Culture Friday: Responding to suicide

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday, September 13th, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Difficult story to tell today and talk about.

A prominent, up-and-coming megachurch pastor took his own life on Monday of this week. He leaves behind a wife and two kids.

Jarrid Wilson was his name. He was associate pastor at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California. That’s the church where evangelist Greg Laurie has been preaching since 1973.

Wilson was known as an advocate for mental health. He spoke openly of his struggles with depression. He co-founded a suicide-prevention nonprofit called Anthem of Hope. 

Before his death Monday, he put out on social media that he was officiating the funeral of a woman who killed herself. He also posted a series of statements on the subject of mental illness and faith.

REICHARD: It’s Culture Friday and John Stonestreet’s here. He’s president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

EICHER: John, good morning.


EICHER: Need some wisdom here, John. We had lots of discussion and debate here at WORLD about reporting this story ourselves. 

In the end, we went with it and we tried to be very careful to balance two things: one, we didn’t want to stigmatize mental-health issues, but, two, we didn’t want to leave any impression that there was anything noble or right about his actions. 

One of our editors said we needed to emphasize the widow and the fatherless. “Not to minimize Wilson’s suffering,” he said, “but suicide is not merely a solitary act, because it inflicts long-term damage on those you leave behind. That should be a deterrent to others considering suicide.”

Another editor said, “I’m worried that some of the statements he made leading up to his death—and what some friends and family have said since then—seem to give depressed Christians permission to” do what he did.

Tough balance to strike, isn’t it, John.

STONESTREET: Yeah, but we’re in a culture right now where we have to talk about this, and I think we have to talk about it for two reasons. 

First, kind of has to do with the larger cultural scenario that we have—the growth of depression, the growth of what folks are calling deaths from despair, the spike in the suicide rate, and also how the cause of that is rooted in the same thing that’s leading to issues of addiction, leading to violence. 

I mean, there’s a brokenness and a loneliness in a culture that’s more connected digitally than ever before. And it’s not the fault of video games, and it’s not the fault of phones. It’s everything—not just one thing. It’s the breakdown of the family. It’s the loss of the significance of social institutions. And it’s a process of us coming to terms with what mental illness is. And this is really brand new and it’s really brand new in the church. 

And that’s really the second angle—is that Jarrid’s story is tragic. But there have been a number of higher profile or at least moderately profile pastors that also have taken their life. A guy that I preached in his church—Bill Lentz—and also an advocate for those with mental illness. And the depression for him was onset super fast and made a decision, obviously, that you can’t walk back from. 

And the story of Jarrid Wilson is a little bit longer, but still at the same time it’s tragic. And the church doesn’t know how to handle it. 

And the reason this matters is because we have a culture that doesn’t have the resources of answering the deepest questions that people have about meaning, about identity, about purpose. We’ve lost the social institutions that help us answer these questions, and so people are finding themselves having to wrestle with questions about identity and morality all by themselves, and the church has the only resource right now—cultural wide—that can take people into this deeper place. And so the church has to be front and center in talking about mental illness. And, unfortunately, we haven’t been. We don’t know what to do. But I think we’ve got kind of fundamental resources that will allow us to meet the needs of people—unlike really any other social institution right now.

REICHARD: About five years ago, our editor in chief Marvin Olasky wrote a piece right after Robin Williams, the actor’s, suicide. Olasky adapted an academic paper he did back in the ‘80s, and in it, he analyzed how journalistic coverage had changed in America—dramatically. 

In the 19th century it was common to read gruesome details and harsh editorializing about the deceased—for example calling the person a cowardly deserter.

Then he brought up a story from a newspaper in Kentucky also back in the 1980s. The Courier-Journal covered the suicide of a local teenager and wrote it in a positive way, telling of how he was a star athlete, popular, had every reason to live, and related the boy’s note he left that said “I just didn’t have a future.” Rather romanticized way of telling it. Then two days after that was published, a friend of the boy also killed himself. That had people worrying about the copycat effect. 

Is criticism warranted, and might it be helpful as a deterrent?

STONESTREET: It seems to me that there’s two equal and opposite mistakes to make right here. Number one, just kind of to harshly dismiss this as nothing more and nothing less than a selfish act. And, of course, it may very well be that. And it is—in many cases—that. 

But it’s also rooted in something deeper, whether it’s mental illness, whether it’s depression, whether it’s chemical, whether it’s part of the story. And I think just the quick dismissal is a mistake. 

On the other hand, romanticizing it surely is because it reinforces this idea that we are isolated, atomized individuals and our actions don’t impact anyone else. And that no one else can kind of speak to our own source for meaning. 

So somehow we’ve got to figure out a better way to talk about the inherent dignity of every single person, every single life, recognize the symptoms as much as we can, and have an answer, be a place of hope. Part of it is just are we willing to stop and talk? Are we willing to look at someone in the eye? Are we willing to actually reach out? 

Again, we’ve got a culture that is very, you know, ends justify the means and things happen in a hurry. And people don’t take the time they need to take to actually relate. We’ve substituted deep personal connections for all kinds of other things. 

And in terms of this particular story having to do with Jarrid Wilson brings another degree of, I think, communication challenges, understanding challenges, and theological kind of framework problems.

EICHER: I want to bring up something related: Just the stress our pastors must feel, the burdens they carry. I’ve heard stories about how pastors hear either unvarnished good news and affirmation—great sermon, pastor!—or unvarnished horrible news: everybody runs to him, confiding awful secrets. 

And when I hear about a depressed or despairing pastor, it makes me reflect on the incredible burdens we place on our shepherds.

REICHARD: How can we, the people in the pews, keep the more routine, moderate aspects of our lives and those of our pastors in the mix? And in a way that helps and doesn’t hinder?

STONESTREET: Well, I think we need to remember that our theology of the human person—or what we might call our Christian anthropology—applies to our pastor just like it does to us. 

First of all, made in the image of God. Also fallen, in need of grace. And has a calling on his life that’s different than the calling on our life, but that doesn’t make the guy perfect. That doesn’t mean that as we go to church expecting people to “love us just the way that we are because that’s what Jesus does,” and then we don’t offer that same sort of grace to our pastors. We don’t want anyone to interfere with our family time, but we don’t offer that same sort of space and time to our pastors. 

And it really, I think, involves two things. Just like everyone else, pastors need accountability. And just like everyone else, pastors need to be understood biblically. And both of those things, I think, are lacking in a kind of performance-driven model that we have for church. 

The model, too, of what I call the “come and see” model of the church, which is completely backwards from the Biblical mandate that equipping happens in the church so that ministry can happen outside the church. We’ve reversed that and expect pastors to be high objects of attraction and just come and see, come and see, come and see. 

And so that sort of performance-driven in itself, I don’t think, is the issue in any sense. It might be part of the issue, but it doesn’t allow someone to be accountable, and it doesn’t allow someone to be human. And it misunderstands the human person. Not to mention it’s just a bad model for the church.

EICHER: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. It’s Culture Friday. John, thanks!

STONESTREET: Thank you both.

(Photo/Facebook) Jarrid Wilson

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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