Practically everyone in the Christian community has been affected by the suicide of Rick Warren’s son Matthew. The Body grieves with this influential pastor and his family as they face the unfathomable process of coping with this unimaginable loss.
Matthew’s death has also prompted the Church to examine our views on mental illness, psychiatric/psychological treatment, and medication. Many prominent Christian leaders have not only offered public statements of support for the Warrens, but are taking this opportunity to express opinions about an extremely sensitive subject that impacts a growing number of believers.
Most leaders are encouraging the Church to acknowledge that matters of depression and suicide are medical in nature and should be addressed no differently than other physical illnesses. They imply that to do otherwise promotes stigma and shame and restricts the believer’s access to appropriate care.
Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research, is stressing the need for the Church to address “mental illness.” In an article entitled “Christians Should Not Be Afraid of Medicine,” Stetzer acknowledges that the topic is a source of debate and that medication should be used with caution, but states that “…many mental health issues are physiological.”
Another article on the Internet, “Death of Rick Warren’s Son a Call to Address Mental Illness,” offers a similar view. According to Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, “Christians struggle with depression and even suicidal thoughts. It does not make you less of a Christian.” He further states: “Suffering from mental illness is not a sin. Yet, not addressing it, may very well be.”
The statements made by Stetzer and Rodriquez seem impulsive at best, and potentially dangerous. Both esteemed leaders make very definitive statements that many in the Christian community will embrace as factual, when in fact they are not. In reality these matters are questions requiring study and biblical discourse. To suggest that these matters have been settled in Scripture, or even in science, is absolutely untrue.
In a previous article entitled, “Psychiatric Medications: In Search of a Biblical Context” I provided a review of several studies, which leave the Christian with many unanswered questions regarding the science of mental illness and the use of psychiatric medications. Even the scientific literature has not agreed on a position.
Dr. Kenneth Kendler (2005), a psychiatrist and co-editor in chief of the journal Psychological Medicine said: “We have hunted for big simple neurochemical explanations for psychiatric disorders and have not found them” (p. 433).
In his book, Blaming the Brain (1998), Elliot Valenstein , professor emeritus of neuroscience wrote: “Although it is often stated with great confidence that depressed people have a serotonin or norepinephrine deficiency, the evidence actually contradicts these claims” (p. 292).
Stanford psychiatrist and researcher David Burns is quoted as saying: “I spent the first several years of my career doing full-time research on brain serotonin metabolism, but I never saw any convincing evidence that any psychiatric disorder, even depression, results from a deficiency of brain serotonin. In fact we cannot measure brain serotonin levels in living human beings so there is no way to test this theory” (as cited in Lacasse & Gomory, 2003, p. 385).
In summary science has not proven the truth that Dr. Stetzer boldly claims. There is no clear evidence to validate the existence of a biochemical imbalance as the source of depression and other mental conditions. In fact we do not know that “…many mental health issues are physiological.”
This is not to rule out the possibility of medical influence. We live in a fallen, toxic world that always yields the same end: physical death. Some individuals get cancer and heart disease due to lifestyle; while others get similar illnesses through no fault of their own. If a heart or lung can become diseased, it is reasonable to assume the brain could as well. But while the presence of a blocked artery or cancerous tumor is verifiable through medical testing, the presence of mental illness is not.
As a result Christian leaders must be cautious about our declarations based upon personal experience and human assessment. And while science has a place in Christian life, our first and enduring point of reference must always be Scripture. If we excuse all depression, anxiety, instability, and suicide as medical, we provide a flawed remedy without a proper spiritual assessment. In our effort to give relief, we discount the opportunity for transformation.
In Scripture there are many depictions of depression, grief, anxiety, fear, madness, and even suicide. The Word never defines such conditions as medical. Instead we see a consistent theme that divides the sufferer from God, allowing the manifestation of sin to deteriorate and defile the heart of the person.
King Saul suffered with depression and paranoia (1 Sam 16:14-17). Due to his disobedience the Lord removed His Spirit from Saul causing Saul to suffer in isolation, divided from God’s comfort and empowerment. Eventually his division from God and resultant pain prompted his suicide (1 Sam 31:4).
David likewise suffered depression as a consequence for sin. Speaking of unrepented sin, David lamented:
When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah
And while David repented and was forgiven, the ramifications of his sin rippled throughout his life and family, so much so, that late in his life David cried out to God for his own death (2 Sam 18:33).
