Sick of Living: When Christians Are Tempted By Suicide

As I write this, the world is still recovering from the news that actor Robin Williams hung himself on August 11, 2014. He had fame, a great sense of humor, a loving family–and a long personal history of struggling with severe depression and chemical dependency. (And, ironically enough, one of his best-known roles was in the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, which prominently features a young actor’s suicide.)

The exact nature of Williams’s relationship with God is a matter of speculation (see the wide range of prominent opinions that come up under a Google search for “Robin Williams Christian”); and many wrestle with accepting that a true believer could ever consider suicide, let alone go through with it. A serious look at the real world suggests that many could. Best-known recent example: Matthew Warren, son of Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren. Matthew had a solid Christian upbringing in a loving family. He led others to Jesus. He had a gift for encouraging others. He believed he was accepted by God and would be in Heaven. He was covered by prayer from friends and family.

Yet none of that kept him from struggling for most of his life with mental illness and depression, from repeatedly wishing to “just die and end this pain,” and from finally, after years of medical treatment and coping skills failed to bring relief, shooting himself dead in 2013 at the age of 27.

The Matthew Warrens in our churches are not the rule, but, sadly, neither are they the major exception. Of the hundreds of thousands of people who attempt suicide in the United States each year (some 40,000 successfully), many are “church people,” often those who seemed the strongest spiritually. The chances are all too good that your Christian peer group includes someone who has committed suicide or that the last person you’d expect is seriously considering it.

Or–you yourself may be finding thoughts of that “easy way out” all too tempting. I’ll personally admit, not to being suicidal in the literal sense, but to slightly-more-than-occasional fantasizing on that level. 

We do well here to remember James’s words on temptation: “each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15). The temptation to suicide follows the same pattern as any other temptation: a person wants something badly (often something legitimate in itself, in this case relief from pain); as he thinks more and more about how much he wants it, hope of obtaining it legitimately decreases, while desperation to have it at any cost increases; and eventually, his desire becomes so dominant that he does the once unthinkable. That’s not to say he simply sat back and let the desire have its way with him; many people who fall hard were actually “dragged” by a temptation that they fought for years and which refused to leave them in peace. In fact, many suicides have been motivated by desperation to escape–or shame over giving in to–less drastic temptations. 

Different people are, of course, vulnerable to different temptations; and there are certain types of people who find the suicide temptation particularly enticing.

Many suffer from mental illness. You’ll recall that both Williams and Warren had longstanding issues there. What you may not know is that up to 90 percent of suicides struggled with some level of mental disorder–or that experts estimate up to 25 percent of the population to be affected (see, for example, the official fact sheet published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness). Most people underestimate the reach because they apply the term only to the most extreme cases–people so out of touch with reality that they hardly notice outside stimuli, or sociopaths completely lacking in conscience or emotion. Actually, the majority of people with depression, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental problems can function “normally” in the everyday world, suspected at most of being “difficult” or “eccentric.” And, contrary to popular opinion, the vast majority of those with mental illness, far from being blissfully happy in a fantasy world where problems are nonexistent, are generally miserable over standing out, being unable to connect with others, and living an existence seemingly out of control. That misery is one reason why mental illness and suicide often go together.

Which brings us to feelings of isolation. “No one really understands” thoughts are a major factor in many conclusions that this world isn’t worth staying in–and for people with mental illness, those feelings are often justified. Despite greater medical understanding and expanded advocacy, much of the world still “stigmatizes” mental problems. Sadly, often the Bible-believing-Christian group is the worst of all; while we scowl at extremists who blame unhealed cancer or diabetes on lack of faith, nearly half of evangelical Christians still assume that fellow believers with mental disorders have no excuse for not being able to cure the problem with prayer and “right living.” I still sting from the response I got, some eight years back, from a peer and licensed Biblical counselor whom I told about being diagnosed with mild Asperger’s syndrome: “No one ‘has’ Asperger’s syndrome, it’s just another excuse secular psychology offers to let people get away with sin and immaturity.” Besides belittling my own struggle, that comment implied that several people I deeply respected were fools and enablers for acknowledging it. 

A related factor associated with suicide temptation is Type A personality: perfectionism accompanied by constant striving and–when one fails to meet one’s own impossible standards–guilt. Many people who commit suicide were active in the community and seemed to have it all together, while all along moving toward an “I never can be good enough” breaking point. Compounding the problem, a Type A who accepts that workaholism and fretting do no good will often refocus his or her perfectionism into a vicious circle of “you cut out all negative thoughts permanently this second–I told you to stop thinking negative–can’t you do anything right?!?” (Believe me, it’s not funny when you’re living through it.) Small wonder that Type A Christians easily turn legalistic (read: joyless) about their faith and start to entertain thoughts of “life is more trouble than it’s worth–why do I keep putting up with it?” 

