Psychology and Suicide in the Church

Saturday night I was surprised to read that Rick Warren‘s son, Matthew, committed suicide after a long struggle with mental illness.  You and I know Rick Warren as one of the most prominent pastors in America today.  He wrote the books The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life. He is the pastor of Saddleback Church in California and you may remember that he offered the inaugural prayer in 2009.

The statement given to his church community on Saturday reiterated that his youngest son, Matthew, was “an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man.”  He made special efforts to spot and encourage others who were struggling in the church.

But ultimately, he succumbed to his own anguish.  “In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided.  Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.”

I am glad to see that the church community at large is supporting Warren’s family during such a tragedy. I too am very sad to hear about the news, particularly because mental illness likely contributed to the suicide.

But I am also saddened for another reason.  I’m surprised that there are still a number of people within the church who champion archaic notions about psychology and about suicide.  When I read the reports of the suicide, saw several of the comments people left.  While most of them were supportive, others were just mean.

Some were from folks who simply hated Warren and his church. I doubt that anyone takes them seriously–after some of these comments, I wouldn’t take them seriously about anything from that time forward.  But I’m more concerned about the Christians who say things like:

“What’s really sad about all of this is that he went to hell because he committed suicide.”

What a heartless and mindless thing to say, especially in a public forum.  Though I don’t care to delineate the biblical reasons why I think this kind of theology about suicide is ridiculous, I will say this. A person who thinks that a vibrant relationship with Christ instantly becomes null and void because of one bad decision is a legalist.  He has a poor understanding of theology and probably sees God as more of an ice-cold robot in the sky.  As long as you are sort of good and never do really terrible things like suicide, you’re in good standing.  But, even if you walk with Christ your whole life and then in a wave of abnormal despair take your own life, do you think God would toss you aside in disgust?  That is not a good relationship.

Truthfully, I am sad for the people who think this way.  The kind of people who think that God has a list that you must keep.  He likes you if you do all of these things; but if you do one of the major bad things, hit the road, buddy! There is no room for love in a relationship that demands such strict obedience. Your behavior may indicate your affections for another person, but do you really think that we will always win every battle in this life?  Do you think that the type of battles that we win or lose has bearing on our eternity?  I was under the impression that it was really about one particular battle that Christ fought on our behalf.  I think I heard that in a sermon just over a week ago.

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie Luther, where Martin Luther buried a boy who took his own life.  The church would not allow the boy to be buried on church property since they believed that victims of suicide go to hell.  Luther rejected that notion and dug the boy’s grave on church property with his own hands.  He explained that the Devil used despair to kill the boy, the same way a robber kills his victims in the woods.  To Luther, one who dies of suicide loses a battle, and that is not a damnable offense.  I think this approach works best.

There is another attitude in the church that bothers me.  It’s the notion that psychology, psychiatry, and (secular) counseling is somehow unbiblical or unchristian. I would like to be godly enough to say that this grieves me, but really it just ticks me off something awful, especially since some mainline churches still take this position.  I remember a church I attended some years ago was one of the most prominent in the area.  I went with one of the pastors to visit a church member at a local hospital.  The young lady we visited had struggled with depression for years.  Recently, it became very intense.  She couldn’t manage it on her own any more.  Now, thanks to the medicine and therapy she was clear-headed and on a stable road to recovery. That’s when my pastor said “Have you considered that you just need to pray more and meditate on the scriptures instead of taking medicine?”

I wanted to slap the man. Here is a woman who was living a godly life who got sick.  Now she is making huge strides in recovery and my pastor friend thinks that this is some kind of sin.  The truth is after she recovered, her godly life continued and she thanked God for the hospital and the medicine. She didn’t abandon the faith, she could now embrace it more.  Although I will say, she didn’t have much desire to attend that church anymore!

Part of the church’s mission is about physical and spiritual healing. I hope and pray that we can eventually weed out these erroneous notions which are counterproductive to the church’s pursuits.  Clinical depression and other forms of mental illness can and must be managed with counseling and even with medicine.  The church ought not be afraid of these things, because they work!  Isn’t that reason enough to do it?  And when some people lose loved ones to these diseases, we will not be judgmental.  Instead, we cover the family with love, prayer, and support. I’m very happy to see most of the church moving in the right direction.

Categories: Practical, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Psychology and Suicide in the Church

  1. Since hearing of Matthew’s death, I’ve mostly been praying and reflecting on my own life. I’m only now venturing out to see what others are saying.

    As a Christian with a mental illness who has attempted suicide myself, I grieve for the Warren family and can appreciate Matthew’s struggle.

    At the same time, the way we respond when someone commits suicide needs to be both compassionate and truthful. While the Bible is not clear that suicide is the “unpardonable sin” of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”, one can not deny (no matter how awful the circumstances) that it is a supreme act of ingratitude against God’s gift of life.

    Most importantly, we need to send the message to people enduring the profound agony of clinical depression to never give up, no matter how bad it gets – to “choose life” – for yourselves and your loved ones.

    Thank you for the post and the opportunity to share.

  2. Well said, Tony!
    As for the topic of suicide, I cannot see any evidence in the Bible that it is an unpardonable sin of any sort. Still to your point, it seems that every portrayal of it in the Bible is in a tragic context that God does not smile upon. I applaud you for having the courage to choose life, and thank you for your comments! May we all keep pressing on together!

  3. Carolyn C.

    I do not know what the Eternal outcome is for those who commit suicide-I DO know that the fallout for those left in its aftermath is almost too painful to bear for the reason you cite: “every portrayal of it in the Bible is in a tragic context that God does not smile upon”-not a hopeful prospect.

  4. Pingback: THE REALITY OF THE SPIRITUAL WORLD | Inspirational Christian Blogs

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