These were the words of a friend of Matthew Warren when he learned that Warren, the son of Rick and Kay Warren, took his own life last Friday. I know that pain all too well.
I have been honest with you about my battle with depression. It has not gotten any easier or better. And yes, sometimes the pain, the excruciating pain, just gets too much. I would much rather suffer physical pain than this emotional pain. Matthew Warren, a Christian who came from a loving home and had access to medical and spiritual help, could no longer bear his pain. Statistically, another American ended his/her own life seventeen minutes prior to Warren’s suicide, and another seventeen minutes after. Eighty six people in the United States take their own lives each day, while another 2,150 attempt to kill themselves. And this does not take into account all of those who walk through their days suffering from depression, feeling as if their soul is in a vice and their life is being slowly suffocated.
But statistics don’t feel pain, only people do. And mental illness does not avoid those who check the “Christian” box on their census forms. I guarandamntee you that at least one person in your pew or row at church this Sunday will be one who is suffering from depression or another mental illness. No matter the size of your congregation, chances are very good that at least one person in worship with you this Sunday has had suicidal thoughts in the last six months. And while we will gladly (and rightly) declare ourselves pro-life and take a stand for the unborn, we cower in ignorance and fear when confronted by someone who has emotional pain that could cause them to take their own life.
As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off the balance? C.H. Spurgeon
I really don’t want to join the growing chorus at this time saying that the church needs to do more for the mentally ill in their midst. Yes, that is true in a broad sense, but once again, the “church” is not going to be the one to help. It is the people who make up the church that must be God’s hand extended to those who are hurting. And these human hands are just that, human hands, imperfect and flawed and clueless. Yet it is these hands the Lord uses, or wants to use. So I want to address three people in this mess of life that involves pain so severe it can result in death.
First of all, pastors. You are not a leader, you are not a director, you are not a spokesman. You are a pastor, a shepherd. There is nothing, not one thing, that matters more than your sheep. Nothing. Forget everything else but the sheep in your care. Sheep get sick, and if you don’t care for them, they will die. Yet since you are most likely not a licensed counselor or medical professional, just how are you going to care for the sick sheep?
Certainly prayer. By all means, prayer. And helping them to know how God sees them is vital. For so many caught in the web of depression, the spider that is closing in on them is doubt and despair. Doubt that God cares, that he even knows who they are or that they are in agony. They may have seen God clearly for much of their lives, but now the clouds are so thick they wonder if he ever existed. Your job is to turn their eyes from themselves to God. This is not easy. It will take time and patience and tender fierceness.
More than anything, you just need to be there for them. Not just once or twice, and not just when you see the on Sundays. Go to them, even if they don’t want to see you. See them anyway. Sit with them. Listen to their stories. Stay. Be. Care. That is what a shepherd does. And you are a shepherd.
Next, laymen. You are just as useful to God in bringing healing as the shepherd is. Maybe more. After all, if my pastor were to come see me (which he hasn’t, but that is another story), I might think that he was just fulfilling his duty. But when my friend Mike calls to tell me he is coming over to watch baseball with me and bringing ice cream, I know it’s not because he is being paid to do so. It’s because he knows I am suffering and he wants to help bring healing. (When I told him I was feeling the effects of depression, he said he didn’t think it was depression, just a recession, and with any luck we’d get through it without anymore layoffs. I told him to shut up and pass the ice cream.) You won’t have to look very far to find someone suffering from depression in your workplace, your neighborhood, your school or your church. (And if you can’t find anyone, you can come be my friend.) And just like the commercials that say you don’t have to be perfect to be a Big Brother, just willing, the same goes here. You don’t have to be a medical professional or professional minister to give aid to one suffering from depression. You just have to be willing. I don’t want someone to come over and try to “fix” me. I just want friends who will love me and be with me.
I wrote earlier about how lousy Christians are at loving one another, even though that is the one mark Jesus said will identify us as his followers. I talked about how few people I have had who are willing to say “I love you” or just come be with me. This week I had breakfast with a friend who apologized for not being there for me, and said “I love you.” With him, that brings me up to a total of … three. Three people from my church who have said “I love you and will walk with you as you go through this.” I can count two or three other friends who also are there to encourage me (like Mike, who goes to a different church than I do, and my former coworker Smokey) and show me love. There are others, however, who, for whatever reason, don’t want to say “I love you” or cannot find time to just be with me. There are those who say, “If you are ever having a bad day, call me,” not understanding that someone in depression can’t even pick up the phone and call. So if you are going to be used of God to bring healing, you will have to do the calling. It will most likely be inconvenient and tedious to go sit with someone who is not the life of the party. Do it anyway.
Finally, the one who is depressed. You are sick, just as someone with diabetes or cancer is sick. You can’t just “get over it.” You need help. You need medical help. You need counseling. Both of these are necessary (and I am receiving help from my doctor and from a professional counselor). You also need spiritual help at this time, and that is going to be more difficult. If you have a true shepherd at your church, one who is willing to tend to sick and lost sheep (which, by definition, is all sheep), then count yourself among the fortunate few. If you attend a church with a leader or a celebrity or someone other than a pastor, you are going to have to look elsewhere. But do look. You don’t need someone who is a gifted speaker or a noted theologian. You need a patient listener who will help you to see through the clouds to the One who has never left you and never will leave you.
You may find it hard to keep going to church, to face those who smile and seemingly have no cares beyond beating the Presbyterians to Applebees for lunch. Forget them. Instead, find someone else who is hurting and give them a hug. You will know that one when you see him. He will look just like you.
Here are some additional essays/stories to read on this topic.
The Boat In The Backyard (Michael Spencer)