I don’t follow the NFL, but I do enjoy watching the spectacle of the Superbowl each year. Unfortunately, in my mind, the fun and excitement that comes with the word Superbowl, will always be attached to a much more ominous word: suicide. I can’t remember where I heard it, but at some point in my past I read or saw something that connected the success of winning the Superbowl to depression and suicide.
Why Successful Young Men Commit Suicide
One would think that reaching the pinnacle of their sport – or the pinnacle of anything – would have exactly the opposite effect. Watching them on the field after the game, you’d assume that sadness would be the last thing they would be feeling. Well, perhaps for that moment they are elated – but it doesn’t last. In fact, for some, getting to the top is exactly what sets off some of the darkest parts of their life.
I read an article this week called “Why Successful Young Men Commit Suicide” and it had some startling things to say. It started with the story of a successful, 37 year old man, who had reached his goal of becoming a hugely successful salesman, wore the best clothes, drove a Mercedes, collected antiques and art, threw lavish parties in his mansion, and appeared on the cover of some magazines.
One day, on September 15, 2000, he was confronted by his debt when his sister confronted him about his extravagant lifestyle. Then when he got to work he saw a terrible performance review and thought it was about him – but it wasn’t – and he went home thinking he was going to lose his job. He came home to learn that his long-time relationship was in absolute shambles. That night, he drove to a nearby park and committed suicide.
This may surprise you, but the greatest share of people who attempt suicide (in the US) are white males between the ages of 21-39. It is the second leading cause of death after accidental injuries. Most of these guys are fit and healthy, but are racked by dark depression which they mask with extravagant lifestyles, workaholism and substance abuse. The place where this comes out most, unsurprisingly, is Wall Street, Washington and Hollywood.
It’s not much different in Canada. I found a December 2011 article in the BC Medical Journal entitled “The Silent Epidemic of Male Suicide”. Not many people know this, and it doesn’t get much press. One startling statistic I read was that in 2005, 45 Canadian men died of AIDS, while 2857 men died of suicide. But we hear far more about AIDS, don’t we? The suicide rate for men is three times higher than that of women. We’re talking about men who, by worldly standards, are successful men. Most are middle-aged, and they’ve achieved what the world has told them is what life is all about. One article I read called this phenomenon “success-depression”, “success-induced burnout” or “executive suicides.”
The Spiral Of Hopelessness
The most ironic thing about this is that their achievements don’t make them happy. In fact, reaching the top only makes them more insecure, anxious and depressed. It makes them more critical and more afraid. Climbing the ladder often means selling a bit of their soul and leaving peace and quiet behind. The huge amount of commitment it takes to achieve a high level of success often means sacrificing meaningful relationships along the way, which means they often feel very alone.
Throw in the fact that many of them come from abusive and broken homes and you get a recipe for depression. Their worldview has no concept of a loving Creator, divine purpose, forgiveness or grace. It’s dog-eat-dog. And so, though they have achieved their dream, and are living a life that many would envy, they live detached from real life, have no joy in what they have, and lose their drive and direction. A sense of emptiness overwhelms them and paranoia seeps in. Sleepless nights mean taking stimulants in the morning and sleeping pills at night so they can function. Which compounds the depression and increases the anxiety.
Sadly, most of these men don’t have the emotional intelligence to know what’s happening inside of them. They’ve spent too much time building their brand and their lifestyle, and not nearly enough building their character or faith. They put on an amazing show for everyone – looks, money, success, smiles, and an enviable lifestyle – but they are hollow, hollow people, and they don’t even know it. Their hunger grows, even though they have fulfilled their deepest desires. So they buy more, work more, make more, climb higher, try riskier things, and the emptiness remains.
Which makes them angrier and angrier, more frustrated– but don’t know why – and they push away any heathy influence that is trying to tell them to come back. They drown their feelings in distractions like competition, sex, alcohol and drugs, which spirals into addiction, rage, exhaustion and self-pity.
Then something unexpected happens – like a bad job review, a broken relationship, or something even smaller – and it goes off like an atomic bomb in their heart and it breaks them apart. They realize that everything they have poured into the vacuum of their soul has amounted to nothing. All of the promises that the world made to them about how achieving their dreams would make them happy turns out to be a lie, which causes them to despair that there is nothing in this world worth living for except pain. They have more than anyone – and it’s nothing. It doesn’t take much to make the next, logical step to simply end the pain by ending their lives.
