Editor’s Note: The subject matter of this article is not an easy one; however, in the reflections of those who have personal experience of reaching out with a spiritual care to help in this area, there is much for us to consider and learn. I am sure that it will be understood by our readership why this article is anonymous. Much of the work of a shepherd in such circumstances must be done quietly and anonymously. We do pray that as this article is read, and the very honest thoughts and feelings are shared, there will not only be an increased awareness of such difficult issues, but a deepening exercise amongst believers to prayerfully support the work of true shepherds among the Lord’s people.
Sooner or later, any believer who either has distinct pastoral responsibilities in a local church, or simply has a pastoral heart, will, at some stage, most likely come upon a fellow Christian battling with depression and possibly having suicidal tendencies. It may be that if such a situation ends in tragedy, that person will face struggles themselves, partly because of a close friendship formed with the one they have tried to help, and, partly, due to blaming themselves for the outcome.
Reflecting on a sad case of depression that ended in a believer tragically committing suicide, there are experiences, truths and lessons which I pray might prove helpful to others who seek to come alongside Christians in similar circumstances.
David states in Psalm 139 verse 14 that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. Therefore, the overriding observation that I would make – that the underlying cause was much deeper-rooted than at first seemed to be the case – is one that could apply to a very broad range of issues faced in pastoral work due to the complexity of the human mind.
In the particular situation faced – and I suspect that this would be the case whenever someone attempts to help a believer with depression of any kind – one of the most difficult tasks was that of distinguishing between ‘clinical depression’ which, while, of course, calling for the support of other believers, needs to be handled by clinical experts, and ‘spiritual depression’, which requires very careful handling by tender-hearted believers. It may be helpful to remark that, in this case, although the individual concerned had been treated for clinical depression, they were insistent that the root of the matter was spiritual rather than clinical. I believe this insistence stemmed from an intensely (and excessive) self-critical attitude, which in turn was probably exacerbated by the clinical depression that was being experienced.
Ideally, such individuals, along with family members associated with them, would be encouraged to seek the help of a Christian medical expert (if one is available locally) who would have a greater understanding of their reasoning, but, especially, would be more likely to be able to convince them of the true root cause. In this case I was dealing with an adult not connected to anyone else in the church by any family ties, and whose own family connections were not Christians. In such a situation there is really little opportunity for influence in this area.
On the question of self-criticism, it is worth noting that we live in a day of huge contrasts. On the one hand, the ‘need’ for self-worth is promoted highly, and, in essence, this is contrary to the scriptural principle: ‘humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up’, Jas. 4. 10 NKJV. On the other hand, perhaps even as a reaction to this philosophy, naturally self-critical Christians can unintentionally undervalue the work of Christ by allowing sins of the distant past (either committed before salvation or since, but confessed and repented of) to haunt them and give them a sense of unworthiness to be accepted as believers, or even of being ‘beyond redemption’. Of course, we are all unworthy – saved ‘by grace’ alone, Eph. 2. 8, and ‘kept by the power of God’, 1 Pet. 1. 5 – but God now looks on us in a completely different way, as those who are ‘justified [counted right] by faith’ in Christ, Rom. 5. 1, having been ‘justified [given that righteous standing] by God’ Himself, 8. 30, and we are now ‘accepted in the beloved’, Eph. 1. 6. So, it is really a slur on the work of Christ to claim an unworthiness to be accepted by God. As to the possibility of being beyond redemption, Paul stated, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief’, 1 Tim. 1. 15 (emphasis mine), and the promise of 1 John chapter 1 verse 9, that ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ can rightly be claimed by every true believer; again, to dispute the possibility of forgiveness is to challenge God’s faithfulness to His promise. It is worth observing that, according to the latter verse, it is not God’s love or grace that is being challenged but His faithfulness and righteousness; mercy, love and grace were all seen in the provision made for sinners in the death of Christ, but having made that provision God must forgive the genuine confessor of sins to be true to His name. I mention these truths as rocks on which the believer engaged in the counselling can stand, but we have to deal carefully with the lack of appreciation of them on the part of the sufferer as an ill mind can play all sorts of tricks. I witnessed the levels of these features, i.e., self-criticism, unworthiness and hopelessness, all increase as the sufferer’s condition deteriorated.
