Breaking the Silence on Suicide

The time has come to break the silence on the topic of suicide within American Evangelical churches.  Churches must better perform their role as a spiritual hospital within a greater support system for persons at risk.  Despite the historic statistical rarity of a person revealing thoughts of suicide to a pastor, more people are beginning to turn to pastoral counselors for assistance with acute mental illness and suicidal ideations.  Pastors, therefore, must become more aware that there are numerous people in any given group that have experienced or currently experience suicidal ideation or have even attempted to kill themselves.  For those who disclose their thoughts, suicide intervention becomes a life-or-death situation with potentially no second chance to help.  In order to create a suicide-safer community, pastors and churches must play an active role in suicide prevention by gaining awareness of the suicide ideation, recognizing the influence of scriptural and societal perspectives, and maintaining awareness of situational influences upon the lives of congregants.

The Situation within the Church

Suicide is a critical issue facing the church simply due to the sheer number of people turning to it as a means of relief from hopelessness and helplessness in life.  Suicide was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States in 2015 when over 44,000 people reportedly completed the act.[1]  Estimates of unreported suicides, such as those deaths that were reported as accidental in nature, could be as much as 5-25%.  People who demonstrate suicidal behavior and who ideate about suicide are an estimated 40-100 times greater than the number of reported suicides, making for an estimated 16 million Americans who contemplate suicide each year, which is approximately 5% of the population.  Moreover, suicide rates among Protestants are the highest among persons who hold religious affiliation.[2]  Dissenting perspectives note that suicide is seldom an issue because its main contributor, mental illness or acute depression, can be cured with more attention to bible reading and prayer. A survey conducted in 2013 by LifeWay revealed that “48 percent of self-identified evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians believe prayer and Bible study alone can overcome mental illness.”[3]  Such a perspective could explain why many (66%) Protestant senior pastors rarely address mental illness.[4]  Silence on the topic of mental illness and suicidal ideations further stigmatizes the issue and has created distance between congregants and churches.  In order to overcome this taboo, those who suffer from mental illness along with their family members have shown desire for their churches to speak more openly about mental illness, train lay counselors, and create accepting environments for those with mental illnesses.[5]  Churches must respond by providing these necessary preventative measures to keep people safe from suicide.

Perspectives on Suicide

Societal acceptance of suicide has risen in the last two decades.  Pew Research Center completed a survey in 2013 that indicated that “Belief in a moral right to suicide when a person is ‘ready to die because living has become a burden’ has increased by 11 percentage points from 27% in 1990 to 38%” to 2013.[6]  In extreme cases some people have encouraged others to attempt suicide, which has sometimes resulted in criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter.[7]  Society’s influence has split the opinions of evangelical Protestants, with only 51% of white and 49% of black evangelicals consistently rejecting a moral right to suicide.[8]  A Biblical understanding and defense of the imago dei is vital in the prevention of suicide (Gen 1:26-27).  Every human being bears the image of God, and is, therefore, imbued with dignity, value, and worth.  Such an understanding affirms that the killing of any innocent life is inherently wrong (Gen 9:6).  The value of life is further uplifted in the protective sixth commandment against murder (Exd 20:13).  Rylie avows that, “Murder is condemned, and elsewhere in the law every act that endangers human life is condemned.”[9]  Suicide is murder of oneself, and doing so “ignores God’s attitude toward life and violates the sixth commandment.[10]

Despite the biblical prohibition against murder and the value God has placed on humanity, suicide was undertaken by some in the Bible: Saul and his armor bearer (1 Sam 31:1-5), Ahithophel (2 Sam 17:23), and Judas (Matt 27:3-5).  Debate continues to surround whether or not those who complete suicide are genuine believers who entered heaven. While Christians have access to grace to help in their time of need (Heb 4:16), “the flesh is weak, Satan is powerful, and circumstances are often adverse.”[11]  Because suicide leaves no space for repentance, some believe that suicide is the unpardonable sin.  Discerning exegetical analysis of the Gospel of Matthew, the primary text for the unpardonable sin, indicates that only unbelief is unforgiveable (Matt 12:31-32).[12]  The eternal destiny of a believer is settled the moment he or she trusts Christ as their savior (John 14:6, 1 Pet 1:5, Rom 8:1, 37-39; Rom 10:9-17).  The forgiveness of God through Christ absolves the sin of the past, present, and future, and it provides the believer a new identity in Christ (Rom 5:12-18, Eph 1:4-5, Gal 3:27-29, Col 1:27).  Therefore, Ryrie declared that, “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin, including suicide.”[13]

