My first funeral to conduct as a young pastor was for the former pastor’s son who had taken his life.
Public figures like California Megachurch Pastor, Rick Warren, find it hard to suffer privately. When the Warren’s youngest son, Matthew (27) ended his suffering from mental illness by taking his life, countless news agencies and bloggers reported and analyzed their loss. Great outpourings of condolence were mixed with the opinions of those who were not as kind. The Warren’s responded with grace and gratitude.
Although I don’t know Rick Warren, like many others, I grieved at the heartbreaking news of his son’s death. As a pastor, I’ve often had a front row seat to the kind of depression that Pastor Warren described in his son’s life. Early in ministry, I was also given the responsibility to minister to a pastor who lost his son to suicide.
My first funeral as a young pastor was for the former pastor’s adult son who had taken his life. The Church I accepted a call to lead was a Mennonite congregation before I arrived. It dwindled down to 10 people when my wife and I accepted the invitation to help them transition to become an independent Bible Church (28 years ago).
The pastor of the Mennonite Church stayed with us for the first few years of transition and we had a great friendship. But tragedy struck his family during this time as his adult daughter took her life and was discovered by his grandchildren. One month later, his only other child, a son in his early forties, ended his life so that, in his words, “My troubles would be over like my sister.”
The son had suffered some kind of mental break while in pre-med school. He was a kind and gentle man but he never fully recovered from his mental break. On one occasion, I asked him about his faith in Christ and he clearly articulated his belief that Jesus Christ was his savior.
I couldn’t have faced a more challenging call than to conduct this man’s funeral. His father (a very dear and godly man) was a respected leader in the Mennonite community. But after the death of his wife to cancer (several years earlier) and the loss of his only two children to suicide, he plunged into a deep despair.
In preparing to lead the funeral, I learned that many Mennonites believed that suicide meant a loss of salvation. I did not believe this and it was my duty to make it clear to a room full of people at the funeral home. Suicide (among Mennonites) also meant that one was denied a funeral in the Church building.
There was standing room only at the funeral parlor and I faced some rather austere men and women dressed in the old black garb common to conservative Mennonites. I quietly asked God for courage and grace to speak His truth from Romans 8:38-39. The response was amazing!
I emphasized my personal conversation about faith with the pastor’s son and I talked about the special challenges he endured. I then suggested that the Apostle Paul’s emphasis on the security of God’s love in Christ would not be threatened by something as horrible as suicide.
“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).
After the funeral was over, I learned even more about life and ministry as I walked with a man whose soul refused to be comforted. He was not angry toward God, but he was hurt, confused and truly lost in his grief. Although I lacked experience, I tried to be a faithful friend and gentle source of encouragement to this pastor. He was always so appreciative and gracious.
Almost thirty years later, I can say that I’ve lived long enough to know what it’s like to battle feelings of depression. I’ve also walked beside many others who have battled waves of depression and despair far worse than me.
It is good to remember that great servants of God like Job (Job 3:10-13, 16); Moses (Numbers 11:13-15); Elijah (I Kings 19:1-4), and Jonah (Jonah 4:1-10), reached extreme low points where they wanted to die. Although none of them to our knowledge attempted suicide and, each one saw it as God’s prerogative to end life, each also felt that life was no longer worth living. God graciously restored his servants through a variety of methods.
In the funeral service, I gently reminded people that most of those who commit suicide are not in a healthy state of mind. Some suffer from serious neurological deficiencies and others just lose perspective and see no way out of their sadness. But I also emphasized how important it is for us to respect God’s prerogative over life and death — enough to refuse to take even our own lives into our hands.
I encouraged them to turn to the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort when they faced despair (II Corinthians 1:3-4). And I emphasized the wisdom of seeking help from others.
Yet many are too embarrassed by their discouraged state of mind to ask for help. Some even feel guilty for being depressed when they know they have so much to be thankful for. This is where the Church must be more honest about how common it is to struggle with challenging emotions. Churches are called to be distinguished as communities of mutual encouragement (1 Thessalonians 4:18; 5:11; Hebrews 3:13; 10:25).
A word of caution
Biologically based depression cannot be treated exactly the same way as intense normal sadness. Church people are sometimes well-intentioned but hurtful when they approach all discouragement as a matter of simple obedience to the Lord. Sometimes words of encouragement and even admonishments are needed and helpful. But, in other cases, we risk doing more harm than good by approaching despair as solely volitional.
The following one-liners are often thoughtlessly spoken to discouraged people:
- “Just cheer up!”
- “Don’t be so negative!”
- “You have a lot to be thankful for!”
- “Complaining is a sin!”
- “Do you think God owes you a better life?”
The key to helping someone who is battling despair is to patiently ask caring questions about their struggles. Seek to understand the full picture before handing out advice. We Christians can be too hasty to launch advice at people in ways that are not helpful and perhaps serve our egos more than those in need.
Please remember that the brain is perhaps the most complex human organ. The Vice Chair of my board is a neurophysiologist and, more than once, I’ve consulted with him about the neurological challenges people experience. He fully affirms that (like all other organs), the brain doesn’t always function in health producing ways. Relatively recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience have provided hope for those who suffer.
I am grateful for the medicines available to assist those who struggle with neurologically based challenges like depression. And those who benefit from depression medications must never be made to feel embarrassed about it. They are no different from those who take medications for deficiencies in other bodily organs. Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made, but woefully and tragically fallen.
Those who battle prolonged and debilitating depression that negatively affects their daily lives and relationships should be directed to seek medical counsel. They should also be encouraged to be open to the possibility of medicinal aid.
Yet medicinal aid must never be understood as the total solution to depression. We are more than bodies with physical needs. The other dimensions of our being (spiritual, emotional, social) must receive thoughtful attention in our battle for health. A holistic approach respects all the dimensions of personhood created by God.
With prayer for the Warren family and all others who suffer,
See also: The anatomy of normal sadness