Finally, spiritual warfare is a factor to consider. The majority of people with depression are particularly creative and sensitive–the same characteristics that produce music, literature, and art that inspire the world to think deeply, and the same characteristics that empower people to care for others at heart level (Matthew Warren had an exceptional gift for empathy). Given how much such actions do to raise humanity above shallow this-world-only thinking, it’s not hard to imagine that the devil sees the creative and sensitive person as a particularly dangerous enemy and concentrates the heavy fire of discouragement on removing such influences.

Perhaps because of spiritual opposition, perhaps simply from being personally attached to the matter, I have labored far longer and harder on this post than any to date. I wish I could conclude by offering a three-step method to cure temptation-to-suicide in loved ones–or in yourself. I can’t. Like chronic physical illness, like many an obstacle of circumstance, like Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7-9), deep discouragement is generally something that must be endured and struggled with for years, perhaps to the very point where earthly life ends (hopefully in God’s timing). And in the middle of the struggle, it can feel almost impossible to look to, let alone wait patiently for, the better things God has waiting for us when the struggle is over–the better things that, to a great degree, are forged by the struggle itself.

So, since as usual the Bible says it better than I ever could, I leave you with Paul’s words from 2 Cor. 4:16-18. May this encourage you to hang in there for one day at a time, however more “one days” God may have planned for you:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

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9 Comments

  1. janetanncollins

     /  September 5, 2014

    Once I was taking a medication that made me depressed as a side effect. It was the worst experience of my life. The only reason I didn’t commit suicide was that I figured I’d be in Hell, which would be just the same as what I was experiencing. I got off the medication in about a week and was back to normal in a couple of days. That horrible experience gave me an understanding of what seriously depressed people experience all the time. In many cases depression is caused by brain chemistry.

    Reply
  2. Thank God, I have been spared the absolute deepest level of depression (the kind that leaves you totally nonfunctional for weeks); but twice in my life I have hit a personal low level I wouldn’t wish on anyone, the sort that makes general “I hate life and nothing ever goes right” brooding seem positively ecstatic by comparison. Both periods coincided with times when significant change seemed imminent: one was in the first semester of my senior year of college; the second was very recent, and I’m still taking daily doses of Citalopram (a serotonin-boosting antidepressant) to recover from it. Circumstantially speaking, what I need there is a solid time-management plan (by “solid” I mean the kind I don’t try to rewrite whenever things get stressful) and a lot of paying work writing just the sort of things I do in this blog–but right now I’d settle for almost any form of paying work that guarantees a thousand dollars or two a week for a while!

    Reply
  3. Whoops–I really meant to say a thousand or two dollars a MONTH, i. e., just enough to maintain my immediate standard of living without draining my caring relatives’ savings any further!

    Reply
  4. Gina Etherton

     /  September 5, 2014

    Well thought out conversation.

    Reply
  5. Jo Swank

     /  September 5, 2014

    Powerful post, Kathy! You have done much research and your own sharing is authentic.
    Thank you for concluding with the powerful encouragement of Paul’s words in II Corinthians. Amen!

    Reply
  6. Martha Doolittle

     /  September 11, 2014

    Excellent article, Katherine. Some of the best insight and encouragement I’ve ever seen on this subject, especially from a Christian perspective, and it hits home personally in several ways. Thank you for being transparent and faithful in your calling as a writer. There is no doubt that God is using you in more lives than you can imagine.

    Reply
  7. From the age of 4 to the age of 61, I suffered from depression, and although I didn’t necessarily plan my own demise, I sincerely hoped to die at least once a month.

    Part of depression is anhedonia: there is no enjoyment to life but just bland, tasteless tedium. From talking to many others for whom fighting suicidal urges has been a c0nstant battle for years, even decades, I believe anhedonia is the biggest single reason a person kills himself.

    The suicide prevention agencies, though, what do they do? They lock up someone who appears to be a threat to himself. They ask him if he’s been thinking about harming himself. Bleep no, he thinks, I’ve been hurting too much for too long already;I want to stop the hurt!

    Suicide is legal in all 50 states,and if you think about it, Jesus voluntarily died, so we shouldn’t think of it as shameful, but as a basic human right. Instead of forcing someone to continue living a life that he considers intolerable, we could be helping them find life worth living.

    “When’s the last rime you really had any fun?” we should be asking. Take them for an ice cream soda. Go walking barefoot in the surf. Get a bottle of bubbles and blow bubbles in the park. Fly a kite. Grab a fish pole and drown worms. Find a puppy that likes to lick faces.

    Find someone who needs what he offers. It’s hard to argue that your life is meaningless when you’re teaching someone to read, or to speak English, or something else that can’t be replaced by welfare or an insurance policy.

    Shaming people doesn’t prevent suicide. It’s time we tried something better.

    Reply
  8. janetanncollins

     /  September 29, 2014

    Suicide hurts everyone who knows the person who takes his or her own life. Most of them wish they could have sone something to prevent it. Maybe after reading this post some will be able to help people considering it.

    Reply

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