Pastors, Depression and Suicide

This past weekend, a young head pastor from an influential church in Southern California took his own life. From all outward appearances, Pastor Andrew Stoecklein of Inland Hills Church in Chino had it all: a successful ministry, a photogenic family. And yet, he struggled with depression.

Please join me in praying for Andrew’s wife and three sons. My heart breaks for them.

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Pastor Andrew Stoecklein and family

Sometimes people have asked me questions like: “I see the statistics on pastors, about burnout and how many pastors leave the ministry every year. What is it about being a pastor that makes it more difficult than other work?”

My main answer to that question has usually been that what makes it hard is the personal aspect. Pastoring people is highly relational, and with that comes high highs and low lows.

It has been said that in order to be a pastor, one must have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.

Another pastor summed it up this way:

In this generation, pastors are expected to be business savey, Instagram quotable preaching celebrities, fully accessible, deeply spiritual, not too young, not too old, and if a pastor doesn’t quite measure up to someone’s expectation at any given moment, you are given a two out of five star rating on Google.

I certainly don’t want to come across as whining or complaining. Pastors get to do the greatest thing in the world: to love people, teach them and lead them towards Jesus. We get to be there in the most crucial moments of people’s lives, and minister the gospel to them. We get to lead people towards the building up of God’s Kingdom and the spreading of the message of ultimate life, hope and joy!

If ever we feel that we are used or taken for granted by people – isn’t that what we signed up for? Isn’t that what Jesus himself experienced, and part of what made him so great? Isn’t that what it means to get to “share in his sufferings”? (See Philippians 3:8-10)

But in light of this high profile suicide of a well-known pastor, I think it is worth talking about, and taking the opportunity to encourage you to pray for your pastor and look for ways to encourage them.

Here is a good article written on this subject from Thom Rainer: 5 reasons pastors get depressed (and why they don’t talk about it)

Finally, whoever you are, if you are struggling with depression, please reach out for help.
(Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255)

 

Anthony Bourdain, Suicide & the Bible

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We woke up to the news that Anthony Bourdain of CNN’s Parts Unknown committed suicide at age 61. He was wealthy, successful, famous and got to travel the world doing what he loved – the kinds of things that many people aspire to, but may never get to experience. And yet, he chose to end his own life.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, since 1999, suicide rates have increased in nearly every US state, with 25 states having increases of more than 30 percent.

The most at-risk group for suicide according to their study is middle-aged white men.

Factors contributing to the suicide epidemic are:

  • Access to firearms.
  • Isolation, which contributes to mental health problems.  Read: Toxic Loneliness and How to Break Out
  • A sense of hopelessness and despair, resulting from:
    • family instability
    • lack of job prospects
  • Poor physical health

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be contacted at: 1-800-273-8255.

In the Bible we read about several heroes of the faith who struggled with what seem to have been depression and suicidal thoughts:

Many heroes of the faith, expressed that they reached such a point of despair that they wanted to die:

  • Moses had a death wish (see Numbers 11:13-15)
  • Job sought death as a comfort, a way to end his suffering
  • David had times when he wanted to die
  • Jonah sought his own death first to atone for his own sins and then because of frustration with his circumstances

Another notable example is the prophet Elijah. In 1 Kings 19:4, we read:

“[Elijah] sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”

Here’s what’s surprising: right before this, Elijah had experienced unprecedented success in his ministry. Only a few hours before this:

  • Elijah prayed for rain, and it came, ending a 7-year drought.
  • Elijah had singlehandedly won a showdown against some 850 pagan priests, when God sent fire from heaven in response to Elijah’s prayers.
  • As a result of these things, many people in Israel had turned back to God – which was the goal of Elijah’s ministry.

And yet, like with so many people: in spite of experiencing great success, Elijah was depressed and wanted to die.

Isolation

“Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree” – 1 Kings 19:4

Despite having a huge crowd of supporters after the showdown on Mount Carmel, Elijah chose to isolate and cut himself off from the community.

Isolation is a common practice of people who are struggling with depression, but it is one of the worst things a person can do. Statistics show that isolation causes and exasperates mental health issues.

Physical Exhaustion

Even though it was a successful day, it was a long and exhausting day. I have found that the times when I am particularly worn out, I tend to be more susceptible to negative thoughts and feelings which are not from God.

Notice what happens next: Elijah gets some rest. He goes to sleep. While he’s asleep, God sends an angel to cook him a meal. The angel wakes Elijah up, feeds him, gives him something to drink – and then sends him back to bed to sleep some more! Then, the angel wakes him up again, feeds him another meal, and then sends him on his way to continue his ministry.

In other words: Elijah’s depression, while certainly a spiritual attack, was related to and exasperated by his physical exhaustion. Rather than giving him a lecture, God sent him a companion, some good meals and some well-needed rest.

