It Is Not Un-Christian to Want to Kill Yourself. Period.

Jarrid Wilson. Photo courtesy of Google.

I’ve been reading the book “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” over the last few days. It’s very different than the movie made of it — which I love — but it follows the same basic premise.

There’s a kid named Craig Gilner, and he’s depressed and anxious because, well, he’s a teenager and there’s a lot going on in his life. Written in first person, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” begins with these words:

“It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint — it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.”

I’ve found in my life that my depression makes me quiet. Not just because I can’t quite get the words out, but because I don’t want the words to come out at all. I don’t want to scare my wife or my family. I don’t want people to question my commitment to x, y and z. I don’t want to talk about it.

But when the words do come out, they’re not very positive, to say the least. I tell my wife that she deserves someone better, someone who has it all together. I tell myself that it would be easier to walk away, to just disappear into nothingness. I tell myself, “Hey, heaven’s already going to be better than this — why not get there sooner?” 

I’ve never made a suicide plan. But I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it as I’m driving on a highway and prepare to cross a bridge, wondering if my car could make it through the bridge’s edges if I drove fast enough. I’ve thought about it as stand in my kitchen, looking at the knives stashed in the block on the counter. I’ve thought about it while standing at the top of stairwells, thinking it would probably hurt and would hurt worse if it didn’t work.

I’ve done all this — had these thoughts, spoken these words, held back those comments — while professing Jesus Christ as my Savior. Because it’s not un-Christian to want to kill yourself. 

This evening, before heading out to the local county fair, I scrolled through my Twitter and was devastated.

News broke that Jarrid Wilson, a pastor and author, had committed suicide at the age of 30. He was an associate pastor at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, and a co-founder of the mental health nonprofit Anthem of Hope. I followed Wilson on social media for a long time, and remember when Anthem of Hope started. I even offered to write for the site when they asked for regular bloggers. 

This was a guy who, the day before his suicide was reported, wrote on Twitter, “Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort. He ALWAYS does that.”

He was so, so, so, so right. And he lived that message! He was the guy who more-or-less singlehandedly, just through his presence on social media, helped me believe that it was OK to be a Christian who had depression and anxiety, that my mental illnesses did not disqualify me from being loved by God and loved by Jesus. 

This makes two people this year who have had singular and significant influences on my life and faith, two people that have died. Author Rachel Held Evans passed away in May. 

I usually know how to write a lot, and I started this blog post planning to write a long thing, but as I get into this, I’m losing words. So if this doesn’t come out right, I’m sorry.

I never met Jarrid or Rachel. I listened to podcast interviews, followed them on Twitter, devoured their wisdom. But they’re both gone.

Rachel died of a medical condition, but it was still shocking. Jarrid’s was shocking and unsurprising at the same time.

If you’ve ever considered suicide, you know that sometimes the feeling comes suddenly. I don’t know exactly what happened with Jarrid, and I may never know. But the desire to end it all, to kill yourself, to remove yourself from the world, can build up over weeks and weeks or just occur in an instant, and you’re in a place to make it happen.

Why, oh why, would this happen to a Christian?

Because Christians are people too. We are not superhumans, and we should never strive to be. We shouldn’t consider ourselves or other Christians above the fray from things like suicide, depression and anxiety. If we think that being a Christian means we’re immune, we don’t understand Christianity. 

It’s my firm belief that wanting to kill yourself is not anti-Christian or anti-God. Both Elijah and Job, in their desperation, wished they had never been born (1 Kings 19:4 and Job 3:1, respectively), which I think is very similar if not the exact same desire. Even godly men, praised by God Himself in various ways, wished they had never existed.

Committing suicide does not condemn you to hell if you are a Christian. It does not exclude you from God’s love. It does not, I repeat, DOES NOT mean you are a coward. 

Many Christians do not understand mental health. They do not understand the depths of it. They don’t understand. They just don’t get it. 

Over the next few days, I will be posting some writing I did a while back on mental health and being a Christian. I wrote them a few months ago, not even sure what I was going to do with them, but Jarrid’s passing seems like a good time to share these things. Written in better times, those posts will do a lot better helping explain where I am than what I’m writing right now.

In the meantime, if you can, please donate to a fundraiser for Jarrid’s family that’s being held on GoFundMe. Please.

We Need to Rethink How We Talk about LGBTQ

We journalists like studies. They help us put stories and topics in context.

So a study released in 2018 exploring the association between importance of religion and suicide ideation is obviously going to interest me.

