I remember the first time I met Rachel Cantrell. She hobbled on crutches into the Village Deli in Wake Forest, NC, for an interview for a position at the YMCA where I was working as the Director of Middle School Programs.
I don’t always remember the first time I meet someone, especially when the first time is a job interview, but since that spring day in 2007, God has knit our hearts together for mutual edification, accountability, encouragement, friendship, and partnership in what we’ve come to call “messy ministry.”
While there are no easy ministry jobs, we do jobs that even ‘ministry people’ tend to shy away from. Rachel serves as a crisis counselor for a suicide hotline and I serve with a ministry for people dealing with a variety of issues concerning sexual brokenness. Not exactly ministry work people that are clamoring to hear about.
Neither of us intended to be in these lines of ministry; but God knew His plans for us and equipped us for it long before we knew what He had for us.
For six weeks in the Fall of 2008, Rachel and I spent 12 hours walking through Ephesians together, two hours a week in a coffee shop. Those 12 hours taught me about life-on-life discipleship and community, and it has shaped how I do messy ministry to this day. Ministry is about stepping into the mess with the person and being willing to get dirty with them so that they can see they are not alone, that they have hope, that there is a way out. Those six weeks modeled messy ministry (which is, really, just biblical discipleship) for me, and have been the model I use to teach others how to disciple people through the messes we all encounter in this life.
In recent months, both of our areas of ministry, mental health and sexuality, have been forced to the forefront of our society’s collective consciousness. From mass shootings to the political fervor surrounding the same-sex marriage debate, we’ve talked and processed through a lot of our “messy ministry” recently.
The church has done a poor job addressing depression and hopelessness in the believer, often prescribing a “here’s a verse, read it and pray more” approach to mental illness.
Or we go to the other extreme, focusing only on the mental health, outsourcing the hurting individual to a psychological professional to treat a disease.
Both extremes neglect the intertwined complexities of the human being, created in the image of God. Issues of depression and identity and hopelessness and despair are not “either/or” concerning the physical and the spiritual. They are “both/and issues”, and the whole person must be considered when wholeness is the goal.
The following is a letter Rachel recently wrote to believers who are facing the despair of hopelessness. We have both been praying for the right time for God to use this letter to minister, both to those contemplating suicide, and to those who are involved in the messy ministry of walking alongside believers who courageously submit their depression and their impulses of self-harm to the hope of Christ on a daily basis.
With the tragic news today of the suicide of Rick and Kay Warren’s son Matthew, the complex issues of depression and suicide will be discussed widely in the coming days in both the evangelical and secular worlds because of the high profile involvement the Warrens have in multiple areas of ministry and social awareness.
We are all praying peace and comfort for the entire Warren family, but pray also that even now, what the enemy surely meant for evil, God will use for good by providing opportunity for these issues to be addressed openly, in grace-filled and loving ways.
Perhaps you feel even less than a believer today, feeling as if you have lost all hope in God, in people, in this life. I am writing to you today to help you find hope again. I am certainly not the answer, nor do I hold all of the answers to the sometimes debilitating and horrific circumstances one encounters or experiences in this life.
You, yourself, can attest to these circumstances, can’t you? They are overwhelming, consuming, and leave you feeling hopeless and helpless. Sometimes you can’t breathe, and sometimes your body aches with physical pain because the emotional pain is too much to bear. Some days you feel that your body or your mind may just explode, and you think, maybe that would help people understand.
But most days, you feel isolated, alone, and afraid. You are certain that no one knows your pain, and those who may know certainly have no real understanding of all that you are feeling and all that you have been through; and you have no words to even begin to explain what is happening inside of you. It feels like words don’t exist to explain such pain, pain so deep that ending your own life feels like it must be the best decision.
You tell yourself often that you should not feel this way. You punish yourself for even entertaining the idea of suicide, because you are, after all, a believer who should have great hope in a great God. But hope left a long time ago, and was replaced with sorrow, fear, and depression.
Hopelessness is defined as having no expectation of good or success. Your hopelessness feels deeper than this, doesn’t it? You feel, as a believer, more like the third explanation of hopelessness in the vast list of definitions: “incapable of redemption or improvement.” Incapable of redemption, that’s what you tell yourself, right? How could God possibly redeem or rescue you from this, from what was, from what is, from what could be? Does He even know how you feel? Does He understand?
