Do suicidal thoughts reflect weak faith?
Only a few people knew Shannon’s secret. Shannon was a mother of three, the wife of a prominent real estate broker and church elder. Like her husband, Shannon was very involved in church as a deaconess and as part of the evangelism visitation team. Her church friends viewed her as a “super mom” who had it all together. Only a few of her closest friends from church, however, knew Shannon’s secret: Shannon struggled with deep bouts of depression — So deep that she tried three times to take her own life using prescription drug overdoses. One day, Shannon’s husband, Lyle, came home early from the office, as he often did when Shannon was undergoing one of her “blue spells.” Every time she had attempted suicide before, he had gotten a feeling that he should stop by the house and check on her. Each time, he had arrived in just time to get help for her. The previous suicide attempts were “cries for help,” he believed: dangerous, potentially fatal, but more focused on alleviating her emotional pain than on destroying herself. This time, however, when Lyle arrived home, there was no cry for help. The house was eerily quiet as he made his way from room to room, finally arriving at the bedroom, where he stopped, stunned and heartbroken. This time Shannon had chosen a different means of suicide, and this time she had indeed set out to destroy herself. She had hanged herself from one of the rafters of their vaulted bedroom ceiling. How horrible! How sad! Why would someone who seemed to have it all together, do something like this?
Hearing a story like Shannon’s can bring back painful memories for some of us. It might be the memory of a family member, or a classmate, or maybe even a friend who committed suicide. It may have been years ago or a month ago, but it still hurts. And their death made us question our faith; How could God let such a thing happen? If it happened to them, could it happen to us? Quite frankly, it scares us! It makes us uncomfortable. No one likes to think about suicide. No one likes to discuss the possibility that even Christians can become depressed and commit suicide. But it happens and choosing not to talk about it will not make the truth go away.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month when we raise awareness that everyone can help prevent suicide. You might ask, “What can you and I do?” We can provide a supporting community characterized by authentic non-judgment. Those considering suicide reach out for help in churches with this type of community, but they may try to hide in other churches. Why? Some Christians believe suicidal thinking shows a weakness of faith. They believe suicide is sick, selfish, or sinful because suicidal desperation shouldn’t exist in churches. However, suicidal thinking may be more common in churches than you think. In one study, 11 percent of congregant respondents were thinking about suicide at the time of the study. In another study, four future ministers said they are “rather likely” or “very likely” to attempt suicide someday. Fe Anam Avis, author, and former pastor, estimates that in a congregation of 500, on average, about 30 adults and even more adolescents are thinking about their own suicide on any given Sunday.
The idea that suicidal thinking shows weak faith comes from the belief that God keeps us from suffering and that suffering is a “failure of faith.” And if suffering occurs, faith is expected to heal it. This belief results in a church where we don’t talk about our problems: “We put on a facade. We look like we’ve got it all together.” Even though a fair number of people Even though a fair number of people in a congregation might be suicidal, pastors say that only one or two suicidal people reach out to them for help each year–likely because stigma gets in the way.
But Christians suffer because God has never guaranteed a suffering-free life to those he loves. Jesus was “in anguish” (Luke 22:44). The apostle Paul and Timothy were under such pressure they “despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8). Many people of faith suffered horrible deaths (Heb. 11:37). Faith in God doesn’t prevent suffering. The apostle Paul tells us all Christians are groaning: “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). Psychologist Gay Hubbard has written God doesn’t conform to our expectations that he will prevent suffering. She writes,
“Contrary to [the thinking that “He’ll fix it, so I won’t have to live through it], God refuses to play the magician’s role, nor is God in the business of providing free placebos or heavenly strength aspirin. The idea that if we can only get our burdens to God, He will make us instantly feel better is bitterly unfair misdirection to people in pain . . . this “fix-it” approach makes pain a measure of our distance from God. Indirectly, this idea encourages us to think, “If I hurt, I’m a long way from God. If I were close to Him, He would make the hurt go away.” The God of all comfort . . . is an identity quite different . . . from the idea of God as the “Great Pain Reliever.”
People of faith like Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), Moses (Num. 11:15) and Jonah (Jon. 4:1-3, 9) have wanted to die. Christians like Dr. Edward Carnell, past president of Fuller Seminary, have experienced suicidal thinking.
The first step to preventing suicide is recognizing many more than we realize, including Christians, suffer. Suicide, it’s said, is a lonely way out with no way back, a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Unfortunately, it continues to be the number two cause of death among teenagers and the number 10 cause of death among adults. The truth is it’s also a profoundly selfish act. Suicide inflicts more emotional pain and guilt on others than almost any other kind of loss. Most people who take their own lives don’t really think about the effect their death will have on a spouse, their parents, brothers and sisters, or friends. And those effects are devastating and long lasting.
Have you ever wondered where thoughts of suicide come from? No one really wants to die. I have found that most people in emotional pain invariably do everything they can to end their pain before choosing to end their lives. People decide to die when they see absolutely no other alternative to ending their pain. And where does that pain come from? Well, it can come from early childhood experiences, a physical or mental illness, shame, loneliness, a lack of coping skills, heredity, and even chemical imbalances in the brain.
Add to these factors the stresses and painful events of daily life–school problems, family conflicts, a broken romance, a major loss, –and the risk of suicide goes up dramatically. Most of those who try and take their own life seem to have a history of emotional problems. And depression seems to be at the top. In fact, depression has been found to be the number one cause of suicide. I’ve never known anyone to commit suicide who hasn’t been depressed. And I believe almost everyone who is depressed thinks about wanting to die. It’s one of the symptoms of depression. Without it, there probably is no severe depression. While these thoughts are bothersome, they’re quite normal and in most cases you and I should merely acknowledge and accept them for what they are. If you or anyone you know is experiencing severe depression, it’s extremely important immediate professional help be obtained. The pain of depression can be intense, but that pain can be alleviated.
Depression is curable! That’s why suicide is a tragedy beyond comprehension because it’s unnecessary! However, painful life may feel it can be made good again. Those who choose to take their own life almost invariably do so when they’re not thinking clearly. If they were, they would know their problems are temporary and solvable. In most cases it only takes about two months of therapy for people who struggle with thoughts of suicide to reach a point where they’re amazed, they ever considered suicide.
The second step to preventing suicide is creating a community that fosters a culture of authentic non-judgment where those struggling with depression can present their “warts and all,” even their suicidal thoughts and find love and support to “choose life” (Deut. 30:19).
God has given us friendships. If any of us ever get depressed, with self-destructive thoughts, let’s pick up the phone and call someone. Even if it’s 3 a.m. We’ll be glad and so will our friend. Let’s be honest about what we’re feeling and not afraid to say, “I feel terrible, and I’ve been thinking about suicide.” God has given us emotions. It’s ok to cry. God has given us prayer. He’s always with us. We can ask Him to help us sense the value and preciousness of life and how to use our life to bless others.
We may think we have a reason to die, but there are many more reasons to live. We all have the power to choose, as Hamlet said, “to be or not to be.” But the choice God calls us to is clear. He’s given us the gift of life, and He asks each of us to say “yes” to that gift, day by day. To learn how to help a suicidal person choose life, go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Rev. Charles Eldredge is pastor of Maitland Church of the Brethren, Lewistown, PA where he is currently serving in his 28th year. He graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in S. Hamilton, MA.