The gospel of Jarrid Wilson

The suicide of the megachurch pastor prompts questions.

“Sometimes people may think,” says Greg Laurie, the megachurch pastor, “that as pastors or spiritual leaders we are somehow above the pain and struggles of everyday people. We are the ones who are supposed to have all the answers. But we do not.”

It’s useful to hear Christian clerics saying they are not “above” anyone else. This has been a profound teaching of Christianity. “But the character of a clergyman is more sacred than that of an ordinary Christian,” notes Boswell in Life of Johnson (1791).

What, you might wonder, are Christian clerics for, if not to be better than you? The cleric is then a human like yourself.

So why they are they standing above you?

Why do they tell you what to do?

Why are their ideas about the Bible better than yours?

It’s a dangerous and exciting disclosure, if arising in a regrettable context: the suicide of Laurie’s famous associate pastor, Jarrid Wilson. “Tragically,” he says, “Jarrid took his own life.”

Tragically.

Wilson’s death, last Monday, was big news even in secular media. In whatever despond he was in, he had to know it would be.

He was a rare creature: the likable Christian celebrity. It wasn’t just that he was young, smiling, handsome and had ascended to amazing heights, in the ladder of Protestant clerics, in thirty years of life. He’d written three books, had a blog and social media following. His sermons, his family, his wife and two children, seemed like a part of modern Protestant life.

He’d pointed the way to a modern, compassionate Christianity? In a 2013 blog post he took Christianity to task for its poor treatment of gays. “We’ve done such a bad job of showing grace and love to that community,” he reiterates in 2015.

He would try and push back, in general, against any prompts or theology of hatred. “I can’t ever recall a person who came to faith because of hate,” he writes. “Learn to love like Jesus, serve like Jesus, and forgive like Jesus. Let’s start a movement of people who are willing take hate out of the equation, and love people regardless of their sins.”

His answer was “love,” as in his last book in 2017, Love is Oxygen.

His most personal issue, however, was “mental health,” about which he’d discussed in the context of his own psyche. The takeaway, for Pastor Laurie and Christians generally, seems to be that “mental health” is serious, has to be disclosed, discussed and dealt with by medication and counseling.

When feeling suicidal, one should call the hotline number supplied.

Except Wilson had been to counseling, was on medication, and gave out the hotlines on the day he killed himself.

The solutions that Christianity had for his struggles, he tried. He promoted them. They hadn’t worked.

I look over the details of his life and his writings, and wonder if this is a “tragedy” of “mental health” — like he had a sickness, akin to cancer?

I see a tragedy of Christianity.

If anyone is capable of “leading” vast numbers of people’s spiritual development, while performing expected clerical duties that are often emotionally grueling, he was not that person. They had put him into situations that evidently triggered him. The day he died, he’d officiated at the funeral of a woman who committed suicide.

Then his struggles with depression, about which he’d written and spoken at length, clearly spring from theological problems. He calls depression “sin” and thinks back on himself being suicidal as being “right where Satan wanted me.”

Christianity gave him a framework for understanding his sadness as a malign spirit villain conspiring against him, trying to induce him to end his life.

His own “sin” makes him want to do Satan’s will . . . then he does. It’s a set of ideas that prevent him from seeing the actual origins of his sadness.

He writes in his 2017 book Love is Oxygen of growing up in a sheltered Christian environment. He had dreamed of being a professional soccer player, but an injury at age 15 derailed that, and left him feeling purposeless. “Growing up, I’d had an answer for just about everything, but now I couldn’t get my head around what was happening.”

He turned to Christianity. “I wanted to be used by God. But I just didn’t know how to ask. Being full of God’s love wasn’t as easy as pastors and Sunday school teachers had made it out to be.”

He did all the practices, attended all the church services and youth groups, but the bliss wasn’t flowing. “I wasn’t supposed to feel like this. I must be broken. I must not be good enough for the wondrous life that God had given to so many others.”

Theological crises agitated and troubled him, day after day, year after year. He writes: “I’ve yelled at God, cursed at God, and even threatened God because he wasn’t providing what I felt was the best response for my current situation.”

His depression clearly arises from his long wrangling with God, and Satan, and his own “sin.” He tries to understand himself within the narratives that Christianity gives him, and he can’t.

“The reality is, when people say, ‘I’ll pray for you’ and ‘I’ll keep you in my prayers’,” he says, “that’s what they’re saying because it’s all they know to say.”

I’m listening to him on a 2017 podcast. He’s discussing the problem of Christians being unable to discuss “mental health” or even emotions. The usual reflex, “I’ll pray for you,” he says, is fake.

He starts crying when relaying the story of a girl who’d committed suicide, that no one had listened to. She’d been identified as a “problem” and dismissed by school authorities.

I’m starting to see Jarrid Wilson as an aware being.

He was realizing he was living in a world full of hate and fakery. But this insight gave him no real future.