Rather than giving him a lecture, God sent Elijah a companion, some good meals and some well-needed rest.

As noted above, the CDC mentions poor physical health as a contributing factor to the suicide epidemic. Taking care of your body is important for your mental health, and the Bible encourages us to see that.

Hope

Finally, this messenger from God tells Elijah to rise up and go on his way – and Elijah does. Rather than stay down, alone, sleeping under this tree in the wilderness – God reminds Elijah that He has a purpose and calling upon his life, and Elijah responds by getting up and moving forward into that calling.

The gospel gives us more hope, affirmation and purpose than anything else ever can. It give us hope because of the promise of redemption. It gives you a community; not only community with God, but to become a Christian is to be brought into the “People of God.”

The gospel gives us affirmation and purpose; Jesus gave his life for you, which means that even though God knowns everything about you, He still wants you. He still loves you and He still has a purpose for your life.

God’s purpose for your life goes beyond living for yourself; it is to use you in His mission: for His glory and for the good of people in the world. It is in giving your life for that mission that you will find true life. For more on this, check out: Mission and Mental Health

Let’s do what we can to recognize the signs and help people who are struggling before it’s too late.

Was Paul Suicidal?

Recently at White Fields I have been teaching through Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in a study titled, The Pursuit of Happiness.

This past Sunday I taught on Paul’s famous saying: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” – and I explained how the gospel gives new meaning to our lives and it redefines what death means for us. Audio of that message can be found here.

In that sermon, I didn’t get to what Paul says after that famous phrase. Here’s the rest:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:21-26)

A reader of this blog sent me a message this week about this passage:

I have always wondered if Paul was experiencing a period of depression when he wrote this epistle. What he says in verse 1:22, “yet what I shall choose I cannot tell” even makes me consider that he was in some ways considering “suicide”. I know that sounds preposterous, and I’m not suggesting that he actually thought of killing himself but rather maybe purposely doing something that would result in his death. In todays world it might be called “suicide-by-cop”. It seems as he continues through the remainder of the chapter that he convinces himself that it is better to remain for the benefit of others. It could be that he was just experiencing a time when his death seemed imminent and he was preparing the readers for that eventuality, but I think that he was experiencing a great amount of stress during this time. As always, he was able, through the Spirit, to overcome his stress and turn it into a beautiful, encouraging letter. I believe it probable that all men of great faith experience times of doubt or fear brought on by the enemy.

That’s an interesting thought. Certainly Paul was facing dire circumstances, and I fully agree with the final sentence, but I wouldn’t go so far as to agree that Paul might have been having suicidal thoughts – even to the degree of doing something that might provoke someone else to kill him.

To me, the tone of the letter is one of triumph in the face of harsh circumstances, even death.

I believe that what’s going through Paul’s mind as he writes those words is that he wants to explain something important to the Philippians: That although as Christians, the ultimate hope of the Gospel is the hope of eternal life in paradise with God, that should never minimize the purpose that God has for our lives here on Earth.

This seems to have been a problem amongst some of the early Christians. 2 Thessalonians was written, in part, to let the Christians know that Jesus had not yet returned, that the Parausia, the Second Coming, was still to come – but that as we await Jesus’ imminent return, we should not be inactive;  we should still work hard. That’s why he says:

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)

The context of that, is that the Thessalonians were eagerly expecting the return of Jesus any day – as all early Christians did, and as it seems that Jesus intended all Christians to do, which is the reason for his vagueness about when his return will take place.

The point is this: We should not have a Christianity in which we encourage people to just believe in Jesus and then hang on and wait for death! I think Paul wanted to Philippians to understand that: that Christianity isn’t only about going to heaven when you die, it’s about living this life for Christ – as much as, and as long as possible.

It’s not only that because of the Gospel, DEATH IS GAIN – but also: because of the Gospel, TO LIVE IS CHRIST!

Another reason why I think Paul was not discouraged when he wrote to the Philippians is because he closes the letter by saying:

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. (Philippians 4:21-22)

What this means is that members of Caesar’s household, including the Praetorian Guard (members of which were chained to Paul 24 hrs a day in 6 hr shifts), were becoming Christians through his being there in jail. I think Paul was feeling particularly encouraged after facing years of discouragement prior to this. Finally he was starting to see some fruit and the purpose for which God must have allowed this series of terrible difficulties and injustices happen to him. Many of us may never get to see that in our difficulties, but when we do it helps to encourage us that God is indeed in control and using all of the frayed strands to create a beautiful tapestry.

 

The Pursuit of Happiness

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The Declaration of Independence contains this famous phrase:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Happiness is what all people are ultimately seeking.  Including you. Including me. You want to be happy. So do I.

If you really think about it, everything we do is, in one way or another, a pursuit of happiness.