Leading on from this, I note from general observation that many believers who have few doubts as to their eternal security early on in their Christian experience can suffer from a major lack of assurance later in life. One reason for this could be increased sensitivity to sin, in principle a good thing (in fact something which will rightly characterize every Christian who is developing Christ-likeness) but, coupled with a weakening of the mind (perhaps due to age or a natural tendency to depression), this can lead to a destabilizing of the believer as the focus shifts away from the sure promises of God to his or her own inadequacies. I would judge that this is what happened in the case I was dealing with. For this individual, there had been doubts in the past about eternal security, but these had been largely dispelled by helpful literature dealing with Bible passages such as John chapter 10 verses 28 and 29, and reminding them of our standing in Christ, depending on Him and not on us. As the mind weakened, however, these concerns returned and when such verses were brought to bear on the subject the response was that perhaps they had never been saved (back to the question of being ‘beyond redemption’).
Another conclusion I have drawn is that experiences early in life, e.g., abuse of various kinds during childhood, can not only scar the victim but also contribute to the development of unhelpful character traits. These may be suppressed during the vigour and busyness of early adulthood but re-emerge later in life, especially in the face of other trials or particular circumstances, e.g., loneliness. In this instance, harking back to those earlier experiences compounded the negative effect of a lonely existence, which resulted from difficult circumstances within a marriage relationship. As more and more cases of abuse in early life come to light, we are likely to come across this scenario more frequently in the lives of believers.
Something that might not be at all obvious (I certainly would not have thought of it had I not experienced it) is that witnessing such necessary action as appropriate church discipline administered on another believer can produce, or add to, anxiety and self-judgement on the part of an individual who is already tending towards self-condemnation, even though the individual has not acted in a way that calls for discipline. In this case, sins of the past long repented of reared their heads in this situation due to the person’s state of mind. It is not the purpose of this article to address the question of church discipline and how it should be administered, but my own thought, after seeing this effect, is that perhaps sometimes the reason for discipline is not sufficiently explicit, such that sensitive Christians may become over-anxious about their own past behaviour.
When the mind is not clear, poor judgements can be made and bizarre actions taken; I would suggest that these should be seen and dealt with in a gracious way in light of both the current condition of the mind of the individual and the background circumstances that may have influenced this condition; Galatians chapter 6 verse 1 may be a particularly appropriate scripture for such a situation, ‘If a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness’, NKJV.
If the situation considered in the earlier part of this article should finally lead to the believing friend committing suicide, or if indeed any Christian has to deal with the trauma of a believing friend ending their life in such a tragic way, I would offer the following comments from my own experience.
On the negative side, it has to be said that the void left by the departure of a friend to be with Christ was exacerbated by the combined effect of the growing intensity of the friendship during the struggles leading up to the tragic event and the knowledge that this was a premature loss.
There is also a natural tendency to question whether one did enough to help prevent the tragedy, and anyone involved in such a situation may need help to rest in the Lord in this respect. If there has been a measure of failure, God would not have us dwell on it, but simply confess it and move forward with Him. Resting in the Lord is probably one of the most difficult things to do in the struggles and trials of life, and, if we feel that the trial is resulting even partly from our own failures, this adds to the difficulty. One can only guess that David would have felt like this when returning from a potentially unholy alliance with a Philistine king in battle against his own nation. He found the city in which he was living ransacked and his wife and family and the wives and families of all his army taken captive; his army then threatened to stone him, and yet he was able to encourage himself ‘in the Lord’, 1 Sam. 30. 6. How important it is for us to be aware of the exhortations of scripture to find rest in the Lord – including in some of David’s psalms – so that the Holy Spirit can bring them to our minds in such situations.
On the positive side, I found great comfort in the confidence that, although the action taken could not be condoned, the friend, as a true believer, was ‘present [literally “at home"] with the Lord’, 2 Cor. 5. 8.