One morning, as I often do, I was scrolling through the news on my iPad as the sound of coffee brewed in the background. The accompanying smell of the coffee usually excites me, but this morning I groaned. The coffee would have to wait a few minutes more. NEWSFLASH: A popular associate pastor in a large megachurch in CA committed suicide Monday. As I continued reading the article, I found out he’d been suffering with depression for years and had even led an advocacy group to help others who suffer the same burden.
Hearing about something like this baffles us and deeply saddens. We have a hard time knowing what to say or how to wrap our minds around it. What is going on in someone’s life that this becomes their only recourse? I think of the family left behind to live with lingering and unanswered questions. The children who must find a way to fit this tragedy into their memory vault of pleasant memories of an otherwise playful, loving dad.
The purpose of this blog is not to figure out suicide. I do, however, want to help us foster a climate in church life where those who are that low will be pulled up by the hope and help they sense around them. Where being in community lessens the loneliness and invigorates life. Where the way we do community lets those who are sad and depressed know that they are not shunned or isolated.
So, how can the church become an environment of hope for those who are sad, who struggle with depression and even for the suicide-minded believer? I offer several ways, and you will notice these points move from personal to theological and back to personal again.
1. Give people permission to be sad. This might sound counterintuitive especially when church should be a happy place where we celebrate our union with Christ. However, when you give people the space to be sad, you give them better opportunity to process and the time to heal. This leads to a deeper opportunity to worship. Too often, our church services feel like a pep rally where the leader urges the people to at least look happy even if they are not. I might not be happy coming to church that morning, but I better look it. I love the services that begin with the pastor saying, (Something similar our pastor said a few weeks ago). “Welcome this morning. I know some of you have had a hard week. Some of you got bad news. Well, it is here we come together to worship Jesus, who knows our deepest needs, and to worship with others who likely had their own hard week.” Or: “Some of you might have a hard time singing one or two of the songs we are going to sing this morning. I want you to know, you don’t have to sing, but perhaps you will be encouraged by simply reflecting on the words.” Pastors and worship leaders, don’t ask people to be what they are not. I wince when I am asked to “raise my hand if I am happy to be here this morning.” Yes, most times I am, but sometimes I am not.
In our need to innovate and to be relevant, the church has not always done a good job providing worship songs that lament the realities of life. Isn’t it strange that when we hurt, we are more prone to read David’s songs of lament? (Okay, I’ll say it here. Sometimes my go-to is country music.) Why are we drawn to David’s words? Because we find encouragement from those who have experienced what we are experiencing, and from the fact that they worshiped from there or at least wrote about it with brutal honesty.
Frederick Douglass once reflected about the songs slaves would sing. We now appropriately call many of these songs the Blues. Douglass wrote this:
Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion. (See source article here.)
2. Know how to and be comfortable talking about depression and even about suicide.In a separate blog, I will share my honest feelings about professional counseling and balancing that with the importance of community in people’s healing. You may listen to a podcast I did on this subject with Dr. Harold Rhoades here. I want to at least make the following point. When we always refer people to professional counseling, we enable them to keep their problem a secret. What would happen in your church if someone yelled out one Sunday morning, “I am depressed, and I am thinking of ending it?” Likely that person would be hushed and rushed out of the building before too many others were affected by such a display of emotion. And of course, an appointment would quickly be made with a professional counselor. Imagine, though, what role community could have in supporting that brother or sister who is seemingly so out of control that they would dare disrupt our service?
Several months ago, Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson was speaking on a panel to a packed student body at Liberty University. Several minutes into the service, a young man rushed the stage yelling, “My name is David, and I and unwell and I need help.” (You can see that link here.) Several of the panel members stood and began to step forward to intercept the young man and keep him from reaching Peterson. Even security guards rushed the stage to intervene. What happened next was amazing. David Nasser, the Senior Vice President for Spiritual Development for LU, immediately stepped toward the man and could be heard saying, “You are in the right place, David.”
A crying, desperate, hurting man rushes a service and rather than being escorted out of the building is told he is in the right place. Wow! If you take time to watch the clip, you will find Pastor David and some others praying for the man and discussing what had just happened during much of the rest of the panel conversation.
Can you imagine seeing that in church?
