One of the greatest of all the benefits of Christianity is supposed to be hope. So why do so many Christians seem to lack it?
Today we’re going to look at the very sad case of a Christian man who lost hope, and we’re going to talk about some things that lead Christians to lose hope.
Isaac Hunter died this week of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after a series of astonishing revelations and events in his personal life. I am not happy about this death or about any of the other recent publicized suicides among Christian pastors and their families. I join Mr. Hunter’s family and his community in mourning this absolutely tragic and unthinkable loss. I am not glorifying it in any way or claiming it as a victory for anybody. It is not. This event is in every conceivable way a loss and we should not be rejoicing in a person’s decision to destroy him- or herself under such circumstances. Instead, we should seek to understand what happened so we can stop it from happening again.
In some Christian theologies, suicide is an automatic ticket to Hell, but in evangelical circles, that isn’t necessarily the dealbreaker it is for some groups. Still, there always seems to me like this tightrope between skyscrapers up in the air. It’s strange to think now of the balancing act we did back in my church days between “this world is not my home and it’s going to pieces and who even cares because it’s not Heaven and our god’s going to piss all over it anyway at the end” and “but dangit, we can’t just take the fast train to Heaven.” You had to actually stay and do the will of the master, even while your eyes were firmly fixed on the goal so much you couldn’t even really enjoy the journey. The less you cared about “the world,” the more you cared about Heaven and piling up treasure there, the better of a Christian you were and the more Jesus points you got from your peers. And this balancing act hinged upon hope.
Hope is, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, one of the three main Christian virtues, with the other two being faith and charity. Having hope meant having faith that things were going to work out and that you were going to get what you wanted eventually. It meant having an optimistic expectation of the future. One major thread I saw in my various churches was what is called now the Theology of Hope, which combined faith that Jesus was coming back Any Day Now™ with a certain dissatisfaction with “the world”–the physical world and everything in it. Sin was seen as something that hopeless people do–because if they had hope, if they had that optimism that Jesus was coming back soon, they sure wouldn’t want to sin, now would they? The guy who invented this theology thought that this form of hope didn’t mean that people didn’t take joy in the present, but that’s about how it generally worked out. Our goal wasn’t making the world a better place, but preparing for the next life. Our hope was in the future, not anywhere in the present.
When a Christian takes these ideas to their logical conclusion, that’s not a good thing. That’s when dogma and reality collide, and reality loses. It’s all fine and good to have an imaginary fairy-land and imaginary friends, but when something that horrifying happens, we know things went too far. But why would a Christian ever do that?
When I was a Christian, one of our cardinal bits of dogma was that our god would never let us experience more than we could handle. No matter how bad things got, as long as we had faith and hope, we could survive and get through absolutely anything. But when someone kills himself as Mr. Hunter did, that flies in the face of that dogma. Combine this attitude with the Christian antipathy toward mental health care, and consider how poorly they view any form of coping mechanism that isn’t “praying for victory,” and you have a downright explosive mix that doesn’t leave anything to chance at all. And Christians themselves, when they find out that one of their leaders is feeling vulnerable, can be as savage as any lynch mob as they seek to stamp out any signs of weakness and remove from their leaders any single bit of support and consolation those leaders might otherwise find (that link leads to a story that makes me see red so bad that I start thinking about baseball bats).
To most of these Christians, all you need is hope, and if you seem to need something else besides that mental willpower to continue no matter what, then clearly you are doing it all wrong. Coping strategies mean you’re just not Jesus-y enough. He isn’t blessing you, and that usually means you’re not being faithful enough–somehow. They’re not sure how, but obviously you’re doing something wrong, even if they can’t tell what that might be. Is there anybody out there reading my words who is even vaguely surprised at the shockingly high rate of burnout among Christian pastors? And this burnout isn’t just happening to pastors, but also to their families–that link actually mentions that a solid one-third of pastors surveyed called ministry an “outright hazard to their families” and that of all the professions the surveyors looked at, the three professions that have the most trouble with substance abuse and suicide are doctors, lawyers, and… yes, pastors. If being a Christian is difficult, then being a Christian pastor is ten times worse. The chirpy pep talk about hope and just praying through one’s problems just doesn’t work out that way when reality collides with dogma.
Of course, what I just wrote applies mostly to the genuine good eggs, the ones who really care about their jobs and their flocks. For the rest, the ones who clearly got into it because Christianity is a huge money pit filled with easily-gotten delicious cake, they were already dangerously unstable predators who were just looking for gullible prey animals to feed off of; their falls from grace are not only inevitable but also among the most explosive. It’s a real pity there doesn’t seem to be any way for Christian church attendees to differentiate between the charismatic predators in their midst and the genuine real deals who really want to help people move forward in their faith (though outsiders can usually tell–now there’s an interesting idea for a business: “Apostate Assessments: Need to know if your pastor applicant is a horrible person? Call us for a free quote!”).
