This has been a tough week. It has been almost impossible to escape the picture of Pastor Andrew Stoecklein and his beautiful family. Especially those three little boys. After preaching a series of messages about his ongoing struggle with anxiety attacks and deep depression, he lost the battle. He died of suicide Saturday, August 25.
The grief seems to have swept the country. Perhaps it’s because of the haunting picture of his family. It’s almost certainly because he was the popular pastor of the fast, growing Inland Hills Church in Chino, California. That’s just not supposed to happen to Christians in general and pastors in particular. Really?
The deeper you look into the pathology of depression and other mental illnesses, the clearer it becomes that some of the most unlikely groups are particularly susceptible. Youth suicide has exploded in the U.S. It is the second leading cause of death among youth from 5-24. The recent suicides of high-profile pastor’s kids, including Rick Warren’s son Matthew have shocked the Christian community.
Now, when we talk about clinical depression, we’re not talking about having a bad day or week. It’s the oppressive sense that you’re having a bad life. It’s experiencing certain symptoms like: fatigue, feelings of emptiness, changes of appetite, oversleeping, under sleeping, feelings of worthlessness, and other symptoms, for a prolonged period of time. (1)
I’m not a doctor, nor the son of a doctor. But I pastored for close to 30 years and I’ve seen Adventists struggle deeply with depression over the years. This week reminded me of some of the reasons why. Let’s look at three..
Because They Are Human
Adventists might be peculiar, but they aren’t unique. They are subject to all of the normal limitations and stresses of living in bodies of flesh. We’re on our way to heaven, but we ain’t there yet. This side of heaven our physical experiences are strangely similar to Christians and non-Christians alike.
Ellen White is a great example. Supernaturally gifted of God? Yes! Struggled with bad kids? Yes! Got sick of her husband at times? Yes! In her diary she described times when she felt, “no desire to live.” She also wondered, “Oh, why is it that such gloom rests upon everything? Why can I not rise above this depression of spirit?….I have no health and my mind is completely depressed.” (2) Gifted, but human. So are you.
Because They Are Hurting
You can’t be human in this broken world without experiencing deep hurt. Loss of every kind. Disappointment that will literally knock you to your knees.
The ultimate answer is found in our relationship with Jesus. He is our mighty counselor and comforter. But just as physical doctors are used of God to aid the healing of broken bodies, godly counselors are ordained of God to aid the healing of broken minds and spirits.
And often we dismiss the strong connection between physical challenges and mental illness. In I Kings 19, when Elijah was so depressed that he asked to die, God didn’t send a faith healer, he sent him to bed. He didn’t tell him to fast and pray, he told him to eat and sleep. Is this a denial of the power of prayer? No. It’s an acknowledgement that sometimes God’s answer to your prayer is to direct you to seek help for your body and mind.
Because They Are Hiding
I am convinced that a primary cause of depression among Adventists is our emphasis on performance. It’s hard to deny that our emphasis on commandment keeping and holy living can at times tip the scales into legalism. And legalism is a recipe for depression.
Legalism is the conviction that only those who perfectly obey are accepted by God. It’s a trap, because given that definition, you can never do enough. You can never experience the joy of full acceptance. And of course, to admit weakness is to acknowledge sin, which is further proof that you’re not saved or safe. So, they hide.
The remedy? Grace. A life-long study and experience of God’s unmerited favor.
Paul said, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Romans 3:28
Paul said, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, not by works so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:8-9
Does this diminish the call for works? No at all. It places them in their proper place, which is critical for those struggling with spiritual depression. Grace turns legalism on its head. Legalism says, “I obey; therefore, I am accepted.” Grace says, “I’m accepted; therefore, I obey!” Big difference.
This has been an eye-opening week. Let’s keep our eyes open for depression.
I’m done. What do you think? Are Christians and Adventists more susceptible to depression? Less? Have you ever wrestled with depression?
Jesse Wilson serves as the Director of the Bradford Cleveland Brooks Leadership Center on the campus of Oakwood University, and the Director of the Pastoral Evangelism and Leadership Council (PELC).
- “Is it Blues or Depression?” V. Michelle Bernard Visitor Magazine. 1-3-2-018 Columbiaunion.org
- Ellen G. White manuscript 6, 1859, in The Ellen G. White Letters and Manuscripts With Annotations(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2014), vol. 1, pp. 632, 633