“The LORD is near to the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all.” (Psalm 34:18-19)
I am writing this article with a purpose of bringing hope to the living. Suicide is a terrible tragedy for all of those who are left behind. It is especially shocking and confusing when it involves a pastor of a church, who leaves behind a grieving wife, three small children, and a church body that loved and admired him. My purpose is not to condemn this young man. I have no way of knowing the terrible pain and darkness that engulfed him so that he chose to take this drastic action. But in cases like this, well-meaning people instinctively rush in to soften the blow by giving explanations that seem caring and loving on the surface, but overlook the truth of Scripture and the hope that God has promised. Paul said it like this: “All Scripture was written to teach us so that through endurance and the encouragement of Scripture, we may have hope.” (Romans 15:4) It is this hope that I write about. Hope for those who are struggling with dark depression; hope for those who are contemplating suicide; and hope for those who are trying to find God in something that seems so meaningless and so evil.
Part One: Sympathy- an attempt to understand and sympathise with the struggling.
I was deeply saddened when I heard the horrific news that a young pastor of a thriving church chose to take his own life. He left behind a beautiful wife and three young children. As you would expect, his actions left everyone in his family and church reeling. It was known for a while that he suffered from depression, anxiety and panic attacks. He had just returned from a four-month sabbatical while he sought to overcome the inner struggles that seemed to control his life. His words to his church family on his first Sunday back were filled with expressions of hope and excitement about a new and wonderful God-given future for himself, his family and his church. Tragically, those words turned out to not be true.
I cannot explain how this tragedy grabbed my heart. It seemed like such a waste. I took the time to visit the church website so I could see the face of this young man. I listened to one of his last sermons. He was an excellent communicator. He was energetic, personal and seemed convinced of what he was teaching. To hear and see him in front of the people, you would never have guessed that he was still in great danger. On the inside the battle still raged, as powerful dark forces sought to eat up his faith, his joy and his hope in Jesus. I wished I could have talked to him.
I was so impressed with this young man’s wife. What a beautiful, gracious and mature disciple. For several years she supported him through the darkest of times, not just for him, but for the marriage and the family. She had a deep love for him and believed that he was going to win this battle. Even after he died, her words not only reflected great pain but an undying devotion to her man. Here is what she wrote just a few days after the tragedy:
“It’s only been three days. Nothing can take away the suffocating pain I feel now you are gone,” Kayla writes. “I miss every part of you, I see you everywhere. I replay the events of that fateful day over and over again in my mind, wishing I could have done things differently. Wishing I could have held your hand one more time and prayed over you and told you how much I love you, how much I believe in you, and how God’s got this too.”
She continued, “You were right all along, I truly didn’t understand the depths of your depression and anxiety. I didn’t understand how real and how relentless the spiritual attacks were. The pain, the fear and the turmoil you must have been dealing with every single day [were] unimaginable. The enemy knew what an amazing man you were. The enemy knew God had huge plans for your life. The enemy saw how God was using your gifts, abilities and unique teaching style to reach thousands of lives for Him. The enemy hated it, and he pursued you incessantly. Taunting you and torturing you in ways that you were unable to express to anyone.”
I think you get a feel for why I was reluctant to write on this event. It is almost like I am walking on sacred ground, which I am, of course. This was a real man, husband, father and pastor, and I think, a believer. I started and stopped writing over and over. I struggled with the same crucial questions that hover over this church like a thick and chilling fog. What went wrong? Where was God? What about the pastor’s faith? What about the promises of Scripture? Is there any hope for those who struggle with mental illness? Is suicide an unpardonable sin? What can we say to the loved ones who are left behind?
Before I attempt to tackle those daunting questions, let me lay down a justification for tackling of this controversial and emotionally charged subject.