If you’ve followed my writing for any length of time, or you’re a friend of mine, you know that religion and mental health are two of my favorite topics. So of course, I wanted to learn about this study. Unfortunately, it’s $4 to access, but thankfully there was a news article about it from Reuters titled “Religious faith linked to suicidal behavior in LGBQ adults.”

If you’ve followed news somewhat closely, you’ve got to be aware of the stories of LGBTQ individuals, teens in particular, that take their own lives with motivations strongly related to their sexuality. According to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides mental health support to LGBTQ youth, gay/lesbian teens “seriously contemplate suicide” nearly three times more than straight youth and are five times as likely to attempt suicide.

So this study, reported in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, can’t be that surprising. Analyzing data from the multiple surveys on mental health of college students, the numbers were startling. While 3.7 percent of heterosexual young adults reported recent thoughts of suicide, the numbers increased for those questioning their sexuality (16.4 percent), living bisexual (11.4 percent) or identifying as gay or lesbian (6.5 percent). 

The numbers jump when it comes to attempting suicide: 5 percent for heterosexual youth, 20 percent for bisexual, 17 percent for questioning and 14 percent for gay or lesbian. 

The heartbreaking statistic came here:

“For bisexual youth, the importance of religion was not associated with suicidal behavior, while religiosity was protective against thoughts of suicide and suicidal attempts in the heterosexual youth. But lesbians and gays who reported that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts. For lesbians only, religion was associated with a 52 percent increased likelihood of suicidal thinking.

Questioning individuals were almost three times as likely to have attempted suicide recently if they reported that religion was very important to them.”

One of the study’s authors, John R. Blosnich of West Virginia’s Injury Control Research Center, told the Huffington Post that studies for years have said considering religion important has limited the number of people considering suicide. But this study, as well as other surveys and data, indicates that things are different when it comes to sexual minorities.

So what do we do?

What Role Did the Church Play?

Before we get going: this is not an evaluation of whether or not homosexuality is a sin. That’s not the point of this piece. 

Anyway, most scientists of any stripe — social, physical, organic, chemistry, etc. — will tell you that correlation does not equal causation, and I agree. But this study begs a question:

Has the Christian church played a role in this?

The HuffPo article says, accurately, that “some of America’s largest religious denominations still hold non-affirming views of queer sexuality,” including the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church *(see note at the bottom of this article)*. HuffPo quotes Amelia Markham, described as a “queer Christian activist” with The Reformation Project, an LBTQ-affirming Christian group, saying more needs to be done in helping Christians have “a more nuanced view of queer sexuality.”

“There are some serious questions we have to begin asking ourselves if maintaining one interpretation of our sacred text is demonstrably linked to bodily harm and spiritual devastation for an entire group of people,” Markham said. “That is something I hope religious folks across the board would begin to think and pray more critically through.”

Markham’s call is serious, and based on the numbers, I think it would be dishonest if the Christian church, particularly the evangelical wing, didn’t ask itself if it played a role in these numbers, these realities. 

Again, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did in this case. I’ve lived my whole life in a church culture that severely stigmatizes LGBTQ people, intentionally or not. The Christian evangelical community for many years has said flat-out that homosexuality is a sin, with some churches creating little to no space for LGBTQ people in churches, sometimes to negative consequences.

Countless stories have been told of teens or youth that have come out to their families and been rejected, sometimes kicked out. I listened to a podcast recently featuring Trey Pearson, former lead singer of the Christian band Everyday Sunday, who said he experienced severe trauma and pain due to fighting his sexual feelings for years because of his church upbringing. Countless Christian authors and speakers, including Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker, were more or less banished from evangelical circles due to their belief that homosexuality is not a sin.

Very often, evangelical Christians defend their actions and beliefs with the statement that they’re just sticking to the Bible, defending God’s Word and loving people to tell them they’re sinners. “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” they say. And while I’m sure there are many that are properly loving their LGBTQ family and friends and reflecting Christ in doing it, there are many LGBTQ people who have left the church and left God at least in part due to how they were treated by so-called Christians.

What Did Jesus Do?

Again, this is not a conversation about the sinfulness or non-sinfulness of homosexuality. This is a conversation about the effect the church’s position and attitude and approach to same-sex attraction and homosexuality has had on real people and real lives.

