"Hope for the Mentally Ill and Suicidal" - Pastor Mike Larsen
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 8:38–39 (NIV)
If you are in crisis or know someone in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available to everyone. The deaf or hard of hearing can contact the Lifeline via TTY at 1-800-799-4889. All calls are confidential. Contact social media outlets directly if you are concerned about a friend’s social media updates, or dial 911 in an emergency.
In 2018, the world was shocked by the tragic deaths of both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Kate was an internationally famous fashion designer best known for creating colorful designer handbags. Her company, Kate Spade New York, once had more than 140 retail shops and outlet stores across the United States and more than 175 stores internationally. In 1999, she and her husband, Andy Spade, sold 56 percent of the brand to Neiman Marcus for $33.6 million. By all earthly standards, Kate Spade had a wonderful life. She had fame and fortune, but none of that was enough to help Kate in her darkest hour. Sadly, this beautiful, bright, creative, savvy businesswoman took her own life at age 55 on June 5, 2018.
Anthony Bourdain was a gifted chef and storyteller who used his books and television shows to explore culture, cuisine, and the human condition. On his popular series Parts Unknown, Anthony brought the world home to his viewers. Through the simple act of sharing meals, he showcased the extraordinary diversity of cultures and cuisines as well as how much we all have in common. Much like Kate Spade, from the outside looking in, Anthony Bourdain had a life that many of us find desirable. He traveled the world, sat across the table and ate meals with dignitaries, artists, musicians, and activists from all over the world. Anthony had fame and fortune, but none of that kept this brilliant and creative storyteller from taking his own life. Tragically, on June 8, 2018, Anthony Bourdain hanged himself in his hotel room during a film shoot.
As tragic as these deaths are, they have brought the topic of suicide out in the open for us to discuss. This is an important issue to talk about because, according to a CDC report released in June 2018, suicide rates have shot up “among both sexes, all racial/ethnic groups, and all urbanization levels.” These statistics show that regardless of gender, socioeconomic background, age, or geography (i.e., whether you live in the city, in the mountains, out on the prairie, in the suburbs, or in the inner city), mental illness and depression are no respecter of persons. Sadly, people from all walks of life consider suicide as the only solution to their problems.
In the summer of 2016, we did a sermon series at the church I pastor—Encounter Christian Church in Bellflower, California—called “That Is a Great Question!” That sermon series inspired me to write the first edition of Thanks for Asking. In 2018, the pastors and elders of Encounter thought it would be good to do the series again. So, we planned “That Is a Great Question! Part 2.” We solicited questions from the members of our church and set out to answer them every Sunday. Because suicide was being covered in the news, many people in our church asked questions such as “What does the Bible say about suicide?” and “What happens to Christians who take their own lives?”
The question most frequently asked was “Is suicide an unforgivable sin?” I knew that behind every question was a person with stories of hurt and doubt. Perhaps they had a loved one who had put their faith in Jesus but took their own life. Or maybe they had contemplated suicide, but their fear of going to hell was the only thing that kept them from following through. Of course, I haven’t heard every story behind this question, but I knew that as a pastor, I needed to answer this with utmost seriousness from the biblical text. So, is suicide an unforgivable sin? In short, the answer is no. Let me explain.
Suicide is the act of taking your own life. Suicide is the murder of self, and nowhere in the Bible does it teach that the act of murder is an unforgivable sin. How can we know this? Several key figures in the Bible were guilty of murder, including Moses, David, and Paul to name a few, and through God’s grace and sovereign election, their sins were forgiven. The Bible does mention people who have committed suicide, including Abimelech (Judg. 9:54), Saul (1 Sam. 31:4), Saul’s armor-bearer (1 Sam. 31:4– 6), Ahithophel (2 Sam. 17:23), and Zimri (1 Kings 16:18), and the most remembered, Judas Iscariot (Matt. 27:5). Christians from every generation have made terrible mistakes and have experienced depression, mental illness, or brain damage in ways that contributed to their decisions to take their own lives. However, to believe that the act of suicide somehow takes away one’s salvation is a terrible misunderstanding of the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
The Bible tells us that nothing can separate the believer from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. We know that because we read in Romans 8:38–39 NIV:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Suicide is not an unforgivable sin. This is good news for the believer and great news for friends and loved ones who are left to suffer from this most significant loss. The most urgent need is not to know the eternal destiny of a person who has committed suicide but to know the spiritual and mental despair that drives people to consider suicide. I have personally known two believers who took their lives, and both deaths were the result of mental illness. I am sure of this: God would never condemn somebody to hell for being mentally ill.
