Christian counselor to suicidal woman: “Do it and you’ll go to hell.”

Christian counselor to suicidal woman: “Do it and you’ll go to hell.” May 24, 2015

Got this in:

Dear John,

What is your experience with Christians dealing with depression? I’m asking because in the past I’ve dealt with severe depression and anxiety, and my treatment by different pastors or Christian counselors varied. Most of the pastors I talked to were very understanding and sympathetic. But they also cautioned me not to tell anyone in the church aside from them about my depression.

The Christian mental health counselors I talked to were, however, another story. I told one that my depression and anxiety had become so bad I was considering suicide. Her response was that if I committed suicide I’d go straight to hell and be separated from my family forever. That made me feel so much worse.

The problem was at that point in my life I couldn’t stand going to church. I couldn’t read the Bible without feeling ill, and seeing anything religious made me anxious. So I wasn’t sure where to turn or who to talk to or what to think.

So also I wanted to ask if you’ve ever run into people with the same problem?

Yes, sadly, such people write me often. It’s heartbreaking. So many Christians are burdened with the conviction that they’re supposed to be immune from depression and/or low self-esteem. They’re stuck in what I call the Happy Christian Syndrome. They can’t show the world (much less their fellow Christians, much less their pastor) that they’re unhappy, since (they feel) that would show that they’re not spiritually fulfilled, that within them there’s a dearth of Holy Spirit. So they lie about who they really are, and how they’re really feeling—which makes them feel even worse inside, which makes them pretend even harder.

Meanwhile, Jesus himself is openly so “very sad and troubled” that he cries:

Jesus saw her crying. He saw that the Jews who had come along with her were crying also. His spirit became very sad, and he was troubled. “Where have you put him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. — John 11:33-35

Not to mention Jesus’s famous, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”, which hardly shows him to be Mr. Turn That Frown Upside Down.

I was once told by a pastor friend that depression and low-self esteem is pure egoism. “It’s putting yourself ahead of God,” he said. “The only psychotherapy anyone needs is the Bible.”

The pastor was painfully wrong about that. But I could forgive him for what he said, because I knew it was coming from the same place that anger and a lack of compassion always come from: fear. He was afraid. He was afraid of the truth that deep down inside so many Christians are so afraid of they won’t even allow themselves to be aware of it, let alone accept it, which is that Christianity doesn’t have all the answers. It’s not a cure for everything that plagues your body and soul. It’s not a fast track way to get happy. You can’t just open your Bible and have all your childhood traumas disappear.

Life is, and remains, a bitch, no matter who you are ,or where you come from. A whole lot of things about a whole lot of life are a whole lot of traumatizing.

What we have to all realize is that that’s okay. It’s okay to be hurt. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to feel lost. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s healthy, even, since ultimately the long path to wisdom must wind through many miles of suffering.

Hang in there, friend. Listen to your emotions, take your time, claim the truth that the journey you’re on is yours and yours alone, and have faith.

And remember: If Jesus can cry, despair, and even rail against God, it’s okay if you do the same. That, too, has its place.


See also When Bad Emotions Happen to Good Christians.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Matt

    Letter Writer, have you read all of the Psalms? Some of the most colorful expressions of abject despair I’ve ever come across are in there. Part of Psalm 22 (NIV translation), for example:

    “My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night but I find no rest. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises…But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.”

    Not only does the writer of that psalm let loose with his pain, but he admonishes God for it: “Seriously, God? You’re so high and mighty, but you can’t even save me from this suffering?” It says nothing about him exploding or being damned to hell, by the way.

    The people helping you don’t need to share your faith to help you heal and relieve pain. God can handle the rest.

  • RonnyTX

    Onething this woman needs to hear and understand,is that there is no Jesus Christ created hell of eternal torment,for anyone to go to. 🙂 And here’s one of many good pages about that.

    And John,I just want to thank you for the blog post you’ve made here. It’s really a good one! I’m just a little bit down now,so this is almost nothing,as compared to the depression I had in my 30’s. Remembering the many days then,that I just didn’t want to even get out of bed in the morning. Where did that depression come from? From the lies I was taught to believe about myself,from some church elders. How did I get out of such? By God putting caring Christian people in my life,who caused me to turn to God,to find out the truth of some things. And when God did,my extreme depression lifted. 🙂 And I’m not sure I have the words to say it right or not;but one thing I would tell other people,is never trust religious leaders,the way you trust God/Jesus Christ. In other words,no matter what those people try to teach you otherwise,never look up to a mere person,no matter their title,as if they were God/Jesus Christ. For that,we surely are not.

