Asia Frye is a seminary student through the Connect program at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She lives in Hillsboro, Kansas, with her husband and two daughters. Their family attends First Mennonite Church where Asia previously served as youth pastor before becoming a full-time student. She likes table top games, climbing, driving in the demo derby, dumb t-shirts and heirloom tomato gardening.
There was a time that I wanted to die.
This is a supremely unnatural place to find oneself. I got to that place when my depression was misdiagnosed, and the prescription that I was given was wrong, wrong, wrong for me. Unfortunately, the side effects of many anti-psychotic medications are psychotic episodes, extreme depression and suicidal thoughts. When I complained of feeling mentally sick, my doctor doubled my meds, and then doubled them again. My depression and anxiety gradually worsened over several weeks until I was too anxious to leave my house and even had trouble leaving my bed. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water, I didn’t realized how dire my situation had become until I was about to boil. One day, I left a gathering of friends and walked deep into a section of pasture. I laid clutching the earth so I would not fall off, weeping, hoping to blink out of existence. I needed help.
When I think about when I was sick, I remember pain — existential pain, emotional pain, and actual physical pain in my chest and body. I hurt. That memory is visceral.
Just as real and perhaps even more so, I remember that which kept me from death: active love.
This love was shown to me by my family, friends and most interestingly, other people fighting mental illness. In my area, mental health services are provided by Prairie View which was founded by Mennonites in the 1950s. Prairie View offers both inpatient and outpatient services, so I gathered there with others who felt like I did.
Before this experience, I had always wondered about the meaning of these verses from John Chapter 15.
“My commandment is this — to love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this — that one lays down his life for his friends.” (New English Translation)
Is Jesus calling us to literally die for our friends?
Sometimes, carrying Greek into English loses some nuance, so I worked with the text and fleshed out something more clear for myself. Maybe it’s helpful:
“The greatest love happens when a person puts the needs of a friend ahead of their own needs, thereby setting aside their own life.”
Not often are we asked to literally die for someone, but we are often asked to put our own needs on the back burner. Some people may end up called to shield another in a terrorist attack or natural disaster. Perhaps in war zones, people die for others. However, in my social location, it is unlikely that I will be asked to die for someone. Rather, I am called to do inconvenient things like help my friends move or take them to the doctor.
In this passage, Jesus compares this inconvenient way of loving to the way he has loved us. Jesus did literally die for us, yes, but this passage in John in which Jesus is quoted happened before he died. Jesus is commanding us to be like him: not to die, but to live in such a way that our friends come first.
When I was sick, my own friends, certainly set aside their routines of life so that they might care for me. That’s what friends are supposed to do. Surprising to me in my pain, I found perfect strangers who also set their lives aside for me: the other hurting people at group therapy.
I sat in group surrounded by people who were shaking with anxiety, who had overdosed on pills, who were struggling with PTSD, and when I whispered my pain aloud, they set aside all of their own hurts that they might help me with mine.
One of the hardest things for me at that point was that I felt ashamed of my depression. In my mind I needed a reason to be depressed and I didn’t have one. Meanwhile, my new friends told stories of childhood abuse, rape and serving in war. In my mind those were serious traumas, and I didn’t share any of them. I confessed, “There is nothing wrong with my life. I just want to die.”
They didn’t laugh. They didn’t say, “What is wrong with you? Didn’t you just hear how much worse things could be?” They didn’t blow me off or try to compete with me for space and time. Instead, people that had just relived some of the most brutal moments of their own lives validated me. They held me up with their hands and their words. Then they helped me to begin to plan how to find my way out of the depression.
On the day I first shared with my group members, they were Jesus to me. They did not die for me, thank goodness, but for a time their own desires died in order to show me grace.
Any desires that Jesus might have had for a normal life were set aside for him to become the Messiah. Any desire to keep his life was laid aside for the cross. Jesus lay down his life for his friends, that we might know the greatest love.To follow Jesus’ command that we love one another as he has loved us, we must put our love into action. A passage that once seemed to me to be about actually dying for someone, a scenario I am unlikely to encounter in my life, is really about giving up what we want to do, a situation that I encounter daily. We are challenged to set aside the things that are demanding our attention right now, and love someone else. Jesus calls: Put your life on hold and love like this.
My recovery required months of carefully weaning from the incorrect medications onto to the correct ones as well as regular counseling. And for several years now, I have lived normally with depression and anxiety. Nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults have a diagnosed mental illness, and seven percent will have a major depressive episode each year. I take medication. I see a counselor occasionally, as needed. I compare my depression to diabetes: it is a disease that I carefully monitor which occasionally flares up and requires a little extra attention and the love and support of my friends.
The love of my friends at group therapy wasn’t a well-wish, a warm feeling or even an earnest prayer. It was showing up concretely and actively in my life.
Christians are called to love others actively because love is a verb.