Derek Hopgood was a lovely, humble Christian man. He was a good husband to his wife in every way and a caring father to his two teenaged girls. He was also an excellent deacon of our congregation. One of his hobbies was photography and often we have used his photographs in the pages of Evangelicals Now.
Derek suffered from bouts of serious depression. There is sadly a definite history of serious clinical depression in Derek’s family line. Two years ago, he had a desperate time of blackness over the Christmas period, and with medical help, many prayers and lots of visits and support from folk in the church, he came through and returned to his responsibilities working for the National Grid.
However, last summer, when many of us were away on holiday and the signs were not so obvious, he went down into depression very quickly. He set off for work on Wednesday morning, having taken his antidepressant pills with him, and went missing. Two days later, he was found dead in his car at a service station on the M25. He had taken his own life.
It was an enormous tragedy especially to his wife and family who loved him and whom he loved. It was also a great blow to the church family. We felt terribly knocked both emotionally and spiritually. Why did this happen? Where was God? We asked those questions with a sense almost of despair at times.
Yet in the weeks following, strangely and very wonderfully, God himself drew near to the congregation in a most remarkable, almost tangible way.
During those days, five lessons came home to us all, which may be of help to other Christians facing similar tragedies.
1. Bible people
Feelings of deep depression and even of suicidal darkness are not outside the experience of God’s true people. The Bible is not a book full of people who do nothing but smile. The gospel is not ‘come to Jesus and all your earthly problems will be solved’.
Some of the greatest men of God whom we meet on the pages of Scripture knew bouts of deepest gloom and desired to die. After his triumph against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel we soon find Elijah under a broom tree praying that he might die (1 Kgs 19:4).
Amid his desperate troubles, we find Job, of whom God said there was no-one else to compare him with on earth, saying to God, “I loathe my very life … I wish I had died before any eye saw me, if only I had … been carried straight from the womb to the grave!” (Job 10:1, 18, 19).
Other Old Testament saints suffered in similar ways, and Paul assures us New Testament believers that what “was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4). Never think that a depressed person cannot be a Christian. The Bible assures us otherwise.
2. Mental illness
We came to recognize that depression of the type from which Derek suffered is a serious illness. It is a well-documented medical condition from which a surprising percentage of the population suffers. Just as we come across folk who suffer from physical illness, so we should sympathize and not condemn those who may have mental illness. We do not say “No Christian should ever suffer from cancer or a heart attack”. Similarly, we have a very shallow view of life and theology if we think that no Christian should ever suffer from depression. As Christians, we are not generally exempt from the troubles which afflict the rest of humanity.
Rather, we share in all suffering that in the suffering, we might share Christ with all compassion with those who suffer.
Many of us felt guilty when Derek died. If only we had got to him sooner. If only we had spotted the symptoms as we did the previous time. Why weren’t we more alert? And indeed it was useful to sit down together last autumn as a church and discuss the lessons we felt we needed to learn. Yet in the end, I do not think God wants to take us on a guilt trip. Derek was ill, and died while his thinking and emotions were deeply disturbed. Derek’s family in particular, needed to get hold of that.
Why didn’t God intervene? What good can possibly come out of this? These were understandable questions. But the answer is that in a fallen world that, through sin, is far short of the ideal, we cannot ultimately understand God’s providences.
In Acts 12, we read of two apostles being arrested by Herod. They were James and Peter. James was killed, but Peter escaped. No doubt the church prayed for James as they prayed for Peter. Yet though Peter was spared, James was not. Why? Why couldn’t God do for James what he did for Peter? We cannot answer such questions.
We must not let the tragedies of providence throw us. We must praise him on the good days and trust him on the bad days, knowing that Christ is victorious. He is risen from the dead, and although we weep now, the day will come when he will wipe all tears from our eyes.
4. Unforgivable sin?
What Derek did was not the unforgivable sin alluded to in such passages as Matthew 12:24, 30-32. Suicide is nowhere mentioned in such passages.
The only sin for which there is no forgiveness is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—the wilful assigning of what is unambiguously good and to the glory of Christ, to the work of Satan. It is the self-conscious, sober and malignant disputing of the indisputable in rejecting Christ. For that, there is no forgiveness, for it is the rejection of the only one who can open our eyes to the only Saviour.
Suicide is often an expression of sinful rebellion. We think of the proud wise man Ahithophel taking his own life once he saw that his plans were thwarted (2 Sam 17:23). But what a poor man does to himself in the depths of clinical depression does not fall into the same category. What a man does while the balance of his mind is upset is a matter for sympathy, not condemnation. For such things, of course, there is forgiveness. Our God is a God who feels for those in pain and who understands our weaknesses. Our God does not reject such a person. Rather we are pointed to God’s love.
5. Unbreakable love
In a time of tragedy, we recognized again the greatness of the gospel. Nothing can separate the Christian from the love of God.
Paul’s words in Romans 8:33-39 are of tremendous encouragement. He is asking a series of rhetorical questions. In verse 35, he seems to ask the question that all the others have been leading up to: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”. He then begins to cast around for possible contenders: “Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or sword?”. God’s people may suffer many miseries, but can any of them separate Christ’s people from his love? Paul answers with a resounding No! “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37).
Where is Derek? He is in heaven. He is with the Lord as are all forgiven sinners who have taken refuge in Christ.
The passage in Romans 8 underlines for us the very point of the gospel. Someone may ask, “If things like this can happen to a Christian, then what is the point of being a Christian?”. For this very reason: we must all die, whether in old age or tragic circumstances. Whether we have had an easy life or a difficult time here on earth, death will find us sometime. But the gospel of Christ gives eternal life to all who believe, whether optimists or pessimists, whether breezy or phlegmatic. It saves us from the consequences of all our sins (of whatever hue) and brings us into the love of God for all eternity. That’s the point of the gospel. That is why Jesus died and rose again.
Our confidence is not in our love for God, which is frail and fickle and faltering, but in his love for us. His is the love that will not let us go. Jesus said of his sheep, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
Reprinted, slightly abridged, from Evangelicals Now, March 1996.