By Elizabeth Prata
Depression and suicide are on the rise in the world, and sadly, it is on the rise for Christians too. Suicide rates for Christians are about the same as for non-Christians. Pastor suicide rates are up also. Just last month it was reported that Inland Hills Church in California was shocked after Pastor Andrew Stoecklein committed suicide. He was young and he left a young wife and three young sons.
Some organizations say depression is a sin. Others do not go that far, but say instead that depending on our response to it, it could be a sin. David Murray wrote 7 Questions about Suicide and Christians after it was announced that Rick and Kay Warren’s son Matthew had committed suicide.
Prolonged depression is dangerous and could lead to suicidal thoughts or unfortunately to the act itself. Depression and suicide have been with Christians for a very long time. Martyn Lloyd Jones famously preached on the topic at length.
Concerned about the joyless state of Christians, especially after the stressful years of World War II, in 1954, Lloyd Jones preached a sermon series that was later published as Spiritual Depression: Its causes and its cure. Each sermon takes one cause of discouragement (e.g. worry, doubt, regret, suffering) and addresses it from a biblical perspective. You can listen to those sermons for free at the Martyn Lloyd-Jones Trust.
Charles Spurgeon wrestled with depression himself. Zack Eswine, in his book Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression wrote that Spurgeon dealt with the concept of suicide openly.
Spurgeon deals frankly with the issue and admits that genuine believers can become so downcast that they’re tempted to let go of the tether of hope. Such thoughts aren’t necessarily insane (Paul’s desire to depart in Philippians 1 demonstrates this, Spurgeon says), but he shows that ultimately the Christian is called to choose life, understanding that dark seasons will come to every person in a fallen world. This is a particularly important discussion since depression and suicide among pastors seems to be on a sobering uptick.
Going back to the 1600s, John Bunyan wrote about Christian suicide in his famous allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress. (pub. 1678). It was a remarkable scene. Christian and his new friend Hopeful are making their journey toward The Celestial City together. The path had become difficult, and they spied a parallel path on the other side of the fence that seemed easier to traverse. Coming to a stile, Christian convinced Hopeful to climb over and off they want, departing from the path they were told to take. They did not know that they were entering the lands owned by the Giant Despair, who soon captured them and brought them to his Doubting-Castle. The Giant threw the pair into a dungeon without light, food, or water. The Giant promised to beat, torture, then kill them. Here is the scene from an online version of The Pilgrim’s Progress using modern language:
So the next morning he went to the dungeon with a bad-tempered manner as before; on noticing that the prisoners were very sore on account of their previous beating, the Giant told them that since they would never be released from their bondage, the only alternative way of escape was for them to commit suicide using either a knife, a noose, or poison. “For why,” said he, “should you continue to choose life seeing that it is filled with so much bitterness?”
Hopeful spent a good amount of time speaking hope to Christian, and offering reasons not to do it. Christian promised not to and the pair fell asleep. The Giant Despair returned and was even more enraged that the prisoners were still alive. He would have finished them off then and there but he fell into one of his fits where he could not use his hands. He withdrew, raging again that the prisoners ought to take his advice and do away with themselves.
Then the prisoners discussed amongst themselves whether it would be best for them to take the Giant’s advice or not. So they entered into intense conversation.
CHRISTIAN: My brother, what shall we do? The life that we now live is miserable. For my part, I do not know whether it is best for us to live as we are, or to die at our own hand. My soul chooses strangling rather than life, and the grave appears more desirable than this dungeon. Shall we accept the Giant’s advice?
Hopeful again calmed Christian with his good words. He reminded Christian that he had resisted Apollyon by using his sword, and Apollyon went away. He said Christian had been brave going through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Christian had already endured so much more besides.
So do all of these count for nothing in your present fearful plight? You understand that I am imprisoned with you, a far weaker man by nature than ever you were. Further, this Giant has wounded me as well as yourself, and he has deprived me of bread and water even as you; and along with you I detest this darkness. But still let us exercise a little more patience.
Bunyan himself had been imprisoned for 12 years, for no more than the ‘crime’ of preaching the Gospel. Though no letter, papers, hint, or clue reveals that Bunyan ever considered suicide, his lengthy imprisonment, separation from his family, his blind daughter’s death, and his inability to provide for his wife and children (who constantly lived on the edge of poverty) weighed on Bunyan terribly.
That Bunyan would include such an amazing scene dealing with despair and suicide is astonishing. Bunyan well knew that Christians can fall into despair where the grave seems preferable to continuing on in such a deplorable state.
How did Christian get out of the dungeon? He and Hopeful began to pray. Then “suddenly” Christian remembered:
In my chest pocket I have a key called Promise that will, I am thoroughly persuaded, open any lock in Doubting-Castle.
At this point, the footnote refers to these verses: Gen. 28:15; Heb. 13:5; Rev. 1:18. What is the Promise? Here they are
Genesis 28:15 – Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
Hebrews 13:5 – Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,”
Revelation 1:18 – and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.
The key called Promise did indeed open the door to their cell and the front door and the gate. They escaped Doubting-Castle and the Giant Despair.
Bunyan’s character Hopeful had urged Christian to have more patience. Bunyan here focused on the perseverance of the saints. This focus comes through many times in his allegory Pilgrim’s Progress and never more than Christian’s awakening from his weary passivity in the dungeon.
We have to persevere with patience, day by day, inch by inch sometimes. It is the patient forward motion that will aid the Pilgrim in his journey to the Celestial City. No matter if he is in darkness, facing Giant Despair, fighting Apollyon, resisting the Vanity Fair, or confronting any temptation or weight.
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, (Hebrews 12:1).
Christian, you are not alone if you are in a dark dungeon, feeling the weight of despair, or fighting off the encroaching voice pressuring you to take your life. You’re not the only one experiencing it. Help is available.
Here are some resources:
Lloyd Jones Spiritual Depression Sermon Series
David Murray (video) Christians get depressed too
I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God.
Jonah 2:1; 6