A Phenomenon and Epidemic
The article says:
“…a growing phenomenon called ‘success depression’ is now fueling the problem. ‘People have this notion that ‘If I only make CEO, if I only become the top talent agent, if I make my first million, that will do it, all my insecurities will go poof…. You hit the pinnacle, then you wake up the next day and you’re still the same insecure [person] you always were.”
And of course, this isn’t just about men – though I did want to shine a special light on them today. Women are under more stress than ever too. Modernity has thrust incredible pressures onto women – perhaps more than any other century. They also have a predilection for climbing the ladder of success, leaving their heart and soul behind them.
I read another article this week on Mental Floss that gave a “Surprisingly Long List of [Famous] People Who’ve Attempted Suicide”. It floored me. Most of us know about Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, Chris Benoit, Hunter S Thompson , and the like, because they actually died. But Owen Wilson, Halle Berry, Mike Wallace, Elizabeth Taylor, Drew Berrymore, Danny Bonaduce, Sammy Davis Jr, Princess Diana, Walt Disney, Eminem, Ken Griffey Jr, Michael Jackson, Mindy McCready, Ozzy Ozborne, Britney Spears, Mike Tyson, Brian Wilson… all attempted suicide at some point in their career… the list goes on and on.
By Any Other Name…
Why am I telling you all of this? Because there is a terrible, terrible, demonic lie that has seeped into a lot of people’s minds that is at the very root of this problem. It goes by a lot of names. The classic, theological word is idolatry, but we can also call it consumerism, discontent, envy, or jealousy. Which is all tied to pride (what we think we deserve).
It has plagued mankind since the very beginning of time. Adam and Eve were standing in the perfect environment – and there was only one rule: Don’t eat the fruit. It was God’s line. He said, “Here is every good thing. This one thing is the only bad thing. Don’t do it or you’ll die.”
And the scriptures say in Genesis 3:4-7,
“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened…”
The serpent says, “God’s holding out on you. You deserve more. Take it. There is pleasure beyond God’s promises. Take your life into your own hands. Get out from under God. Do things your way. Take it.” And they do. And their eyes are opened. And God’s promise comes true. Now they know good and evil. Before they only knew good. Now they know evil. And Satan laughs as death and suffering come into the world.
I just read the story of Abram and Lot in Genesis 13. They come to a place where their families and flocks are too big and they need to split up. Abram says, “You pick the countryside you want and I’ll take the other.” Lot looks around and sees some amazingly fertile ground in the Jordan Valley and goes straight toward it – right next to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He wanted the better land, and didn’t care that to get it would mean surrounding placing himself next to two of the most wicked cities to ever exist.
Abraham gets tired of waiting for God’s timing to give him the child of promise – and makes a baby with his wife’s servant – setting off years and years of trial and turmoil between their families.
Jacob steals Esau’s birthright because Esau couldn’t care less about it. He trades God’s promise for a bowl of soup.
Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery because they are jealous that he is the favoured son. He gets something they don’t, and they are jealous, so they get rid of him.
And that’s just the book of Genesis! Person after person, generation after generation, who refuses to be content with what God has given them, goes outside of His will, takes something for themselves that they think they deserve, and brings suffering and pain upon themselves and many, many others.
Jesus Disappoints Us
Fast forward to the New Testament and it’s not any better. The people following Jesus, including all of the disciples, were, without a doubt, just as prone to this. They had the exact same problem as the people who we’ve been talking about, and the same problem that man y of us have. Jesus disappoints them.
They look at Jesus, and their mindset was: What can I get from this guy? What can I get out of Him? He keeps telling them that He’s going to Jerusalem to suffer many things. That doesn’t compute with them because their picture of God, their picture of the Messiah, their worldview understanding of how everything is supposed to work, was completely different than Jesus’. Jesus was supposed to come in, overthrow the Roman government, elevate the Jewish Nation, and make all of His closest followers into positions of power and influence – and probably rich too.
They hated the Pharisees because they already had what they wanted: political power. They hated the Romans because they had what they wanted: wealth and military power. Jesus is our conduit to get all these things that we want: therefore we’re going to follow Him. They never, never grasp that Jesus isn’t going to give them that.
Right after Jesus has told them, once again, says that He will take up his cross, suffer many things and be delivered into the hands of men, the disciples start arguing about who is going to get the best seat when Jesus takes the throne. (Luke 9)
Judas is perhaps the best example. He thinks, “I’ll follow Jesus as long as He gets me what I want.” Judas was in His absolute glory when Jesus rode into town on a donkey on Palm Sunday, proclaiming Himself to the entire city of Jerusalem as the Messiah and rightful heir to the throne of David. He was ready to take His place alongside him.
