(Yesterday after the “normal” sermon about the book of Ruth, I spent a few minutes discussing a couple of things I felt called to share.)
While I was away on vacation, Robin Williams died. It was amazing how much his death by suicide touched a nerve in people – Facebook blew up, Twitter blew up, and the news was full of reports about what happened. I was saddened by his death – he was a tremendous actor and a very funny comedian.
There were lots of good things that were said in the wake of Robin Williams death, but there were a some misconceptions that were shared, particularly by Christians, that I believe are important to address as a pastor.
First – some said or wrote that if Robin Williams had been a Christian he never would have had depression in the first place. I honestly don’t know what Robin Williams’ faith was, but that is a silly statement regardless.
Christian people – committed Christians, believing Christians, Christians who live out their faith – do deal with depression. Depression is no more a sign or a result of a lack of faith than are cancer or a broken leg. Depression is a disease, an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. Being a Christian does not inoculate a person from depression.
Certainly, as is the case with other illnesses, prayer helps.
But in the same way God has given us doctors and nurses with skills to treat heart disease and arthritis and so on, and has given us medications that also help, God has given us resources to treat depression.
For a Christian to receive therapy or take anti-depressant medication is NOT a sign of a lack of faith any more than it is for a diabetic to take insulin.
Implying as we sometimes do that “if you just had more faith you wouldn’t be depressed” or “if you prayed/went to church/ read the Bible more,” only adds to the guilt and hopelessness experienced by a person with an illness who needs treatment.
Another things folks said and wrote after Robin Williams died is this: “If he only knew how much he was loved then he wouldn’t have been depressed. He wouldn’t have killed himself.”
Now, I’m never going to preach that love isn’t important, or that God’s love – both directly from God and shared by Gods’ people – is not the greatest thing in the world. But depression makes it tough for folks to experience that love. The way I think about it is the same way a diabetic can’t process sugar without help, someone who is depressed can’t process positive things in life – including love – without help. Another analogy might be color-blindness – someone who is depressed is like someone who can only see gray, and it’s not their fault or anybody else’s fault.
Not anybody else’s fault . . . Depression is not the fault of family or friends – it’s an illness. We only make folks feel guilty when we imply “They should have been shown more love” or whatever. And that’s especially the case when suicide results from depression.
As humans, we try to figure out why a person does something harmful, and it’s only natural that we speculate when someone commits suicide as to why they did it. But that’s not what the survivors need – they are already beating themselves up enough. What the survivors need isn’t speculation and judgment – they need support and love and perhaps mental health treatment, for a time, themselves.
I’ll preach about this more sometime, but I just need to say this about suicide – Suicide is not “the unforgiveable sin.” Some churches have taught that, but it says that nowhere in the Bible. It’s a tragedy and it is certainly not what God wants his children to do. So yes, it is a sin. But we are forgiven by grace, not by what we do or don’t do – the blood of Jesus is enough to cover even a tragic thing like suicide.
Finally, if you might be depressed – there is help! It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help when you need it. Not only is it a blessing to serve, it is a blessing to be served. One of the things that made Ruth a Woman of Valor is that she boldly got help for herself – and Naomi – when she needed it.
As your pastor, I can always listen but I am not a professional counselor. Just like if you came to me with symptoms of another illness, I can refer you to someone who God has given the skills, talents, and training to help you heal. I will certainly support you through your treatment. I am blessed to have a wife with a counseling background – I think we are blessed as a congregation – and she is always happy to listen as well if you’d rather talk to a woman, and she can also refer you to professionals who can help.
And if you feel like hurting yourself, tell someone. Tell me, tell a friend that you know will get you help. God loves you and has given you a gift of life. God has stuff for you to do even if you can’t see it right at the moment.
Finally, I say this to our Confirmation students every year when we talk about suicide, but it goes for adults as well as middle schoolers: If someone ever says anything to you about hurting themselves, take it seriously. Don’t keep a promise not to tell someone. They may get mad at you, you may even lose a friendship, but that’s always better than losing a friend.
(Preached at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville, August 24, 2014)