So am I in the least surprised to learn that a string of megachurch pastors in Florida have recently resigned over extramarital affairs? Or that Mr. Hunter himself, who is one of those pastors, may well have also abused drugs and alcohol–and quite possibly his own family, prompting his wife to seek a restraining order against him out of fear for her and her children’s safety? No, I’m not surprised at all. He was the son of a megapastor who may well have trained him in these maladaptive habits, he was a member of a Christian group that very likely frowned upon effective coping mechanisms, and as an evangelical pastor (and onetime youth pastor–again, not surprised), he may well have experienced that type of social isolation that leads to poor choices like committing the adultery that led to his downfall and eventual death–combined with social taboos around seeking more constructive coping mechanisms and a deep distrust of anything that actually helps resolve the frustrations and pain of being a Christian leader. Even if Mr. Hunter had been a perfectly exemplary Christian, which is not anything I’m saying by any means as I don’t know him from Adam’s housecat, the odds were stacked against him.
It’s really no wonder that so many scandals are coming out of the church, largely around adultery and substance abuse; these are two solutions that are very easily found just about anywhere, they’re generally behaviors that can be kept quiet for a good long while, and they’re extremely gratifying in and of themselves, if one is into that kind of thing. But make no mistake: these are the actions of a person who has been backed into a corner and can see no other way out. When a Christian gets caught cheating on his or her spouse or abusing substances, especially if that Christian makes a big point of preaching against those things, you’re looking at someone who has looked down that street and is willing to take chances to ease and lessen the pain that has led to this pass. In the therapy biz, this behavior is called “self-medicating.” I joke about self-medicating with antique cookbooks, but in reality, self-medication can be harmful if taken too far. Hypocrisy is painful, but emotional isolation and the wrenching failure to live up to one’s god’s super-high expectations can be a lot worse, so these solutions are sought.
Demons are a nice, easy, safe object of blame, really. They’re invisible, and they do all kinds of tricksy things, those nasty, nasty demonses. They’re everywhere, you know, kicking dust up in Christians’ plans and wrecking stuff. They are hugely powerful, but weirdly susceptible to prayer wielded by TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Yep, demons make an awesome excuse. In the same way, I personally heard depression called demonic back in my Christian days. Most mental illnesses were regarded as demon-sparked if not wholly demon-orchestrated. And anybody who “fell” in any way could easily blame demons if necessary. I admit, I never could buy that; it sounded just like a convenient excuses to me. There was also this whiff of victim-blaming about this talk of demons, since it was assumed that demons could only get a foothold in a person who was messing up somehow or not hardcore enough (though a super-Christian might get assaulted by demons too, under the “dogs don’t bark at what don’t move” doctrine). But it would take years for me to realize just what a disservice these convenient excuses do to people who need genuine help.
So the Isaac Hunters and Clergy Guys of this world can’t go get help when they need it. They can’t cry out for a life-vest. They can’t reach out to anybody. They’ve got to “suck it up and drive on,” as the military phrase goes. And when that system finally destroys them, when that system finally sucks all the life out of them, these disgusting Christians around them will only tut-tut among themselves and whisper about how obviously their god never gives anybody more than they can handle, so he just wasn’t listening to their god the right way. He did something wrong. He wasn’t relying on their god enough. He didn’t pray enough. He should have been able to handle this if he had just had enough hope.
Too bad things don’t really work that way.
I knew someone who committed suicide when I was in high school. The young man had been Christian–everybody I knew was Christian, remember–and I couldn’t understand how he had run out of hope like that. He’d made a pact with a popular young athlete who was his friend, but the friend escaped with his life–though the stigma of everybody knowing he’d tried to kill himself led to his withdrawal from school. The friend told us that he wasn’t even sure why he’d gone along with the plan, but he did know that the first young man had run out of hope. My dead friend–who had seemed like he had every advantage and who had been fairly popular himself (I had talked to him a few days beforehand and he’d seemed weirdly sad but I hadn’t thought anything of it)–had looked down the road and could see nothing there that led him to think anything would get better, and we were to learn that he’d believed that the next world would give him an easier run of it. So he had destroyed himself rather than face even another day of the pain he faced.
When my school found out about the death and the near-miss, we were thrown into absolute shock. I remember feeling like those big fat rabbits of Watership Down who were living among snares and traps; we had had this jolly lark of a fun time and now suddenly reality had intruded and we were nowhere near as safe as we’d thought once. All our innocent chirping about “God never gives us more than we can handle” and “there’s always hope in Jesus” had been so much fantasy, no different from playing any other roleplaying game, with nothing real behind it at all.