The culture hasn’t always done well with it, first of all. In 1998, gay college student Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming, an event that became a lynchpin for hate crimes due to looming suspicion the attack was motivated by Shepard’s sexuality. In 2010, 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate recorded Clementi’s intimate encounter with another male. 

These events have caused a societal push for LGBTQ acceptance and understanding and further discussion about mental health and suicide. That’s all awesome, in my opinion. And while some Christian congregations are actively addressing these issues in the right way, it’s my opinion that the church at large is falling behind on both counts.

How often are Christian blog posts written about helping people that identify as LGBTQ that doesn’t involve telling them they’re sinful? How often are sermons given where we’re encouraged to learn from and understand our gay and lesbian neighbors, friends and family members? I’m sure those things happen, but not enough. We’re often more concerned with being “right” than being “a good neighbor.”

What did Paul do, and what did Jesus do, more importantly? The people that were considered outside the “religious crowd,” how did he handle them?

He loved them. And no, I’m not talking about loving people by “telling them the truth.” Yes, that is a form of love, but anything LGBTQ person that’s been around an evangelical Christian has more likely than not already received that kind of love. 

What Jesus did is eat. Matthew 9:10-13 —

“And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

Eating was a very intimate thing to do in those times. You’d sit at a table and take your shoes off, recline and spend time. There were no cell phones, no menus, no TVs nearby. Just the food and the people. 

Jesus ate with people labeled “sinners,” both in this passage and other times. In this particular passage, both Matthew and the Pharisees refer to Jesus’ dinner guests as “sinners.” Everyone at the time sinned, so the distinction made here is about identity. These people were identified by their sin — not their profession, not their father or family, but their sin. They were outcasts, pariahs, weirdos. But Jesus loved them the same.

In the current evangelical Christian culture, members of the LGBTQ community are among today’s “sinners.” They’re outcasts, pariahs, weirdos, different. Far too often, the church today is known for shunning those “sinners” instead of eating with them, loving them, appreciating them as people created in the image of God.

The Concept Falls Short

This is where “hate the sin, love the sinner” falls short on so many levels. I get the concept: love the people, hate what they do. But in practice, it fails far too often.

What happens when someone drinks too much alcohol? We may say, “Hey, he/she is drunk.” That person becomes defined by their actions. We do it with so many things: profession, interests, religion, etc. 

Members of the LGBTQ community often take pride in their sexuality and make that a primary identifier, something the evangelical church picks up on. Because the “sin” begins to identify the “sinner” in our minds, they become interchangeable, and we begin to hate the sinner. 

Most of this happens subconsciously and unintentionally, I believe, but we begin to treat people the way the biblical culture treated “sinners,” making them outsiders and pariahs. We spend more time trying to change them than love them. 

And then we go in on how bad the LGBTQ culture is. It’s all about how they need to change and how the “militant gay agenda” is ruining America and allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with is dangerous for our children. Again, not everyone is like that, but it’s said way too often.

First of all, imagine if Christians had been treated like members of the LGBTQ community have been treated over most of the last 40-50 years. Wouldn’t we be frustrated with the persecution? For a long time, sexual orientation and gender identity weren’t protected classes in discrimination laws. Imagine if religion was in the same place.

Second, to group the entire LGBTQ community, as some do, with the “militant gay agenda” is dishonest. Most, I believe, just want to live their lives and be treated fairly. To see extremists who call themselves “born again” compare LGBTQ people to the Ku Klux Klan would make anybody mad.

It’s insulting. It’s humiliating. It’s discriminatory. No wonder they don’t like us.

But some of them like Jesus. I wonder why. 

Maybe it was because He never spoke about the “militant pantheistic agenda” of the Roman Empire. Maybe it was because He hung out with the pariahs. He listened, loved and taught. He was condemning of the religious people, those who were gleeful in telling people why they were wrong. He encouraged all to repent while turning water to wine and five loaves and two fish into an overwhelming feast.

As Jesus said in Matthew 9, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” His ultimate desire was for people to love one another. Yes, His message was one of repentance and of turning from sin, but how did He go about His ministry? Where do we see His efforts? In the good news of salvation, in the dying on the cross for our sins to be forgiven. “Follow me,” he told the disciples, “and I will make you fishers of men.” He says to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” He started with mercy and love and following Him. 

Maybe we should try to look more like him. Be listeners. Ask questions. Learn. Sympathize. Be compassionate. Treat people the way you would wish to be treated. 

That’s the Golden Rule, right?