Surely He could not, and He must only be angry at your sinful heart and all of its considerations of suicide. Suicide is so stigmatic, isn’t it? People say you’ll go to Hell because surely it’s the unpardonable sin. Suicide is horrible. It ruins lives, destroys relationships, and leaves quite a wake in lives left behind.
But it seems right to you. It makes the hurt go away, the problems stop, and it quiets your ever-so loud world. Suicide is, in itself, the end. It will be the last decision you will ever make. It will be the final say in all of the lies, the voices, the pain. And it screams loudly, doesn’t it? Perhaps there are plans for how you intend to take your life. Perhaps there are just thoughts, painful thoughts of ways to go about silencing this life. Maybe you have tried before, unsuccessfully, and as a result, today, you know that you cannot make that mistake again. Today, the choice is to live or to die.
Please let me help you make the choice to live. I cannot make this choice for you, and I do not, and will not, feel responsible if you choose death; but I would love just a few moments, to share some words of life with you; one last chance to attempt to instill some real and lasting hope. In this offer of hope, you will hear truths that you know clearly. Let me ask you, while you read them this time, acknowledge them. This is very different than just knowing them. Let them confront and comfort your broken heart, your hot soul, and your chaotic mind. This letter holds no magic pill, no magic words, and no hope within itself. It will not heal you. Hope is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Healing is found in His words, redemption is found in His cross, and life is found in His resurrection.
“Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.” These are words we have all sung, and these are words that we know well. Read them again. “Sin had left a crimson stain…..” Be it your own sins committed against our holy God, or perhaps sins committed against you by others (which also are sins committed against our holy God); they run deep, don’t they?
You cannot atone for them. You, alone, cannot rid yourself of them. You cannot even stop thinking about them. Chaos reigns in your mind, day in and day out. Sin is literally a crimson stain, a stain that you cannot clean from your soul. Maybe it is blatant sin: alcoholism, the abuse of drugs, self-injury, promiscuity, pride. Or maybe it is sin committed against you: physical abuse, sexual abuse, rape, betrayal, verbal abuse, bullying.
How could you possibly atone for all of these things? What inside of you is enough to clean such a stain from your soul? The answer is nothing. Nothing inside of you is enough. But Jesus, Jesus is enough. He took the weight that you feel, and more. He bore that weight, that pain, that heartache, that sorrow, that trauma, that anxiety, that fear, that shame, that guilt, and He died.
He was punished so that you don’t have to be punished. He died, so that you don’t have to.
He willingly took the nails, nails driven deep into his hands and feet so that you don’t have to put that blade to your wrist. He willingly hung and suffocated, so that you don’t have to do this to yourself. He willingly was pierced for our transgressions, leaving his heart bleeding out, so that your broken heart could be healed.
He died so that you could live.
It wasn’t suicide.
It was sacrifice.
Sacrifice to buy you and me back from the grip of sin, death, and hell. He knows the pain you feel. He has felt it. He felt it and understood that it needed to be put to death, and that you, a mere broken soul, certainly could not bear the weight of it all. The Scripture tells us that He was “sorrowful, even to death“ (Matthew 26:38). Be encouraged that He conquered such sin at the cross. He put it to death so that you don’t have to. This certainly does not mean that it ceases to exist. You know this best.
However, He conquered such sin, meaning he stripped it of its power over your life. He conquered this sin, and He conquered death in His resurrection. He rose in victory, giving us victory over sin in this life (1 Corinthians 15: 56-57). You know these truths as the Gospel. You trusted these truths, this God, this Savior to save your very soul from Hell. Why not trust these same truths to save your life, yet again?
This time, salvation is not needed to rescue you from Hell; no, that has already been accomplished. Today, salvation is needed to rescue you from yourself, from the temptation to bring harm to yourself. Think about it. You believed that you could have done NOTHING to make yourself right with God, and thus, Christ died to make reconciliation between God and man possible. You believe that. You needed a rescue, a rescue from separation from God, a rescue from death itself, a rescue from your own self, because you could not rescue yourself and come near to God. Today, there is One who can rescue you because you cannot rescue yourself. You feel so far gone, and you desperately need a rescue from yourself, from your sin, from sins committed against you, and from this wild, messed up, crazy world.
