Preaching + Suicide Prevention

Lights. Image by Coba via Flickr, licensed under CC BY NC-ND 2.0.

In my own struggles with suicidality as a teen and young adult, the church was instrumental in saving my life. The congregation I grew up in was nonjudgmental and supportive of me after I had engaged in suicidal behavior.

Decades later as a pastor, therapist, and clinical chaplain at a state psychiatric hospital, I was called on to respond. Through examining my experiences with a congregation who embodied Christ’s love for me in very real ways, and encounters with those for whom the question of suicide and sin was literally life or death, I was able to formulate a theology around suicide that saves lives.

Before preaching on suicide, it is essential that preachers examine their own beliefs and theology around suicide. If we do not critically assess our own beliefs, it is much more likely that we will actively or passively contribute to someone’s suicidal behavior or suicide death.

Christian theology tends to lean in one of two directions when it comes to suicidality. The progressive tendency is to want to rush in and assure the one who is suicidal that God will love them no matter what. On the other hand, a more conservative view is that suicide is a sin and the one who dies by suicide will be condemned to hell.

Both of these convictions can contribute to suicide death or the spread of contagion (increasing the likelihood that others will engage in suicidal behaviors). The truth is that we do not know how God responds to suicide. Scripture is remarkably silent on the topic of God’s response. There is no evidence of God’s judgment or God’s forgiveness.

It is more accurate, and potentially lifesaving, to say that God is not a fan of suicide; God would rather we find another way to deal with the pain that leads a person to suicide.

Progressive preachers might decide that Romans 8:38-39 (Ordinary 17A) would be a good text to use for a sermon on suicide prevention. This text, unless handled very carefully, could increase the likelihood that someone might die by suicide. For someone who is actively suicidal, the news that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ will sound like very good news indeed. It could, in fact, remove the protective fear of not being forgiven and going to hell. This could result in death. To preach on this text and have it be about suicide prevention, the preacher would have to be willing to stress that while we live, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ — that no matter what we have done or not done, no matter what diagnosis we carry or what thoughts we have, we are loved by God.

However, we do not know God’s view of suicide. We might lean toward mercy, but we truly do not know God’s response. It is better that we trust the love of God in Christ and seek to ease the pain that leads a person to suicide than to presume to know the mind of God. After all, God gives us life and proclaims it good. Suicide is essentially saying that the life God gives is somehow lacking and that God’s love is not enough. Is it not better to find a way to share in the love God freely offers to all? A preacher can apply similar interpretations to several Scripture passages:

Psalm 139:1-18 (Epiphany 2B, Ordinary 16A, Ordinary 9B, Ordinary 23C)

Lifesaving interpretation:

  • There is no place (physically, emotionally, spiritually) we can go where God is not.
  • God is present with us wherever and however we are.
  • In absolute hopelessness God wants us to know that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
  • Challenge the congregation to embody Christ in such a way that communicates the fierce love God has for us all, whether we are at the heights or the depths.

Ambiguous interpretation that could lead to suicidality:

  • Not stating explicitly that God is present in our brokenness, no matter what shape that brokenness takes.
  • Failing to name that those who live with mental illness are within God’s reach because God is everywhere a human being is.
  • Making general statements about everyone being included in God’s love without addressing suicidality in particular.

Isaiah 43:1-5a (Baptism of Christ, Year C)

Lifesaving interpretation:

  • God calls us by name and will remain with us through all we experience.
  • God will give anything for us to know that we are valued, named, and claimed by God as God’s own beloved.
  • In our moments of deepest pain, hopelessness, and despair, God yearns for us each to know we are loved.

       Ambiguous interpretation that could lead to suicidality:

  • Neglecting to state that God does not cause pain and suffering
  • Not challenging the congregation to embody God’s shielding love, especially for those who live with suicidality

Other texts to consider are Matthew 11:28-30 (Ordinary 14A) in which Jesus invites all who are weary or burdened to come to him and find ease and comfort. The story of Rahab in Joshua 2 is a beautiful story of redemption that could give hope, as is the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 7:53 and following verses. Whatever text you choose, be sure to emphasize God’s loving presence in all times and places with all people.

Be sure to include the national suicide prevention hotline — 1-800-273-8255 — and any local hotline numbers in all printed materials.

In this regular Working Preacher column, “Preaching + ____,” writers incorporate lived experience into preaching upcoming texts from the Revised Common Lectionary.