Suicide in the Church
by Michael Tummillo
Recently, several suicides have occurred right here in my own hometown of about 16,000 people. The latest of these involved a friend of mine who was, among other things, the leader of a Christian Business Fellowship which I attend. He was a lawyer with a terrific wife, two young kids, very prominent in his church, coached little league baseball. As one can imagine, speculations abound - everything from possible chemical imbalances to unfair, unfounded comments which...well, small town gossip can be so mean-spirited.
These local suicides also have Christians from various camps wondering and discussing what happens after a Christian commits suicide. Some eMails I've received on this subject have included words like "unsettling", "confused" and "disturbing." Since we are the Body of Christ, "a body fitly joined," as Scripture declares, when something happens here, it's happening there. If it hasn't hit your community square in the face just yet, chances are it will.
I'm reminded of the theme song from the TV series "M.A.S.H." It was called "Suicide is painless."
No, it's not. It hurts a lot.
It's hurting me.
Personally, I was raised believing that a Christian who killed themselves received a quick ticket to hell. The concept being that, since murderers would burn in hell, what was suicide but self-murder with absolutely no time for repentance?
Apparently, "Thou shalt not kill" referred even to the killing of oneself. This concept now strikes me as quite silly, for all sins...murder, suicide, gossip, slander, rage, infidelity...are all forgivable by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. By and large, that's pretty standard Christian fare, right? To say otherwise is to imply that the crucifixion had no effect on some particular sins. As my own relationship with God has developed, I am now convinced that, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, "Nothing can separate us from the love of God." The Greek word for 'nothing' can best be defined as ...well, NOTHING!
I found a half dozen cases of suicide in the Bible and the Good Book does not appear to condemn the act. The most notorious accounts were those of King Saul (1 Sam. 31:2-5) and Judas Iscariot (Matt. 27:3-5). Others are Abimelech (Judges 9:50-54), who ordered his armor-bearer to kill him, Samson (Judges 16:23-31), Ahithophel (2 Sam. 17:23), and Zimri (1 Kings 16:15-20). Even Elijah despaired of his own life (1 Kings 18:40; 19:4) and Job's wife told him he'd be better off killing himself (Job 2:7-9).
Far as I can tell, none of these people who went through with it were explicitly condemned for taking his own life.
Most people who take their own lives are not usually cool and rational about it. I doubt many set out to flout the will of God. I've read that 500,000 Americans attempt suicide annually! I must believe that they are not so much choosing death as they are stumbling down into it from a steep slope of despair. Every 17 minutes someone in America commits suicide. This is the third-leading cause of death among people 15 to 25 years old, college students for the greater part. Even more tragically, among children between 5 and 14 years of age, suicide is the sixth most common cause of death.
Something's VERY wrong.
People are hurting everywhere. we know this because, after all, hurting people are hurting people everywhere we turn. People need help. Maybe someone you know of, someone who puts up a pretty good front at work or even at Church, or even in your home, needs something more than a handshake or a pat on the back.
Love, after all, is spelled T-I-M-E.
So, give someone your attention today. Ask "How are you?" and pause, look them in the eye and await their response. Say their names in conversation and drop them an encouraging eMail. Every one of us is a potential lifesaver. As life guards are taught to handle drowning victims, let them kick and scream and thrash about, but let's all try and be there when they decide they just can't swim another stroke.
In a town the size of mine - about 16,000 - can a few suicides within a 90-day period be considered an epidemic? I'd say so. Quite a few Christians have contacted me since these tragedies have occurred, people struggling with the in's and out's of suicide and its effect on one's eternal reward, among other concerns. These included the wife of one of the recent suicide victims. As a certified Workplace Chaplain, I receive various ministerial and counseling materials in the mail and one recent article presented some jarring statistics about suicide and its effects on those left behind.
For instance, there are 30,000 suicides in America each year, leaving 118,000 survivors per year. There are currently 4.5 MILLION survivors living in the US alone. There are 750,000 emergency room treatments per year as a result of suicide attempts. One-third of all Jr. High and High School kids are considering suicide. 24to 30 kids die by suicide daily. every 2 minutes, someone in the US attempts suicide; every 18 minutes, someone succeeds. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people 15 to 24 years old. Suicide rates increase with age, the highest rate being found among white American males 65 and over.
Eighty percent of those Christians left behind wind up changing their churches or stop attending services all together. I can recall, as a youth, a woman in our church whose husband passed away and how, even as a kid, I noticed how rarely I observed the widow engaged in any conversations with other church members before or after services. Eventually, she was gone. There's a great deal of ignorance in the Church - a feeling of inadequacy - that keeps the average person from stepping up and comforting those left behind. fact is, they want to talk. They NEED to. Some are mad at God or mad at the church. They're confused. They're loved one wasn't killed. No, they CHOSE death without apparent consideration of the feelings and needs of those they'd soon be leaving behind. Those who grieve contend with the same stages of grief as those facing other kinds of death only with greater intensity and in a cycle that generally continues about a full year.