Years ago, I was a guest speaker in a church in Asheville, NC. In the middle of my sermon, a homeless man walked into the building, approached the pulpit and began to talk loudly. I stopped in the middle of a profound point and said, “Tell you what. Why don’t you be seated and let’s talk about this in the pastor’s office after the service.” And that is what we did. Granted, it would be hard and awkward to stop a service to speak into the life of a troubled man. My main goal in raising this point is to get us to think about how the community of believers, gathered together either in small or large groups, can become not only a catalyst for healing but also a collective company that responds well to those who might otherwise feel isolated from us. Such a community then becomes a place where even a suicide-minded person feels safe and senses hope from the presence and support of others.
3. Don’t hesitate to talk about depression and suicide in theological and biblical terms. In a Q&A, Ravi Zacharias was once asked what happens to a person who commits suicide. Ravi took over five minutes to not only build a theological framework to both understand and respond to suicide-minded people but more importantly to tell us what that person’s destiny might be. The clip is titled Does Suicide send You to Hell? (You can listen here.) I appreciate how frank and honest Ravi was in his response. If I had been in that room as a suicided-minded believer, it would have scared me. Ravi made this one poignant statement that I believe gripped the room.
“I would not want to meet the Lord after I had taken my life.”
Ravi follows this by providing a brief but solid Biblical grid to understanding the front and back end of a suicide-minded person’s reality.
Having a theological and biblical response to suicide will cause many to reconsider the choice they are considering, and more importantly, it will offer them hope found only in the Gospel. It also allows the rest of us to understand the desperation of others and how to best “get in the mud with them.” The Gospel offers hope to depressed people and calls the rest of us to participate in their rescue. It happened to me. You can read a blog I wrote here about how severe depression robbed me of most of my adolescent years. One thing alone kept me from taking my own life during those hardest years and that was the hope for eternal life provided to me by the urging and presence of others. I, too, wrestled with this paradox of a life ended by my hands rather than under the sovereign hands of God. Even at a young age, I decided that I would leave my life, as much as I despaired over it, in the careful, loving and sovereign hands of God. And to stress the severity of my depression, the season where I seriously considered suicide lasted on-and-off for nearly two years.
For a pastor to preach on depression and suicide requires spending more time in David’s Psalms of Lament. There is nothing wrong in talking people out of making bad choices because they have been offered something as beautiful as hope for eternal life. However, it might require us to first consider the raw realities of this life. Consider what the Apostle Paul went through in 2 Corinthians 1:8: “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” Think about this. The great Apostle Paul “despaired of life itself.” The word despair that Paul uses literally means to be utterly at a loss. When was the last time you heard a sermon on Paul’s emotional struggles? At one point, Paul longed to see Timothy again so that he “may be filled with joy” (2 Tim.1:4). The great Apostle of encouragement needed encouragement himself. Even the Lord Jesus, our Savior, sweat drops of blood as he wept in the garden overwhelmed with sorrow. “Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me’” (Matthew 26:38). “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa.53:3).
4. Finally, I want to share something deeply personal with you. It was the unexpected death of a pastor friend to suicide that became the first motivation for me to do what I am doing now. Fruitful Vine Ministry, of which I am the director, has one simple vision: “To bring courage and perspective when serving gets hard.” The first idea for this ministry came several days after receiving the phone call of the pastor’s suicide. Tragically, he chose to take his life on Easter Sunday morning. What bothered me was this. For four years, I served as president of the ministerial association to which this pastor belonged and which he attended. He was gregarious, fun, and deeply affable. Later, we found out he’d been struggling with deep depression, and we, his friends, never knew it. One day, he felt so alone that he saw no other option but to take his life. He had sat with us month after month, ate with us, laughed with us, and none of us had a clue that he was experiencing such inner turmoil.
Today in the town where I live, seven pastors gather with me and with a college professor every two weeks to talk about Resilience in Ministry. We call the group RIM. And we get deep. These men talk openly about their challenges and struggles. After three years of this, I get the feeling that if any of them begin to despair of even life itself, they will know who to come to.
Let me end with several reflective questions that I hope will encourage you to be a companion to the person who is struggling with despair and might even be considering suicide.
Do you have someone or a group you go to when you are hurting?
Would you know what to do if someone came to you and shared that they are considering taking their own life?
Do you have someone in your family or from within a close friend network who has taken their own life?
If so, do you feel that your family or friend network has processed this well?
Have you read books or articles to help you understand depression and suicide?
Do you believe your church allows space for people to “be at home” whether they are happy or sad?
If you answered no to any of the above questions, do take some steps to improve your awareness of this hard reality and encourage your church to also learn how to be a safe community for those who are suffering and alone.