Oh, he could continue to promote the “love” stuff, for awhile. He could surround it in smiles and enthusiasm, and pass.

But it would press against the ingrained hated of women, of the sexually different, of male privilege, of Christian and white privilege, on and on, then a confrontation was inevitable.

No matter how wonderfully he smiles, no matter how charming his family is, he would be on the wrong side of “Christianity.” Like Rob Bell, Joshua Harris and other “ex-leaders,” he would be . . . ex-ed.

In The Heretic, a documentary about Rob Bell being pushed out of church and finding a new secular audience, he described the process as a death.

Whaty is Jarrid Wilson’s story? He put in put in enormous effort to become a leader of Evangelical Christianity, to use media and marketing and his considerable personal charm to change it from within — to re-focus it on love and good spirits, on openness and communication.

He worked incredibly hard.

He writes at the beginning of his first book, 30 Words: “God has given me a calling that I cannot ignore, and a purpose that I cannot turn away from. This book is just a beginning to the vast amount of things I wish to accomplish for the name of Jesus.”

He’d put in the schooling — at Liberty University and other places — “pastored” a few churches, led several organizations and businesses, in addition to his books, social media and family. This man was manic.

A recommendation at his LinkedIn site from his first publisher is telling me about Christianity as a marketing system. “When we published Jarrid Wilson’s first book (30 Words) he hustled harder than any other author and was the most enjoyable to work with. He is one of the hardest working and highest producing people I’ve ever met and that’s why his career has taken off. He’s consistent. He put in his 10,000 hours (or close to it). Jarrid is also an exceptional marketer. In addition to growing a huge audience of his own, he took the reigns and grew Faithlife’s social channels quicker than we ever thought possible. And did I mention, he’s an incredibly cool guy?”

I’m seeing mania. A determination to ascend to the heights of a system whose key is popular appeal.

Wilson was a gifted marketer, but there was a ceiling. To be Christian you have to believe that “God” is an overlord who tells you what to do, and dispenses favors when you behave . . . and punishes you when you don’t.

Or rather, Satan is there, waiting to claim your sinful heart.

I study his sentence: “Let’s start a movement of people who are willing take hate out of the equation, and love people regardless of their sins.”

‘Start a movement’ — but why would you have to start a movement if that was already a Christian teaching? Isn’t Christianity that “movement”?

Here’s what I think: He is starting to realize that Jesus’ love theology is going to require him to leave Christianity.

He wants to stay, and does fundamentally think in Christian narratives. So he continues, posing as a happy, well-adjusted, spiritual leader whose “problems” are behind him.

He has to silence the agitations of his inner self, and work in a church that gives him no real path to healing.

He does believe he’s full of sin and Satan. It tears him apart.

He does not really believe that he’s valuable and loved by God.

To do so would have been un-Christian.

“But when it came time to take part in activities the Bible would deem sinful, I would justify my sin by stating the biggest excuse known to man: “God knows my heart.” And maybe follow that up with a good self-pep-talk about why I was a “good person.” I’m positive I am not the only one who’s experienced this.”

His second book, Jesus Swagger, is more reality T.V. than theology, and perhaps his innovation had been helping turn the Christian cleric into a reality T.V. star. (He’d appeared on TLC’s Outdaughtered, promoting not Christianity but therapy for depression.)

The book invites me into the life of a young man who is good at “branding” but not really being honest with himself or with me. In reality, as opposed to reality T.V., he is living in a theological culture of judgement, in which the idea of him being a “good person” is laughable.

In Christianity, humans are bad.

In the Bible, by contrast, humans are good from Genesis 1 on. Humans are never bad. We are never bad.

He writes: “Jesus swagger is about allowing the message of Jesus to penetrate the core of your heart, releasing an overflow of love, selflessness, and servanthood that goes beyond mere appearances, and makes a positive difference.”

This is the kind of pablum he was prompted, by his tradition, to produce. There is no technique or process, no wisdom to deal with difficulties. What he’s going on here is basically ‘magical thinking’. It’s happy talk.

When it didn’t work — because it doesn’t work! — he reaches an inner crisis, again and again. And he doesn’t see a way out, because there isn’t one.

You have to leave Christianity to not see yourself as bad.

I’m not sure how much of his biographical disclosures I trust.

In a blog posting of 2016 he says: “I’ve dealt with depression for the last 7 years of my life, contemplated suicide for 3 of them, almost had my leg amputated after a sports injury and was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder at 16 years of age that led doctors to believe I had Leukemia. I’ve dealt with my fair share of pain.”

In a blog post last year, “Why Suicide Doesn’t Always Lead to Hell,” he writes: “As someone who’s struggled with severe depression throughout most of my life, and contemplated suicide on multiple occasions, I can assure you that what I’m saying is true.”

Depression for seven years or for ‘most of my life’?

I wonder if he had sexual issues. I know he had religious issues.

I wonder if he died to send a message.

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