Sermons
Aug
22

Christians and Suicide

DEATH, GRIEF, AND CHRISTIAN HOPE –V

Christians and Suicide

August 26, 2012

Rev. Richard P. Smith

Senior Pastor, Germantown United Methodist Church

Job 7:1-4,15-16

Do not mortals have hard service on earth?  Are not their days like those of hired laborers? Like a slave longing for the evening shadows, or a hired laborer waiting to be paid, so I have been allotted months of futility, and nights of misery have been assigned to me. When I lie down I think, ‘How long before I get up?’ The night drags on, and I toss and turn until dawn…

[The misery is so great] I prefer strangling and death, rather than this body of mine. I despise my life; I would not live forever.  Let me alone; my days have no meaning.Lamentations 3:22-23, 25-26, 32-33

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness… 

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord

For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.  For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.

God calls us Christians to care about and be informed about the critical issues of our time and to be sensitive to those who are truly hurting.  Without question one of the critical issues of our time which causes much pain is suicide.  Do you realize…

  • 37,000 people in the U.S. will commit suicide this year.
  • Once every 15 minutes someone commits suicide and every 40 seconds someone attempts suicide.

  • The greatest number of suicides occur among white males ages 45-64.

  • Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 10 and 24.

  • Nearly 16 percent of high school teens nationwide admitted they had considered suicide within the previous year, according to an annual survey published by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (June 2012)

  • The number one cause of suicide is clinical depression and 10% of the American people are somewhat clinically depressed at any given time.

So, this morning I want to help us, as best I can, be both understanding and empathetic as followers of Jesus Christ.   I am going to share six insights.

 

The Bible Understands The Reality of Serious Depression

Most of you know, I think, that the Bible does not hide from the very real issues and problems people face in life.   With all its teachings on joy and hope, the Bible also presents characters and stories which show a keen awareness of what life can be like at its worst.  It certainly does not pretend that faithful people of God never gave into despair, never contemplated suicide; quite the opposite.

There’s Moses, the great leader who led the Hebrew people out of Egypt.  If you remember the story, you know that things don’t go well for the first several years after the Israelites flee from Egypt.  They constantly grumble –because of lack of food and water, because of harsh living conditions, because of uncertainty about where they’re headed, and because of questions about Moses’ leadership abilities. It gets so bad for Moses that we find him saying in Numbers 11:14-15, I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me.  Moses wishes to die if things can’t get better.

There’s the Prophet Elijah.  You may know his story.  After he defeats the pagan priests in a contest, Queen Jezebel swears a warrant, a hit on his life.  Elijah, fearing for his life, flees into the wilderness and exhausted plops down under a broom tree and prays to die saying, I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (I Kings 19:3-4).

Then, of course, there’s Job, a good and righteous man who suffers the Loss of family, wealth, and health.  We find him saying at one point, I despise my life; I would not live forever.  Let me alone; my days have no meaning…so that I prefer strangling and death, rather than this body of mine.

The point here is that the Bible reminds you and me that even people of faith can experience despair and serious depression; even to the extent of contemplating suicide.

Unfortunately, The Judeo-Christian Witness Hasn’t Always Been Sensitive and Empathetic

Our Judeo- Christian heritage is less-than-kind when it comes to understanding and responding to suicide.1

For the Jewish community during the time of Christ suicide was clearly wrong. It was, in fact, viewed as a heinous sin.  The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that the body of a suicide victim was not buried until after sunset and then carried to the grave without the normal funeral rites.  One part of the Talmud, a central spiritual resource in Judaism, even says, Whenever a person of sane mind destroys his own life he shall not be bothered with at all.  Here it is clear that a person who commits suicide is considered a non-person, not worth our time and attention.

Sadly, the traditional views of our Christian witness haven’t been any better.  The early Church fathers who most influenced much contemporary thinking were Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, both of whom considered suicide morally and spiritual wrong and a grave action before God.  Aquinas argued that there are three reasons one could not commit suicide

  1. It is contrary to nature; every living organism desires to preserve its life.

  2. It is contrary to the good of the human community;

  3. It is contrary to our religious rights; God alone should decide when a person will live or die.

What concerns me is that many modern Christians have appropriated these views without further reflection as to whether this is really where we want to be in our Christian thinking.

A constructive counter position for me lies in the perspective of our United Methodist Church.  Our Church, per the 2008 Book of Discipline, says:  A Christian perspective on suicide begins with an affirmation of faith that nothing, including suicide, separates us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). Therefore, we deplore the condemnation of people who complete suicide, and we consider unjust the stigma that so often falls on surviving family and friends. 

I like the witness of our United Methodist Church against the backdrop of much traditional thinking.

