Robin Williams on the Ultimate Christian Gift

I hesitated to write about the tragic death of Robin Williams. I know very little about clinical depression, so I fear saying something stupid or ignorant about it – and please forgive me if I do. The better part of wisdom is to stop blogging and learn from the experts about depression. And I’d like to begin with a disclaimer: I’m interpreting what Robin Williams said about “a loving God.” But please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that if you are depressed, just turn to God. I’m not against turning to God, but when it comes to something as serious as depression, please turn to professional help.

As I watched the news reports over the last few days, I’ve come across many interviews with Robin Williams. I was surprised to discover that far from being just a great comedian, Williams had some profound things to teach us about human nature and the Christian faith.

For example, in a 2006 interview with Diane Sawyer, Williams talked about “the ultimate Christian gift”:

I would call it the ultimate Christian gift. It’s that idea of you are back and you realize that the things that matter are others way beyond yourself. Self goes away. Ego, bye bye. You realize that there are a lot of amazing people out there to be grateful for and a loving God. And other than that, good luck. That’s what life is about.

According to Williams, the ultimate Christian gift is loving relationships based on the love of God. Indeed, as First John states, “God is love.” Through the doctrine of the Trinity, Christianity makes the bold, beautiful, and awe-inspiring claim that God exists in relationships of unconditional love. God created us in God’s image, a reminder that God calls us to imitate divine love by relating to one another with unconditional love. For Williams, the things that matter most are beyond ourselves, beyond our ego, because the things that matter are relationships that reflect the love of God that always reaches out to the others. As First John continues, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and loves God.”

And yet, Williams ended his statement with a warning. After expressing his gratitude for the love of God and his relationship with “a lot of amazing people,” he said, “And other than that, good luck.”

Williams wished us luck because he knew that we have a tendency to seek love and approval from those who are “other than that” – from other people and cultural values whose love is conditional and who don’t have our best interest in mind.

That’s why it’s incredibly difficult for us to believe the ultimate Christian gift of love. The truth is that our relationships with one another are rarely based on God’s unconditional love. They are often based on conditional love that seeks to earn approval from others.

The problem with having to earn approval is that we never know if we are worthy enough to keep it, so we will always be striving for it. Theologian James Alison puts it like this in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim, “We know how easy it is for us to depend entirely on [others] for approval, for identity, a sense of who we are and what we are worth. And we also know how easily we can lose ourselves, sell ourselves out, in order to win, or keep, approval from people.”

Williams wished us luck when we fall into the ego-centric trap of earning approval and love from others because it can suck our souls dry. I want to be clear that this is not the same as clinical depression, but the desire for the constant approval from others can lead to a real sense of despair because we never know if we are worthy enough to be loved. Approval is always defined by our last great achievement and failure is always knocking on the door. As opposed to creating relationships of love, we can easily fall into a pattern of competing with others for approval. Soon, we become jealous of their success and we begin to hope that others fail so that we can appear more successful.

When we fall into that soul-sucking pattern of relating to one another, we want to escape.

Williams talked about his desire to escape in a 1989 interview with Barbara Walters. She stated that, “When we hear about people using drugs, most of the time they use them to get a high.” Williams responded that, “For me, it was basically a great way of escaping. It was a great way to cut off from people.”

The ultimate Christian gift is about relationships of unconditional love. That’s what life is about. And so when we fall into relationships of conditional love based on earning approval from others, we want to escape because, deep down, we know that we were made for so much more.

We were made for receiving and sharing the unconditional love of God. In another interview with ABC, an older Williams gives advice to his younger self about the things that matter,

Don’t be running so fast. How much have you loved? How much have you loved doing what you do? Or loved being with the people? If you can answer that question pretty positively, then you’re doing okay. It’s a good life.

“How much have you loved?” We all want to be in relationships of receiving and sharing unconditional love and approval. In fact, as creatures made in the loving image of God, our very identity depends upon it. When we deny that fact, we are likely to fall into a pattern of earning conditional love and approval from others. Eventually, we will find ourselves in despair and seeking to escape because we know that a love based on conditions isn’t really love at all. On the other hand, when we receive the ultimate Christian gift of God’s unconditional love and approval, our ego-centric need for approval from others begins to disappear and we find ourselves freely sharing God’s love with others. Indeed, as Williams stated, a life that is based on receiving and sharing that love is what life is all about.

Robin Williams left us with a reminder about the ultimate Christian gift. The things that matter most are relationships that reflect God’s unconditional love. May we receive that gift and share it with the world.

Bill O’Reilly, Brian Williams, and Jesus: On Goodness and Love
Relaxing into Lent: Identity and those Voices in Your Head
Finding Atonement in the Greatest Rivalry in College Basketball
Facing My Mortality: Why I’m Praying the Compline During Lent
About Adam Ericksen

Adam Ericksen is the Education Director for The Raven Foundation. He writes blogs and films vlogs on the Raven Foundation website that explore the intersections of mimetic theory, the news, religion, and popular culture. He is also a youth pastor where he engages young people with Christian tradition, mimetic theory, and youth culture.

