Before Robin Williams Shows Up in Your Sermon, Think Again

By Allen White robin williams

Most people are well aware of actor Robin Williams’ passing this week. The public outpouring from every sector is tremendous. This man touched a lot of people’s lives. Whether they embraced him as Mork from Ork, or “Captain, my captain,” or a DJ in Vietnam, or a loveable, hope-inspiring doctor in Patch Adams, Robin Williams connected deeply in a lighthearted way with such a broad cross section of people. His inner child was his outer adult, which shows bravery most of us lack. But, pastor, before Robin Williams appears in your sermon, here are a few things to consider:

1. Suicide has had a Personal Effect on Your Congregation.

Somehow, someway, everyone’s lives are touched by suicide. For me, it was a friend who took his life during the last week of Bible college, because he lived in such turmoil he could see no way forward. Most people don’t consider suicide, but some do. Some of the people who hear your words will see a friend or loved one in Robin Williams’ coffin. Others will see themselves.

If you send Robin Williams to Hell, you are also sending their loved ones there. If you send Robin Williams to Heaven, what are you saying to those whose thoughts venture to suicide in their darker moments. I’m intentionally not saying where to take this, but I am encouraging you to think about this.

2. Finding Jesus is NOT the Cure for Depression.

God can heal physical and mental diseases. No doubt. Personally, I have prayed for people who have received miraculous healing. I’ve also prayed with people who received miraculous grace that got them through one day at a time.

If Robin Williams had died of cancer or heart disease, we might be more understanding. After all, many physical illnesses are incurable. Mental illness is also incurable. While mental illness can be managed and treated, it never goes away.

For some reason, especially in the church, we often judge people who are mentally ill as making poor choices in their lives or somehow not fully trusting in God. It’s almost as if physical impairments can’t be helped, but mental impairments just require people to simply try harder. If trying hard cured mental illness, then mental illness would be cured, because I don’t ‘know of anyone who tries harder to fit in or just function than people who struggle with these diseases.

There are plenty of Christians who love Jesus with all of their hearts and have committed their entire lives to him, yet they are Schizophrenic, Bipolar, Clinically Depressed or smitten with another illness. There are also Christians who love Jesus, and they struggle with diabetes, heart disease, obesity and a number of other mostly preventable conditions which are actually within their control. Their deaths may not be imminent, but they certainly will come sooner than they should.

Mental and spiritual matters seem more inseparable than physical and spiritual matters. The fine line between the soul and spirit is hard to navigate. Can our souls be saved, while our minds are “lost”? That doesn’t even make sense. We are whole beings. Yet, just as the Apostle Paul prayed for his tormenting illness to disappear, God offered grace instead of healing.

3. The Church Must Do Something.

People suffering from mental illness are often misunderstood and stigmatized. As hard as they try, they often don’t fit in. If they have a family, the family often feels like outsiders as well. Where can they find acceptance and understanding? If it’s not the church, then where?

What help and support does your church offer to those with mental illness and their caregivers and families? Are they welcome through your doors? When they come, are you prepared to accept them? Will you offer support? Are there organizations in your community that your church can partner with? At a minimum, could you offer a meeting room for a NAMI group for free? Are you familiar with Rick and Kay Warren’s conference at Saddleback called The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church?

People with mental illness are exceptional. Certainly every mentally ill person is not a comic genius like Robin Williams, but they are exceptional because they don’t fit into the norm. Institutions are best equipped to serve those in the norm — schools, government, even the church cater to the average Joe. Most institutions are either too small to have resources or are too large to deal with exceptions. Yet, there are families with autistic children (1 in 88 children now) who will never fit into your Sunday school without being a “behavior problem.” Should they just stay home? After all, there are 87 out of 88 to pursue.

No one is doing great work with the mentally ill. They are constantly shuffled back and forth from agency to agency. Most will end up in jail or homeless or dead. The church possesses the hope of the world. If anyone should care, shouldn’t it be the church? Begin to equip yourself, and God will use you. Be open.

Before you mention Robin Williams, do you truly understand his illness? It’s not easy to reconcile a life that brought so much pleasure to so many, yet was tormented by so much pain. Before you go there, what are you willing to do to help the next “Robin Williams” who walks through your church door?

It was probably too soon to write a blog post about Robin Williams. But, so many posts and comments are appearing that are condemning Robin Williams and judging him without truly knowing him or understanding his struggle. I felt I needed to saysomething. This is a tragic loss.

If you need a sermon illustration for Sunday, use something else. It’s too soon. Robin Williams affected many, many lives and means so much to so many. A trite sermon illustration does him a disservice. He was a very special person, exceptional even.


Related Post:

How Do I Meet the Emotional Needs of My Group Members?

