Robin Williams was found dead on August 11th. It is now confirmed that he died by suicide and that he has been suffering from depression. There have been several reasons why this news has been shocking, in my opinion. Robin Williams was a famous man. He has been in the movie industry for years. I remembered laughing as a child to Mrs. Doubtfire, Flubber, and Aladdin. But he wasn’t just a one-trick pony. Robin Williams displayed his acting chops in such movies like Good Will Hunting or Dead Poets’ Society. He was very famous and whenever someone of that caliber dies, it is always going to be in the news. Another reason why I think his passing is such a big deal is because he was rich. Although we know in our heads that money does not satisfy us, we are still taken aback when another person who seems to “have it all” takes his/her own life. But I think the main reason why Robin Williams passing was such a big deal is because he seemed so happy. He was a comedian! He made people laugh all the time. From the outside you would think he had the best attitude in life, but like many other comedians, he suffered from much pain and he used that pain to bring others joy.
It reminds me of a story from the movie Watchmen. A man goes to a doctor and says he’s depressed. He says that life seems harsh and cruel. He says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. The doctor replies, “treatment is simple. Pagliacci, a great clown, is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” The man bursts into tears and says, “but doctor, I am Pagliacci.” This story highlights how so many fans turned to Robin Williams for cheering up when they were down, but who was there to do the same for him?
One of the interesting things I have noticed from Robin Williams’ passing is the different reactions to his suicide. On the one hand, there are some who are celebrating Robin Williams for his courageous act to finally end his misery. For example, one the most popular tweets is a picture of the genie and Aladdin hugging goodbye against a backdrop of a starry night sky. It read: “Genie, you’re free.” On the other hand, there are some who are criticizing Robin Williams because they think that it was cowardly to end one’s life. For example, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith used the word “coward” to describe Williams’ suicide. So which reaction is correct? How should Christians react to Williams’ suicide?
Growing up I always assumed that a true Christian would never commit suicide. I assumed that if a person commits suicide they automatically go to hell (the Bible never says this). I was taught that if you are a Christian you should never get depressed. But as I began to read the Bible, I did not see what others were telling me. For example, Job said he “loathe” his life in Job 7:16 and spends chapters talking about his depression. King David speaks about his depression in Psalm 13:2 saying he has “sorrow” in his heart all day. King David’s son, Solomon, wrote, “ So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17).
Not only did people in the Bible suffer from depression but also significant Christians in history suffered. William Carey, the “father of modern missions,” suffered from depression, according to one of his biographers. Charles Spurgeon, revered as last century’s greatest Baptist preacher, was so plagued by depression and illness that he tried to resign 32 times in 39 years. A.B. Simpson, the founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, was susceptible to periods of despair.
Rick Warren, the author of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” had a son who was clinically depressed since he was 7. He battled with depression and mental illness until he took his own life on April 5, 2013. After searching the Scriptures, reading biographies, and looking around the world, Christians cannot simply dismiss or diminish the power of depression. Christians cannot just ignore depression or give trite answers that a true Christians should never be depressed or ever think about suicide. The fact is that we live in a messed up world and this reality can eat at people’s souls until they feel like suicide is the only way out. Life is not filled with rainbows and fairy dust and if Christians continue to ignore depression and suicide, then all we are left with is putting on a fake smile on Sundays even though we are mourning inside.
I had a classmate from seminary who always seemed very happy. I have friends who went to church with him and always say positive things about him. He was studying to be a pastor and his heart was passionate for God. A few years after I graduated from seminary, I heard some news that rocked my world. This classmate committed suicide because he was suffering from depression. It was in that moment when I realized that the Church needs to address depression and suicide because there might be some people around who are on the brink of taking their lives.
So how should the Church respond to depression and suicide? We need to stop sidestepping this issue. We need to stop giving trite answers and tell people to simply think positively. We need to stop saying that Christians would never commit suicide so we shouldn’t worry about it. We need to stop making others feel guilty for suffering depression. We need to stop describing suicide as “cowardly.” Instead, we need to start accepting the reality that depression is real and suicide is possible for anybody. We need to start reminding ourselves that the blood of Christ forgives all sins, including suicide. We need to start embracing Jesus because he was a “man of sorrows” who can sympathize with our depression. We need to start praying that God will comfort those who are depressed. We need to start looking at others with eyes of mercy instead of judgment. Finally, we need to point people’s eyes towards heaven because this life will never give us true joy. Life is full of sorrows and Christians are not going to be immune to those sorrows. However, Christians have something the world does not: hope. We have a future reality we can hope in. We have a future picture that gives us hope. We have the hope of heaven, and it is only in heaven where depression will be killed. As Revelation 21:4 says: He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain. Heaven is the only place where depression and suicide will end. Depression and suicide is a sad reality in this life, but it is not the final reality for those who are in Christ. Let’s give hope to those who are suffering and shine the light of Christ around us.