First, there is a high suicide rate for America, which with all of its blessings, is startling. It is reported that suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in America. In 2015, more than 44,000 Americans died by suicide—one death every 12 minutes, as the Department of Health and Human Services reported. The overall suicide rate has grown by nearly 30 percent over the past 15 years, prompting some to call it a new public health crisis. Each suicide leaves 6 to 10 family members- children, parents and spouses. As a Christian, I believe that suicide is a terrible work of the Enemy of life and joy. When it happens to a Christian, it casts a shadow over the claims of Christianity and the sufficiency of God’s Book.
Second, as the numbers rise in the unbelieving culture, the suicide rate has also increased among believers and pastors. There is no lack of statistics about pastors and their struggles with depression. According to the Schaeffer Institute, 70 percent of pastors constantly fight depression, and 71 percent claim to have experienced “burn out.” And, we are told that it is depression and despair that are the leading causes of suicide. However, we also see that struggles and problems are predicted in Scripture. Paul gives a vivid testimony of his own battle in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11. What we see is that although the struggles are real and dark and at times seemingly overwhelming, God has given us personal promises of grace and mercy to enable his people to be victorious in every kind of conflict.
Third, those who study depression say that the key cause of depression and suicide are a person’s thoughts. Proverbs reminds us that what “a man thinks within himself, so he is.” (Prov. 23:7) The Enemy is not only a murderer, he is the master of lies. (John 8:44) He attacks our thoughts by using lies to kill our faith and rob us of our joy in Jesus. Because the enemy is always on the prowl seeking to devour the faith and life of God’s people, especially the church’s leaders, Peter exhorts us to be sober minded and alert. (1 Peter 5:8) Our first line of defense is thinking soberly about what God has written in the Scriptures. (Psalm 119:69) It is our greatest weapon on the spiritual battlefield. (Ephesians 6:17) When we fill our minds with God’s truth there is no room for the devil’s lies. That is why it is surprising and telling to discover that 72 percent of pastors, according to one study, reported that they only study the Bible when they are preparing for sermons.
It is my conviction that it is here where the battles are won or lost. I chose one Scripture that sums up what I believe. Psalm 119:165 says it like this: “Great peace have they who love thy law and nothing can make them stumble.” At the risk of being seen as simplistic and harsh, I think this passage is a clear statement that removes any excuse for a Christian to take his or her own life. “Great peace” is the opposite of great depression or great despair. It is resting in the promises of God. It is persevering in the midst of the greatest battles and the darkest of nights. It is persevering in God-given, joy-producing hope. It is being convinced that “God is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) Nothing, nothing can defeat the man or woman of God who possess great peace given through God’s powerful promises.
The secret to experiencing this overcoming peace is found in the love of God’s law. The psalmist declares it like this: “Oh how I love your law. I meditate upon it day and night.” Psalm 119 reminds us that the law is much more than the place we go to get our sermon for the coming Sunday. God’s law, his written word, His life-giving promises, are the source of our delight (16); our freedom (32); our treasure (72); our comfort (76); our hope (50); our salvation (81), and our peace (165).
It is God speaking to us through his Scriptures, as we love, read, memorize, devour, obey, trust and pray over, that will take us victoriously through any conflict. They will teach us about the power and goodness of God. They will teach us about ourselves, our need for God and convince us of the joy he has planned for us. They will uncover the schemes of the devil and teach us how to overcome them. Through our perseverance, and by his promises, we will gain divine hope, the power to win every battle we face. That is what I wished I could have shared with this young pastor.
In our next article, I will show how our enemies are not the challenges and disappointments of life, but an evil, personal Devil. He is a murderer and a liar from the beginning. (John 8:44). He hates God and his people. He uses lies to destroy the wonderful life that God desires us to live. So, it is God’s truth, hidden in our hearts, that is our primary weapon against his murderous schemes. Depression, despair and death are not beyond the realm of God’s sovereign grace. Great peace is promised to all who love God’s law and NOTHING can make them stumble! Joy and peace are found as we replace his lies with God’s truth. When his words rule our thoughts, we will defeat the Enemy every time.