Those who actually see the dead body require counseling and prayer in an effort to "stop the movie' they see re-playing in their minds as they instinctively try and come up with a different ending. They often wrestle with guilt, feelings of failure, anger, even rejection...and its often so devastating that it shuts down the normal coping mechanisms, resulting in frightening "What's wrong with me?" feelings.
Sadly, it's very common that a survivor's friends and family reject them. Long-term friendships, needed now more than ever, are often severed. Some will avoid and even blame the survivor, openly or with subtle accusations. Immediate family members sometimes turn on and blame each other and entire family structures may change and may never be reconciled.
Unresolved grief can lead to health issues and some survivors who suffer from what's called "graphic issues" (they were unfortunate enough to have actually seen the dead body, often in a horrible state), become suicidal themselves. Nightmares, loss of sleep, the movie plays over and over, day and night. Good support groups are necessary. There's an elephant in the living room that we cannot - MUST NOT - dance around. According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical manual of Mental Disorders, the level of stress resulting from suicide is rated at the level of Catastrophe, equivalent to that of a concentration camp experience! Often, suicide is seen as being undesirable, even "dirty." It's seen as a cowardly way out by many.
We must encourage the survivors among us to reclaim their lives! Suicide is not a permanent thing. like every trauma, it becomes a thing of the past with each passing second. We must not "build a camp there," as one preacher said. After all, as the Good Book says, "It came to pass."
Healing is a process and we must allow it to run its course. In supporting roles, we must not let the survivors endure this process all alone. Survivors cannot make the ending change by re-living the moment. Though one cannot erase their memories, they can certainly dilute them, diminishing their debilitating impact. How? By filling their calendar with service towards others and by reading positive, uplifting, encouraging literature. Work a crossword puzzle. Volunteer. Mind your input! Sad movies are a no-no!
We may never know the answer to all the 'WHY?' questions and we must accept that as fact. The fact is - and this is from those who have been there - one day you will look back at the progress you've made and you'll stand amazed. the day you were thrust into this nightmare, you became victims. You had no say in the matter. No choice. To remain a victim IS a choice.
We're human BE-ings, not human DO-ings. You must learn to BE a Survivor, not merely TRY to survive while feeling like the living dead yourself. As one Survivor said, "You can do this. It's a hrd battle, but life is hard, so what's new? hard doesn't mean impossible."
This may wind up being the most important article some have ever read. I hope it will not only help a few readers, but that it will open the eyes of others, aiding in their understanding, motivating them to help. I trust there will be those who will actually clip it, mailing it to someone for whom they are concerned, or posting it in the breakroom.
I've written quite a bit about suicide over the past few weeks and have received some remarkable feedback. I wrote on the subject because there have been so many suicides lately and folks wanted answers. If you've read any of the previous articles, you've seen some frightening statistics. This subject remains heavy on my heart and continues to be a concern to many. For me, it started when a man with whom a dear friend had been interacting was found in his jail cell with a cable TV wire around his neck. Then, another friend who led a Bible study took his own life. Within days, this was followed by the suicide of another man who, along with his spouse, had prayed with and comforted the previous friend's wife.
Saturday, I officiated a wedding 2 hours away. Incredibly, on Sunday, the father of the bride took his own life.
My mind is reeling as I write.
Suicide has a frightening air of finality. Filled with hopelessness, despair, and tragedy, it's a word we like to keep at arms' length. As a whole, society tends to look down its nose at anyone who would commit this gruesome act. We call them selfish, cowardly...I must admit, after seeing that beautiful young bride and her dashing husband on Saturday, preparing to begin their lives together, if her father were standing alive before me now, I'd have a hard time refraining from beating the thunder out of him. How could he do that to his precious daughter?
But I recall the day, about 15 years ago, that suicide entered my thoughts in a different way. I had just lost my job with a Dallas ad agency and my wife had left me, taking our kids with her. For the first time in my life, I was all alone on a Thanksgiving, too broke to join any family gatherings taking place across the country. Our church friends had quickly chosen sides and had shunned yours truly. It was Thanksgiving Eve, sleeting and raining, about 16 below zero with the wind chill. I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a mobile home, my entire world seemingly in shambles all around me. I remember waking up to the whirring sound of ball bearings rolling around in the furnace which was now spewing forth cold air. I was dizzy, disoriented, freezing to death in my sleep, I believe. Taking my own life with the razor sharp meat clever in the kitchen was the most natural thought in the world to me. I formulated a plan to slit my wrists, crawl back onto my mattress, and let them find me in the spring. Truly, I was experiencing the darkest hour of my soul.
