As I write this, it is World Suicide Prevention Day in the midst of National Suicide Prevention Week during Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Suicide is one of the most important topics we should be discussing in faith communities and it is the one topic most readily avoided. We believe a lot of misinformation about suicide. We think adolescents have the highest risk, and as a whole they do. However, did you know that middle-aged white men now have the highest rates of suicide? Suicide remains the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. with a growing number of older adults dying by suicide. Churches really need to have this difficult conversation because we have the capacity and the resources to save lives.
In Mark’s Gospel when Peter suggested to Jesus that he could avoid suffering and death (I assume this was the content of Peter’s “rebuke”), Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus didn’t think Peter was evil, or had necessarily done anything wrong. The intensity of Jesus’ response indicates that Jesus was tempted to take the easy path and avoid the suffering that awaited him. It is indeed human to want to avoid difficulty and suffering. However, to seek divine ways means to move through life directly. God does not want us to suffer. God does not cause suffering. God does accompany us through all things, including (and maybe especially) suffering. We are not alone. Wherever we go mentally, physically, or spiritually God is already there. There I no place we can go where God is not, even if it feels like God is not wherever we are. Think Psalm 139.
Avoiding the conversations around suicide in our faith communities is akin to suggesting to Jesus that he could avoid the challenges and suffering that were ahead of him. Avoiding the conversation means that we could be passively participating in people dying by suicide. Suicide is not the sin we might have been taught it was. There is no indication in scripture that God views suicide as unforgivable. There is no indication that God forgives suicide, either. However, we know that God is a God of life and love and does not want anyone to suffer the depth of pain that leads to suicide. The pain that leads to suicide is evil. It shuts out all that is good and joyful. It tells people that they have no value and that the world would be better off without them in it. It tells them that death is the only answer. Depression is the great deceiver.
The good news is that we, as followers of Christ, know a better way. Suicide is not a sin of the individual. It is not the result of a lack of faith, a character flaw, or a punishment from God. Suicide is ultimately the failure of the community to communicate God’s love in such a way that saves lives. The church’s on-going fear of mental illness and reluctance to have hard conversations and our tendency to judge others as somehow outside of God’s favor, contributes to people dying by suicide. Loving, accepting, welcoming community is a significant protective factor in suicide prevention. A church that judges those who have mental illness, those who are LGBTQ+, those who have disabilities, those who have lost their sense of meaning/purpose, those who need something more – a church that judges anyone who doesn’t agree with their theological stance as a sinner or someone who needs to be saved, is a church that contributes to suicide. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: GOD DOES NOT NEED OUR HELP SAVING SOULS; GOD HAS THAT COVERED. GOD NEEDS OUR HELP SAVING LIVES.
Let’s make this year the year we put Satan behind us, take up our cross of fear, and follow Jesus. Let us embody God’s love in radical, lifesaving ways. Let’s vow to leave the judging to God and endeavor to love without condition and welcome all who come seeking into our midst, welcome with more than words. Everyone needs and deserves a community that is truly loving and affirms their worth with words and actions. Let’s open our church doors even wider. If we can worship over Zoom, Facebook, YouTube, etc., then surely we can care for the most vulnerable among and around us without judgment and fear. The church can participate in breaking the silence surrounding suicidality and other symptoms of mental illness and we can share in shattering the stigma surrounding suicide deaths and those who have engaged is suicidal behavior. We can make church a safer place for survivors of suicide loss as well.
If Jesus came into our congregations today, would he be ashamed of the way we have lived and taught God’s unconditional love or would he be unashamed?
For help call: 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741
For more on how to be a lifesaving church, see my book, The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention.
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe is an author, and the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, MN. You can find links to her blog, video series, and books at Beachtheology.com