“You’re not jumping two phone books high! Jump higher. Let these kids know how much you love Jesus!” And then I felt it—the water gun hit my back, mingling with the copious amount of sweat already drenching my t-shirt. Yes, that’s right—a water gun. Camp staff members were squirted if they didn’t jump high enough to show their enthusiastic love for Jesus while welcoming the kids to camp in 100-degree sticky heat.
It was the start of a very difficult six weeks for me. In the midst of what my doctor diagnosed as chronic depression, I had been hired to serve as camp counselor for middle school girls. I had previously served the past four summers at another summer camp, and was excited to be serving that summer at a camp closer to home.
I had always relished my time as a counselor. I loved the opportunity to very intentionally pour into the lives of these young women. I loved getting to see the gleam in their eyes when they grasped a new truth about the love of God. I loved encouraging and cheering them on in the team activities and seeing them grow in confidence, self-awareness and courage. Camp was a beautiful picture of Christian community, and for me, a place in which I saw fruits of God’s kingdom being realized on earth.
But this camp was different. I quickly noticed that there was no room in the schedule for rest or down, and that “Quiet Time” was limited to a brief 20 minutes. I was expected to be happy at all times, lead my girls in shouting camp cheers when walking anywhere, stand on top of my dining chair and dance before and after each meal, win the Most Energetic dorm award at least once, and overall, never lag in physical enthusiasm for the Lord.
I tried my very best to meet the camp’s expectations. But each night, physically and emotionally exhausted from pretending to be happy all of the time, I asked, “Lord, have I missed something? If this jump-up-and-down, crazy happy, exuberance is the joy of the Lord, then I’ve missed you. Please reveal yourself to me.”
But another thought also tugged at my heart. The thought that perhaps this wasn’t a full picture of the Christian life.
And in full disclosure, yes, part of the reason I had such a difficult experience that summer was because I was dealing with depression exasperated by a season of intense expectations. And yes, parents had sacrificed a great deal of money for their kids to attend summer camp, and they had every right to expect that their kids would have a fun and life-changing week. And yes, there is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching Christ through exciting team-building activities, silly games, cheering competitions, and high-energy rallies. All of these are great things.
But what we as a camp, and I as the counselor, failed to teach my campers is that there needs to be room for other emotions in the Christian walk besides just exuberance. There also needs to be room for the whole spectrum of emotions, including joy, contentment, sadness, grief, and anger, among others.
Because if a camper’s faith and belief in God is primarily tied to her feelings of happiness, what happens when she comes down off of her camp high, and no longer feels like jumping for Jesus or shouting camp cheers? What happens when her close friend moves away, her parents divorce, a grandparent dies, or she is bullied at school? What happens to her faith when life isn’t amazing?
Living in a primarily secular Western culture, we’ve all to some degree bought the lie that “the purpose of life is to be happy.” We’ve allowed it to creep into our Christianity. We’ve somehow misunderstood being a follower of Christ and someone who is marked by the Spirit to mean that we are exempt from pain, trouble, and hardship. We’ve come to expect healthy and prosperous lives as beloved children of God, and are quick to call out any difficulty as either Satan at work or a failure on our part to “have more faith.”
In such a belief system, there is no room for pain. The only value is happiness, and anything and anyone that distracts us from that pursuit is unwanted and unwarranted.
And yet, Jesus did not say, “In this world you won’t have any trouble because you are mine.” He said the exact opposite. “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, emphasis mine).
And so we see that we aren’t promised a pain-free, happy life. In fact, we are told to realistically expect and prepare for trials (1 Peter 1:6-9).
It’s an unsettling truth that few of us, myself included, care to acknowledge. And yet, we read in the Bible that Elijah battled depression. Hannah experienced infertility. David grieved the death of his infant son. Esther and her people were faced with annihilation. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. Job’s friends, wife, and body all failed him. Paul was imprisoned, beaten, and eventually martyred. And the list goes on.
The Bible is full of God-fearing men and women who devoted his or her life to God, and yet still experienced difficulty. And so it appears that in the Christian life, we are to make room for both joy and pain, and to deal honestly with both (Romans 12:15).
In thinking back to my summers as a camp counselor, I’m grateful to have experienced both the highs and the lows. The highs of being called to vocational ministry, of getting to disciple a young girl, and of being in the mountains surrounded by other staff members passionately living out the love of Jesus.
And while I’m not grateful for the lows themselves, I’m grateful for what God taught me that last summer of camp and throughout the past 12 years of struggling with chronic depression: The presence of pain is not the absence of God. It is an invitation to grow in trust and dependence upon God.