But then, Jesus gets into town, drives everyone out of the temple, causes a huge scene, makes everyone mad, and then takes off to where no one can find Him. He doesn’t maximize His exposure, He doesn’t bask in the adulation. No, Jesus is weeping and angry. (Matthew 21)
ThenJesis spends the next few days giving the most difficult, offensive, hard-to-understand teachings of His entire ministry. He takes on the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and every other power group in the city – and offends them all. He tells parables that say that the promise of Abraham will pass away from the Jews and be given to the Gentiles. He implies that there is no one, not one person, not even his closest followers, that understand why he’s there and that even though He is the “cornerstone”, that everyone will eventually reject Him. (Luke 20)
And, of course, he’s right. The crowd that worshipped Him on Sunday, turns on Him and crucifies Him on Friday. He’s not giving them what they want. He’s not saying what they want. He’s not doing what they want. The crowds turn on Him. Judas is incensed by what he sees as betrayal, and sells Jesus out for money. At least he’ll get some coin after all this wasted time. Early Friday morning the crowds are chanting: “Crucify Him!”
The disciples flee, Peter denies Him, and his followers experience a depression like they’d never experienced before. Why? Because Jesus was not the conduit to worldly blessing that they thought He was. He didn’t elevate them to the status they expected.
What did Judas do? He killed himself. He throws the money He traded for Jesus back into the temple – not even his ill-gotten gain brings him any comfort. He goes to the priests and confesses to them, but they don’t care. They’re happy. Jesus didn’t give him what he wanted. A lifetime of theft didn’t. The 30 pieces of silver – equated to half-a-year’s wages for a single night’s work – they didn’t give him what he wanted. The priests didn’t give him what he wanted. So his only solution was either to change what he wanted and turn to God, or kill himself. He chose to hang himself. (Matthew 27)
“I Was Envious”
With all this in mind, let’s look at Psalm 73:
“Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (Vs 1-3)
This psalm expresses the exact same theme, which is one that we are all guilty of in some measure. It’s the root of the problem for the ones who get depressed after the Superbowl, the wealthy, young men who achieve success only to find it hollow, the superstars and celebrities who look to all the world as the picture of happiness, only to be hiding a deep and secret pain. Desire out of control. Consumerism. Idolatry. Envy.
The psalmist starts with a direct statement that God is good: He knows that in his head. He’s studied it all his life. Asaph, the author, was an important temple musician during King David’s reign. He wrote worship songs. He knew God is good and told people all the time.
“But”, he says, he “almost stumbled”. He hit a time of depression and frustration with God. His head was saying one thing, but his heart was saying another. He was conflicted. He was frustrated with God. Even though he was a great worship leader, and had the ear of King David – a superstar and celebrity in his own right – he hit a dark time.
From where did that dark time come from? He says, “I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” Envy at other’s prosperity. A desire to have something God hasn’t given him. Let’s keep reading.
The “Good” Life
“For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.” (Vs 4-12)
Of what is he envious of? Everything! They are healthier, better looking, getting away with everything, full of every pleasure they could want, surrounded by entertainment. They have wealth, power, influence – everyone turns to them for advice. They think they’re smarter than God! They don’t have to lift a finger and they get richer! They’re living the good life! Everything they want they get.
The Prosperity Gospel
Implied here is that the Psalmist isn’t getting those things.
“All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.” (vs 13)
Something bad happened to him. God wasn’t keeping up His end of the deal. He tries so hard to do right – and he’s being stricken. He’s totally innocent – and he’s rebuked. Every day brings a new problem, another fight, another issue to deal with – and he doesn’t deserve it! He’s a good guy!
What this is called, at it’s core, is the “Prosperity Gospel” which essentially says that God exists to give us what we want. God wants us to be happy, and happiness is found on earth. Therefore, any bad things that happen to you are a result of your lack of faith. It is woefully unbiblical and anti-gospel, but it is taking root in many churches around the world. Joel Osteen, TD Jakes, Creflo Dollar, and many other big names promote this.
This is where we get the “word of power” and “name it and claim it” prayer nonsense. The idea being that since God wants us to be happy He gives us His divine power to speak things into existence. He spoke the world into existence, therefore I can speak a new car into existence.