The pursuit of happiness is what motivates people to get married – or not to get married, to have children or not to have children, to choose certain careers or paths in life and not others. It is the reason people abuse substances – and even, as strange as it may sound at first, to commit suicide.

Philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal said:

All people seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they always tend towards this end. The cause of some going to war and of others avoiding it is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object (happiness). This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
Suicide is the (very misguided!) belief, that one can escape unhappiness here in this life and hopefully find happiness wherever they end up. Still, even this terrible and tragic act is part of the pursuit of happiness.
Sometimes Christians have made a false distinction between happiness and joy. Here is what Joni Eareckson Tada has to say about that:
We are often taught to be careful of the difference between joy and happiness. ‘Happiness,’ it is said, ‘is an emotion which depends on what happens to you (a false etymology).’ Joy, by contrast is supposed to be enduring, stemming from deep within our soul, and which is not affected by circumstances surrounding us. I don’t think God had any such hairsplitting in mind. Scripture uses the terms interchangeably along with words such as “delight” “Gladness” “blessing” – There is no scale of relative spiritual values applied to any of these. Happiness is not relegated to fleshly minded sinners nor joy to heaven-bound saints.

If you ask the average person what they want more than anything else, they will reply:  “I want to be HAPPY!”   “It’s not the only thing I want — but it is at the core of the other things I want.”

If you ask people: “What do you really want for your kids?”  They will say: “I want them to be polite, respectful, successful, responsible” — but why?  Because what they really want is for them to be happy.  The reason they want all those other things for them, is because they believe those things will result in their greater happiness in the long run.
C.H. Spurgeon said this:
My dear brothers, if anyone in the world ought to be happy, we are those people. How boundless our privileges, how brilliant our hopes.
As Christians, in and through Jesus Christ, we have the keys to the happiness we desire and the joy we were made for.
Starting this Sunday at White Fields Church, I will be teaching a series titled: The Pursuit of Happiness, in which we will be studying Paul’s letter to the Philippians with a view of how Paul had the keys to happiness and an indomitable joy even in the midst of dark circumstances.
The graphic art above was done by CryBabyDesign. Check them out for all your graphic design needs.

Did Judas Go To Hell?

In teaching through the Book of Acts on Sunday mornings at White Fields I recently taught the section in Acts 1 where it talks about how Judas committed suicide after betraying Jesus.

Afterwards someone wrote a question:

Did Judas go to hell?  Is suicide a deal breaker? Judas knew that what he did was wrong, so is it possible that he will go to heaven?

It is hard for us to say with certainty about anyone’s eternal destiny; that is something which ultimately is only known by God. However, we do have good reason to assume that Judas did go to hell based on two things that Jesus said:

Matthew 26:20-25. At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples that one of them would betray him, and then he says: “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born”. The implication is that it would be better for a person not to have been born than to go to hell.In John 17, Jesus prays to the Father about and for the disciples and he says in Vs 12: “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction”

Based on these 2 verses I think we can assume that Judas did go to hell.

However, did he go to hell because he committed suicide? No, that wasn’t why. The reason Judas went to hell is because, rather than repenting of his sin and seeking and receiving forgiveness and restoration from Jesus, he chose to end his life. This reminds us that feeling bad about your sin is not the same as repenting of your sin and receiving forgiveness.

Interestingly, Judas is not the only one of Jesus’ disciples who betrayed him. Peter also betrayed him, and several other disciples “scattered” when Jesus was arrested. Peter and Judas are an interesting contrast: Peter returns and is restored, whereas Judas goes off and kills himself. Peter betrayed Jesus but then was forgiven and restored; Judas did not return to Jesus, and therefore missed the opportunity for grace and forgiveness and restoration.

Jesus’ words about the lostness of Judas should be seen in regard to his foreknowledge that Judas would not return to repent and receive forgiveness and restoration.

To the point about suicide: It has been taught in certain Christian groups that suicide is an unforgivable sin. This has been based 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 which says: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.”   This is one of those instances where it helps to know other languages, if not even the original language. Because when you read this in the original (or in other languages which differentiate between you (singular) and you (plural), it becomes immediately clear from the context as well, that this is not talking about suicide at all, but what Paul is talking about is the church!  In other words:  You all are the temple of the Holy Spirit.  — the context of 1 Corinthians chapter 3 is that Paul is talking about people who cause division in the church!   He says that the Church — the Christ-ordained gathering of the people of God — is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and whoever destroys the church, through division, will be judged by God!

In other words – 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 is not talking about suicide but it is speaking to those who cause division in the church. Is suicide an unforgivable sin? I don’t see why we should believe it is. That being said, I would not encourage anyone to test God on this.  The message of the Gospel is new life and restoration in Jesus Christ from any and all forms of despair, and the hope of eternal live and joy for those who persevere.

