By Rev. Craig Kephart and Martha Leatherman, M.D.
I was at breakfast last week with an old friend. Let’s call him “Derek.”
The early morning rendezvous amounted to the first person-to-person contact Derek and I had enjoyed in several months. The last time we had been together was a hot September day when he sat dejectedly in my car, mile after mile, describing the long list of injuries and illnesses that had dragged him, slowly and over a period of many months, from temporary discouragement to total despair. Since that car ride together, he told me at breakfast, outpatient counsel offered no progress and brief, inpatient time in a local facility only accentuated his frustrations. Medications seemed to complicate Derek’s struggles, he said, and spun him deeper into the throes of depression. This past December his usually upbeat and God-glorifying Christmas letter never got written. There was nothing to tell. He had bottomed out.
He told me he had first simply considered taking his own life - “I just thought about it” - but that later he more deeply contemplated the notion, rolling it over and over to imagine its pros and cons. (One hospital staff person even had urged it!) Finally, Derek had openly admitted his preference and plan for suicide. He had decided it had to be the only answer to his suffering.
God rescued though, through the loving action of family members who found Godly help and made sure Derek got transported where that help could surround him and strengthen him in Christ’s love. In a facility committed to the message of life, Derek was given time to review the challenges of the previous twelve months and see the Master’s hand holding him up when his mind, and our contemporary culture of death, seemed to want only to drag him down. Finally Derek had come to a healthy outlook on life and its challenges, and summarized it by saying to me, "I lost a year of my life. But I got back the rest of my life.”
Suicide’s history is far too complex to cover here. But it may be useful to examine a few facets of the issue from a Christian perspective, as well as from a medical perspective.
Suicide has most often been associated with having a psychiatric illness (usually depression), although as the proponents of assisted suicide and mercy killings have lobbied for increasing access to death, the public has begun to see other medical illnesses, such as cancer and neurological illness as legitimate reasons for self-harm.
This is a false set of distinctions.
Suicide is best understood as the result of the absence of all hope except death. The person’s life is so unbearable, so without hope, that they are unable to see, conceive, or imagine any way out of the psychic pain or physical pain except to die. Derek suffered with both these types of pain.
Indeed, the job of the psychiatrist always has been to shepherd the hopeless person out of that phase and into a state where hope again reigns. Sometimes this inescapable hopelessness has been present for a long time and seems endless; sometimes it is brief and the result of an irresistible impulse, often but not always exacerbated by substance abuse or intoxication. In either case, the hopelessness that the patient feels is a symptom of the illness. Tragically, even in cases of terminal and intractable illness, the wish to die is most often associated with a psychiatric disorder or a cognitive mindset characterized by hopelessness. Both psychiatric disorders and skewed cognitive patterns are treatable, so the idea that suicide is the “only way out” for these patients is a lie.
Christians reject the idea of a life or a world without hope. I am writing this on Easter Sunday, and remembering that Christ truly knew the worst despair any human ever knew or ever will know as He bore the weight of the world’s sin! And yet we know that Easter was not the end of hope, but rather hope’s glorious resurrection.
Even so, many Christians despair and commit suicide, as do many non-Christians. It is not “unchristian” to feel hopeless and God certainly knows we despair. Job, Lamentations, and the Psalms all testify to the depths of pain that humans experience.
Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. Psalm 69:1-3
Yet, God insists despair is not the final outcome. Every seemingly hopeless situation God’s people endure is in some way redeemed by Him.
But I call to God, and the Lord will save me.
Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.
He redeems my soul in safety from the battle that I wage, for many are arrayed against me. Psalm 55: 16-18
Satan’s lie is that there is no escape, no hope, and no redemption. Compelled by the gospel of Christ’s resurrection, Presbyterians Protecting Life exists to protect human life at every stage. That includes protecting human life at the stage where the Evil One spreads lies of hopelessness. It includes informing and educating people about the many ways depression and despair poison our lives and rob us of hope. It includes making sure every Presbyterian church is equipped to understand and help those suffering from the ravages of depression so that Presbyterian Christians are not tempted to bow to the forces of this world. Those forces want to rob us of the dignity of the life God has given and trade His promise for a lie.
At breakfast last week I could see that once again Derek can smile and laugh. He offers testimony of his troubles, though not with an air of sensationalism or attention-seeking. Rather he gives God the glory for rescuing him from the mire of depression and redeeming his mind and soul back into safety. He is back from the Pit, and can understand and talk about the weakness of our minds and the lifeless answers of our culture, and can do so now with the passion and compassion of one who has experienced the worst of it.
All those months that Derek’s mind and spirit wandered lost, his mailing list was not. So this year he broke an old tradition and started what may be a new one: All of us who didn’t get his Christmas letter instead got an Easter letter.
Somehow, it seemed fitting.
Rev. Craig Kephart serves as Executive Presbyter of Washington Presbytery, PCUSA in southwestern Pennsylvania. A 1988 graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, he was a local church pastor for over twenty years. He lives with his wife, Kathy, in Washington, PA, and has three sons, one daughter-in-law and eagerly anticipates the birth of their first grandchild in May.
Martha E. Leatherman, M.D. is a psychiatrist specializing in geriatrics. Her practice includes research and treatment of late-life depression, dementia, and other psychiatric illnesses, and she has spent the majority of her career treating and studying depression. She is a member of Trinity Grace Church (PCA). Martha has first-hand knowledge of the ravages of serious illness, but knows and proclaims that “[God] redeems my soul in safety from the battle that I wage. . ..”