  • Michael Brian Woywood

    When Jesus is about to go and pray in the Garden, He says, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” That sounds a great deal like a description of suicidal depression, at least as I have experienced it.

    What so many Christians are afraid of is that we might be called to minister in the midst of our sufferings, that we’re not all supposed to be happy-go-lucky evangelists, that some of us might have to be weeping prophets. It contradicts the narrative that we’re all going to be happy, healthy and wealthy if we just drink the Jesus Juice. But, Jesus taught us how to suffer from the very beginning of this thing. It sucks. It’s hard. And, we should always try to find peace where we can. We should also realize that our unique brand of suffering isn’t so unique, and that there are people all over who need us to share that pain… so that they don’t feel alone either.

  • Brandon Roberts

    i have struggled (and still do) with suicidal thoughts and you’ll go to hell doesn’t help it’s actually one of the worst arguments period the way to deal with someone who is suicidal is you talk to them find out why they want to kill themselves and be their friend

  • Wow. I just want to swear. But the last time I did that, it ended up getting published, and some commenters on Kimberly Knight’s blog got annoyed. (Kimberly was fine with it, she went and answered my sweary question and stuck it up there!)

  • Kelli Hernandez

    This is really sad. And a big part of why I will not visit Christian ‘therapists’, as well as why I will not darken the doorway of a church. I go to a therapist who is secular and I’ve made more progress there than I ever have in Christian based therapeutic setting.

    What Christianity (extremism) in my opinion does, is pathologize perceived negative emotions. This is actually somewhat controlling. Is it a wonder that someone like your letter writer would feel so anxious? I was taught that Jesus and the Bible was my cure, but that there was something fundamentally and pathologically wrong with me in that when I sought Christ and read my Bible to ‘overcome’ depression,it wasn’t working . Guilt and shame is often utilized to ‘control’ Christians who struggle with their faith, let alone a mental health or physical health problem, exacerbating it, when in reality, it’s Christianity that IS the pathology underlying so much of my experiences in the extremist environment. It asks us to deny, not to embrace our humanity and that if our faith does not resolve the problem, then it is a problem with US and our faith, NOT something that has nothing to do with my faith at all, which is PTSD and Depression. I think extremists are afraid to embrace the darker side of self, that much of our process is one of free will and that the idea that biblical literalism and a Christ we cannot see, is going to ‘fix’ us, through faith.

    In my view, we cannot learn if we do not experience issues that are highly human. I like to think that God ALLOWS our suffering to TEACH us something, something that it is up to US to learn. Yet, I was still encouraged NOT to embrace my humanity. I was particularly vulnerable to extremist teaching, having had a highly abusive childhood, where guilt and shame were already in place. I often feel that extremism is predatory and pathological, as well as fear based.

    I’ve learned that my experiences and my mental health issues, have broadened my faith. It taught me to see God out of the box, as the cliche goes. It allowed me to see that my Bible was not entirely to be taken literally, but more a personal love note from God to me, written by men in a different culture and time, as well as filled with metaphors, but that I felt God expected me to REACH OUT to professionals that were NOT affiliated with pathological Christian extremism.

    I’m not against God, Christ or the Bible. But because of the abuse, whether intended or not, out of other Christian’s about my divorce, my childhood abuse, resulting in PTSD/Depression, etc, I believed myself to be driven away from my faith. That is not true. I was driven away by a pathological religion that did not exhibit empathy. Having removed myself from it, deepened my faith and my ability to embrace my humanity enough to heal the pain within me.

  • Worthless Beast

    Hmm. I wrote this journal a few days ago.

    I am feeling a bit better now. Also like i want to guillotine a lot of smug, loudmouthed rich bastards. Well, maybe not that, but I do still want to invent a time machine so I can find the first person to have invented money so I can hang him by his big toes and cover him in spiders.

    Anyway, I’m sharing this because a part of my journal-ranting is the perpetual thing I come back to whenever I have one of these depression-crashes: Fear does not work. I mean, maybe it does for some people. I’ve known people who say that the reason why they don’t end it all is because they fear what might be waiting or not waiting on the other side – people unsure of heaven or hell or anything else are perfectly capable of fearing the Void, despite what people who give those “You were dead before you were born” platitudes say. Maybe some people fear “going to hell” enough to stay their hand, but I know, from experience (whenever I get like I was a few days ago, edgy and from the one attempt I made several years ago), that for me, “fear of destination” DOES NOT WORK. When I am edgy, what I am thinking about more is “taking out the trash” – no longer burdening the world with a meaningless presence that’s holding back Mankind or my family/friends, an existence that should never have been. It doesn’t matter where I’ll go in those times, just so long as I am no longer a setback.

