In April of 1989, I came precariously close to ending my life.

I was in the throes of a completely debilitating depression. Totally Incapable of rational thought, very ill, and unable to help myself, I lived believing the tormenting devilish lies continuously being fed into my mind. They were condemnatory, malicious lies, without foundation, yet to me they seemed completely logical. They dominated every moment of conscious thought.

Yes, I was a believer. Yes, I was a Pastor. That only magnified the guilt and pain. It brought a deeper shame and more complete sense of failure.
I believed that I had failed myself, my family, my Church, my vocation, and most of all my God. Desperation drove me to the ‘brink.’ One step into heavy traffic and it would be over.
In that one fragile, frightening moment, when life and death wrestled for domination over me, I am so glad that life won. I am here today only by the grace of God. I came 2 steps and 10 seconds away from being a suicide statistic. I would have missed so much.

In the light of the furor that the suicide of a California Pastor caused this past week, and all the subsequent discussion it has spawned, I wanted to address this issue from my own past personal ‘hell,’ and offer these few thoughts to the credential holders of our District Fellowship.

First, to those in ministry who feel in absolute hopelessness and desperation, I want to say:

  • You need not feel any sense of blame, shame or failure because of your present situation. Great men and women all through Scripture and Church history have faced and fought the ‘black wolves’ of depression and mental illness. You are not alone in this. There is no need to suffer in silence. You have always been, you are, and always will be, valuable in the eyes of Father God. Wellness or illness cannot change that. You are His prized possession.
  • You can and should reach out for help. I firmly believed that no one could help. I was wrong. There was help available. There is a positive, constructive way out of your private pain. There are numbers of us who personally understand what you are facing and we desire nothing more than to walk with you through this time. Modern medical help is available as well. More is understood about mental illness than ever before. (You can call me in complete confidence at any time. Simply PM me from this post and I will respond. I can and will point you in the direction of certain help.)
  • This torment is only for a season. There is hope for the journey ahead. ahead. I know you will find that hard to believe. I didn’t believe it either. I had no hope, no expectation of recovery. Yet, here I am almost 30 years later, functioning well in life. I take medication to stimulate the production of serotonin in my brain. I feel no remorse or guilt for doing so. I only feel gratitude for the help it gives. It is a small price to pay. Long ago I chose to discount the opinion of those who would censure me for taking ‘tricyclic antidepressants. Do I believe in divine healing? Absolutely! However, when God chooses to heal me, I will rejoice. Until then, I will thank God for medicine. I encourage you not to hesitate to take medicine prescribed by a competent, caring physician. Stick with it. It will make a difference.

Second, a few words for caregivers:

  • Never minimize or rationalize away the mental anguish someone else is facing. It is very real to them. Telling someone how they ‘should or should not’ feel is as foolish as telling a diabetic, he is only imagining that his pancreas is malfunctioning. Such counsel only reinforces the ‘already unmanageable’ sense of failure the person feels. Listen and love no matter how irrational he or she may seem to you.
  • Mental illness, for the most part, is not a spiritual condition. It is spiritual only in the sense that the devil takes full advantage, attempting to destroy those who are already ill. He methodically isolates his prey. Those who are battling depression do not need preachers. They need protectors. They need those who will stick with them, guarding them, covering them spiritually at a time when they cannot protect or cover themselves. When I was unable to pray or concentrate on the Word of God, my wife became the bridge to spiritual life for me. She carried to the Lord that which I was incapable of expressing myself. She shared the unfailing love He expressed in return. She read the Word of God over me every night even though I could not comprehend it. She prayed for me when I could not.
  • Be gentle but firm in procuring help for a loved one suffering mental illness. Had not my wife exercised that principle, I would not have received help. I was beyond believing that there was help. I fought help. I balked against the very thing that could help. If you are living with, or working with someone who will not seek help, seek counsel for yourself. Find out how to access help on his/her behalf. There are ways. In extreme cases, there are benevolent laws in place to provide help for those who are posing imminent danger to themselves. My wife found the resource she needed in the counsel of our Christian family doctor. It was a lifesaver. Choose help carefully, ensuring the professional you consult places the same value on life that God does.
  • Understand this condition as a biological illness. Mental illness is like any condition that affects any major organ of the body. It is ‘first and foremost’ a malfunction of the brain. The condition is exacerbated by genetic predisposition, environmental pressure and spiritual attack. However, the individual can only deal with those extenuating aggravations when the illness itself has been addressed. He or she needs healing, either by divine intervention or through the God- given ability of human physicians. Only when the person has returned to stable health, can underlying issues be addressed and resolved.
  • Keep yourself built up in the faith. Your greatest frustration will be your inability to ‘fix’ the situation. Allow others to minister help and encouragement to you. It is not selfish to need and want time to ‘refresh’ your own soul. Be honest about your feelings. Share them with someone you trust whose interest is solely in your health and well-being.
  • Refuse to accept guilt and blame. If the worst extreme happens and a loved one suicides, refuse to accept the guilt the devil will inevitably try to hang on you. For your own sanity, you must absolve yourself of blame. Ultimately, you cannot assume responsibility for the choice (rational or otherwise) of another. You will walk with unavoidable pain, but you need not walk with undeserved blame. Seek counsel for yourself and for other immediate family members affected by this tragedy.

A final Thought:

There was once a very strongly held position that those who took their life committed a sin worthy of exclusion from a safe eternity with God. Such teaching does not take into consideration the complete irrationality of suicide. Any suicide comes as a result of some form of mental illness that causes illogical and warped thinking.

Teaching that there is no redemption for suicide victims puts human limits on the inexhaustible supply of divine grace offered by a merciful God. Would I have interfered with God’s design for my life had I ended it prematurely? Certainly! Would He still have accepted me into His presence? Undoubtedly!
Am I glad I chose His way of life? Unequivocally.

Since my recovery, God has allowed me to minister to scores of people living, as I had, on the brink. That has brought me immeasurable joy.

Can we, with the same grace and mercy we have received from God, allow Him to judge according to His love? Then we will be free to be caregivers for those who are fighting mental illness and comforters for those left behind in the terrible wake of suicide.

We are here to help.

Al Downey

Al Downey

Pastoral Care Director at ABNWT District Office
Al Downey

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