Sarah J. Robinson: Jesus is God with us. He’s Emmanuel. He’s going to be with me in my suffering.
Jim Daly: Mm-hmm.
Sarah: And he’s not going to bail on me. He’s not going to leave. He doesn’t lie to me. And so no matter how dark it gets, even if I make my bed in the pit of hell, he’s going to be right there with me.
John Fuller: Oh, what a powerful statement of faith coming from Sarah Robinson as she describes her struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. She’s joining us today on Focus on the Family. Your host is Focus President and author Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller. And let me note that this program does contain some mature themes, and so please use your headphones or earbuds or listen later online or by using our app.
Jim: John, we speak sometimes about having a dry spell in life, but sometimes the struggle is more serious. Uh, many people experience an intense depression and pain that wreaks havoc on their mental health and their walk with God. And it can seem hopeless when you’re, uh, stuck in that pit. But God’s promise is true. He is there for every one of us.
And it may sound cliche to say this, but holding onto that truth is so vital when tough times come. And thankfully, God has also given us community with others who may have experienced depression or even suicidal thoughts in their own lives. If you’re in a situation where you are in that pit, there are those who can help. And we’ll talk more about that today.
John: Our guest, Sarah Robinson, has been there, so to speak and shares her story as well as some good advice about how to navigate those depressive thoughts. Sarah has experience working in a residential facility for young women with severe mental health issues, and a decade of youth and young adult ministry to help others fight for wholeness and find joy in their lives.
She’s an author and has written her first book, it’s called I Love Jesus, But I Want to Die: Finding Hope in the Darkness of Depression. You can learn more about Sarah and her book at focus on the family.com/broadcast. Let’s go ahead and listen now to the conversation, Jim, that you had with Sarah Robinson.
Jim: Sarah, it is good to have you here on Focus on the Family.
Sarah: Thank you so much. I’m so glad to be here.
Jim: Um, first of all, let me just say, uh, I admire your courage, your bravery, the title of the book, I Love Jesus, But I Want to Die. It doesn’t get any more straightforward than that-
Jim: … when you’re feeling depression.
Jim: And let me, uh, talk about the bigger perspective here. There’s so much mental health, uh, trauma going on right now.
Jim: You look at the CDC report a couple of years ago, I think probably in part due to the pandemic. I think there was something like 20, almost 25% of kids, 14 to 24, if I could call young twenties kids. But that group had, uh, 25% of them had suicidal ideation.
Jim: That is a big number.
Sarah: It’s a big number.
Jim: What do you think is going on at this, uh, macro level in our country with mental health issues?
Sarah: So our mental health issues as a country have been increasing before the pandemic, and then that was just gasoline to the fire.
Jim: Right. Acceleration.
Sarah: Yeah. So in 2018, there was a big CDC report regarding the increases in depression, anxiety, and particularly suicide. Um, but then in the pandemic we saw a major increase for many reasons. Isolation, loneliness, financial uncertainty, illness, grief, loss. All of those just kind of conspired together to really just increase our rates of depression and suicide. Um-
Jim: I would think fear, fear, what I’ve seen fear plays so much of a role in leading someone toward depression because you stay in this-
Jim: … catastrophic state.
Sarah: It can for sure.
Jim: When it, when it may not be there, you know, you’re not-
Jim: … you’re not able to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, some of that wording.
Jim: And that, that can become very difficult. It, it really, in some ways, it’s a, a lack of hope.
Sarah: Yes, absolutely. A lack of hope is when depression moves into suicidal ideation, which, you know, we mentioned that term, suicidal ideation. That just means any thoughts of suicide. So that can be super passive. You just have these random, intrusive thoughts, you know. A lot of people just randomly are driving down the road and have this weird thought out of nowhere.
Sarah: Oh my gosh, what if I got in a car wreck? Or what if I crashed my car? That would be very passive. Um, you can have an increase where those thoughts come fairly frequently. And then when it moves into planning, that’s when-
Sarah: … you really often see, um, that that’s come from a lot of hopelessness. This is never going to get better.
Sarah: I’m never going to escape from this. And the uncertainty that we’ve experienced the past few years, and this experience of something that has not happened in any of our lifetimes can cause a lot of that hopelessness. The world is different now-
Sarah: … but we didn’t know what that different was going to look like.
Jim: Sarah, I want to say this again. I said it at the beginning there, but your courage is quite admirable. I really, I admire you for that because-
Sarah: Thank you.