But God stepped in. The atmosphere became charged as it does when a frisky puppy runs into a room or a bunch of children run through an open screen door to get a drink from the kitchen sink on a hot summer day. "Joy will come in the morning" suddenly echoed through my mind. I bundled up and made it through the night, only to be awakened next day by a startling crash as a sheet of ice melted and slid off the metal roof onto the frozen ground. I looked outside and the sun was glistening off the melting ice everywhere.
Life got gradually better. Incredibly better. Today, I wouldn't trade mine for all the world.
Truth is, I discovered another option to suicide. I found it in the Bible, God's love letter to mankind. You know...that perennially best-selling book most Christians rarely read? The good news about the current state of depression some may be feeling at this moment, is that God really DOES have a plan for your life - a plan that can only be fulfilled when we give everything over to Him. Listen, there IS a purpose for your life; a reason for your existence. Your current, dismal, emotional and spiritual state may be the very springboard you need for discovering just how valuable you are to Him, how your life can be transformed, and how others can be rescued by YOU. Tough times do NOT last. Tough people DO!
Perhaps you've asked yourself, "How did I get to this point?" The answer? Gradually, just as drops of water will slowly but surley fill a bucket. Everyone goes through periods in their lives when they feel down. In time, sadness leaves and life goes on. There are instances, however, when tough times, a strained relationship or some other problem, leads to unhappiness that keeps us in bondage. When that happens, life can become a daily struggle with uneasiness, gloom, and emptiness. Ultimately, hopelessness can take hold, creating a feeling of dissatisfaction with everything.
Depression is often associated with a sense of loss that can come with illness, the death of a loved one, sudden unemployment, divorce, and so on. A chronic illness, or permanent disability, can rob one's independence, making them feel worthless, helpless, and angry. Losing someone you care about, through death or divorce, can leave a tremendous void.
Guilt is another trigger for depression. Perhaps you're struggling with substance abuse or another addiction or have made some really bad choices that you're ashamed of that are about to be revealed. A childhood trauma may have left you feeling damaged and unworthy of God's love and acceptance. Maybe you feel like a failure because you haven't achieved all that you wanted in life.
Whatever the cause, depression often leads to a sense of hopelessness. You may feel as though you're at the end of your rope. You may think that ending your life is the only way to take control.
Trust me, it's not.
What's next? The answer is simple. REALLY simple. You can go on with life as usual, knowing where that may lead, or you can get a life. I'm talkin' REAL life. For some, the fact that you're still reading this shows that you desire another option. So, here's my answer. Ready? It's my experience that there is only one real source of hope for a life of purpose, fulfillment, and joy.
That source has a name...it's Jesus Christ.
It is my firm contention that Jesus is the answer to every problem known to mankind. To those who are still with me, that's either absolute truth or it's a lie. He said about His followers, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). If that statement is true, logic screams for us to quickly become His followers. We must address the question, "If I'm not living real life, what is THIS?" Through a REAL, experiential relationship with Jesus Christ, overflowing love, forgiveness, peace, and joy can be ours. Interested? That's a promise from God found in the Bible.
And God doesn't lie.
Sadly, far too often, even Christians settle for Religion and Church attendance over a relationship with the Creator through Christ's teachings found in Scripture.
The How-to's of Overcoming
I failed to mention that all the recent local suicides have been committed by professing Christians. Did Jesus promise His followers a problem-free life on Earth? No. He actually said, "In this life, you will have many troubles...." He DID promise the power to face life's trials with confidence, knowing that He will cause ALL things to work for our good.
By the way, the Greek word for "all" means ALL!
He promised either to deliver us from afflictions, or provide the strength to endure them, according to His plan for us. Here's the catch: to set that plan in motion requires giving our lives to Him.
As Bob Dylan sang, "We're gonna serve somebody." Even the atheist serves himself, enthroning himself as "lord" of his own life. By placing Jesus Christ on the throne of our lives, spiritually, we become what the Bible calls "born again" and we're completely transformed as we renew our minds. According to the Scriptures, that same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells within us, His followers. Again, this has been my expereince and, I contend, the very answer that someone somewhere is needing. Your reading of this now is no accident.
Dust off that old Bible and look up the following verses: John 1:12; II Corinthians 5:17;I Corinthians 2:12; I John 5:11-13.
Jesus said, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me" (Revelation 3:20). He's knocking right now. Open the door.
Three Keys to Vicorious Living
1) Talk to God. We call it "prayer" but it's merely conversation with God. TWO-WAY conversation at that. So, be quiet and listen sometimes.
2) Begin reading the Bible. Get to know the Personality of the one who made came up with all those Precepts for living life with Power. You'll find He's the kindest person you'll ever meet. Talk with Him as if He were your best friend. He IS!
3) Make yourself accountable to those who are living the Christian life successfully. Like all babies, even baby Chrsitians should aspire to GROW to maturity. In a nutshell, we become that with which we surround ourselves. Surround yourselves with godly people and godly input.
