Over the past few years, in the midst of the increase of suicides across our nation, many organizations have worked tirelessly to talk about suicide prevention. These organizations have worked to de-stigmatize suicidal thinking and attempts. They have also worked to help the general public recognize signs of suicidal thinking and plans to help catch and prevent attempts. All this work is invaluable and desperately needed as hopelessness builds within different people and populations. The more who know symptoms and signs of suicidal ideation, the better the probability lives can be saved.
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma in the body of the church concerning suicide that needs to be examined. An honest look at suicidal thought and attempts in the Bible may help us better respond to those within the church community who find themselves struggling with a desire to escape the pain of their current circumstances. But first, we need to examine the levels of suicidal risk.
There are two different levels of suicidal risk and within these levels there are differing levels of severity. The first is suicidal ideation, when a person is thinking about suicide. There is passive suicidal ideation, when a person thinks about the desire to escape from their present painful situations. This type of ideation can manifest itself in a person thinking or saying out loud, “I wish I could go to sleep and never wake up,” or in the church it may sound like, “I am ready for Jesus to take me home.” The level of of suicidal ideation, while serious, is considered to be of lower risk. The risk level begins to increase when it moves to active suicidal ideation. These are thoughts that move to a plan about how the person might carry out the suicide. The more lethal the plan, the higher risk. For example, if a person has a plan to use a gun and has access to that gun and a plan for when and how they will carry it out, this risk is the highest level of suicidal ideation.
The second level of risk is if a person has moved past just thinking about suicide and is actively acting out on the thinking. When a person begins to act out on the suicidal thinking he or she is demonstrating suicidal behaviors. Again, these behaviors should be taken very seriously, but can be classified into different levels of risk severity. Self-harm behaviors such as cutting and risk taking behaviors can be classified into this category. The most severe level within this category would be a suicide attempt. Once a person has attempted suicide once, they are at a high risk to do so again.
Many who have never experienced the depth of pain, despair, and hopelessness leading to suicidal thinking have a difficult time empathizing with those who do. The inability to relate has led to many well-meaning people offering advice, and even scripture, in attempts to rescue the suffering person. Words such as, “Jesus is all the hope you need,” “God can work all things for good for those who love Him,” or “Just have a little more faith and you will see healing,” have left these wounded individuals with even deeper wounds. Then when they are told that those who commit suicide may not be forgiven or that thinking about suicide is a sin, these individuals a placed in a double bind. Many times the suicidal thoughts and the feelings of hopelessness come on their own. These individuals desperately do not want them, yet they find themselves continually overwhelmed with them. When their brothers and sisters in Christ tell them to have more faith, or worse yet, that they are in sin, the guilt and shame is heaped onto their already overwhelming sense of failure as a Jesus-follower or an inability to even measure up if a Jesus-seeker.
So we need to return to scripture and begin to look at what it says about suicide. While there are no directives given specifically about what do if someone you know is suicidal, there are stories we can examine which give us a great example of how God handles those He loves when they are struggling with suicidal ideation.
One example is in the story of Elijah. In 1 Kings 19:1-8, Elijah had just returned from an amazing triumph. He had called down fire from heaven, demonstrating the power of the one true God and the ineptness of the national false god Baal. He received a message from the queen that she was after his head, which sent him into the desert. It was here that he began to experience the thoughts of wanting his life to end. It was also here that God began to meet Elijah’s physical needs. God did not leave him; instead, he ministered to Elijah with bread and water. God also encouraged Elijah to sleep. In later verses we see that God reminded Elijah of who he is and of the deep desire God has for a personal relationship with the prophet.