    I think I put a bit of scrawl somewhere for a project I’m writing that has a character musing upon how the most painful thing of all is “realizing that you are one of the people who is holding the world back / that you are one of the ‘bad guys” though you try desperately not to be.

    I actually find it pretty hard to do the prayer and Bible stuff. It’s not that church has particularly hurt me (though I am an introvert and haven’t been to a church in years)… (The worst I can think of was one guy, adult Sunday School teacher in my old church being sure that “Christians / truly saved people never commit suicide because God in them always stops them” – I want to retroactively smack him for that, but he was actually a good guy, was into science/believe in evolution and stuff and was a doctor at a clinic for the local poor at the time – someone I have warm memories of who I think was not malicious, just mistaken)… The reason why I find prayer hard is that there’s always this voice in my head telling me that I’m irrational for it, and stupid, that my inability to become an atheist makes me dumb and weak because – look at all those people for whom this life, science, nature and pragmatism is enough? Why can’t I be one of those people? Why is Jesus camped out on the couch in my brain eating all my Cheetos?

    I am imaginative. I wonder a lot of “What ifs?” a lot. “What if?” is my default way of thinking. It’s a double-edged sword. I mean, I can get delightful thoughts like “What if there are some really cool civilizations on other planets” or “What if the future will contain brains flying through space and us eating lasers?” Or “What if there really is some nugget of good buried within even the worst of people?” It also paints the dark pictures, like “What if the world really would be better off without me?”

    So, fear… doesn’t work. I’m too prone to loving stories of heroic sacrifices for the greater good for that. What works is the thoughts I have for the few people in this world who do love and care about me. I have a man who has supported my getting help in mental health every step of the way. Love isn’t Hallmark cards, it’s taking you to the hospital and to clinics and picking you up from said. It’s being willing to sit with you through your latest crazy-episode. It’s that.

    I apologize for my current name on here. I barely use Disqus and am too lazy to change it, also my regular name was attached to an email for a website I no longer have.

  • Linnea912

    Any self-proclaimed Christian who condemns depression is someone I’d like to smack (and I’m not a violent person, really!) I have been through suicidal depression myself, and have known people who have taken their own lives… one of them was the pastor at my church. From all of that, I find it impossible to believe that God would punish anyone who suffers depression, or commits suicide.

    The God I know and love is one who grieves over people who take their own lives, but who also holds them close and loves them for eternity. I believe that same God has made it possible for psychotherapy and anti-depressant meds to be developed.

  • RonnyTX

    WB,you are far from a meaningless presence! In fact,you are priceless. And the same true,for each and every last one of us. 🙂

  • RonnyTX

    Kelli,I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want us to embrace our humanity,for it was God who chose for us to be human and shaped each of us,in our mother’s womb. And you’re right,that God allows our suffering,so as to teach us. For what makes us experience the good as so much better,is our having also experienced the bad. And we learn by contrast,by comparing. We compare the good to the bad and that makes the good,even that much better. 🙂 And I know what you mean too,when you speak of PTSD/depression. Been there,done that and I don’t even know for sure,for how many years? But what brought me out of that,was God showing me the sin I was taught in church. Such as,listening to and believing all of my churches teachings and bellieving every word from out pulpit,was equal to me hearing from God. God showed me how wrong that was and it took awhile for God to teacn me such. (ha) 🙂 I was just that brainwashed and in bondage to the church teaching,that I grew up under. But one thing God showed me,was that if I didn’t understand or know about something for sure,one way or the other, then I could simply study the scriptures for myself,asking God to guide me and show me the truth. And in God’s time,God would do just that. That way,as contrasted to the church I grew up in,where I was simply taught to believe everything from out pulpit and that without question. To believe such,as if I were hearing straight from God. God delivered me from that and showed me that such teaching was idol worship of some people and sin.