What if You're Already a Christian?
First, ask yourself if you really ARE a Christian. The word 'Christian' translates as "Little Christs." Galatians 5:22 tells us what the fruits of the Spirit are, the evidence that God's Spirit resides in us. Too many people believe themselves to be Christians simply because they believe in God. Scripture declares that "even the devil believes, and he trembles." Truth is, unless we spend time with Him, how can we know Him at all? What relationship works like that? Logically speaking, Church attendence doesn't make one a Christian any more than going to McDonald's makes one a cheeseburger. Besides, Church is something we ARE 24/7 (meaning: "the called out ones"); it's not merely someplace we GO.
To those who DO have a relationship with God, the enemy of our souls can cause any of us to feel depressed and have suicidal thoughts in a moment of weakness. So might a chemical imbalance. It can happen for all of the same reasons mentioned above. The trials of life touch everyone, including Believers in Jesus.
If the situation you are in is something you can't change, know that God's the Inventor of Divine Intervention. As hard as it may be to do, continue praying for His help and covet the prayers of other victorious Christians. Don't stop. He does hear our prayers, but His perfect plan and ours aren't always the same. Trust Him to respond in a way that will be to your best interest. That includes the possibility that He will give you strength and peace to endure your trial rather than deliver you from it. He's so much more concerned about our character than our comfort. His number one goal is to conform us to the image of Christ who, Scripture tells us, was Himself sent by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Jesus is truly our example in EVERY way). Some of God's greatest answers to prayer come in the form of peace and joy in the midst of great hardship. You can believe that He will see you through every storm in your life.
Along those lines, take a look at these verses: Psalm 23; Psalm 28:7; Isaiah 43:2; Romans 8:28; Philippians 4:13.
We are spirit-beings having an earthly experience. As such, you must ask God to fill you with His Spirit to help you tackle life by His power. Scripture declares, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you." The Bible is full of God's promises to love, strengthen, heal, and guide.
The Purpose-Driven Life is a Top-Selling book these days. Begin reading God's Word in a Purpose-Driven manner: to discover new insights about His love for you. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your journey and to reveal truths you've never seen before. He's the consummate teacher, after all. Accept the fact of God's love for you by faith, NOT by feelings.
Look at these verses and receive them from God directly to you: John 3:16; Romans 5:8; Isaiah 40:31; Isaiah 41:10; Lamentations 3:22-23.
Today's culture detests any mention of this word, but here goes: SIN. If you want to walk in victory, acknowledge any sin that might be interfering in your relationship with God. Ask Him to search your heart and pinpoint any problems. Then, confess and repent of your disobedience and receive his forgiveness. Confess means "to agree" and repent means "to change your mind."
Here are some verses for dealing with sin: I John 1:9; Psalm 139:23-24; Galatians 5:16-25.
Help Yourself to some help!
As part of the Body of Christ, you may wish to consult help from other Body Parts. Professional help in the form of a qualified Christian counselor has proven to be one of the best ways to fight depression and thoughts of suicide. Look in the phone book and make some calls. Ask for references. A good pastoral counselor can help you get a new perspective on your problems. Get a medical check-up. Sometimes depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or other biological factor.
Seek out a support group made of like-minded believers that can minister to the area of difficulty in your life. Interacting with others who are facing similar challenges will help you feel less isolated.
Force yourself to do something the next time you feel down. Inactivity only makes depression worse. Here are some things to try:
Talk it out. Call a friend and open up.
Take a hike. Exercise causes blood and oxygen to circulate faster, which invigorates us. The brain produces endorphins that fight depression.
Help someone else. As you focus your attention on someone else, your own cares will become less burdensome. I often refer people to watch "Patch Adams" with Robin Williams, then report to me on their findings. Don't judge me on that; lives have been saved. God can use anything.
Listen to uplifting music. Choose your favorite songs and start jammin'!
Here's the good news: Whatever you're struggling with at the moment, this too shall pass. Whatever it is you're going through, you WILL go through it. Though things may actually get worse before they get better, they WILL get better as you place them in God's hands. Yes, we reap as we sow and there may be some really tough consequences forthcoming to deal with. But whatever you do, deal with it!
Remember, "All things work together for good for those who love God and have been called according to His purpose." Translation? God takes care of the lives of those who turn their lives over to Him.
Resist any thoughts you may be having about "ending it all." God has the uncanny ability of taking that which seems really bad and making things turn out really good.
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Pastor Michael has been broadcasting messages of Discipleship & Encouragement to the Body of Christ by email since 1999. Since then these messages have been published on numerous other sites, reprinted in paper newsletters belonging to other ministries, have been used as a source of teaching and preaching by ministers and Bible teachers worldwide, and have ministered to the Body of Christ of nearly every major denomination.