Jim: a lot of people don’t talk about this subject. And it needs to be talked about.
Sarah: It does.
Jim: Let me, let me just take you back to 15-
Jim: … and making a commitment to Christ. I would think feelings of depression and maybe even suicidal ideation were existing before that commitment, but you didn’t really feel a drastic change afterward. Or how did you feel after you made a commitment to Christ?
Sarah: Right. Well, I don’t actually remember a time in my life before feeling depressed. Of course, I didn’t know as a small child that that was what I was experiencing.
Sarah: But I remember being on the elementary school bus and having intrusive images coming into my head of jumping out of the back of the bus and just, you know, different ways of hurting myself. And-
Sarah: … I came to faith in a more charismatic, leaning church that really believed and focused on God as a healer, God as a provider, God’s presence in our lives. And there were so many beautiful things about that. But there was kind of this not always spoken subtext that if you weren’t getting better, if you weren’t full of joy, if you weren’t happy, if you weren’t moving from glory to glory all the time, that there was something wrong with you.
So it was your lack of faith. It was, you’re not praying enough. It was, you are too selfish. You’re focused-
Sarah: … on yourself. You should be focused on other people. Um, and so I sort of had this initial honeymoon period where I was so excited and just overwhelmed with this joy that I discovered God, God had discovered me, however you wanna put it.
Sarah: You know?
Jim: Yeah. And both are true.
Sarah: Both are true. I changed my whole life, um, stopped partying, started going to church six days a week. If they would’ve let me come to the men’s group, I would have gone.
Jim: (laughs). Right, that’s excitement.
Sarah: I, I was there every time the doors were open.
Jim: Yeah. Yeah.
Sarah: But then I slowly realized that this, this hole, this gnawing pain inside of me that just felt like, like a bottomless pit, it wasn’t being filled the way I was told it was supposed to be.
Sarah: And my body would still feel afraid. I wasn’t necessarily worrying about things, but I experienced anxiety in a very physical way. So my heart will start racing. I’ll start feeling jittery and shaky and-
Sarah: … you know, my stomach will feel sick even when everything is fine. And I’m not worried about anything. And I just didn’t know how to make those two things line up. And so I really internalized that and believed there was something wrong with me. And maybe God loved me because the Bible says God is love and he loves everyone. But I didn’t see anything that said God had to like me.
And I didn’t see anything that in my very early, you know, experience with the scripture, I didn’t see anything that really spoke to the fact that sometimes pain and suffering remains.
Sarah: And that doesn’t mean God doesn’t love you. It would be many years before I would, you know, read enough of scripture that I would see that sometimes Jesus didn’t heal people. That-
Jim: I wanted to break in a minute and-
Jim: … ask you about that because Jean and I, we were just watching The Chosen, which I think they’ve done a wonderful job.
Jim: They have kind of humanizing the people in the stories we read, right? The disciples and just biblical figures generally.
Jim: They’ve made them very human in emotion and every other way. And it’s that, that scene that, that you mentioned the book that I saw in The Chosen where Jesus is healing, uh, the crippled the person by the pool-
Jim: … and you had an observation about that. Go ahead and pull that in now.
Sarah: I love that story.
Sarah: And you know, my church taught like Jesus healed everyone. But eventually, after I’d sort of come to terms with the fact that I had depression and was thinking, you know, maybe God would heal me of it, I realized that Jesus went up and he saw this man who had been suffering for 40 years. And there’s this beautiful image of him reaching into this life and seeing him where he is and transforming everything for him.
But there were crowds of people at the pool of Bethesda. Jesus would’ve woven in and out of those people as he walked up to this man. He may have literally stepped over people who were sick and dying and suffering to get to this one man to heal him. And I’d never seen that. I’d heard that preached so many times.
Sarah: But I think I had come to this belief that miracles weren’t miraculous. They were just to be expected. They were something that I could put the right payment in and receive, you know, like a vending machine.
Jim: Huh. Yeah.
Sarah: I could, if I prayed enough, if I read my Bible, if I witnessed enough, if I went on missions trips, if I was on the worship team, I’d put, you know, the right payment in this little God vending machine and out would pop my healing. Out would pop, you know, overcoming any circumstance. But Jesus did miracles to illustrate his power and his presence and his closeness.
Sarah: And yet every person he healed went on to suffer and eventually die.
Jim: Yeah. How do you, um, I’m thinking of the person that is living in this spot we’re talking about-
Jim: … and they’re struggling.