  • Diane Sampson

    Thank you for this. There are a lot of “Christians” out there celebrating ’cause he “went to hell.” Sick.

    • Adam Ericksen

      It is sick, Diane. I think that’s the perfect word to use. There is a sickness among Christians that gains a sense of glee from the suffering of others. Jesus came to heal that sickness. Sad that it persists. All I can think to do is pray and point toward healing. Thank you for the comment and blessings to you!

    • pagansister

      Wonder how those folks came up with that determination? Do they have an insight that no one else has? Sick is the right word for them.

  • sue cordes

    I certainly don’t celebrate his “going to hell” as you put it Diane s. But, he mentions God, but what god? No mention of Jesus Christ! Lots of people will talk about god, but never about the Son of God, from whom without his shed blood, we will never see God!!! :( Please don’t put to much into this. If he truly had the one true God, he no doubt would of mentioned his relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of the Almighty God! I hope he was saved, I really do, but the Bible says, by their fruits you will know them. Sadly his fruits were quite worldly…:(

    • Adam Ericksen

      Sue. I appreciate your comment, but I want to ask, how do you know that “his fruits were quite worldly”? Do you know what Robin did with his resources? Do you know how much he gave to charity? Can you really judge his heart and his fruits?

      Robin was a faithful Christian. He attended his Episcopalian church. His comment that we have a loving God is the product of his faith in Jesus. Sure, Robin, like the rest of us, was a mixed bag. He was saint and sinner. In the videos I link to, he talks about hearing voices in his head tempting him to jump off a precipice. That’s a clear allusion to Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by Satan. Robin had a lot in common with Jesus. For one, they were both tempted in the same way. They were in the same place of torment. Where Robin was, there was Jesus, loving Robin through every painful moment. And where Robin is now, there is Jesus, continuing to love him. And I say Amen for that.

      Thanks again,

      • sue cordes

        I wonder Adam, what Jesus is it you think you or Robin know??? :-( There is another Jesus, another gospel, and another spirit out there…..:-( I’m. not trying to judge, but if one is a true follower of Jesus Christ, you wouldn’t hang in clubs and have vulgar words spill forth from your lips like water flowing….I liked Robin but his fruit wasn’t that of a follower of the true Christ, sorry.

        • Adam Ericksen

          Sue, I can’t talk for Robin, but the Jesus I know and the Gospel I know is the one that says that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the ministry of reconciliation to us. (2 Cor. 5:19)

          God is reconciling the whole world to himself! That is Good News! In fact, that is the best news possible, and it’s right there in the Bible! The whole world must include saints and sinners like me, you, and even Robin Williams.

    • pagansister

      I find it interesting that you can judge a person’s faith simply by saying they didn’t happen to mention Jesus while talking about God in an interview. Thus he must not be a “real or true Christian”? If hell exists, he IMO, hasn’t gone there. From what has been written and by his own admission, he suffered from depression. IMO that would be hell on earth and apparently the demons got the better of him, became too much to deal with thus his suicide. And like many he self medicated too with alcohol. He also admitted that. What is with the statement of “his fruits were quite worldly”? He was from all accounts a caring and loving man who gave generously to charities and from his performances he gave much pleasure and laughter to many. He was a true genius and proved that in all his performances. If he wasn’t a candidate for a place called heaven, then no one is. You are a harsh judge of a person you didn’t know personally. He will be missed by family, friends and fans. I sincerely hope he has finally found peace.

      • sue cordes

        Unfortunately, lots of “good” people will end up in hell.

  • SeraphicFather

    To link this man, Robin Williams with Jesus is simply absurd. Robin was wealthy beyond measure and went through marriages and families at will….in the end he made a choice. To glorify him a noble person to the end is an injustice to those who are truly noble and endure despite their circumstances. Suicide is still a violent and mortal act that was chosen whatever the diminished capacity.

    If there is to be no judgement e.g. “his fruits were quite worldly” then it works both ways and you can’t go on to say he was a ‘faithful Christian….” Again to make this man another Christ is simply absurd and falls into an idolatry of celebrity worship.

    • Adam Ericksen

      Celebrity worship? Nah. It’s having sympathy for another human being who was, like all of us, flawed. The link isn’t absurd. It’s quite natural. Clearly, Robin Williams struggled with spiritual and psychological issues, as did Jesus who like us was tempted in every way (see especially his wilderness experience), as do all of us to one degree or another. Sure, suicide is a violent act, and we should do all we can to help people who suffer from depression, which includes responding to everyone, celebrity and otherwise, with compassion and love.