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  1. #1 by Kristin on August 13, 2014 - 6:49 pm

    Allen, Thank You! Your point of view is spot on! I have dealt with depression and been on the dark side of it. I have thought about ending it all before but never really acted on it. I also have a mother that is Bipolar and has attempted and by the grace of God survived. This is a tragic loss, in fact I feel as if I’ve lost my best friend! Thank you for sharing this and…no… it is not too soon to post on your blog about it, because someone will certainly try to preach about it on Sunday and unfortunately may say the wrong thing because they did not think about it before they decided to talk about it. This whole situation has me on fire to be an advocate for those that can’t or wont speak up for themselves about this very serious and REAL disease. You just added fuel to my fire brother! Thanks! 🙂

    • #2 by Allen White on August 13, 2014 - 8:13 pm

      There is no one better suited to minister to those who suffer than people who suffer themselves. No one has the understanding that you and so many others have. The church can no longer ignore this issue or depend on other institutions to fill the gap. The church (not the building or organization, but the people) need to reach out to others with love and compassion. When you take that step, God will use you.

  2. #3 by keri wyatt kent on August 13, 2014 - 8:35 pm

    Allen, this is one of the best posts you’ve written, and you’ve written plenty of great ones. Thank you for this call to compassion.

  3. #4 by frideswide1 on August 14, 2014 - 10:34 am

    This is very well written and spot on…all but the ‘it’s too soon’ bit. It is not too soon at all: those affected by depression, mental illness and other hidden diseases are feeling this right now. As one who grew up with a clinically depressed parent, suicide attempts and all, this has been a challenging few days. I want to hear that Jesus is with me…I want to hear ‘it wasn’t your fault’ (oh, the things kids hear sometimes). So, while it may be too soon for a comprehensive discussion, it is never too soon to affirm God’s forgiving presence in the midst of seeming chaos.

  4. #5 by Tim on August 14, 2014 - 10:45 am

    I posted a piece on Robin Williams, but it’s a reflection that went a completely different direction than the one you raise concerns about, Allen.
    As for speaking on suicide and mental illness, whether to do that now or at any time I would suggest pastors and writers keep your concerns in mind.

  5. #6 by Andi on August 14, 2014 - 11:47 am

    Diabetes is a life killing disease. My daughter has type 1 and while it is her job to keep her blood sugar in check, it isn’t in the same ballpark as depression. As for the church “ignoring” this issue, that is not fair on so many levels. To ignore means you know about it, the church can’t help if they don’t know, so that means someone needs to say something. The church body can’t fix something if they don’t know it’s broken.

  6. #7 by Warren Baldwin on August 14, 2014 - 1:56 pm

    Very thoughtfully and appropriately written. Thanks for the suggestion to show restraint before rushing to judgment, or speaking. Well done.

  7. #8 by Teena Stewart on August 14, 2014 - 2:33 pm

    This past year I lost my former brother-in-law to suicide. The church where I work lost a teenage boy for the same reason this year. Those who suffer from such deep depression are the most likely to understand “they why”. Those who don’t wrestle with it or are only mildly touched by it are less likely to grasp the gravity of it. The worst thing the church can do is to ignore mental illness or condemn those who suffer from it for not being spiritually mature. I think it is a topic that should be talked about, even it it makes us uncomfortable.

  8. #9 by Melinda VanRy on August 15, 2014 - 11:08 am

    While I appreciate much of what you have written and the spirit behind it, I take exception to your claims that, “No one is doing great work with the mentally ill. They are constantly shuffled back and forth from agency to agency. Most will end up in jail or homeless or dead.”

    You refer to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and autism. The vast majority of people with these disorders will not end up in jail or homeless, and everyone ends up dead – but most people with these disorders don’t end up dead as a direct result of of the disorder.

    You did so well as you began your post, then made people who suffer a mental disorder as I do sound… pathetic, not to mention freakish in how hard we have to struggle to fit in.

    Does the church need to be careful how it addresses suicide? Yes. Do certain groups and individuals within the church need to get past the ignorant perspective of clinical depression as a merely spiritual issue? Yes. Does the church need to be better at being a “safe” place for people to be honest about their mental and emotional struggles. Yes.

    And everyone needs the hope found in Christ, regardless of their state of mental health.

    “Before you mention Robin Williams, do you truly understand his illness?” This is the first time I have read your blog, but I respectfully suggest you don’t understand his illness if you imply pastors and congregations need to make saving the mentally ill from the streets or keeping them from committing crimes a priority in plans to help. Can you imagine how it would feel to be perceived and approached that way in church?

    When it gets down to it, “the next ‘Robin Williams’ who walks through your church door” won’t be immediately recognized as mentally ill, and may never seek your help when necessary if you contribute to the stigma in your own well-meaning way.

    There is a time and place for the type of intervention you implied, but, generally, at that point, it is necessary to call in professional help

    • #10 by Allen White on August 20, 2014 - 7:21 pm

      Melinda, I think you made my points better than I did. I was in error by lumping so many different conditions into the same post. There are so many variables. Obviously, some manage themselves much better than others. In starting a conversation, I over-generalized in some areas. Please forgive me. I don’t think you or anyone else is pitiful or should become someone’s project. For the most part, I feel we are in agreement. Thanks for offering your words here. You state it well.


