Suicide and the Church
Four realities to acknowledge and address
Suicide. It is perhaps the most chilling and ominous word in the English language. Nothing evokes such intense visceral reactions or painful human emotions as this sad scourge. And the Church is not immune.
The tragic news of prominent, young pastors with beautiful families and successful ministries unexpectedly taking their own lives after publicly struggling with severe depression and other mental health issues has rocked the Church world twice over the past 18 months — first with the death of Andrew Stoecklein in August 2018 and, more recently, with the death earlier this week of Jarrid Wilson. These stories are shocking. After all, aren’t Christians — particularly pastors — immune from the temptations of taking one’s own life?
The truth is that suicide is a very widespread, exceptionally complex and highly controversial topic spiritually, socially and psychologically. Most people, if they are honest with themselves, have at least briefly entertained fantasies or fleeting thoughts of what it might be like to escape their painful circumstances, unrelenting suffering and/or overwhelming distress. All of us experience desperation, hopelessness and despondency to some degree at times.
People are hurting, conflicted and oppressed — in epidemic numbers and in epic ways.
Briefly explained, suicidality exists along a progressively escalating continuum of human angst — from painful emotions (despair), to obsessive thoughts (ideation), to destructive actions (attempts). Statistically, the numbers in our society are catastrophic. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming 129 lives per day, on average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, there were 1.4 million suicide attempts, resulting in 47,173 deaths. That is more than twice the number of people who died from homicides (19,510 in 2017). Worse yet, suicide numbers have been on the rise for years.
We must end the silence, expose the secrets, eliminate the shame, and erase the stigma surrounding mental and relational health issues. For too long, many sectors of the church have been in denial about the reality and depth of human problems. But people are hurting, conflicted and oppressed — in epidemic numbers and in epic ways. Churches are filled (but not full enough) with real people who have real problems and need real help.
Fortunately, Scripture is not silent, secretive, shame-based or stigmatizing about our human problems, including the disturbing topic of suicide. The Bible lists seven people who took their own lives: Abimelech (Judges 9:52–54), Samson (Judges 16:23–31), Saul and his armor bearer (1 Samuel 31:1–5), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), Zimri (1 Kings 16:18), and Judas (Matthew 27:3–5). Furthermore, several of God’s greatest leaders, including Elijah, David and Jonah, grappled with suicidal thoughts and feelings. Many biblical passages poignantly describe sorrowful lament, intense loneliness, confusing meaninglessness, overwhelming desperation, excruciating agony and abject hopelessness.
Another unique feature of suicide is the deleterious and destructive impact upon those who are left behind. Besides the immediate family members, churches, schools and entire communities are shocked and saddened by the senselessness of suicide. Many times, among adolescents particularly, a classmate’s suicide may lead to a citywide copycat outbreak of more suicides.
So how do we intervene? How do we lovingly lead with compassion, care and comfort in such crises? How do we help those we serve come to grips with the anguish, turmoil, guilt, outrage, confusion and heartache suicide leaves behind? Here are four realities we must acknowledge and address:
1. A church cannot be healthier than its leadership. As with most things in life and ministry, we simply cannot give that which we do not possess. We would do well to remember the FAA guidelines concerning oxygen masks on airliners, taking care of our need first so we will be able to help others with theirs. Yet many Christians, especially pastors, feel guilty about taking care of their own needs. They endeavor to somehow love their neighbor better than they love themselves, which is functionally impossible! An incontrovertible law of God’s universe is that a stream cannot rise higher than its source. Healthy and appropriate self-care is indispensable. Ministry is fraught with unique stressors, endemic loneliness and frequent discouragement. Above all else, we must guard and care for our heart.
2. A church cannot be healthy if it is not emotionally safe. We must make ourselves and our churches emotionally safe places for hurting people to freely share their pain. For many people, that large room where congregations traditionally meet has been anything but a true sanctuary. Fears of criticism, judgment and rejection have kept hurting people from being open and transparent about their suffering and struggles. We all need to internalize and appropriate the love, grace, mercy, forgiveness and redemption Jesus offers. Silence, secrecy, shame and stigma keep most churches from becoming a safe haven or refuge for hurting persons and relationships.
3. A church cannot be healthy if it doesn’t specifically address the scope of human need. We must courageously and compassionately shine light, speak truth and spread salt into our darkened, deluded and decaying world. A 2014 LifeWay Research study on pastors’ views of mental health found that while 23 percent of pastors reported that they personally struggle with mental illness, few preach or teach about it. Church leaders need to become educated, equipped and empowered to effectively address suicidality and other mental and relational health issues.
4. A church cannot be healthy if it is not equipped to effectively minister to specific human needs. We need pragmatic strategies for preventing suicides, as well as reaching out in tangible and helpful ways to families who are left to pick up the pieces after a loved one’s suicide. Your church needs to know how to minister with excellence to these very real needs.
People in crisis, those tragically suffering, and those wounded by trauma are very receptive to the gospel. Let’s not miss these crucial opportunities to end the silence, expose the secrets, eliminate the shame, and erase the stigma surrounding suicide and other mental and relational health issues.