I’ll end with a quote from a guy named Jeff Johnston with Focus on the Family. He wrote an incredibly powerful and helpful piece on “9 Ways to Reach Out to a Gay-Identified Friend,” which you should really check out. Here’s a bit:

“Imagine attending a gay pride parade and hearing insults shouted by church people standing on the sidelines. Would you want to follow a God like the one they’re displaying? Or imagine attending church and hearing derogatory language from the pulpit. Would you want to develop relationships with those people?”

– – – – – – – – – 

*Side note: the UMC’s official Book of Doctrine states that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” but most, American Methodists affirm LGBTQ individuals in their theology. (https://www.prri.org/spotlight/slim-majority-of-methodists-support-same-sex-marriage/)

I’ve Looked Down That Road Too

So I work as a reporter at The Sanford Herald in Sanford, N.C., and my world was shaken yesterday.

We were told there was a police-involved shooting in downtown Sanford, a few hundred yards from our office. We were waiting for more information from police. Then the news came in. I’ll copy our report below:

A 28-year-old male from Sanford died Thursday afternoon of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, according to Sanford police.

The incident occurred around 1 p.m. in front of an abandoned business at the corner of Charlotte Avenue and First Street. Police cars blocked off a section of Charlotte Avenue while the man stood outside of the abandoned business. He was armed with a 9mm handgun and shot himself after communicating with police detectives and other civilians for about 90 minutes.

During the 90 minutes, nearby businesses closed down and people eating at La Dolce Vita Pizzeria, just yards away from the incident, were forced to stay inside the restaurant.

After the incident, EMS administered immediate medical assistance and he was transported to the emergency room at Central Carolina Hospital. He was pronounced dead by the medical examiner at the hospital.
 
The name of the man has not been released yet. Stay with The Herald for more.

I was shaken. Why? I’ve looked down that road before, that road of taking your own life, and it’s a dark one.

I didn’t get too far down that road, but I’ve heard stories of others that didn’t, like this young man. As I saw tributes on my Facebook feed to this guy yesterday, I saw that he was well-loved by people of all races, ages and political perspectives. People came together to remember him. I won’t print his name here out of respect for the fact I never met him, never knew him and had never even heard of him before yesterday.

But I want to believe that I’ve felt part of the pain that he felt. Obviously, something happened in his life or his mind that drove him to this drastic decision, and he felt he couldn’t go on.

I understand the impulse. I’ve struggled with enough in my life to make me think about that path — depression, anxiety, bullying, religious doubt, fear of man, despair over mistakes.

In this time, I struggle to think of what I could say to comfort those who might be hurting or mourning. I’ve never been intimately acquainted with someone who has taken their own life. I’ve known people — a former high school classmate, a distant relative, this man yesterday — that have done so. I’ve known people that have thought about it. Words just aren’t enough in this situation.

What I will recommend, and what I hope to do more of, is this: don’t be afraid to ask, “Are you OK?”

I think we’re nervous to get too invested in others’ lives for several reasons. First, we can be selfish people, and getting too much in others’ lives takes away time and attention to ourselves. Second, we don’t want to pry or make things awkward. And third, sometimes we just don’t know how to.

I’ll suggest it this way: Think about how often you start a conversation with someone and you ask, “How are you?” or in the case of Joey Tribbiani, “How you doin’?” It’s a common conversation starter. How often do you or the person you’re talking to say “fine” or “good”?

I recommend that we start taking the time to dig deeper into that. Obviously not with people you’ve just met or in professional settings, but with friends or relatives, be willing to ask, “How are you good?” or “How are you fine?” If they seem a little unsure, don’t be afraid to ask, “Are you OK? Is there anything I can help you with? Do you need to talk about something?”

The worst that can happen to you is that they say “no” and it’s a little awkward for a while. The best that can happen is that 1) you have a meaningful, productive conversation with another human being (talks that seem few and far between these days) and 2) you might bring a little hope and love into another person’s life.

Yeah, love. There’s not enough of that right now. And I’m not blaming the person’s family or friends or coworkers or whoever for not loving him enough. That’s not the point. I’m asking you who know people to show that love to others. Point them down the path of love.

I want to say one last thing, to send a message to my brother who passed on:

Yes, I know we never met, and you’ve probably never even heard my name. But you’re my brother because we’ve had similar struggles, I imagine. I love you, man. I hope and pray you’re in the arms of a Savior who loves you. I hope your life will spur others on to love. I hope your life will spur me on to love.