  • RonnyTX

    Brandon,even if someone believed in hell,it just sort of floors me,that they would threaten a depressed,suicidal thinking person with such! But the good news is, there is no hell of eternal torment,for anyone to go to. 🙂 And before all is said and done,every last person will be put back in a right relationship with God and that by way,of Jesus Christ and the cross. 🙂 Yep,that is just how much God/Jesus Christ loves us all! 🙂

  • RonnyTX

    Amen Michael. 🙂 And I’m reminded of the scripture where Jesus tells us,in this world you shall suffer tribulation;but be of good cheer,for I’ve over come the world. And how did Jesus Christ do that? By love and laying down his life for every last one of us. Now that’s how much we are loved! 🙂

    And as far as happy,healthy and wealthy,somehow I sure missed the wealthy part. (ha) 🙂 And with advancing age,my health is not always what I wished it was,by any means. Or as an older aunt of mine puts it,growing old is not for sissies! 🙂 LoL And for years,I was extremely unhappy;but then,I got that from listening to and believing some people and not from listening to and simply believing God. And it was God,who brought me out of that unhappiness. 🙂 It was God/Jesus Christ,who put the smile on my face and in my heart,when I know sing the old song that goes;When we all get to heaven,what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus,we’ll sing and shout the victory! 🙂

  • RonnyTX

    Matt,how right you are about the Psalms! For many’s the time,that David got depressed.

  • RonnyTX

    Amen Linn,amen!

  • RonnyTX

    Tim,your post reminds me of that old saying,enough to make a preacher cuss! 🙂 LoL

  • Brandon Roberts

    agreed telling someone suicidal there going to hell is even less effective than trying to scare a 15 year old using santa claus inefective and stupid. and if god is loving why would he want to punish someone who’s going through pain? makes no sense. these people need to learn how you help someone who’s suicidal is you be there for them ask them why they want to kill themselves and try to help them through it with love.

  • vj

    “And remember: If Jesus can cry, despair, and even rail against God, it’s okay if you do the same. That, too, has its place.”

    Awesome! Vintage stuff, John – that’s what I keep coming back for 😉

  • vj

    Shadsie, your comments on John’s blog have always been such a blessing to me – your ability to share with such raw honesty is a gift that I treasure, and it always delights me to find you still here; sending you lots of love thru cyberspace xxx

  • Andy

    This makes me so sad to hear that this sort of unsympathetic, harmful behavior still goes on, and yet (a bit selfishly) thankful that I haven’t encountered this myself. I used to see a therapist regularly, and I’m fairly certain he was a Christian, but he never told me anything like this. I did talk about my beliefs, as is normal in therapy, but if he disagreed with them, he never said so to me.

    I hope this reaches a lot of people. They need to know that religious therapy is not the only way, even if they’re religious themselves. A therapist that condemns them or pushes his or her beliefs on them is harmful, not helpful, and there are almost certainly better therapists around that will help them feel better, not worse.

  • paganheart

    I agree. I was extremely depressed in my teen years, to the point that I have scars from my self-harming behavior back then. My parents sent me to the pastor at our church for counseling sessions; they meant well, but they didn’t trust psychologists. “Head-shrinkers,” my dad called them (and the reality was that they probably couldn’t have afforded professional therapy anyhow.) The pastor basically told me to read my Bible and pray more……not helpful. It wasn’t until I went away to college and could avail myself of free counseling services via the student health center that I finally got the real help I needed. I’m not cured; there is no real cure for most mental illnesses, just like there is no cure for many chronic physical illnesses (or for this bitch we call real life, as John aptly puts it.) There’s just treatment, in the form of real, professional therapy and sometimes medication to keep the proverbial demons (mostly) at bay.

    I have no doubt that many priests and pastors mean well, but many of them have absolutely no training in mental health, and have absolutely no business counseling the mentally ill. I also have no doubt than many of them believe that secular mental health counseling is “evil” because they believe that it will draw people away from God, that if people find out that Christianity isn’t all about sunshine and rainbows and joy, and that it won’t magically make your problems go away, well then what good is it? Personally I think that being told you are not allowed to be sad, anxious, angry, depressed etc. because Jesus, is a form of spiritual abuse and you should run from that person or church as fast as you can.

    People who are depressed and suicidal need real help from real professionals, not religious platitudes and claptrap. If I ruled the world (yeah never gonna happen) all pastors and church leaders would be required to complete some psychology courses, and would be held liable if they are counseling someone and fail to refer them to the proper authorities when they see signs of true mental illness or possible suicide.

  • Linnea912

    Thinking some more about this, I’m reminded a little of the old adage of how the biggest homophobe is someone who is struggling with their own sexuality. In this case, I think people who try to brush aside others’ suicidal feelings or who say that “God is enough” or such things are terrified of the notion that maybe God/faith/prayer/etc. ISN’T enough; they find it threatening. My own observation is that these tend to be the same people who believe that anything not explicitly fundamentalist/evangelical Christian is automatically bad.