What Zoloft Is Teaching Me About God

At the beginning of the year, I wrote about how scared I was to start depression medicine. My fears weren’t entirely misguided. In fact, it seems like most of what I was scared of has come true.

Starting the medicine and finding the right dosage brought on headaches and nausea. I’ve felt in a creative lull, have glimmers where I don’t feel like myself, and sleep a little bit less. Some days, I’m not sure I have the same kind of empathy I used to. It takes much more to make me cry. In a way, this big of a personality change is terrifying. But the headaches, the hard nights, the restlessness—they clue me in to the way God works.

It isn’t what I expected, but I must admit it: Zoloft is teaching me about God.

It’s Okay to Let People Stare (And Also to Stare at God)

I regularly take walks with Moses up the trodden path of Sinai. These walks are some of my favorite parts of Bible reading.

On one of these trips, Moses brought with him a set of tablets to replace the ones on which God had originally written the Ten Commandments, and something absolutely fascinating happened when Moses was transcribing what God told him up there: Moses’s face started shining (Exo. 34:29–30). In fact, it shone so brightly that his flesh-and-blood brother Aaron was afraid to even come near him. The rest of Israel was scared of him, too.

Moses finally calls out to them, so they come and listen to what he had to say. But this boldness doesn’t last long. Moses started to put a veil over his face when he descended the mountain (Exo. 34:33–35). He was so embarrassed the Israelites would stare at him that he only removed the veil when atop Sinai, conversing with God. He did it so he could “prevent the Israelites from gazing steadily until the end of the glory of what was being set aside” (2 Cor. 3:13).

The Israelites needed not to stare at Moses’s face—they needed to stare at Moses’s God. Moses veiled his face because he realized the Israelites would miss God if they stared into the glory of the Law. The Law was good, but it left them with condemnation.

When I told people I started depression medicine, they treated me like the Israelites treated Moses after he came down from Sinai. Some wanted to stare steadily into me as if I were a hero while others tried to hide from me as if I were a monster.

Those in the first group talked about how strong I am or how hard it is to make a decision like this, and the rest were too scared they might step on my toes or offend me to say anything at all. I didn’t like either reaction. Both felt patronizing. But I didn’t want to neglect the quiet, steady work the Spirit is doing in me. I refuse to rob God of the glory He deserves. If it is truly the God of the gospel working in me by means of the gospel, then I have nothing to hide.

Unlike the Law, the Spirit brings freedom (2 Cor. 3:6). I don’t have to bring the Law’s guilt to my friends—I can offer the Light of Life. In Christ, my veil can be set aside (2 Cor. 3:14–16). In other words, it’s okay to let people stare. In fact, it’s best to let people stare.

When we let others stare at our sanctification, our trials, or our struggles, it leaves the burden of salvation on God—the only One who is able to save people (2 Cor. 4:3–5). The Spirit inside me means I can be honest about the way God is shaping my doubts or my fears. When I embrace the very thing that makes me scared or scary, I am apt to point others to God. I want people to stare at me—the true me, the me that needs saving, the me that fails and disappoints.

Because when they are staring at that me, they will see the only Person worth staring at is the God of the universe. And they will stare till their corneas burn out because He shines more beautifully and brightly than the humble work He is doing in me.

Glory Isn’t Quick, and It Will Probably Burn Your Church Down

Eugene Peterson calls the Christian life “a long obedience in the same direction,” and that’s the same place Paul takes us in through the story of Moses.

He tells us, “We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). Though our faces might be shining without their veils on, it seems like most days could use a contrast adjustment. (Some days I wonder if I should even take my veil off—people probably couldn’t tell the difference anyways.)

It took sertraline a month to get into my system. This was a month-long test…a month-long test that didn’t really work. My anxiety was slightly assuaged, but I was as depressed as I had been a month earlier.

We tried upping my dosage, and it actually made the problem worse, and I was paralyzed by my depression for a few days. The appointments began to make me wince a little: Who wants to feel like a constant science experiment? Especially one whose trial and error regularly returns an error message?

My doctor had explained that though these medicines are all the same “kind,” they work in different ways. Honest to goodness, we had no idea how long it would take to find what helped. But my frustration began to recede when I started looking to where I was a year ago, six months ago, or even a month ago.

I could see how a gradual warmth had come into my life again. Some days, I still needed a sweater. Heck, some days I wanted that sweater. I didn’t even notice it had gotten warmer until I looked back to compare it with the cold of winter.

This is how Paul describes God’s work in us: “from glory to glory.” Some days, our faces might shine a little brighter or duller than the day before. It may be another day with the same story, the same sin, or the same excuse, but His mercies are new again.

We do not measure the glory to which we are being transformed according to our portion but God’s. Sometimes it feels like God gives us grace drip by drip. It swells from a drip to a trickle, a trickle to a stream, and before you know it we are itching to jump from our rocks of pride into the fountain of life Who puts Old Faithful to shame—boundless grace, infinitely offered to us.

But we are called to jump headfirst no matter the portion we suspect He has waiting for us at the bottom: Drip, trickle, stream, or fount, God’s grace always runs deep enough to save. You might think you can see the bottom, but that is just because grace’s depth is deceptive.

Being pushed along from glory to glory isn’t quick. Peterson was spot on when he defined Christ-following as “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Discipleship that jumps headfirst into God’s grace means feelings are going to get hurt because sin is going to be confessed. You’re going to tell me about when you talked about me behind my back, and I’m going to tell you about how I wanted to cuss you out when I heard about it.

Your pastor isn’t going to be there for you when you think you need him the most, and you’re going to hold that over his head as long as you know him. It’s what happens when the church’s pews are filled with redeemed sinners.

If you ignore when God told us to let love cover over a multitude of sins, the slow burn of Christian growth will char your church to the ground.

But if you learn to love like Christ loved us, you’ll begin to measure by the Spirit’s analytics: glory to glory, degree by degree. Some days you might still want that sin. You’ve tasted it, and you thought it was good—you made it go-to dish at your favorite spiritual restaurant. But when you taste and see the glory of the living God, you’ll find that you savor His Word and His commandments a little more than you did a year ago. And, if God so wills it, your satiation will turn to a craving that will never be quenched.

A River Runs Through Him

For all the fears and confusion that it brings, Zoloft teaches me to trace the river of grace back to its Source, and it’s made me barely energetic enough to jump headfirst into it even when it looks like it’s drying up.

Starting depression medicine has been something of an emotional, spiritual, and biological journey: I had to admit I’m a sinner who has bad habits that make his depression worse and a struggling Christian who will always be fighting to do better next time.

I also had to admit that sometimes I just can’t fix things, and I need to let go of the power trip. It’s a tired phrase, but I need to let God be God. I need humility when my face shines bright and forgiveness when it isn’t shining at all. And, most of all, I need to get rid of my veil. It’s a cop-out. Besides, it only serves to drown me when my head hits the deep water of the grace of God.

Cody Barnhart (@codygbarnhart) lives in Maryville, Tennessee, and is an MDiv student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He attends Pleasant Grove at College Street, where he is a church planting intern.