— Zach

Don’t Wipe Your Eyes. Tears Remind You You’re Alive.

Yesterday, I wrote about the idea that we hurt ourselves by our actions, our sinful behaviors that bring us down and distract us from our relationship with Jesus. Today, I want to cover a different kind of self-hurt. Self-harm.

I’ve found myself more and more writing and talking about things that we don’t talk about in the Christian community, things we like to avoid. I know that very few people read this, but I hope to at least start a little bit of conversation. This is one I most definitely want to start conversation about.

I’ve known people that have cut themselves. I’ve known people that have turned to self-harm as some way to find relief from the internal turmoil. I’ve heard stories of people who have taken whole bottles of pills hoping to get out of whatever life they’re living.

The easy reaction is to feel sorry for the person, perhaps pray for them, and then move on. It’s uncomfortable to think about and talk about. But we should talk about it more. We should discuss it more. And I want to start that now by saying I’ve thought about it.

I’ve never cut myself or done any type of typical self-harm that is often linked to depression or anxiety. But I’ve thought about it. I’ve stood in the shower with a razor in my hand and briefly considered finding out what it felt like. I’ve held a knife in my hand in my kitchen late at night, distressed by a sin I committed, hoping to find some sort of atonement in dragging the knife across my wrist. I’ve thought about intentionally driving my car off a bridge, thinking that maybe somebody might finally give me the time of day. If I survived.

Yes, I was a Christian while thinking all those thoughts.

According to KidsData.org, more than 30,000 children were hospitalized in 2012 due to self-inflicted injury. In 2013, 41,149 suicides were reported, making suicides the 10th leading cause of death for Americans, according to the CDC. A study done by the Center for Suicide Research at Oxford University in 2011 found that 1 in 12 young people “engage in self-harm such as cutting, burning or taking life-threatening risks and around 10 percent of these continue to deliberately harm themselves into young adulthood.”

These are people who have gone further than I. I only thought about it. I never actually did anything. But these kids did. Unfortunately, they saw self-harm as the way to deal with the emotions they were feeling, the stress and anxiety they were dealing with.

Why? For some, there’s a promise of relief in the pain, a relief for emotions that are too heavy to bear alone. For others, like what I was feeling, there’s a punishment aspect to it where there’s an atonement being done. I did something bad, I get punished. For others, it’s a silent cry for help that often never gets heard.

Teens resort to this when things get too hard. And often that happens because there is no one who is truly invested in loving them and caring for them. It’s so hard to bear some of those emotions by yourself that you hope that, by doing something drastic like self-harm, you can lose some of that weight.

So with this in mind, my final words.

To those who don’t self-harm: Please, be aware, and love.

Teenagers often feel like outcasts in today’s society, particularly within the Christian context. Those who deal with self-harm feel that even more. There’s no telling where some of their emotions are taking them. Please take the time. Please love like Jesus loved. Take off the kid gloves and get down and dirty.

To those who do: Please, don’t.

You don’t deserve punishment for any wrong you’ve done. Jesus took that punishment on the cross. Talk about the things that are weighing you down. Be honest with them. Share them with a friend, a family member.

I understand the desire, the weight of emotion you feel when you do that. You feel like no one cares, like no one really loves you for you. Look for them. And if you truly find no one, e-mail me. I would love to talk with you. There are organizations like To Write Love on Her Arms and Heart Support who want to help you.

If you’re a Christian and you self-harm, that doesn’t deny you being a Christian. It makes you human. Just realize that Jesus took the punishment for you on the cross, so you don’t need to harm yourself. To steal from TWLOHA, hope is real. Help is real. Your story is important. And He cares about your story.

I’ve found hope in knowing that the God of the universe sent His Son Jesus to earth to live a perfect life, die a perfect death and rise again so that I could have the opportunity to have a relationship with Him, to be forgiven of my sins, to experience the love and grace of the Gospel.

You have the opportunity to experience the same thing. Jesus is with you and wants to love you unlike any other love you’ve ever experienced. Your hope is not ultimately in that other people struggle with this, it’s not in the fact that I’ve struggled with the thoughts.

Your hope is in Jesus. So it’s alright to cry. He did.

 It’s alright to cry
Even my dad does sometimes
So don’t wipe your eyes
Tears remind you you’re alive
It’s alright to die
Cause death’s the only thing you haven’t tried
But just for tonight
Hold on*


* “Even My Dad Does Sometimes” by Ed Sheeran