A few weeks ago another well known person took their own life. This time is was a popular Christian leader. His family and church community have been left bereaved and horrified and the shock waves have been felt throughout the Christian world.
Whenever a celebrity dies from suicide there are many questions about why and why did no one see it coming. When it is a Christian personality, the questions are also focused on how they could have done it when they confess faith in hope in Christ. How could they do this when they are a believer?
My husband and I are both Christians. In the past I have struggled with depression and suicidal ideation, and my husband currently lives with this disease. Every day he battles his own mind to stay alive. He lives a life of exhaustion, constantly in a fight with the darkness that tells him he is a burden to his family, a disappointment, and worthless. Some days he knows that this isn’t true. Other days it is only by sheer will power that he holds on.
How does this fit with faith? How can he confess hope in God and still want to die? Is not faith antithetical to suicidal ideation?
My husband and I have talked at length about this issue. His faith helps him hold on, but it also entices him to leave this life of pain and be at peace with his God. We believe that those who die by suicide are welcomed into the arms of God and are given rest, so why would he stay and battle when he could enter that rest?
Faith and suicidal ideation can live side by side in a mind beset by depression. Just as love for a partner can exist next to a belief that they deserve better. It is not surprising that the faith we find hope in would also draw people into wanting to be with God rather than alive and suffering.
So how do we, as believers, counter this desire to leave this life and be with God? Is there any argument that can be used to convince a suicidal believer that they should stay alive?
In my experience, arguments to stay alive don’t work. If someone wants to die, no words are going to pull them from that place. The desire to die isn’t rational, so rational arguments won’t work. So what do we do?
Here are some ideas that I have found helpful when talking to my husband and other suicidal believers:
Remind them of the love that God does have for them. There is a temptation to veer away from this as the fear is they will then desire to be with God more. The opposite tends to be true. Just as you would remind a loved one of your love for them, reminding them of the love God has for them can give them strength and hope to continue for another day.
Pray with them. Help them find words to speak their pain to their God. Help them cry and scream and rage without guilt or fear of being judged. If God exists then God is big enough to handle rage and bad language.
Sit with them in silence and let them just be. Being with someone who wants to die is often all they need to stay alive for that moment. They don’t need you to plead and cry, they just need you to stay.
Don’t preach at them. Some faith communities believe that suicide leads to hell. This is not the way to convince a suicidal person to not die. They already feel like they are an awful person, don’t make them feel worse!
You don’t need the answers. It’s ok to say “I don’t know” when they ask questions about God and suffering. You don’t need to have the bible verse to every question. You don’t need to be a theological scholar or preacher. You need to be a friend. Be honest when you don’t know. And don’t try and defend God, questions around suffering have been there forever and are natural. Getting defensive won’t help the person but, rather, could cause them to feel that they can’t voice the doubts and fears they have. By being honest and saying “I don’t know”, but saying that you will help them find answers they need if they would like that, will encourage them to keep talking and being open about their pain.
Get others involved. Pastors and counsellors have often been trained in dealing with depression much more than lay people. Don’t be afraid to take your loved ones questions to someone who may help point you both in the right direction. And if your pastor/counselling doesn’t react well or help, find someone who does!!
Faith and suicide can exist side by side but this doesn’t have to be something scary. A person who has faith and suicidal ideation is the same as someone who has no faith and suicidal ideation. Treat them with the same love and respect you would anyone else who was struggling with mental illness. The help is there, you are not alone.