Jim: They haven’t written a book. I hope they get a copy of the book for sure. Um, but they’re in that spot.
Jim: They’re, they’re filled with doubt-
Jim: … because nothing’s happening for them in that way. They’re the other person at the pool of Bethesda. How do you continue in life to trust in the Lord and trust that he’s with you, even when those things don’t change-
Jim: … dramatically?
Sarah: Yeah. One of the things that has helped me so much is learning to really examine my expectations and where the things that I believe about God are things that have been sort of culturally handed to me, um, through church, through things other people have said, through things you see in the media, and what is actually in scripture. And Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.” Um, there’s books in the Old Testament that are entirely about suffering. Job is the notable example.
Sarah: Lamentations though, is a heartbreaking story and really goes into the depths of grief. And even Ecclesiastes, you know, says that the strongest person doesn’t always win. The fastest person doesn’t always win. Time and chance happen to all of us. And so for me, I had to change my expectations from this very prosperity gospel idea that God is going to make every part of my life really easy, to Jesus is God with us. He’s Emmanuel. He’s going to be with me in my suffering.
Sarah: And he’s not going to bail on me. He’s not going to leave. He doesn’t lie to me. And so no matter how dark it gets, even if I make my bed in the pit of hell, he’s going to be right there with me.
Jim: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Sarah: And that is the thing that I clinging to. That is Jesus being the hope that’s the anchor for my soul when everything around me is just winds and waves. Because the thing about an anchor is it doesn’t stop the storm. It doesn’t stop the waves. It doesn’t stop the wind.
Sarah: It keeps you in one place and keeps you from being shipwrecked.
Jim: That’s a great, great way to look at it. I love that scripture that says, “He’s close to the broken hearted-
Jim: … and saves those crushed in spirit.”
Jim: That’s what we’re talking about here.
Jim: And you know, some people may have a different experience and that’s great.
Jim: Man, God bless you.
Jim: That you had that. And yet, others, we don’t want them to feel shame or, or being-
Jim: … unworthy if it doesn’t happen the same way for them. And that’s always the challenge. Well, one thing is true, uh, we have great counselors here at Focus on the Family, and I wanna make sure we mention that.
Jim: And your great book, I Love Jesus, But I Want to Die. And if you’re in that spot, get ahold of us. Sarah, let’s pick up, uh, you finally came to a turning one night, I think you’re in your car-
Jim: … and you’re thinking about ending your life.
Jim: Um, to the degree that it’s comfortable, share that with us. And then how did God intervene in that moment for you-
Jim: … to persuade you, “No, I’m not gonna do this.” This is like the vital moment.
Sarah: Yeah. Um, so that night I was in my car and I just, I was in my early 20s at that point. So six years or so since I’d come to faith. And so that, that is a long time to deal with this shame of I’m not a good enough Christian.
Sarah: I can’t fix myself, and God isn’t fixing me. Even though I used to say, “I know you have a magic wand up there, why don’t you wave it and fix this?”
Sarah: Um, and so I really was in that place of, of hopelessness that we talked about earlier. And, um, I had been self-harming as a way to cope and manage the really difficult feelings. And I realized that night sitting in my car hurting myself, that if I didn’t get help, I wasn’t going to make it.
Sarah: And so there was this young couple at my church who had moved from outta town, and I’d gotten to know them, and they seemed a bit more comfortable with pain and mess than most people.
Jim: Huh. You kidding.
Sarah: That I had met.
Jim: You knew that.
Sarah: I knew that.
Jim: You could feel it.
Sarah: I, I could feel it, I’d seen it.
Sarah: Um, they were more honest about, um, some of their struggles than I had experienced before.
Jim: Right. How inviting.
Sarah: Yes. And so it was a hot July night. I drove to their house. Their front door was open to let in the breezes. Um, and I just went and I stood on their front porch and I just felt so sick. But I walked into their living room and I sat down and they just looked at me like, “Hi, what’s going on?”
Jim: (laughs). Right.
Sarah: Um, and I told them-
Sarah: … I’d been self-harming. I told them that I wanted to die and that I hated myself. And they asked a few questions. And then, um, the husband, Michael, looked at me and said, “I’m not disappointed in you.” And I just felt something inside of me kind of lurch. Like, what?
Jim: It’s an interesting thing to say.
Jim: But it caught your attention.
Sarah: It caught my attention-
Sarah: … and it really rattled me.
