“If we don’t have a theology that embraces mental illness, our God is too small.”
—William Paul Young, author of The Shack
I was a pastor when I nearly died by suicide. I was 28 years old, married five years, and the proud father of a tiny baby boy. No one saw it coming (usually no one does). I’d been a star student, never met a stranger and always did my best to make everyone feel better about themselves. I was born to be a pastor. What happened?
I’d been raised a “good little” Baptist, and then became a devout Pentecostal. I had also lived through the aftermath of my aunt’s suicide 15 years earlier, and I’d heard the things church people mumbled under their breath at her funeral. I had listened to the pastor’s response to my Mama’s question, “When someone commits suicide, do they go to hell?” I saw teams of people attempt to cast out demons when depression was mentioned at an altar call. And I’d heard well-meaning Christians tell those same people to just “choose joy.”
In ministry school, I struggled with the notion that there’s a demon behind every bush. I knew plenty of hurting people and they certainly didn’t seem possessed to me. And if broken hearts (or broken brains) are indicative of demon possession, doesn’t that include an awful lot of people? I adored my aunt, and I was certain she hadn’t been demonic. She was just broken, exhausted and misunderstood. She was hurting, just like the other 44,193 people in America who die by suicide every year (AFSP.org).
The truth is, I understood exactly what my aunt had felt like for so many years. I was a pastor, and I wanted to die. Everyone thought I was on top of the world; I was too ashamed to tell them it felt like the world was on top of me.
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On Sept. 21, 2012, one day before my son’s first birthday, all my secrets came to a fever pitch. My life hung in the balance in an ICU. Once I was stabilized, I was sent to a psych ward, followed by intense counseling and therapy, then new prescriptions. Throughout my recovery, one of my most pressing questions was, “Will I ever find my place in the church again?”
When we resigned from the tiny little Baptist church where I’d been serving when I attempted suicide, I wasn’t sure what would happen to the relationship I’d always had with the church. I believed the Church of Jesus Christ was the hope of the world, but was it the hope for a pastor who felt like a failure? Where does the person who doesn’t feel man enough, husband enough or Christian enough go to lay down their burdens?
4/7 is World Health Day and the United Methodist Church is reaching out to people who feel depressed.
Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
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