Good, Faith-Grounded People Do Commit Suicide

I learned early on in my ministry path this truth that good, faith-oriented people can find themselves at the place where they take their own lives.

In my first year in seminary at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta I took a job working as a youth director at a church south of Atlanta in Hapeville, Georgia.  The high school football coach was a member of the church and he and I hit it off. He seemed to be one of the happiest, friendliest, most caring people I knew.  All the students loved him.  The teachers respected him.  He had a good marriage; a good family.  At one point his wife did tell me that he was going through a low period.  I offered to be available if he wanted to talk but nothing came of it.  Then one day I got the call to come his house; Coach had died.  I rushed over, came in, saw several policemen, met his wife and hugged her, and then she led me to the bedroom.  There on the bed, with sheets covered in blood, was Coach.  He had cut his wrists.  Right after his wife went to work that morning, he cut his wrists, laid down on the bed and died.  He was such a good, kind, caring man!

Then there’s the story I read just a few weeks ago about Brandon Thomas. Brandon was a college student at the University of Washington.  He evidently was a very likable, active, good, sensitive kid…but with one real emotional challenge in his life…he had struggled with a crippling, chronic blushing problem for four years.  Here’s a part of that story.

Dawn and Steve Thomas want the world to understand the chronic, crippling blushing that led their 20-year-old son Brandon to commit suicide this past May.  Steve and Dawn rarely saw their son blush, and if they did, it wasn’t a worry.  Brandon was blond and fair, like his twin brother, and an occasional blush of color didn’t seem concerning.  So they were stunned when Brandon confessed to his mother last Fall that he’d been struggling with crippling, chronic blushing for four years.  And they were deeply devastated on May 29, when Brandon jumped from the 11th floor balcony of his Seattle dormitory, leaving behind a five page note blaming his suicide on despair caused by the little-known disorder. An estimated 5 percent to 7 percent of the population may suffer from chronic blushing, an uncontrollable reaction triggered by an overactive nervous system and compounded by the fallout of social shame.  “The biggest thing for him and the biggest thing for all the people who suffer with chronic blushing is the shame,” she said. “People do think of it as trivial because we all blush. And what’s the problem?”

Here was a likable, good young man whose despair over chronic blushing caused him to take his own life. 

Now here are four things I want you to remember from these stories:

  1. People who attempt suicide or who commit suicide are not bad people; they generally are good people who are struggling with grief or guilt or shame or despair; and they can’t seem to find any hope

  2. The number one cause of suicide is clinical depression and that condition cannot be taken lightly by the rest of us.  None of us should ever take or treat lightly the depression someone is facing, especially if we’ve never walked in their shoes or had their emotional experience.

  3. We must give up this notion that committing suicide says that a person is weak or a wimp.  Suicide happens to good, strong, caring people all the time.

 

There Are Things We Can Do To Help Those Who Might Contemplate Suicide

On the back of your sermon notes sheet you will find a block of information regarding The Living Well Network which your former Senior Pastor, Rick Kirchoff, directs.  It offers the most helpful website on support for serious depression and suicide prevention of which I’m aware…livingwellfrontporch.org.  This venture was enabled by Debbie Jones of our church who gave a generous gift to Methodist Healthcare in honor and loving memory of her husband, Dennis, who committed suicide in December 2009.  The things I’m mentioning come from this most helpful site.  The information begins with this thoughtful statement:  Stepping in and getting involved in a person’s problem is not easy, but it can be the greatest act of love and humanity you can give.  Your presence in his/her life can be the difference in saving it.

So, here are some things you and I can do to when someone is contemplating suicide (this is only part of the list found on the website):

  • Get involved with the person; become available; show interest and support
  1. Understand that Talking about suicide does not cause someone to become suicidal
  • Ask if he/she is thinking about suicide; don’t ignore the issue
  • Be willing to listen rather than lecturing or giving advice too quickly. Listening is the most important thing of all.
  • Never, ever keep your or someone else’s suicidal thoughts and feelings a secret — even if you’re asked to do so. Friends never keep deadly secrets!
  • Be non-judgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture about the value of life.
  • Don’t ask “why.” It may make the person defensive.
  • Offer hope that alternatives are available, but do not offer glib reassurance; it only proves that you don’t understand.  I would add to this suggestion by saying that we must not give pat answer; we must not offer spiritual platitudes. 

There are things you and I can do if we’re willing, as we should, to get involved.

If You Are One Struggling With Suicidal Thoughts, Let Me Offer Some Suggestions

Now I want to speak to those persons who themselves may be struggling with serious depression and possibly contemplating suicide.  While I understand that your situation is far more complex and challenging than perhaps I can express here, I do believe there are things you can do to avoid making the tragic decision to take your own life. Let me state five things.