Other biblical characters suffered depression: Job (Book of Job), Elijah (1 Kings 19), and Jonah (Book of Jonah). Job suffered due to the providence of God even though he was considered “blameless and upright” (Job 1:1) before his Creator. Elijah fell into despair because he feared human threat and left his appointed position. Estranged from God, he hid in a cave far away from the assignment he had been given (1 Kings 19:14). Jonah struggled in bitterness, wrath, and disobedience as he attempted to flee the Lord and refuse God’s will (Jonah 4:1-3). In the end he too asked for death.
Based on these examples, depression comes by sin, disobedience, unresolved emotion (especially bitterness and anger), spiritual attack, and the sovereignty of God. How then can we make the claim that such mental suffering is without spiritual influence? Rev. Rodriquez’s claim that mental illness is never due to sin is simply counter-biblical.
While the word suicide is not used in the Bible, there are several direct references to people killing themselves. Zimri, who briefly reigned over Israel, died in a house fire he started himself. He knew that he was about to be overthrown by his enemies and could not bear defeat (1 Kings 16:18). King Saul fell on his sword after losing a battle against the Philistines (1 Sam. 31:4-5).
Samson stopped allowing God to direct his life, fell to sin, forfeited his unbelievable strength, and was subjected to humiliation at the hands of the Philistines. Faced with ridicule and failure, Samson, in his final act of strength, pulled the pillars down, killing himself and his captors (Judges 16:25-30). Finally, we know that Judas hanged himself after betraying Christ for 30 pieces of silver (Matt. 27:1-5).
In each biblical example, we see the pride, anger, and rebellion of man that leads to death. The sin of suicide was always preceded by a progression of sins culminating in this final act of desperation. Each of the biblical characters was responding to external circumstances. Each chose to escape their situation rather than endure and persevere. None of the men referenced placed their faith and hope in God, possibly because they were already disconnected and relying on human strength and decision making, long before this fatal act.
Did Zimri, Saul, Samson, or Judas have medical imbalances that affected their judgment? Were any a product of childhood abuse or other painful experiences? Did genetics play a role? The Bible does not refer to such things. But the Bible is clear that murder proceeds from the “heart of men” (Mark 7:21).
In every biblical example, the circumstances around these men revealed the content of their hearts (pride, foolishness, wickedness, murder, evil thoughts, and covetousness). Even when there is a question regarding a medical condition or predisposing factors, Christians must be prepared to address the condition of the heart, paying heed to the emotions and actions that are evident in its expression.
Jesus dealt with numerous physical conditions, but His focus was always directed toward spiritual healing. He cured leprosy (Luke 5:12-13), blindness (Mark 8:22-24), paralysis (Mark 2:5-12), hemorrhaging (Mark 9:20-22), fever (Matt. 8:14-15), and even raised the dead (Matt. 9:23-26). But the Lord’s physical gift always paled in comparison to the spiritual truth and reconciliation He brought.
This too, must be our objective: reconciliation, truth, love, eternal security, and holy living. The physical healing is according to the Lord’s sovereign will. But, we know by God’s Word that He is “…not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
I pray our church leaders will not forget nor forsake the eternal objectives of the Kingdom, focusing instead on explanations and remedies that are temporal and deceiving. Believers and unbelievers can be sick, sinful, or both. But while some things are physical, all things are spiritual (Eph 6:10-24).
In our efforts to comfort we must always be purveyors of truth, as well as vessels of love (Eph 4:15). And while it is loving to offer compassion, prayers, and support for the Warren family and others suffering in such complex traumas, it is equally important that we remain grounded in the fullness of truth and the totality of Scripture so that we are not carried away with ideas that are well-meaning, but structurally unsound.
Tragedies like the death of Matthew Warren should open our debate and the Church should indeed have a response. But in our response we must be first and always biblical, willing to prove our conclusions according to God’s Word. Without this as our base, we will be unstable voices, echoing the theology of the world, to the detriment of the masses.
Abercrombie, W.P., “Psychiatric Medications: In Search of a Biblical Context”, The Biblical Counseling Institute, 2012, http://dev2017.bcinstitute.com/psychotropic-medications-in-search-of-a-biblical-context-2/
Kendler, K.S., “Toward a philosophical structure for psychiatry”, American Journal of Psychiatry 162: 433–440, 2005.
Lacasse, J.R., Gomory, T., “Is graduate social work education promoting a critical approach to mental health practice?” Journal of Social Work Education, 39: 383–408, 2003.
Valenstein, E., Blaming the Brain: The Truth About Drugs and Mental Health, Free Press, New York, 1988.