The lighter version of this which people are calling “Prosperity Gospel Lite” which essentially says, if you work hard, do good, live a moral life, then God will make sure things will work out for you – happiness, wealth, and all the rest. In other words, you are your own saviour, happiness on earth is the norm for believers, and God blesses your efforts to save yourself. That’s the opposite of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed the generation of your children.” (vs 15)
He almost went and preached the Prosperity Gospel to people… almost… but he caught himself. He essentially says, “If I would have used my influence to go to a group of people, who are hurting as much as me, and used my influence to tell them that God wants us to be happy so we should go make our own happiness — or God wants us to be happy, so we should go take it from the wealthy — or God wants us to be happy, and there is no purpose to suffering — or God is unfair, God’s not pulling His weight, God is disappointing us, let’s go get a different God — then I would have betrayed everyone.”
We live in a world full of people who are spreading that message. Betrayers of the Gospel and of Jesus. And they are destroying an entire generation because they have no concept of the true Gospel, the suffering Jesus, the disciplines of the faith, the fear of God, or the idea that God sometimes chooses to put His people through suffering so they can become more like Jesus and move closer to Him.
The End Matters
But He didn’t tell people that. Look what he does instead:
“But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task…” (vs 16)
He tried to figure this out, as we all have, and he came to the same conclusion: He can’t. He didn’t understand how God distributes wealth and influence, or why some people suffer while others don’t, why this world seems unjust.
“…until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.” (vs 17)
He figured out that eternity matters. Being with God matters. It’s not just what we can pile up that makes a life, but what happens after this life. He realized that there is a judgement at the end of time, and that’s going to be the day that it all makes sense and works out. He went and stood in the sanctuary of God – he went to church – and he worshipped and prayed, and God gave him a very special thought: It’s not about right now… it’s about eternity.
Waking From a Dream
“Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.” (vs 18-20)
No one is on flatland. We are all on a slope that leads to eternity. Things are heading towards an end. We will all die and face God, and we will stand before the judgement seat of Christ and need to make account for our actions. We will be asked what we put our faith in, where our foundation is. Anyone who has not put their faith in God, who does not have a reconciled relationship to Him through the work of Jesus Christ, will be swept away by the terrors of hell.
This world, and all the things that we hold so dear, will be like a dream. Have you ever woken up after an intense dream? You were chasing something, or someone was chasing you. You needed to find something and it was incredibly important. While you were in that dream it was absolutely real, completely absorbing, the focus of everything you had.
And then you woke up and you can hardly remember what you were doing. You think: “Wow. That was weird. Why am I sweating? Why am I so worked up? Whew!” Then you go shower and completely forget about it.
That’s what it’s going to be like when we die. All the worldly things that we are so terribly concerned about now, that we are jealous of, that we fight for, and trade our health and relationships for — will all pass away like a dream. And when we wake up – really wake up – we will wonder why we spent so long chasing those things when they turned out to be nothing but phantoms and dreams.
“When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.” (vs 21-22)
As he stands in the sanctuary, having his God-given epiphany, he realizes something. The drives that he had – all the whole list of things he was so envious of – were primal drives. He wasn’t acting like a human being, created in God’s image for greater things, but like an animal, a beast. He is ashamed of himself. He was his own tormentor because it was his own flesh that he was fighting against.
He wanted a full tummy, physical pleasure, a comfortable place to sleep, to be the big-dog, and to howl as he pleased. He realized all at once that those things are base, animal, small in comparison to standing in the sanctuary of God, being in His presence, knowing His love, and acting upon the impulses of His divine will.
[I wish I could say more about this, but we’re running out of time. But meditate on how many good, spiritual, gifts we are willing to give up (love, peace, kindness, family, friends, worship, service, discipline, character, joy) in the pursuit of animalistic desires like food, sex, and comfort. I don’t want to live like an animal.]
God is My Portion
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.” (Vs 23-28)
May this be the case for you and for me. Let’s pray and live to this end. That we have our mind cast heavenward and desire the presence of God more than anything. That we are guided by God’s word and not our animal instincts. That the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace. That though our heart fails us and we hit depression and fear… that though our flesh fails us and we succumb to sickness and age… that our strength would not be in ourselves, but in God.
Let us remember that the closer we are to God, the closer we are to life. Real life. Let’s keep spreading the message of the true Gospel to those who have bought into the lie of the Prosperity Gospel, and shine our light into the dark places. And let us have the discernment to know that even though some people’s lives seem very wonderful, and we envy their wealth and status, that it is far better to be with God than to be anywhere else without Him.