Death Of A Pastor…Again – Some Thoughts On Suicide
My heart was so grieved to learn of yet another young, well-known, well-loved pastor who took his own life this past week, leaving behind a loving family, and a promising ministry.
Jarrid Wilson, 30, on the staff of Pastor Greg Laurie’s Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California committed suicide last Monday night, on the day before Worldwide Suicide Prevention Day, and soon after officiating at the funeral of a Christian woman who also killed herself.
He is the third megachurch pastor living within an hour of my home in Azusa, CA who has killed himself in the past year (see here and here), which itself reflects a growing epidemic of suicide in our country.
As is often said: Once is a chance; twice is circumstance; three times is a trend (or ‘enemy action’ as Ian Fleming once said). What’s going on here?
Looking at these three suicides as a whole, one lesson we’re reminded of (again) is how pastors are all “wounded healers”. I’ve written before on the lonely emotional and spiritual challenges of the pastoral life, and how churches can better equip themselves to provide care for the shepherds who care for them (here).
Another commonality of these men is their young age and inexperience. Obviously, each of these men were highly gifted communicators – which no doubt helped them secure their posts in the megachurch environment. Could another lesson here be the need to exercise caution before we grant too much responsibility to a person whose gifts have outrun their fruit (i.e. they lack theological depth and deepened character which time alone can produce.) Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson come to mind in this regard also.
But another more glaring commonality in these three tragedies is that each of the three men had publicly acknowledged nearly lifelong struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts.
While culture should never dictate the terms of how Christians should think on a given subject, culture often does dictate the topics we should think about. So we should be having plenty of conversations these days about suicide.
Sickness or Sin?
If there is one redemptive outcome of the current epidemic of suicide we can point to, it’s the fuller conversation we are having in the Church today about mental illness.
It wasn’t all that long ago when the emotional side of a Christian’s journey was pretty much kept bound and gagged in church life. Our bulletin prayer lists contained requests for Bob’s cancer and Sarah’s upcoming surgery, but there never was a peep or mutter about Tom’s schizophrenia or Nancy’s admission to the psych ward.
All that is changing though. Pete Scazzero’s work on emotionally healthy spirituality helped pop the blister; Rick and Kay Warren’s ministry (especially in recent years after the suicide of their son Matthew) has brought conversations on mental health front and center. Wilson and his wife Juli started an advocacy group in 2016 called Anthem of Hope to provide resources and encouragement for those “battling brokenness, depression, anxiety, self-harm, addiction and suicide.”
Many congregations across the country are thankfully responding to these efforts. All of this is welcome. A church which becomes a safe place to share one’s emotional struggles, alongside the spiritual and physical ones, is a healthier, more Christlike one.
A Word Of Caution
Having said all this, the pastor in me though wants to be careful that we do not lay all the pain of suicide at the feet of mental illness.
There is mental illness that is of a biochemical order, that breaks the mind and heart of the sufferer and has nothing at all to do with choices or environment or background. Some are born biologically broken and some are born mentally broken.
Matthew Warren was crippled by a form of depression which plagued him from earliest childhood, and never let go. A woman in my last church suffered from lifelong psychotic episodes. One Sunday, she could inspire you by the way she talked to God in prayer. The next Sunday, she’d be talking to dead relatives. You would no more rebuke her for her behavior, than you would a person with cerebral palsy for using a wheelchair. It’s a sickness!
But none of us is born whole. Sin afflicts us at every level of our being. We’re each on a spectrum of both physical health and mental health. (We’re honestly all a little mentally ill.)
So here’s what’s tricky: there is also mental illness that we bring on ourselves, or is exasperated by the circumstances of life. Uncle Jack’s alcoholism is indeed an illness at some level, but drunkards…will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor.6:10), and how can I make sure that Uncle Jack isn’t one of them?
We must be careful not to undo the Christian gospel, which insists that though we’re in bondage to sin, grace through Christ’s atonement makes possible a movement of the needle toward wholeness and holiness.
Why bring this up in a discussion about suicide?
I say this tenderly, but I think it’s important in the midst of this conversation that we don’t lose connection with the classical notion that most suicides are a form of sin.
The Bible And Suicide
The Bible speaks little of suicide, because it was seldom seen in the Jewish culture. Six suicides are mentioned in Scripture, and never in a sympathetic light (though Samson’s suicide was more an act of war). The Hebrew understanding of life being a gift from God, which God alone had the right to give or take, was imbedded deep in the spiritual DNA of the Jew. And that understanding clearly served as a restraint on its frequency.
There is something to be said for the idea that cultural and social expectations can lead to an increase or decrease in a given behavior. Suicides spiked nearly 30% among teenagers the month after Netflix released its show 13 Reasons Why. When a famous person kills himself, suicides go up. Copycat suicides run in packs through schools and communities. For the Old Testament Jew, theology (i.e. the fear of God) tamped down the prevalence of suicide in its culture.
We see this vividly in the book of Job. Some have argued that Job was suicidal after enduring a beatdown of suffering, but the text doesn’t say that at all. Job wished he were dead (a sentiment shared on occasion by Moses, Elijah and Jonah. I, for one, have whispered many a “Come, Lord Jesus” over the years.) Job wished he hadn’t been born (Job 3:1-11) and even begged God to finish him off (Job 6:8-9). But that was the point. It was God’s province to take his life, not his. Job took pottery shards and scraped his diseased skin with them, but he never held a shard up to his wrist to slash it open.