Sarah: And those words just turned over and over and over in my head for the next few weeks. And they said, “You know what? You’re gonna stay with us. We’re gonna help you stay safe. And we’re gonna figure this out. Um, but we’re not disappointed in you and we love you. And somewhere along the way, you’ve believed some lies about yourself, but God loves you too.”
Jim: What, what was that initial feeling then? You know, when you heard that and that lurch that you described? What, I mean, did you feel relief? Did you feel wow, acceptance?
Sarah: I felt confused.
Sarah: I felt maybe a little bit angry-
Sarah: … and I felt physically sick.
Sarah: Because like, how could they not be like-
Sarah: … I was so ashamed of myself, so ashamed.
Jim: It was that deep.
Sarah: It was that deep. And I was, I mean, I was involved in a lot of different things in leadership, um-
Sarah: … at my church at that time. And so I just saw myself as this massive failure, just this horrible person. And as I just thought about those words, just kind of this tiny little thought kind of just worked its way in. Like, if these imperfect broken people aren’t disappointed in me, is it even possible that maybe God’s not disappointed in me either.
Sarah: And I wasn’t sure. But that question was just the beginning of the long climb towards finding what it means to live with chronic mental illness in a healthy way. In a way that still means I can thrive and have a beautiful and fulfilling life in Christ.
Jim: Right. And knowing what’s true and what’s not true.
Jim: I mean, that’s probably a constant-
Jim: … thing for you.
Sarah: Yes. It’s a lot easier now-
Sarah: … with a lot of practice, but it’s still, it’s still a thing.
Jim: But being equipped, being equipped to do that-
Jim: … has to bring you some comfort that I know that’s not accurate.
Jim: I know that’s a lie.
Jim: And boy, I’m reminded John 10:10-
Jim: … in your story that “The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy.”
Jim: This is exactly the tactic, and it’s wonderful to equip yourself. Let me ask you for parents listening who have, uh, a young daughter or son who’s experiencing these things. I think the first question for me, with the self-harm-
Jim: … and I don’t know that it’s an easy answer. What were you feeling when you were doing that? Why was it giving you some form of medication?
Sarah: Yeah. Medication is actually a really good word to use for it.
Sarah: This is a very delicate and difficult to understand topic for people who haven’t lived it or walked with someone who’s experienced it. But self-harm, cutting, um, you know, hitting any, any type of activity that’s intended to cause physical harm or pain without ending your life, it releases endorphins.
Sarah: It, you know, it’s the same idea as the runner’s high. You hear about that. People who run marathons, you get to this point where, I mean, I haven’t experienced this, but I hear you get to this point where your body is in so much pain from running, and then you get this rush of endorphins and-
Jim: To compensate.
Sarah: … to compensate.
Sarah: And it carries you through. So even though it’s a very dangerous and unhealthy coping mechanism, if you’re a parent and you have a child or a loved one who’s experiencing that and struggling with that, you need to understand that they’re trying to make themself feel better.
Jim: It’s a form of relief.
Sarah: It’s a form of relief.
Jim: That’s what I don’t think people understand.
Sarah: It’s a form of relief. And in many cases, they’re doing it so that the pain doesn’t get so bad that suicide becomes-
Sarah: … a better option. So they’re trying to stay alive with that.
Jim: Yeah. And that is a sign to get help.
Sarah: Yes. Massive sign.
Jim: Yeah. I mean, it’s-
Sarah: Massive sign.
Jim: … it’s like the, the road sign, right?
Sarah: Yes. Yes.
Jim: Stop here. Um, somewhere in this journey, you made a trip to Paris.
Jim: And there was a couple there that really made an impact on you, I think. Uh, what was that story and what happened?
Sarah: Well, um, the couple was the, the same folks that I’d gone to their-
Jim: Oh, okay.
Sarah: … living room.
Sarah: Michael and Angela.
Sarah: Um, they kept telling me, you just really need to experience the love of God. That’s what you need. And I was like, whatever. I, I don’t know. I don’t buy that.
Jim: I, I’m sure you’re thinking like, what does that even mean?
Sarah: Yeah. What does that even mean?
Jim: That’s what I would ask.
Sarah: Yeah. And so, you know, we started praying for this. And then I got this scholarship to go to Paris in college. And I didn’t speak French. I was told my host mom would speak English. She did not.
Sarah: I, she knew the word three, and we tried to translate to each other on this horrible, like old computer translating.
Jim: So you got three eggs, three pieces of toast.
Sarah: Yes, yes.
Jim: Three beverages.
Sarah: Yes. Yeah. Three croissants.