We find a second example in the story of David. Over and over in the psalms we see that David struggled with difficult and desperate situations, bringing this young warrior and chosen king to the end of himself. One example of David’s expression of these emotions is in Psalm 38:7-8, “For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.” In verse 17 of the same chapter David says, “For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever before me.” He would pour himself out to the Lord and ask for death, but then he ended the psalms with reminders of who God was in his circumstances and in his life. In Psalm 38:15, David says, “But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.” We know that because David was anointed with the Holy Spirit, his ability to return to truth in the middle of his hopelessness was from the Lord. This return to truth was a good thing, and we know that all good things come from the Lord. God called David a man after His own heart, even though David struggled with suicidal thinking and hopelessness.
A final example is Jesus himself. In the garden as Jesus was praying we see him struggling with a desire for the circumstances to be taken away. We see him sweating drops of blood and desiring for things to end. While Jesus was not in a place of hopelessness, He was in a desperate, lonely, and painful place. This led him to asking for the pain to be removed. Scripture tells us he is acquainted with all of our temptations. This would mean Jesus himself would have been aquatinted with the temptation to end his life. This may have been that time for him. Again, we know that the Holy Spirit is with Jesus, bringing him comfort and truth of who he is and who God is. We see Jesus accepting this desperate place he is in and reminding himself of truth.
Notice in each of these situations, the Holy Spirit never told Jeremiah, David, or Jesus that their emotions were wrong. He never said have more faith. Instead, God met each of them in their deepest need and sat with them. He ministered to them where they were. With Jeremiah, God met a physical and spiritual need. With David, God met an emotional and a spiritual need. With Jesus, God met a relational and spiritual need.
While the Holy Spirit is here to meet these needs in our lives today, we are also called to be the body of Christ. We are called to put flesh on the love of God for the people of God. So what does that look like when people in our spheres of influence are struggling with suicidal thoughts and behaviors? There are four things we as the body of Christ can do to bring the love of Christ into the lives of those who are struggling.
Being Intentionally Aware
This is something we should be doing in all of our relationships anyway. When we begin to see signs of hopelessness and/or despair, we need to become a little more intentional.
It is a myth that if we ask someone if they have had thoughts of suicide that this might give them the idea. Instead, the opposite is true. Those struggling with suicidal thinking are actually relieved when someone asks them if they have thought about suicide. Asking someone about suicidal thinking can feel scary. Thoughts such as “What if they say yes and we do not know what to do?” or “What if I don’t say the right thing?” These questions are understandable and normal, and they lead to the third thing we can do that will be helpful.
Quietly Sit With Them and Listen
The person struggling with suicidal thinking and behaviors do not need us to tell them anything. They need us to sit quietly with them and listen. They need the ministry of presence more than anything. Notice in each of the biblical examples the God did not encourage them to feel differently. God met each of them where they were and He listened. He did not tell them why they should feel differently. Our emotions are not sinful. Our emotions are given to us by the Lord. Sin enters when we choose to be disobedient in our actions which lead to diseased emotions. Our responsibility in this moment is to empathize and sit in the depths of the hurt and pain this person feels. Sitting in pain and negative emotions will be uncomfortable. But the Holy Spirit will give the ability to do so when He is asked. He is faithful to equip us for all good works.
After quietly sitting with the hurting individual, there will be a point in the conversation in which the question of “what next?” will naturally arise. It is at this point knowing the different levels of risk can be helpful. If the person is not in counseling, this would be a good first suggestion step. Meeting physical needs can be a helpful during this time of low energy and motivation. Offering to bring dinner or meet with this person during the week or organizing this type of continued support would benefit the person in many ways. If the person has a suicide plan, he or she needs to be taken to the hospital. Offering to go to the hospital with a friend can be one of the most caring things one can do.
Again, the ministry of presence is the best thing to offer those suffering with suicidal thinking and behaviors. Bring a willing heart before the Lord and watch what He will do with it. Sitting in pain, listening with empathy, offering compassion, a meal, or a ride to the hospital will go farther than many people even realize. Being the body of Christ in the middle of hopeless situations and demonstrating that Jesus is meeting them exactly where they are will bring a sense of being known and connected. Many times, this is all the hurting need to choose to try again another day.