Rick Warren, pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life, lost his son Matthew at the age of 27 to suicide. Matthew was a Christian; his faith was securely in Jesus; he served at his dad’s church for many years, and he suffered from mental illness. Sadly, Matthew lost his battle with mental illness in 2013. Pastor Rick still describes it as the worst day of his life. However, at the same time, he believes that he will see his son again—not because of Matthew’s goodness or ability, but because of Christ’s goodness, his finished work on the cross, and God’s sovereign election of Matthew Warren. Pastor Rick uses his tragic loss to bless others. He says, “Don’t waste your pain; let God heal it, recycle it, utilize it, and use it to bless other people.” What a remarkable statement of faith from a man who believes that he will see his son again. Pastor Rick and his wife, Kay, have used the devastating loss of their son to help erase the shame and stigma around mental illness. Other than sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS, I don’t know of any other illness or disease that has the same degree of shame and stigma as mental illness does. If you had a heart condition, you wouldn’t be ashamed to see a cardiologist. If you broke your leg, you wouldn’t care whether anyone knew you were at the hospital seeking treatment. Then, why is it that when it comes to mental illness, people feel like they should keep it to themselves or not reach out for help?
Many people think that a person ought to be able to snap out of a depression. This is especially true among Christians who sometimes falsely believe that depression shows a lack of faith or unrepentant sin. The Apostle Paul was a great man of faith. But he struggled with what he described as a “thorn in my flesh,” and he pleaded with God three times to remove it (2 Cor. 12:7–8). Scripture is unclear about what the thorn in Paul’s life was or how it got there. It could have been something that Paul did to himself or something someone inflicted on him. Or it could have been something like a disease or a handicap. Again, the Bible is not clear, and I believe there is good reason for that. Regardless of what Paul’s thorn was and how it got there, it serves as an example of suffering that people with depression can relate to. Paul cried out to God for relief, and we should too.
It seemed to Paul that his faith was weak, and the thought of God not answering his prayer depressed him. But Paul’s faith was strengthened the moment God spoke to him in response to his weakness. It was when Paul was at his weakest that Jesus said to him as he says to us,
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
This revelation from God resulted in a deepening of Paul’s faith. Paul learned that whatever he was facing, God would be faithful. This new insight led Paul to embrace his weakness and declare,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. —2 Corinthians 12:9–10
Likewise, your weakness and struggle are not the result of a lack of faith or caused by unrepentant sin. Your weakness is there to prove that God’s grace is sufficient for you, so that his power will be made perfect in your weakness. Remember that very few people are able to snap out of a depression without treatment. All types of depression need treatment, but the treatments vary according to the source of the depression. No matter what the cause, the depressed person needs understanding and empathy, not condemnation.
What Can the Church Do to Prepare?
The people of God need to pray and educate themselves so that the chains of hopelessness can be broken and the walls of stigma, misunderstanding, confusion, and prejudice can be torn down and replaced with recognition, acceptance, and love. The people in Christ’s church desperately need to love, serve, and share God’s grace, forgiveness, hope, healing, reconciliation, and restoration through his son Jesus Christ with this lost and hopeless generation.
We, the church, need to resource ourselves with qualified counselors, physicians, and crisis call centers in our areas. We have to be ready to help those who are in crisis, so they can get the help they need.
I believe with all my heart that there is hope and healing for those that suffer from mental illness. You can face your pain today with hope, not because you never make a mistake, have it all together, or are mentally stable, but because God never makes mistakes. He has it all together, and he is perfectly stable. Through his son, God offers the forgiving, rescuing, and transforming grace needed to save and heal the brokenhearted and crushed in spirit.
(Additional sections were omitted due to length, but can be found in Chapter 10 of Thanks for Asking Second Edition)
HOW TO PRAY:
Pray for people in our community who are experiencing depression… that they feel Hope and find healing without feeling judged
Pray that family and friends of people experiencing depression or other mental illness know how to walk alongside and pray for their loved one(s)
Pray that pastors and congregations become better equipped to address mental health issues
Pray for social workers, therapists, psychologists, and counselors in Bellflower who help people on a daily basis who are experiencing crisis
Romans 8:38-39 “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
About the Author: Mike serves as the Lead Pastor of Encounter Christian Church in Bellflower, CA. Husband to his amazing wife Sheila. Father of Daniel, Steven, and Mikey and grandfather to Cenovia Rae.