Falling and flames: brief words on depression

With heavy hearts, Grant and I and the LOVE // WAR podcast team mourn with the Inland Hills Church community in Chino, California after the passing of that church’s lead pastor, Andrew Stoecklein. In the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul admonishes us to weep with those who weep. Stoecklein is in the loving arms of his Savior forever, and while we know intellectually that Christ has conquered death eternally, the pain of his death, especially among his wife and children, his church body, his family, and his friends, is immense. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we recognize and dignify and feel that pain.

Stoecklein’s pain here on Earth was also immense. Make no mistake: it wasn’t his choice, his decision, to leave his loved ones. The disease of depression and anxiety took him away like a cancer. Or perhaps a heart attack is a more apt analogy: when it comes to the devastating diagnosis of depression and accompanying suicidal ideation, the tools we use, the interventions and self-care and disciplines, can fall short. Some who have survived self harm liken the impulse to holding in a sneeze.

As the celebrated author David Foster Wallace wrote, before his life was cut short to depression:

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

The misinformation and misinterpretation of psychology and mental health has led to some conclusions among Christians which, I believe, are utterly bereft of grace, born of a misunderstanding of the dramatic finality of Christ’s work on the cross. I don’t want to give too much play to these attitudes, but I want to be clear: the idea that the victim of suicide is hell-bound or has lost salvation is theologically bankrupt and biblically untenable. It is a belief most often espoused by those believers who also claim that depression is something to merely “get over;” that psychological and medical interventions are replacements for simply praying and believing. These backwards judgments add to the overwhelming burden of depression and anxiety; unfortunately, being a “good Christian” isn’t enough to crush that deceiving snake under foot. It’s the same lie the serpent told Adam and Eve in the garden: You have it all wrong. You aren’t good enough. You can be better. You can do better.

Speaking for both Grant and me, I wish that our podcast last week wasn’t as topical as it is today. I wish we didn’t have this horrific example of why it’s our responsibility as Christians to take seriously mental health issues. Yet another mass shooting happened this weekend in Jacksonville, Florida, and while the debate continues to rage on about access to guns and a so-called “mental health crisis,” it’s worth noting that people who suffer from mental health conditions are so much likelier to be victims than perpetrators of violent acts. These sufferers are sitting in the front row of your church. They’re teaching your kids. They’re running the soundboard. They’re greeting you when you first walk in. They’re smiling as they play the keyboard onstage. They’re laughing as they lead a Bible study. They’re your brother, your sister. And sometimes, they’re your pastor.

As we grieve the loss of Andrew Stoecklein, I hope we also grieve our own sins of complacency and ignorance over depression and anxiety and mental health. As we pray for his wife and children and family and community, I hope we also pray for openness and honesty about our own struggles and insecurities, and our embrace of those who, to use the beautiful analogy we used in the LOVE // WAR podcast, are stuck in the blizzard. If you’re suffering, we told you where you can find help: the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a phone call away at 1-800-273-8255, and you can also send a message to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

And of course, as always, you can always reach out to us at LOVE // WAR. Email us at thisisalovewar@gmail.com, and I will personally call or text you if you need a supporter and a listener. You are not alone.

Once again, our thoughts and prayers are with Inland Hills Church and Andrew Stoecklein. But those aren’t just empty words. Our thoughts and prayers are accompanied by love and action. To echo Inland Hills Church, “May we be a beacon of hope for the community, to rescue the hurting and honor the God that Andrew served so well.”

Amen.

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