Before we dive in, I want to give an appropriate content warning surrounding this week’s episode topic: suicide. Though there will be no descriptive or disturbing discussions about suicide, I feel it’s necessary to give you this warning upfront so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not you want to continue listening.
People have been taking their lives for thousands of years, regardless of social or economic status. It touches all kinds of lives, including those whom we might consider the most unlikely – the wealthy, the famous. Why we are, I’m not sure – but we’re shocked that this happened to someone who seemingly had it all. And sadly, we hear about Christians – both the prominent and the unknown – taking their lives today. To me it seems like it’s more than usual, but it could be because I’m in closer proximity to be attuned to it.
One of the things that happens when you have a loved one die by suicide is all the questions that ensue. Most of them which you’ll never actually get answered. You feel so helpless. So, part of quelling the fear from some of those unknowns is to educate yourself with as many facts as you can. I’ve found one book incredibly helpful in this regard. It’s titled After Suicide by John H. Hewett. In it, Hewett gives some history about how our culture today sees and talks about suicide. And this I found interesting: The early Christian church got involved in sanctioning civil laws against the act of suicide, mainly because so many believers were trying to “gain heavenly glory” in a more expedited fashion. The church leaders wanted to stop this quickly, so the punishment for suicide was extremely harsh. I’d like to pause here a minute because I’m sure you’re intelligent enough to realize that the law didn’t punish the one taking his or her life but was only felt by the family members left behind. Their property was taken away. They were left homeless, labeled, banned, and destitute. I suppose those that imposed the laws believed that the punishment inflicted on the family members would be a deterrent. But obviously, those dying by suicide were not only Christians trying to get to heaven quicker. There were others who were looking for relief of the “pressure of unbearable anguish”, as Hewett defines it. At this point, they are unable to clearly think through all the consequences of their suicide.
Here's more surprising information that I learned from Hewett. Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, two of the greatest early church theologians and philosophers that shaped much of our modern Christian thought, labeled suicide a mortal sin equivalent to committing murder. Which is where the term “committed suicide” came from: putting “committed” before suicide indicates that it’s a crime. This is one reason why you will never hear me saying that my husband committed suicide. You’ll hear me say “he died by suicide”, or “he took his own life.” I invite you to consider how you talk about it, as well. The way a suicide death is communicated can influence the way the suicide survivor heals.
I try to educate as many people as I can about that phrasing in private circles, but I certainly don’t get offended if people continue to say, “committed suicide,” even though it does makes me cringe when I hear it. But no judgement. I know people don’t mean anything by it. Education is key, though, it does change things. It certainly changed me. So here I am, publicly on my podcast.
So obviously, since the Enlightenment period, laws and punishment take a different approach surrounding suicide. Yes, we’ve become a much more compassionate and humane society. Suicide is no longer considered a crime, but a mental illness. And thankfully, there have been more and more open conversations about mental illness in all aspects of our lives. Including from the platforms in our churches. We’ve also seen more concentrated efforts to suicide prevention. In fact, this month, September, is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month highlighting the role everyone can play in suicide prevention and the importance of being there for the people in our lives, especially for those struggling, in crisis, or feeling that “pressure of unbearable anguish.” For these there is a feeling of intolerable despair and hopelessness.
So, how do we reconcile such despair and hopelessness for the Christian? When being a Christ follower and child of God has imputed to us the greatest hope eternal?
We worship the God of hope who, by His Holy Spirit, causes us to overflow with hope (Romans 15:13). We have been saved “in hope” (Romans 8:24) and have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:3). Being born again into this hope points forward to an eternal inheritance, our future home, “reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). Our hope is anchored in God’s perfect and faithful love for us, His children (Romans 5:3-5). And in the truth of His promise to bring us into an eternal home in the future that gives us hope for today (Titus 1:2). We have cause to have hope because of these promises in the Word. Psalm 130:5 says, “in His Word do I hope.”
In His Word do I hope. Until the late-night phone call comes. Or the police show up to your door and ask you to sit down. Or the marriage is over. Or you get an ominous medical diagnosis. Or a loved one dies. Or you get an overdraft notice and realize the bank account has run dry. When the crisis comes, we tend to isolate ourselves from others and from God. We find it difficult to trust God, and sometimes find it even difficult to pray. Everything that we believed and stood on in faith before becomes fuzzy. Not because it’s no longer true, but because as the crisis presses in, the inner voice starts screaming. Feelings of doubts, fears, being alone in it all, feelings of worthlessness, becomes all consuming. And the thoughts accompanied feel so true. And then it doesn’t take long before all of this crowds out and blurs what the child of God knows about the promises in the Word, the hope found in Jesus Christ, and the Character of the God they say they believe in. And confusion sets in. It’s difficult to think straight or right. Hope they once embraced is replaced with despair and hopelessness. And some, not all, in this position choose to end their life.
