In the 19 months since my 23-year-old son Gabriel died by suicide, my faith has been transformed dramatically. As an evangelical Christian, I hold to the doctrine that we are “saved by faith through grace alone.” Nothing we do adds to or detracts from a believer’s position in Christ.
Gabriel, who was also an evangelical Christian, was struggling with many issues and questions in his life-some of them precipitated by his experience at a premier evangelical college, some by our family’s experience of being whistleblowers at a California megachurch, some a result of compromised health, some stemming from both relational and cultural issues.
Because Gabe was not in a good place at the time of his death, his suicide challenged my basic understanding of the Gospel. Let me explain. Several hours before he died, Gabe publicly professed his love for Jesus, but he hadn’t exactly been living like it.
John 14:7 says this: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
If Gabriel truly loved God and had faith in him, how could he kill himself? It makes no sense whatsoever.
However, when I thought about Gabe’s life and the lives of evangelical leaders I’ve met, served with, and reported on for Christianity Today , I realized that Gabe was more spiritually sensitive than many of them. He was incredibly loving and his conscience was tender-tragically, to a pathological degree. Inordinate guilt is a defining symptom of suicidal depression and not unique to people of faith.
A Lutheran pastor reminded me that we don’t go to heaven based on how we die. Additionally, all kinds of deaths occur from human frailty and error. Evangelist Greg Laurie’s son died in a car crash driving too fast on the 91 freeway in southern Calfironia. Contemporary Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman’s daughter died after her brother accidentally ran her over in the family driveway. Both these deaths occured within months of Gabe’s.
What I discovered was a much bigger vision of God’s grace and mercy. It transcends logic. Nowadays, I have a lot less patience for doctrinal disputes and church politics, and a lot more of it for young people and the issues they struggle with.
I also care a whole lot less what other people think of my faith. I noticed this while I was at Brandeis University, a few months after Gabriel died, for a journalism fellowship. I was with a group of 15 religion journalists, from outlets both large and small, studying Judaism and Jewish life, and was a bit stunned to hear some of them expressing considerable bias against evangelicals, as well as ignorance about them. I found myself unusually defensive and realized later that it was because I was in a vulnerable state and perceived them to be attacking my source of hope, the only source of hope I have for seeing my son again. He died a Christian, and thus my fate is sealed. Perhaps this is illogical, but it is a certainty in my mind that I will go to my grave a Christian.
The apostle Paul said that if the Resurrection didn’t happen, Christians are the worst of fools. But Solomon said that even if there is no God, living as if there is one is wisdom.
So my faith has been transformed in this way: My view of God’s grace and mercy and my patience for struggling sinners is greatly expanded, while my tolerance for intra-religious disputes is greatly diminished. My allegiance to Christ and his church is solidified.
Christine A. Scheller is a freelance journalist whose outlets include Christianity Today, UrbanFaith.com and TheHighCalling.org.