Kay Warren on Mourning the Loss of Her Son

Nearly one year ago Rick and Kay Warren’s son Matthew committed suicide after struggling with mental health issues for years. No matter what your opinion of their ministry or books, they are parents who lost their son and have had to go through the process of loss and grieving in the public eye.

Kay Warren wrote the following recently, and I think it is worth reading by those of us who want to love others through times of grief and mourning.

It’s not always easy to know what to say or how to treat people who are grieving, but Kay’s words give insight into the thoughts and feelings of someone in that situation, which can help us empathize and know how to love people well in these times.

As the one-year anniversary of Matthew’s death approaches, I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to “move on.” The soft, compassionate cocoon that has enveloped us for the last 11 1/2 months had lulled me into believing others would be patient with us on our grief journey, and while I’m sure many will read this and quickly say “Take all the time you need,” I’m increasingly aware that the cocoon may be in the process of collapsing. It’s understandable when you take a step back. I mean, life goes on. The thousands who supported us in the aftermath of Matthew’s suicide wept and mourned with us, prayed passionately for us, and sent an unbelievable volume of cards, letters, emails, texts, phone calls, and gifts. The support was utterly amazing. But for most, life never stopped – their world didn’t grind to a horrific, catastrophic halt on April 5, 2013. In fact, their lives have kept moving steadily forward with tasks, routines, work, kids, leisure, plans, dreams, goals etc. LIFE GOES ON. And some of them are ready for us to go on too. They want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us – when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013 will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again. There is a new “normal.” April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time….maybe forever.
Because these comments from well-meaning folks wounded me so deeply, I doubted myself and thought perhaps I really am not grieving “well” (whatever that means). I wondered if I was being overly sensitive –so I checked with parents who have lost children to see if my experience was unique. Far from it, I discovered. “At least you can have another child” one mother was told shortly after her child’s death. “You’re doing better, right?” I was asked recently. “When are you coming back to the stage at Saddleback? We need you” someone cluelessly said to me recently. “People can be so rude and insensitive; they make the most thoughtless comments,” one grieving father said. You know, it wasn’t all that long ago that it was standard in our culture for people to officially be in mourning for a full year. They wore black. They didn’t go to parties. They didn’t smile a whole lot. And everybody accepted their period of mourning; no one ridiculed a mother in black or asked her stupid questions about why she was STILL so sad. Obviously, this is no longer accepted practice; mourners are encouraged to quickly move on, turn the corner, get back to work, think of the positive, be grateful for what is left, have another baby, and other unkind, unfeeling, obtuse and downright cruel comments. What does this say about us – other than we’re terribly uncomfortable with death, with grief, with mourning, with loss – or we’re so self-absorbed that we easily forget the profound suffering the loss of a child creates in the shattered parents and remaining children. 
Unless you’ve stood by the grave of your child or cradled the urn that holds their ashes, you’re better off keeping your words to some very simple phrases: “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Or “I’m praying for you and your family.” Do your best to avoid the meaningless, catch-all phrase “How are you doing?” This question is almost impossible to answer. If you’re a stranger, it’s none of your business. If you’re a casual acquaintance, it’s excruciating to try to answer honestly, and you leave the sufferer unsure whether to lie to you (I’m ok) to end the conversation or if they should try to haltingly tell you that their right arm was cut off and they don’t know how to go on without it. If you’re a close friend, try telling them instead, “You don’t have to say anything at all; I’m with you in this.”
None of us wants to be like Job’s friends – the pseudo comforters who drove him mad with their questions, their wrong conclusions and their assumptions about his grief. But too often we end up a 21st century Bildad, Eliphaz or Zophar – we fill the uncomfortable silence with words that wound rather than heal. I’m sad to realize that even now – in the middle of my own shattering loss – I can be callous with the grief of another and rush through the conversation without really listening, blithely spouting the platitudes I hate when offered to me. We’re not good grievers, and when I judge you, I judge myself as well.
Here’s my plea: Please don’t ever tell someone to be grateful for what they have left until they’ve had a chance to mourn what they’ve lost. It will take longer than you think is reasonable, rational or even right. But that’s ok. True friends – unlike Job’s sorry excuse for friends – love at all times, and brothers and sisters are born to help in time of need (Prov. 17:17 LB).The truest friends and “helpers” are those who wait for the griever to emerge from the darkness that swallowed them alive without growing afraid, anxious or impatient. They don’t pressure their friend to be the old familiar person they’re used to; they’re willing to accept that things are different, embrace the now-scarred one they love, and are confident that their compassionate, non-demanding presence is the surest expression of God’s mercy to their suffering friend. They’re ok with messy and slow and few answers….and they never say “Move on.”