Later Jewish tradition regarded suicide as a grievous offense against God. (Interestingly, even the Greek philosopher Plato argued that man is the property of God and must not ‘fly from the best of masters’ by killing himself.)
Scripture promises every believer an escape ramp in the midst of temptation (1 Cor.10:13), strength for those who wait for God (Ps.27:13-14); and a morning of joy for every night of despair (Ps.30:5). But suicide slams the door shut on each of these promises. In taking his or her life, the person says to God, “My problems are so vast, and my despair is so deep, that not even you are great enough to help me.”
But suicide is not just a sin against God. The blinding fog of sorrow and shame that it throws on the surviving family and friends and congregations is devastating beyond description. How my heart was shattered to read the social media posts of the wives of two of these pastors, who through their pain, managed to bravely describe their husbands as receiving a hero’s welcome into eternity.
That they were welcomed into eternity I do not doubt. (As Pastor Greg Laurie said at Jarrid’s funeral, “One dark moment in a Christian’s life cannot undo what Christ did for us on the cross.”) But there is nothing triumphant about how they entered it. And what they have left behind.
Why Preserve The Sin Language?
But isn’t it heartless to even whisper the word “sin” with something like suicide? (In a variety of contexts and situations – like a funeral – it would be unwise, not to mention cruel.) And doesn’t it nullify what we’ve just said about showing compassion to the mentally ill?
Actually, no. In fact, it equips us with a broader vocabulary for helping those who are struggling with mental illness. To speak of it as sickness, assures that we’ll take full advantage of every medical resource at our disposal. To speak of it as sin assures that we’ll not neglect exploring the myriad roots that might lie behind a person’s behavior, then seeking the power of Christ to tear up those roots.
All three pastors who killed themselves admitted to struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts for most of their lives.
If we insist on saying this was just raw, biochemical mental illness, end of story, we ought to be careful. Because now we’re saying there was an inevitability to these outcomes, and the unintended consequence of saying this, is that eventually people will stop taking chances with those who admit such weaknesses. They won’t marry them. They won’t hire them. And then we’ll be right back where we started from, with everyone clamming up about mental illness.
I’ll bet instead there were other commonalities about these three men. I’ll bet any or all of the following were probably in some fashion true:
- That there was a void of biblical teaching in their childhood about the value God assigned to their lives, and the sovereign control he retained over them. You can be sure that Job as a child was taught early and often about such matters, from a variety of tutors beginning with his parents.
- That filling the void of that biblical teaching were ideas and values promoted by the culture of movies, music, school and the street which diminished life’s value and promoted a garden variety of narcissistic habits.
- That somewhere they were exposed to suicide. Either someone in their family, or someone close to them took their own lives. And the grief and horror of it all left a mark on their soul.
- That the occasion arose where they faced serious pain, or stress or loss, and they made an attempt to hurt themselves or take their own life. Maybe it began with cutting, or something ‘harmless’. But a serious attempt was made to do serious damage to themselves.
- That having tried once, a second attempt was tried, and it was easier. “He who commits a sin becomes a slave to sin,” and now through the study of the brain, we can grasp in part why Jesus’ words are so true. Repeated behavior gets etched into the brain. “Cells that fire together, wire together.” Consequently, it became a sort of default setting of their hearts to respond to life’s bitterness through self-harm.
- That conversion to Christianity placed a cease-and-desist order on those behaviors. But we are “transformed by the renewal of our minds”. Renewing (rewiring) is possible but it is an arduous journey of self-discipline and submission to community. In Christianity, unlearning sin requires a long dying to self. Godliness comes through training. All of this suggests three steps forward and two back.
- Now take a person like this and thrust him too soon into the rigors of pastoral ministry, and add to it the pressures and heartache that are part of the package of being a shepherd in a sin-broken world, and you have the perfect storm for burnout, breakdown and worse. The pastoral ministry is filled with triggers for someone whose “theology of suffering” is weak.
Does Suicide Keep You Out Of Heaven?
So is this mental illness? Probably not in a classical, organic way where there is a genetic defect, or brain abnormality, or chemical imbalance underlying it.
This mental illness is the product of a sin-riddled human trying to survive a sin-broken world. The miracle of Christianity is that creatures like us are not beyond Christ’s reach.
So if this is more sin than sickness, does the soul that extinguishes itself forfeit God’s heaven? Many have believed this across the centuries. But I think this idea is built on a fallacy that we are judged based on the final act of our lives, and not the resume of our lives. Hamlet refused to murder his villainous stepfather in a church because he found him praying, and was repulsed by the thought that he might send his step-father straight to heaven.
But the thief on the cross was saved not because his final act on earth was a prayer. He was saved because in his final moments on earth, his heart genuinely reached out for God’s mercy.
Jesus told us what he would say to the ones he would send away on the day of judgment. He will say, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” It’s the relationship of the heart that matters most, and God knows perfectly the condition of our hearts in relation to him. He knows perfectly the struggle of our hearts. He knows our backstory – all of it.
And the heart that places its trust in Christ alone will be a soul that is welcomed into his presence, regardless of how it crosses the finish line of life. For it’s Christ’s performance that counts in the end, not our own.
Bear Clifton is a pastor, writer and screenwriter. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.