Those that do have had, as neuroresearchers have discovered, critical changes in the gray matter of the brain. We know that the messages that we entertain – especially those inner voices that are screaming to us - disturbs the normal system of thinking. Disturbs the neuro pathways. It changes things. Changes the way we process thoughts, come to conclusions, and make decisions. The Christian that takes his or her own life is subject to the human brain and all of its neuroplasticity – good and bad. And, as John Hewett points out, the best explanation of suicide surrounds an idea of escape. Escape from the overwhelming and unbearable mental pain, feeling pushed to the point where ”something must be done.” Edwin Shneidman, who is called the father or pioneer of suicidology in the mid 1900’s, called this “psychache,” referring to the hurt, anguish, aching, psychological pain in the psyche, the mind.
So, again, Suicide Awareness highlights the role you can play in suicide prevention for those in emotional pain. The National Institute of Mental Health suggests these five steps. And I’m going to quote them directly.
Number one, ASK: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” It’s not an easy question but studies show that asking at-risk individuals if they are suicidal does not increase suicides or suicidal thoughts.
Number two, KEEP THEM SAFE: Reducing a suicidal person’s access to highly lethal items or places is an important part of suicide prevention. While this is not always easy, asking if the at-risk person has a plan and removing or disabling the lethal means can make a difference.
Number three, BE THERE: Listen carefully and learn what the individual is thinking and feeling. Research suggests acknowledging and talking about suicide may in fact reduce rather than increase suicidal thoughts.
Number four, HELP THEM CONNECT: Save the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline number (call or text 988) and the Crisis Text Line number - 741741 - in your phone so they’re there if you need them. You can also help make a connection with a trusted individual like a family member, friend, spiritual advisor, or mental health professional.
And, finally, number five, STAY CONNECTED: Staying in touch after a crisis or after being discharged from care can make a difference. Studies have shown, the number of suicide deaths goes down when someone follows up with the at-risk person.
Perhaps I could add one of my own. TAKE ANY CRY FOR HELP SERIOUSLY. Statistics show that many who are planning suicide make their desires known in little comments or subtle life-style changes. You may not hear it, but it’s likely a cry for help for someone to intervene. Shneidman says, “The prototypical psychological picture of a person on the brink of suicide is one who wants to and does not want to. He makes plans for self-destruction and at the same time entertains fantasies of rescue and intervention.” If you feel like you have heard a cry for help, do not respond solely with what you consider encouraging scripture verses to get them to “snap out of it.” Remember, they are not thinking logically and soundly. If they were, and were able to reasonably respond to scripture verses, then they’d be able to reason their way out of suicide. But this is not the case for the one with “psychache” who is looking for a way out of their pain. Taking any cry for help seriously can look many different ways. Perhaps it means going back to The National Institute of Mental Health’s step number one: Ask. But whatever you do, don’t ignore it.
The first of Shneidman’s most famous facts and fables of suicide is: FABLE: People who talk about suicide don’t commit suicide. FACT: Of any ten persons who kill themselves, eight have given definite warnings of their suicidal intentions. So take it seriously and do what you can. You could very well be someone’s life-line.
Okay, friend, I think I’m going to stop there. There’s probably so much more I could say on this subject, but I believe the takeaway I’d like for you to get is that humans are subject to their ever-changing brains when the messages they are entertaining due to a life event lead them down a road to psychological pain – Christian or not. A Christian who has taken their life has not run out of faith; they’ve not lost their salvation, nor have they given up on God. They have not forfeited, intentionally or unwillingly, the hope they have found in the God of Hope. Theirs is a decision of the psyche, not the spirit.
I pray this episode has been helpful to you, friend. If you have any questions or comments, you’re welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you here next Wednesday.
Content warning surrounding this week’s episode topic: Suicide.
Though there are no descriptive or disturbing discussions about suicide, I feel it’s necessary to give you this warning upfront so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not you want to continue listening.
Today, we discuss the delicate topic of suicide as it relates to the Christian faith.
United States* Suicide & Crisis Lifeline number: call or text 988
The 988 Lifeline provides 24/7, confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or mental health-related distress. By calling or texting 988, you'll connect to mental health professionals with the Lifeline network.
* Suicide & Crisis Lifeline numbers have been established in many countries.