Oh friend, cry out to the same Jesus that rescued you from yourself at the moment of your conversion. Just as you cried out to Him to save you, perhaps so many years ago, cry out to Him again!
Your belief of the Gospel was not a one time event. We, as believers, must preach the Gospel to ourselves daily. We need to remind ourselves of the saving power of our God. We must be reminded often of our redemption, our help, our promise of a future, and of life everlasting, free from sin. Believe the Gospel, breathe it in, acknowledge the Truth. He will come and save you. Proverbs 18:10 says, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.”
Please acknowledge this wisdom. Run to the Lord, stop running from Him. You cannot do this life by yourself, it is too hard, too painful. He is a refuge that you have sought safety in before, and yet now, you are attempting to leave the safety of this refuge. He is a strong tower amidst the storm.
Consider this analogy: You are in a small boat out in the Gulf, and there is a large tropical storm sweeping across the waters, soon to capsize your boat, leaving you to drown in the storm. Waves are sweeping over your head, you are struggling to stay afloat, not to mention stay alive. You are trying to cover your face, but you are unable to keep from choking on so much water. You are certain that death is near.
And then you see a light, a lighthouse, a refuge from the insanity. You steer your boat in that direction, begging God to help you get there, determined that you will make it if you can just get there. Finally, after much struggle and effort, you arrive, climb the ladder to the top and race in the door, just as waves sweep over the entrance. You are safe. You turn and watch the storm all around, waves crashing into the tower, but it is not shaken, for it is stronger than the storm. The storm doesn’t stop, but you are safe in this tower. Would you consider leaving this refuge in the middle of the storm? You’ve finally found safety, and the consideration to leave such safety, to only return to fear, and impending death seems absurd, doesn’t it?
Are you following me?
Jesus has rescued you from the insanity that is this life. No, this doesn’t mean that your world ceases to be insane, it just means that you are kept safe amidst the insanity. He is the tower, the refuge, and yet, here you are, considering leaving such a refuge. You are considering taking matters into your own hands by ending your life because you have stepped away from the refuge.
You are back out in the storm, and you are drowning.
He is calling you to return.
The still small voice that we call the Holy Spirit; you feel it, don’t you? That is what has kept you alive thus far. That is our God, fighting for you and for your very life (Exodus 14:14).
Do you feel it? Something won’t let you give in.
That something is our God and His great love for you.
He has great plans for you (Jeremiah 29:11).
He has gone before you in this battle, so that you do not have to be afraid (Deuteronomy 31:8).
The road will be hard, and you will struggle, but you are not, nor will you ever, be alone. You will grieve as you think and process your own sin, and the sins committed against you.
You need to grieve.
Remember our brother Jeremiah? Oh how he grieved over the sin of his people. He grieved and he lamented. Just read the book of Lamentations. “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord’” (Lamentations3:16-18).
These are Jeremiah’s words. Can you relate? Grieve my friend, but grieve with hope in a great God who will rescue you.
Even Jeremiah recalled his hope: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (Lamentations 3:21-24).
He is faithful. He is still here, even in the midst of your wandering, in the midst of your wondering, in the midst of such pain.
The choice to live is, in itself, an act of worship to your God.
Choosing life is an act of worship. You may have to choose each moment of each day, but choose to honor your God. Choose to worship the One who made you, who knows you, who sustains you. Deuteronomy 30:19 says, “…I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.”
I pray that you would choose life.
I pray that you would humbly surrender your life, your dreams, your hopes, or lack there of, to our good God.
I pray that you would beg the Spirit for another moment of strength to choose life.
I pray that you would consider the Gospel and its application to your life, today.
I pray that you would acknowledge that “there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
I pray that you would remember that you are precious and priceless to your Creator (Psalm 139).
I pray that you would remember that you are precious and priceless to the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-8).
I pray that you would remember that you have all that you need to live this life, in Christ Jesus (2 Peter 1:3).
And I pray that you remember that you can do this life, because you have been given much grace to do so ( 2 Corinthians 9:8).
Choose life today, my friend. Confide in a brother or sister in Christ. Ask them to remind you of the Gospel. Ask them to walk with you in these days, in this season.
One day, our God will make all things new. The pain will cease, sin will be no more. But until that day, let’s walk together. For you see, He is making all of us new, even now. Let us walk together in newness of life. We can do this life together, because He has gone before us, felt the pain, and made a way.
I love you my friend.