      • #11 by Melinda VanRy on August 20, 2014 - 8:02 pm

        Thank you for your response, and for your words. I appreciate your willingness to contribute to much-needed conversation in the church. If broken people don’t feel welcome and can’t find hope here, we’re not doing our job. But, as you know, it’s a big, confusing, ugly, scary issue that is difficult to discuss and deal with. It’s also big, confusing, ugly, and scary to live with, and a struggle to learn to live in the truth that God’s grace IS sufficient. The church is necessary here, as in any suffering. Thank you again for your willingness to look at it and talk about it.

  9. #12 by Ben Moushon on August 16, 2014 - 8:07 am

    Reblogged this on Thinking & Driving and commented:
    I have several students in my youth group I’ve been counseling for depression. If you’re a Christian leader, do not be flippant and take these suggestions seriously. It could literally mean life and death for someone in your church.

  10. #13 by paulfg on August 16, 2014 - 1:18 pm

    Reblogged this on Just me being curious and commented:
    “It was probably too soon to write a blog post about Robin Williams. But, so many posts and comments are appearing that are condemning Robin Williams and judging him without truly knowing him or understanding his struggle. I felt I needed to say something. This is a tragic loss.”

  11. #14 by the warrioress on August 16, 2014 - 5:19 pm

    Thank you! This is wisdom from Him whom we serve!

  12. #15 by Lisa Heidrich on August 16, 2014 - 6:53 pm

    Right on Alan!–I just blogged on this exact same topic! God is really moving in our hearts to call the people who are His followers to help and do something and not allow anyone to feel hurt-by-the-church. (or judged). If you’d like to check out my blog please do.
    Bless you. Lisa

  13. #16 by myfullemptynest on August 17, 2014 - 8:12 am

    Reblogged this on myfullemptynest and commented:
    A lot to think about here. My husband represents people with mental health issues. It’s pervasive and families are struggling.

  14. #17 by Gentle Breeze on August 17, 2014 - 3:09 pm

    I appreciate this post very much. In particular I think your points under (2) “Finding Jesus is NOT the cure for depression” are spot on.
    When you wrote that “mental and spiritual matters seem more inseparable than spiritual and physical matters” and “can our souls be saved when our minds are lost?” it really made me think.
    It reminded me of the struggles that I have had with this question,first, in relation to my grandmother when she suffered from dementia. As her illness progressed she appeared to become fearful of dying and had lost her assurance and faith.She had been a devout Methodist Minister’s wife. And then more recently, in August 2009, my eldest sister, died through suicide, after struggling with a serious mental illness for much of her adult life. (Even now I am reluctant to name the illness.)
    When someone is suffering from a mental illness it can be hard to distinguish as to what is them and their character and what is the illness? You can begin to lose sight of the person that you knew. Especially when they say hurtful and strange things. And yes, it can have an impact on their faith and spirituality for good and bad. And the mental illness affects the people around them, who care about them, and affects their spirituality and faith too. Especially when so many prayers seem to go unanswered.
    So I was pleased when you commented that “finding Jesus is NOT the cure for depression” and I would include any other serious mental illness. My sister fell out with different churches and yet she clung to Celtic Christianity and she remained a Christian from childhood and throughout her adult life.Yet the evil of the illness got her in the end. Except it isn’t the end.
    From a few experiences I have had since her death I am assured that she is safe in God’s hands.
    God bless and thank you for your post.

  15. #18 by Allen White on August 19, 2014 - 7:17 am

    I wrote this post a week ago to start a conversation. Thank you for joining the dialog. I probably wasn’t the best person to write this post, but I felt compelled to post something. In just the first 48 hours after Robin Williams’ death, comments and posts began to appear which quickly went from hurtful to hateful. I felt like something should be said. I felt like we should all slow down long enough to think a few things through regarding Robin Williams, ministry, and mental illness.

    When we over-simplify complex issues, we often hurt and offend people in the process. In no way did I regard my short post as the final authority on the matter. We all know there is only one final authority on all matters, who is God Himself. My attempt was to catalyze a conversation among thoughtful Christians. I think that was accomplished.

    There is so much misunderstanding regarding mental illness, yet there is such a great need in our communities. My hope is this conversation continues, not to cause any more of my thoughts to go viral, but to turn a conversation into action. Where we misunderstand, let’s seek to gain understanding. When we are tempted to prove our point, let’s be generous in being good to others. Where there is opportunity to serve and support others, let’s show compassion and true friendship. The church could make a difference in the lives of so many if we really knew how to help. Let’s keep learning and loving others.

  16. #19 by Shay Malone on August 22, 2014 - 2:48 am

    Excellent post and even better comments. Suicide, while occasionally related to physical illness, is more often the visible sign of mental and emotional illness. We (the Body of Christ), has much room for improvement in how we address it and support our Family.

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