It seems that scarcely a month or two goes by without another story about some pastor or other Christian leader taking his own life.
In January, we learned that Jim Howard, the pastor of Real Life Church in Valencia, California, took his own life after what was described as “a long battle with mental illness.” Two weeks later, it was reported that police have concluded the August 2018 murder of a pastor in Wyoming, Michigan, was actually a suicide. Police believe that staged his own death to look like murder to save his family, which disputes the findings, from shame.
“Save his family from shame.” I’ll come back to that in a little while.
Although it should have been obvious long before these tragic deaths, it is now clear that Christians are not immune to serious mental illnesses such as clinical depression and its frequent companion, anxiety. It should also be obvious that it is possible to sincerely believe all the right things, appear to have a robust spiritual life and still feel like you are barely hanging on inside.
Ask Sheila Walsh. In her recent book “It’s Okay Not to Be Okay,” the former 700 Club co-host writes “When you host a live Christian talk show as I did for five years but inside you’re barely hanging on by a thread, what do you do? I smiled to cover up my pain even though I was dying inside.”
Then, one day she found herself standing on the beach: “All I wanted to do was to keep on walking until the waves were over my head. The only thing that stopped me was the thought of my mother receiving a call to tell her that once more she had lost someone she loved under the water.”
Instead of killing herself, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she spent a month being treated for severe clinical depression.
Or ask former presidential speechwriter and Washington Post columnist Mike Gerson. Earlier this year, his regular readers, of which I am one, noticed his absence from the Post’s Op-Ed pages. Naturally, I assumed the worst: cancer, Ebola, necrotizing fasciitis.
It turns out that Gerson was sick, just not in the way I imagined, although I should have. In a sermon at Washington’s National Cathedral, he told the congregation that he had been hospitalized for depression.
In words that anyone suffering from clinical depression is all-too-familiar with, he described the toxic interior monologue that went on inside his head, which he recorded in a journal: “You are a burden to your friends.” “You have no future.” And “No one would miss you.”
Sound ridiculous? “The scary thing,” he told listeners, “is that these things felt completely true when I wrote them. At that moment, realism seemed to require hopelessness.”
Eventually, as Gerson said, “the fog in your brain begins to thin.” An indispensable part of this “thinning” is “patience and the right medicine.” But another indispensable part is people. The toxic monologue may insist that you are a burden to your friends, but, as Gerson discovered, “there are friends who run into the burning building of your life to rescue you.”
Not only that but, as Gerson’s friend Peter Wehner recently pointed out, what the depressed person sees as a “burden” to his friends is actually a blessing for them.
Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Wehner stated what should be obvious: “Sometimes in life, we are called to carry our friends; other times we need to be carried by them. Blessings can be found in both.”
After all, as Wehner reminds us, “we all face struggles of one kind or another,” whether it’s “a marriage that is breaking apart,” alienation from our families or illness, to name but three.
But we are not to carry these burdens by ourselves. As Paul told the Galatians it is bearing one another’s burdens that we fulfill the law of Christ. Elsewhere, he tells the Corinthians that “If one member [of the body of Christ] suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
Allowing yourself to be helped during tough times not only reminds you that you’re not alone, but it also reminds the person helping you that when it comes their time to suffer, they will not be alone.
Then why does it often feel like it’s not okay to be not okay at church? Why does it seem like the last place you want to share your struggles is at church?
Part of the problem is inherent to depression: people who are depressed gravitate towards isolation. When your inner monologue is screaming “I’m a fraud,” “I’m a burden to my loved ones,” and “No one will miss me when I’m gone,” reaching out to others is more than difficult – it’s nauseating.
But a lot of the problem lies with the performative nature of much Christian piety. Most churches and Christians have confused being the people of God with middle-class respectability. Ideally, we should be 1970s era Orange County Rotarians with at least a 750 FICO score.
In other words, we must have our act together, emphasis on the “act.” The ideal public presentation of Christian piety requires confidence with the requisite soupçon of humility; strength with a hint of meekness; and self-reliance with the mandatory verbal obeisance to our ultimate dependence on God.
In other words, it’s hypocritical, in the New Testament sense of that word. The Greek word hypokrites, which combines the words hypo, “under” and krites, “to judge,” can be translated as “one who judges (or interprets) from beneath.” Beneath what? A mask like the actors of Jesus’ day.
When everyone around you is wearing a mask that says “I’m more than okay; I’m a conqueror!” or “I’m running around the entirety of creation stamping every square inch of ‘This belongs to Jesus’” taking off your mask and showing a face that says “I’m barely holding on” or “I want to buy a half-ton pickup and a fifth wheel RV and get the **** out of here!” requires either courage as with Walsh and Gerson or simply being too tired to go through the motions anymore.
This is the “shame” that Michigan police suspect the pastor wanted to spare his family.
I would like to able to provide you with a happy ending, if for no other reason than to not be “that guy.” But while there’s a growing understanding of mental illness and suicide in Christian circles, it’s still necessary to, to paraphrase the author of Hebrews, go over the elementary truths of the subject every time a prominent Christian commits suicide or, as with Walsh and Gerson, are ill enough to require hospitalization.
We still don’t have a “theology of weakness” There’s still very little room for what the late Brennan Manning called “the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out.” It’s still bad witness (marketing?) to acknowledge that for many people the Christian life will consist of what Manning called “the Victorious Limp.”
Thankfully, most of us will discover that Gerson is right that “there are friends who run into the burning building of your life to rescue you.” On Monday through Saturday.