Communicate with others.  While the natural tendency when one is depressed is to cut yourself off from others, that is the worst thing you can do. Holding your feelings in and cutting yourself off from others, simply exacerbates the darkness you feel.  We all need social connections to make it through life’s tough moments; all of us.

Realize that it’s not true that your family, your friends, or this world is better off without you.  One of the common statements made when one commits suicide or attempts suicide is something like, My family would be better off without me.  Let me assure you this is not the case.  Your family WILL NOT be better off without you.  Your friends will not be better off without you. The world will not be better off without you.  In fact, if you choose death by suicide, you will break the hearts of those who love you and bring them much pain for years to come.

You Are Not Alone.  I know you feel that way; I know you feel you’re alone; but you’re not.  There are people who care and people who are willing to help – family, friends, pastors, your Church.

There Are Many Professional and Medical Resources Available. Please know that there are manifold resources available to you to help you through this crisis.  There is no shortage of venues for getting the help you need.

  • There are excellent psychotherapists and counselors here in the wider Memphis area; including our own Germantown Methodist Counseling Center.  There you will find three excellent counselors who are ready to help you move forward positively.

  • There are psychiatric medications which can make all the difference.  I said in my sermon on depression in January that we must understand that one of the ways God answers our prayers is through medication.  The proper medications can be a gift from God, and there are plenty of very effective ones for mental health issues.

  • There is a vast amount of information to guide you as you seek to know what to do.  Again, I invite you to the livingwellfrontporch website among others.

  • There is the National Prevention Hotline available 24 hours a day, every day. There is someone there who understands, who will listen, and who can compassionately guide you.

As Best You Can, Stay Connected to God.  I fully realize that persons battling deep depression already feel cut off from God.  I know that persons in such moments don’t feel close to God at all. But, I do want to say that God loves you no matter what; that God wants to help; that God isn’t giving up on you and so He doesn’t want you to give up on yourself.  God wants you to know He isn’t done with you and that He wants to help you find a bountiful and promising future.  From God’s perspective the worst is thing is not the last thing.

 

I Trust The Grace Of God When Someone Does Take His/Her Life

The number one question clergy are asked after someone has taken his/her life is, What happens to those who die of suicide? Unfortunately, many Christians have taken on a traditional mindset which implies if not says that committing suicide is an unforgivable sin.  Sadly, many Christians believe that.  Well, I do not.

In our text from Lamentations this morning we find some deeply meaningful words:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness…For no one is cast off by the Lord forever.

Did you hear that?  God’s compassion never fails; His compassion is fresh every morning.  That’s the message we need to be sharing with those who’ve lost loved ones to suicide…that God’s grace and compassion are extended to those who came to a place of such deep darkness that they couldn’t’ see another way out.

I agree with Adam Hamilton when he writes: The scriptures are clear. God is the God of the hopeless and the helpless.  While it is never God’s will that a person take his or her own life, the Bible is filled with passages that remind us that God cares for those in despair.  We read in Ezekiel 34:  ‘I will rescue my sheep from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness…I myself will be shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.’  Which of you, if your son, daughter or good friend were in despair, would push them away and say, ‘I don’t love you anymore?  You made a huge mistake and I can’t love you because of it.’  None of us would say that!  None of us would act that way!  None of us would banish someone in such despair.

Why, then, do we think God would do that to someone who is in such despair and pain that they would take their own life?

Correspondingly, our United Methodist perspective, which I quoted in the beginning, reminds us that nothing, including suicide separates us from the love of God.

So it seems to me that when someone takes his or her own life and appears before God, God says something like, I’m really disappointed that you did this.  I know the pain you were in but I had so much promise to give you and so much I wanted to do with you. So I am deeply disappointed.  But remember that I love you; that you are my child and I am your Father; and we will walk the rest of your journey together in love.  God says this as He embraces and holds the person tightly in deep affection and divine forgiveness.

 

Closing

So, this morning six insights regarding our Christian faith and the tragedy of suicide…

    1. The Bible Understands The Reality of Severe Depression and So Should We
    2. Unfortunately, Much of Christian Tradition Has Been
    3. Even Good, Faith-Grounded People Take Their Own Lives
    4. There Are Things We Each Do To Help Or Intervene
    5. If You’re Struggling With Despair and Having Suicidal Thoughts, There Are Things You Can Do and Help Available
    6. We Trust God’s Never Ending Compassion and Mercy For Those Who Do Take Their Lives

 

  1. Two helpful resources for understanding the perspective of our Judeo-Christian heritage are:
    1. An online article, Christian Perspectives on Suicide, by William E. Phipps

    2. An online article, Suicide Down the Ages – A Judeo-Christian Perspective, by Christian Medical Fellowship.

  2. Adam Hamilton, Christianity and Suicide