Jim: I was in Japan under the same situations. (laughs).
Sarah: Okay. Okay. So, you know-
Jim: So I know.
Sarah: … you know. So I get there. And for this entire term of college, I literally have nobody to speak to.
Sarah: Nobody. Um, and so the only person I could talk to was God. And this was before, like, it was easy to FaceTime people in another country, and all of that. Internet access wasn’t as good. And so I literally pounded the cobblestone streets of Paris as I walked around and I just talked to God about everything because I had nobody else to talk to.
Jim: Right, right.
Sarah: And it is-
Jim: Put you in a, like an isolated situation. Yeah.
Sarah: Yes, yes. And so initially I was just talking about things. And then I started opening up to God, like, you would open up to a friend, you get to know-
Sarah: … and start telling him about my pain and my hurt. And then at one point I was visiting an ancient church and saw this book in the bookstore, uh, a spiritual classic by Brother Lawrence. And it was Practicing the Presence of God.
Sarah: And on the back it talked about the love of God being painted over your soul. And I was like, “I want that.”
Sarah: And so this introduced me to the world of contemplative prayer, which sometimes sounds a little woowoo or New Agey, but it’s very biblical. It’s just meditating on the goodness and the love of God.
Sarah: And so I started to do this. And I didn’t know at the time that there’s been studies done that show that the type of God that we meditate on is the type of God we experience. So I was literally rewiring pathways in my brain to experience a God who is kind-
Sarah: … and loving and present and close to me. And through those weeks that I could talk to nobody else except for him, it became the realest thing in my heart. And God became a real person to me. He became someone as real to me as you are. And kind and loving. And that was the experience of the love of God that we had been praying for.
Jim: And you had not had that before.
Sarah: No. No.
Jim: And that was on your end, not his end.
Jim: That’s the key thing there.
Sarah: Yeah. Not in a way of like, oh, you know, you’re a bad person. God was just waiting for you.
Jim: Yeah. But finding a key to that communication.
Sarah: Yeah. Didn’t know the key.
Jim: Yeah. I mean, that’s great.
Sarah: Yeah. And that’s, that’s something that, you know, I get a lot of people who contact me and are like, why can’t I hear God? Why can’t I feel God? Why can’t I experience God? And that’s the first thing I’ll tell them is, you know, forget begging for an answer. Forget these desperate prayers of like, God, why won’t you fix me? Heal me. I’ll do all of these things and just come to some Bible verse that resonates with you.
“God is near to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Or, “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.” Or, “You’re the anchor for my soul.” And just get quiet and think about that.
Sarah: And when your attention wanders away, don’t beat yourself up. Just turn your attention back.
Sarah: And eventually, you know, do it for a minute or two at a time, a couple times a day. Eventually you’ll gain the ability to do it for longer. Those words will start to re-carve your soul like a river carving a canyon.
Sarah: And you’ll begin to experience God in a way that you never knew you could.
Jim: Sarah, this discussion has been so good, and I can feel it is so helpful to people listening and watching. Can we keep going and come back next time and cover some more material?
Sarah: That sounds great.
John: Well, Sarah Robinson really had some great insights. And Jim, I love how you emphasized, uh, that God doesn’t promise we’re not going to have grief and hardship in this life.
Jim: Well, in fact, he says in his word that we will! John 16:33 says, “In this world, you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” That’s the promise. I’m so grateful that Sarah was able to share her story with us today and share those truths right from Scripture.
And if you are listening and you are someone you know can relate to this story, let me remind you that we have caring Christian counselors available to you. They will unpack your struggles with you no matter what they might be.
After 45 years, I think we’ve heard most of it. They’ll also pray with you and direct you to further help. We also want to give you the resources you need to find hope for your walk with God. And one of those wonderful resources is Sarah’s book, I Love Jesus, But I Want to Die: Finding Hope in the Darkness of Depression.
This is a raw and inspiring story. And in this book, Sarah will show you how to take practical steps to help with what you might be going through. And when you donate a gift of any amount today, uh, we’ll send you her book as our way of saying thank you for supporting the ministry of Focus on the Family. And if you can’t afford it, get in touch with us. We want to be part of your healing process.
John: Mm-hmm. Yeah. We are so grateful to those who contribute and make it possible for us to offer that book to you. Donate generously as you can. 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459, or you’ll find further details at focus on the family.com/broadcast.
On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for joining us today for Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back as we continue the conversation with Sarah. And once again, help you and your family thrive in Christ.