Earlier this month, Matthew Warren, son of Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The 27-year-old suffered from a mental illness that led to depression and suicidal thoughts, according to a statement issued by the church. Since announcing Matthew's death, the Warren family has received an outpouring of support and condolences from the Christian community.
But many of Warren’s critics have taken to social media to criticize and even attack the pastor on everything from his books to his views on homosexuality. While that may not be surprising, the number of cruel comments made by fellow Christians surprised many. These commenters blame Warren for his son’s death, and accuse him of lacking parenting skills. Some even questioned his salvation. Numerous leaders within the evangelical community, including Beth Moore, took to the internet and condemned the attacks. Moore called the harsh comments slander and, “the furthest thing from biblical.”
Although the number of people who questioned Warren’s faith and actions is relatively small, their comments highlight an ongoing attitude of condemnation toward suicide and mental health issues in the church. Pastors and counselors who regularly deal with both say Christians need to understand mental problems are part of this fallen world, and the people who suffer from them need God’s grace and mercy and people’s compassion, just like everyone else.
Paul Tautges, pastor of Immanuel Bible Church in Sheboygan, Wis., and a biblical counselor with the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC) and the Biblical Counseling Coalition (BCC) says most segments of the church rightly view suicide as sin because suicide is an attack on the image of God in man, an attack on God himself. The problem is that, in response to sin, the church does not quickly go to a full view of Christ as God’s gracious remedy. Instead, they rush to judgment or condemnation, afraid to take on the tough problems that sin produces.
“Everything we struggle with is a result of sin, the fall—but not always personal sin,” Tautges said. “There is much we experience in this life because we live in a fallen world in fallen bodies. All of creation is groaning and waiting for the day when we are fully redeemed. In the meantime, there are these realities like panic attacks, depression, and fear—overwhelming clouds of darkness that seem to hover over our lives. We need to acknowledge that those problems, that can lead to suicide, are real.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 36,000 completed suicides in the United States every year, and for every completed suicide there are 25 attempts. In his recent e-book Help! My Friend is Suicidal, police chaplain and Juanita Community Church pastor Bruce Ray claims the numbers are underreported. Those statistics represent real people—friends, family, co-workers, Sunday school teachers, and the guy who used to sit at the end of the pew. And while we don’t have statistics on how many Christians take their own lives each year, Ray said he has presided over the funerals of many suicide victims who were professed Christians.
But many churches struggle to admit and deal with issues like suicide and depression within their congregations, a large part of the problem, Ray said: “It pains me to say this, but I think we do tend to look for the easy road and avoid grappling with the tough things we encounter in life. That’s true of mental illness and depression, and it’s also true of things like suicide, domestic violence, and incest. Many pastors don’t want to believe that these things that are in the world are also in their churches, even when they are specifically pointed out to them.”
Jay Alvero, director and pastor of Hope Network Counseling at Biltmore Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C., says most church leaders simply aren’t equipped to address the level of issues a suicidal person is facing, and it is up to the pastor to recognize that limitation and help that person seek medical help. Both Ray and Tautges recommend people suffering from depression get a full physical to find out whether physiological elements might be contributing to the overall problem.
“As pastors we want to get people connected to medical help, but also to deacons and caregivers to help people navigate the difficult challenges of life so they don’t get to the place where they want to end life. Sometimes people just need Jesus with skin on,” Alvero said.
Ray thinks the church can be equipped to help people struggling with suicidal thoughts. But too often, churches refuse to face suicide as a real issue.
“Instead of being afraid of people with mental issues and suicidal ideation, and avoiding them, pastors need to teach their people how to engage such people in love and really listen to them, offering biblical solutions to the things that trouble them,” he said. “It’s the people in the pew that need to be armed and equipped to talk to people. The more we talk about these things openly we can take a bolder and more aggressively helpful stand.”