The Church as a Spiritual Hospital

The theological position of the church warrants more than advocacy; it demands action.  Churches must break the silence and openly discuss the issue of suicide and the issues that have lead people to seriously consider and, in some cases, act upon the desire to take their life.  Recent suicides by prominent national pastors or their children have brought more attention to the plight of suicide within evangelicalism.  Nevertheless, churches are failing to function as havens for mental health remediation and suicide prevention.  Although pastoral counselors are not licensed professionals, they are able to provide robust support through a type of surgical procedure – the “putting off” of flesh patterns and the “putting on” of Christ-like patterns (Eph 4:22-24).  Teaching people to appropriate the truth of the Lordship of Christ is the divine alternative to the flesh-driven life, and doing so can help many who experience mental illness or suicidal ideations.[14]  Churches often have failed to see the interconnectedness of the bio-psycho-social-spiritual elements of the lives of their congregants.  LifeWay research has shown some key disconnections between those with those with acute mental illness and their families with the churches they attend.[15]  Churches must restore their connection with their congregants and those in the community who are prone to suicidal ideations and be prepared to provide biblical solutions and practical resources.

As the church functions as a spiritual hospital, the opportunity provide substantive care will be enhanced.  Switzer advised that awareness of these issues must increase, stating that, “The first obstacle to overcome in responding to these persons is our own lack of awareness of their presence among us.”[16]  Showing compassion and exercising empathy through active listening demonstrates a sincere desire to understand the affliction of the hurting ones and provides better opportunities to provide care and hope ((1 Thes 5:14, Rom 15:1, Tit 2:12-14).  Additionally, a congregation can provide what family or neighborhood haven’t: love and esteem. Berkley asserts that, “A church is a place to belong, to be valued, to contribute. Along with medical and psychological care, a suicidal person needs the loving social and spiritual care of a church family.”[17]  Practical recommendations include helping families find local resources, talking openly about mental illness and suicide, and training lay counselors to help.  These actions can create an environment of acceptance and assistance within the local church.

It is time to break the silence on suicide in churches.  With reported suicides increasing, pastors and churches must respond with compassionate and competent soul-care that demonstrates interest in and understanding of the person at risk in order to aid remediation and to keep them safe from suicide.

 

[1] Living Works. “Suicide Statistics for Magnitude Iceberg Slides in ASIST January 2017

Update.” Accessed July 20, 2017.

[2] Kanita Dervic, Maria A. Oquendo, Michael F. Grundebaum, Steve Ellis, Ainsley K. Burke, and J. John Mann, “Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt,” American Journal of Psychology 2004, 161:2303-2308.

[3] LifeWay Research Center. “Mental Health: Half of evangelicals believe prayer can heal mental illness.” Accessed July 20, 2017.  http://lifewayresearch.com/2013/09/17/mental-health-half-of-evangelicals-believe-prayer-can-heal-mental-illness/.

[4] LifeWay Research Center. “Mental illness remains taboo topic for many pastors.” 2014. Accessed July 20, 2017.  http://lifewayresearch.com/2014/09/22/mental-illness-remains-taboo-topic-for-many-pastors/.

[5] LifeWay Research Center, “Mental illness remains taboo topic for many pastors.”

[6] Pew Research Center, “Views on the Morality of Suicide.” 2013.  Accessed July 20, 2017.  http://www.pewforum.org/2013/11/21/chapter-2-views-on-the-morality-of-suicide/

[7] Sean Sweeney, “Deadly Speech: Encouraging Suicide and Problematic Prosecutions. Case Western Reserve Law Review 67, no. 3: 941-977. Accessed July 20, 2017: 952.

[8] Pew Research Center, “Views on the Morality of Suicide,” 23.

[9] C. C. Ryrie, Biblical Answers to Tough Questions (Chicago, IL: 1991), 73.

[10] Ryrie, Biblical Answers to Tough Questions, 74.

[11] Ryrie, Biblical Answers to Tough Questions, 77.

[12] J. Hunt, Biblical Counseling Keys on Suicide Prevention: Hope When Life Seems Hopeless (Dallas, TX: 2008), 4.

[13] Ryrie, Biblical Answers to Tough Questions, 75.

[14] Bill Gillham, “Lifetime Guarantee,” (Eugene, OR: 1991), 16.

[15] LifeWay Research Center, “Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith: Research Report,” July 2014: 32, Accessed July 20, 2017, http://lifewayresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Acute-Mental-Illness-and-Christian-Faith-Research-Report-1.pdf

[16] D.K. Switzer, Pastoral Care Emergencies (Minneapolis, MN: 2000), 120.

[17] J.D. Berkley, Called into Crisis: The Nine Greatest Challenges of Pastoral Care (Carol Stream, IL; Dallas, TX: 1989), 173.

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