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 Millersville Bible Church (34 years ago).
The pastor of the Mennonite Church stayed with the new church for the first few years and we had a great friendship. Shortly after I arrived, tragedy struck his family 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.”
This was my first funeral as a young pastor.
The pastor’s son had suffered some kind of mental break while in pre-med school. He was a kind and gentle person, 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. After the death of his wife to cancer (several years earlier) and the loss of his only two children to suicide, he was plunged into a state of deep despair.
In preparing to lead the funeral, I learned that many Mennonites believed that suicide meant loss of salvation. I clearly did not believe this and it was my duty to make it clear to a room full of people at a funeral home (suicide also meant that one was denied a funeral in the Church building).
There was standing room only at the funeral parlor as 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 of those in attendence 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 with God, but he was hurt, confused and truly lost in his grief. Although I lacked pastoral experience, I tried to be a faithful friend and gentle source of encouragement to this pastor. He was always so appreciative and gracious.
Thirty-four 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 with many others who battle waves of depression and despair far worse than me.
Servants of God who battled despair
It’s good to remember the great servants of God who battled despair.
- Job – “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb. Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed? For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest. …Or why was I not hidden away in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day?” (Job 3:10-13, 16)
- Moses – “I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin”(Numbers 11:14-15);
- Elijah – “Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them. Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors'” (I Kings 19:1-4).
- Jonah – “When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die,and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live” (see: Jonah 4:1-10).
Each of these servants of God reached extremely low points in life where they wanted to die. Although none of them (to our knowledge) attempted suicide and each saw it as God’s right to end life, each also felt that life was no longer worth living. God graciously restored his servants through a variety of methods.
The funeral service
I gently reminded people at the funeral service 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.
I also emphasized how important it is for us to respect God’s prerogative over life and death so that we refuse to take our own lives.
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 to seek out caring and wise friends.
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).
Biologically-based depression – 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.
We risk doing more harm than good when we approach all despair as solely a matter of choice.
Avoid simplistic advice
One-liners thoughtlessly spoken are discouraging to those battling biological depression.
- “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?”
A key to helping those battling despair is to patiently ask caring questions about their struggles. Try to understand the full picture before giving too much advice. It’s not wise to be hasty to give advice to people without gaining adequate understanding.
Remember that the brain is perhaps the most complex human organ. The Vice Chair of my church board is a neurophysiologist and we’ve often discussed the neurological challenges people experience. He fully affirms that (like all other organs), the brain doesn’t always function in healthy 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 challenges like depression.
Those who benefit from depression medications must never be made to feel embarrassed about it. They’re no different from those who take medication for deficiencies to 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 those who suffer,
See also: The anatomy of normal sadness