Any one who stands for righteousness will be attacked. It is those who fall into the narrative of this world who have an easy life. This world is fallen. Very fallen.
And we are not immune to this.
I have seen psychosis and melancholia and mania up close and personal for decades. I have seen too many people not in their right mind, and this I know: we are not immune from the problems of our society. As our society is sick, anxious and depressed, so are we.
Stoecklein’s death is the latest in a series of high-profile suicides in the evangelical world. Five years ago, Matthew Warren, the son of my friend Rick Warren, took his life after a lifelong struggle with depression. And then last year, pastor Bill Lenz, whose ministry included suicide prevention, committed suicide after struggling, like Stoecklein, with depression and anxiety.
These cases are only the most visible ones. While hard data is difficult to come by, Chuck Hannaford, a clinical psychologist who consults for the Southern Baptist Convention, told the Gospel Coalition that “he believes the rate of pastor suicides has increased during his 30 years of practice.” And he expects it to keep rising.
Part of the reason data is difficult to come by is that mental illness is still stigmatized in many Christian circles. Ed Stetzer, the co-host of BreakPoint This Week, tells the story of a pastor who shared his struggles with depression with his congregation’s leaders. Their response was to remove him from the pulpit.
That response may have been extreme, but it wasn’t unforeseeable. A 2013 study by Lifeway Research found that nearly half of evangelicals “believed that people with serious mental disorders can overcome their illnesses with ‘Bible study and prayer alone.’” “Serious mental disorders” includes depression, bipolar disorder, and even schizophrenia—the three disorders most closely associated with suicide.
Stated differently, they view serious mental illness “as a character flaw rather than a medical condition.” As Stetzer put it, Christians are forgetting “that the key part of mental illness is the word ‘illness.’”
And as with other illnesses, they require professional help. But if seeking that help is tantamount to admitting to a character flaw, people are less likely to seek professional help and share their struggles with others.
I will not cast stones on the US psychiatric system. It is stretched, and at times breaks. So does the system here. We do have the ability to help… somewhat.
So if the preachers don’t mind listening to a pewsitter who dispenses psychotropics for a living…
- You are not immune, you are vulnerable. Like me, you hear too many bad stories. You grieve for too many people. If you swim in a sewer, you stink, and if you are in a therapeutic space with suffering, you will suffer.
- Medicos kill themselves all too often, because we keep on working when we should take days off. Do not follow our example
- Your job and calling is not worth a despair. Take a break. Take six months off, a year. The elders can hold things together. If you broke your leg, they would have to.
- Listen to your wife. If she says you are not fit to make decisions because you are exhausted, do not go in. For you are still responsible for your decisions when you are exhausted
- Do not fake it, and pretend what is good is not. That was the fault of Job’s comforters. It is better to accept that this is the situation, and you are in pain, and name it. Forgiveness comes after confession: or in therapeutic terms being able to accept the condition allows one to change
- Above all, this season will pass. I have lived through one this year, and another may happen.
This is before we consider that we have an enemy, who accuses us of all faults. We have people who will criticize and troll and complain, for they have nothing else in their life. The attacks can be malevolent.
If Christ hid himself from the crowds, you can take time off. Read some junk. Play a sport. Go and spend time where you can be ordinary. Recover.
Do that before you give up to despair, for you will be a long time dead, and you will have to give an account for this life.