A week later, one of my close friends began talking about having lost hope. She’d done poorly on the SATs and her parents had been giving her a lot of grief about it. She was crazy smart, but had no coping mechanisms at all for dealing with something like this. During lunch she began talking about how jealous she was of our now-dead friend and how she wished she could just be done with this life. I remember the rest of us looking at each other like “what are we supposed to say to this?” I didn’t know exactly how to proceed, but that didn’t stop me from springing into action–after lunch I went straight to my favorite teacher to rat on my friend. The school took me seriously, she got help, and later she told me I’d saved her life. I would never let talk like that slide ever again. I’d learned that hope is a precious and precarious thing, and we must be vigilant for our friends’ sakes.
You see, whatever hope I had, I perceived clearly after this series of events, that hope was not in this religion or even in any gods. It was right here in this world. Even when I converted to fundamentalism, I remained healthily skeptical about claims of “sufficiency” in Jesus, and I continued to encourage peers who needed it to seek professional help instead of just trying to pray away their serious mental and emotional problems.
Hope was something we all needed, but I realized that we needed to find that hope in ways that weren’t just pure fantasy, because fantasy hope doesn’t work, and it doesn’t last, and it doesn’t save us from anything. And why yes, sometimes we did get more than we could handle. Even firm Christians did sometimes. Maybe even especially, firm Christians did sometimes. When that happens, when we get more than we can handle, we need to stop play-acting in the fantasy world and go find help in the real one. The fantasy world won’t help us at all when ish gets real.
How many people are we going to see ravaged by this horrifyingly false ideology and this downright destructive isolation before we start thinking that maybe it’s not these folks’ fault if they need help?
How many Christians are we going to see go this supremely self-destructive route before folks start making some changes?
How long will it be before we realize that hope alone isn’t enough, that whatever Mr. Hunter was going through, it was too much for him, and that when Christians take this drastic step, the events leading up to it and their lack of hope might not be anything they did wrong or some special flaw on their part but a systemic dysfunction that Christians need to address and fix to stop more people from dying?
How many people need to die before Christians stop play-acting and start addressing the deep dysfunctions that lead to their people and leaders alike losing hope?
We’re going to continue to see Christian leaders fall in dramatic and shocking ways. We’re going to keep seeing scandals erupt. And we’re going to keep seeing Christians destroying themselves in both small and big ways, because their faith isn’t actually based on anything real and when push comes to shove, the rubber don’t meet the road, and sometimes someone can’t just suck it up and drive on. Until Christians can face the dysfunction in their own culture, as long as they bury their heads in the sand and whisper “Demons!” whenever they see someone acting out or needing help, the deaths ain’t going to stop.
Mr. Hunter’s tragic death is just another in a long line of Christians who lost hope. The question is, will Christians recognize that they need to start dealing with things responsibly? Or will they keep blaming the victims for doing something wrong? Or blaming demons, which is only one step removed from victim-blaming? Because at this point, it seems pretty clear to me that there’s some massive failure in the entire system Christians have set up for handling their leaders, and as someone who actually gives a wet slap about humanity, that bothers me.
I want to see changes. I want to see improvements. I want to see this horrible reality get fixed. It is painful to see a system that is this devoid of real hope. And I don’t mean that fantasy hope, that “he’s coming back REAL SOON NOW™” and “we’re totally going to Heaven and streets of gold” hope that Christians parrot and say they believe till push comes to shove. I mean that hope that gets us through every single day, that lets us think that things will get better, that keeps us moving through the ocean of our pain and our heartbreaks to that place when the water is warmer and the sand closer to our feet. That’s the kind of hope that Christians don’t care about, but the kind they really should be caring about, because without that, it doesn’t matter what else they do: they’re pushing out members who seriously think they’re better off dead, and in a universe where we really don’t know what the next life even looks like (if it even exists), that kind of waste cannot be tolerated by good people.
As you can guess, yet another black mark against the religion’s validity in my eyes is how it handles real hope and what it does to its leaders to strip them of hope. This can’t possibly be a valid religion if it tears up its leaders like this. This can’t possibly be a good system for societies to adopt if so many of its leaders fall like this and harm themselves. This just can’t be good. It just can’t.
Mr. Hunter’s family has my deepest condolences. This whole thing was a horrible tragedy all the way around, from the start of the affair to his final action. It didn’t need to happen. I sorrow for those who mourn his loss. I am sure I join them in asking what can be done to stop it from ever happening again. And to those clergy who read this blog, please know you have my most fervent support as you navigate the choppy waters of Christian leadership. There really is hope. There always is.
If anybody reading this feels that hope is fading, please don’t wait another minute. Pick up the phone and call 1-800-273-8255, and talk to the great folks at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Help is out there. Please reach for it. If anybody reading this thinks that s/he has a friend who might be suicidal, call the lifeline to talk to someone, or seek someone in real life you can talk to, like a teacher, counselor, Human Resources Department, something, anything: you might save a life. We’ve all got to stick together. When it comes down to it, all we really have is each other.
You are not alone. And you never have to feel hopeless.
- Heartbreak for another pastor’s son lost to suicide (liturgical.wordpress.com)
- Christian Leaders and the “Don’t Talk” Rule (theophiluspunk.wordpress.com)