throwing punches at life. I love that you shared your story with all who care to read it, because even if my experience was radically different on the surface, the human struggle against ourselves is all our stories.

  18. Great post, Addie! When I look back on my own dark times, I too can think “woulda, coulda, shoulda”. Like you, I see books or Scripture that would have helped in retrospect. I’m thankful that God is writing a unique, but also redemptive story through each of us.

  19. I’m glad you decided to address the question of “why I didn’t,” because it is helpful to look back and consider that “why” question. It helps us to understand the “pit” of depression. It is deep, dark and narrow. Even if we choose to look up, the light seems far away and unreachable. It takes more than “logical” thinking to open up our eyes to the ladder that leads out; we usually need someone else to lead the way, holding our hand. (And some little pills to help clear the fog.)

  20. My pastor-friend has this thing he says to encourage people, when they finally get to that point where God breaks through to them, and they’ve been wallowing for so long and it’s easy to wonder “What took so long?” or “Why didn’t you/he/she just…” He reminds us that Jesus has been there with us the whole time, loving us, and we are exactly on time, where God wants us to be. We couldn’t have manufactured this moment or this response because God uses everything and something about our journey brings us to where we need to be, WHEN we need to be there. It’s a mystery for sure, but it helps me when I get bogged down in the “Why didn’t I just…”

  21. I love the notion of “I am my own antagonist” (maybe because I am, early and often). And I’m reminded of something I’m coming to believe might be a universal truth: everything is harder than it looks. Everything.

  22. I love this! Especially the part about Grace grabbing you by the scruff of the neck. It helps me feel better about being my own antagonist in the post divorce rebound disaster I’m writing about in Perfect Timing. If we had not walked through the valley of shadow, our stories would not be the same. I wonder if the Grace would maybe not be quite as sweet.

  23. Yes. I really appreciate this, Addie. I, too, struggle with looking back and thinking, “Why didn’t we just stop jumping through the legalistic hoops sooner? Why didn’t we see the futility of all that?” But I feel heartened by what you wrote, by the stories you share. Like Carly, like many readers here, my childhood church claimed to have all the answers. And so it’s no surprise that we didn’t learn HOW to ask questions, HOW to let go of less-than-healthy behaviors and beliefs. Thank you for sharing from your experience, Addie — your stories help teach me about grace.

    1. “my childhood church claimed to have all the answers. And so it’s no surprise that we didn’t learn HOW to ask questions, HOW to let go of less-than-healthy behaviors and beliefs.” Yes. Learning how to ask the questions (and that it’s even OK to ask the questions) takes so much time. Thanks for commenting.

      1. You’re most welcome! I really appreciate your work, and I’m so psyched to start reading When We Were On Fire (my copy arrives tomorrow)! I’ve passed your recent posts along to my mom and best friend for them to enjoy too. 🙂

  24. Addie, I love this and it is so true. Part of the struggle was that there didn’t seem to be a way out but now I know that God and I are (and were, even when I couldn’t see it) making a way together.

  25. Preach it, friend. This is your story, your life, your struggle, and your redemption, too. Someone read my post today in sort of the same way – not getting that I was telling MY story, not theirs. And I’m not even sure I like theirs, to tell you the truth. Mine is rough at points, but you know what? It’s mine. And God has met me in it. So that’s the one I tell. Thank you for telling yours so very well.

  26. Your story sounds like one I’ve seen my daughter in. The depression has slammed the door shut so hard that I don’t even think she would read anything like your post. I keep wishing I could tell her “read this! others have been there too and it’s not anyone’s fault, especially not God’s”. I’m just praying for grace to have good aim when it reaches for her…

    1. I’m so sorry that you both are going through that right now. Depression is so life-draining and dark. Breathing a little prayer for you both and praying that light begins to stream through the cracks of her life.

  27. I’m experiencing disillusionment with my evangelical church right now and it’s painful. I never expected my church would be the one to hurt me, that my church would make me feel unimportant and alone and wrong in feeling the way I feel. It’s caught me off guard. I guess I expected my church to be above that, to be better than that. And it’s a hard realization or reminder that the church, my church, is made up of sinners like me, even the pastors and elders and everyone. It’s a weird and difficult feeling, being in a situation where you have to forgive the church, forgive those church people that you thought would never hurt you. And then comes the feeling that the community you were deeply committed to might not be the kind of community you need. It’s very hard to see Jesus there when I’m flooded with pain and sadness. But it’s hard to let it go at the same time, knowing that at some point it meant so much. I’m grateful for your writing right now. Thank you.

  28. Because this**We are our own antagonists, desperate for wholeness but bent on self destruction. And still, God comes back for us.** Thanks Addie!

  29. Oh Addie,
    This is beautiful and so kind to yourself. As I’ve been sifting through some of the painful pieces of my own past lately, I’ve been finding that having grace for myself and recognizing the grace of others (and God) has been the most life-giving thing. I see that in this post.
    So much love to you, lovely!

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