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Suicide Watch: Ministering to Christians Who Despair of Life

Douglas A. Felch

Introduction

Suicide is a major and increasingly pervasive problem in our country and ought to be on the ministry radar of ministers, elders, and deacons. Statistics tell us that 42 percent of the population has considered taking their lives at some point. Of that figure 25 percent have actively planned to do so. Of that number 12 percent have at one time or another procured the means and selected a date.[1] It is the tenth leading cause of death for all ages, the number two cause of death for people ages 15–23 (after automobile accidents) and an increasing problem for adolescence and people over sixty-five. Women are four times more likely to try to end their life. Men are four times more likely to be successful.[2]

Our flocks are not immune from this problem. Nor are ministers, officers, or their families. During my forty years of ministry, I know of three OPC ministers and four OPC ministers’ wives who have ended their lives. There may be others of whom I am unaware or which occurred earlier in our history. I am also aware of two ministers from other Reformed denominations who have recently committed suicide.

Almost everyone knows of someone who has committed suicide or whose family has been affected by one. Two people in the congregation we attend have experienced suicide in their extended families. As I was drafting this article, my wife received notice that a student at her university took his life while on an excursion with two of her colleagues and several classmates. The experience has been traumatic—as it uniformly is. The sorrow is palpable. As I was completing this essay, I was grieved to learn of another suicide in the OPC community (the second in the last six months). This makes the topic both current and exquisitely tender. It requires both a compassionate but forthright conversation that comforts those who mourn and hopefully avoids further anguish.[3]

Personal Background

I am an OPC minister and have served two congregations as pastor for nine years each as well as eighteen years as a college theology professor. I have had seminary and post-seminary training in pastoral counseling and have engaged in an extensive counseling ministry. I do not consider myself an expert in this area, but I have had some experience, both vocational and personal.

I have struggled with melancholy all my life and am no stranger to depression. Surprisingly, this has proved a gift in pastoral ministry. I can often quickly identify individuals who are troubled or in need. This enables me to come alongside them, gently probe them, and be of encouragement.

However, since strength and weaknesses are often coupled, this intuition has proved a two-edged sword. The same sensitivities which assist me in shepherding can also weigh me down emotionally. The temptation to depression and despair of life always lies at the door. Those unfamiliar with depression may be perplexed as to why someone might be tempted to take their life. I am not one of them.

My sophomore year at college was exceedingly difficult. I went through a humiliating and humbling experience that left me disoriented, perplexed, and deeply depressed. I struggled with suicidal despair the second half of that year, through the summer, and into my junior year. This provoked a spiritual crisis and caused me to question what I thought was a developing call to the ministry.

I remain forever grateful for a college roommate who encouraged me in my despair, provided helpful counsel and prayer, and enlisted me to become active in ministry. His kindness inaugurated a slow but steady recovery. While I was understandably cautious about my call to the ministry, I completed seminary training, became licensed, served as stated supply for several years in a church plant, and eventually became ordained.

Of course pastoral ministry is a difficult stewardship for a person vulnerable to depression. Through the years I have had many anguished moments and a number of dark nights of the soul. However, I have tried to use my temperament for a positive pastoral purpose while at the same time taking steps to restrain it from becoming destructive. I have also been privileged to minister to others who were troubled or despaired of life.

Most rewarding was a middle-aged parishioner who urgently asked to meet with me and confided that she was seriously contemplating ending her life. She was experiencing real and genuine sorrow and hurt, most of it imposed upon her. We had a wonderfully free and frank discussion which relieved the immediate crisis and inaugurated an excellent pastoral relationship between us. Only later did I discover how really close she was to taking her life that evening and how our conversation was a major turning point for her.

In addition as pastor and professor I have been privileged to counsel scores of parishioners and students who have struggled with periods of deep depression or despair. It has been one of the joys of my life to be able to comfort others with the comfort with which I have been comforted.

1. The Bible and Suicide

Given the prevalence of suicide in modern life, it is surprising that Scripture says remarkablylittle about it. It describes about a half-dozen occurrences, all with very little comment.

Biblical Examples

King Saul, defeated in battle and fearful of dishonor and torture by his enemies, fell on the point of his own sword. His armorbearer followed suit (1 Sam. 31:4–6). A young man who reported this to David either tried to take credit for Saul’s death or participated in finishing the job at Saul’s request. David executed him on the spot (2 Sam. 1:3–16).

Athiophel, David’s wisest counselor, who had abandoned David for Absalom, took his own life when his counsel was rejected by Absalom in favor of the counsel of Hushai, David’s mole. Once his counsel was rejected, Athiophel recognized there was no hope for himself or Absalom’s reign. He went home, put his affairs in order, and hung himself (2 Sam. 17:23).

In 1 Kings 16:15–20, Zimri reigned only seven days as king of Israel. He had killed the previous king, Elah, and exterminated the house of Baasha, Elah’s father. When the Israelites heard of the murders, they proclaimed Omri king and besieged Tirzah where Zimri was living. Once he knew that all was lost, Zimri burned down the palace on top of himself and died.

Judas Iscariot, full of remorse (but apparently not repentance), hung himself after realizing the enormity of what he had done in betraying Jesus (Matt. 27:3–5).

The Philippian jailer was about to take his own life to avoid almost certain execution because he believed that the prisoners for whom he was responsible had escaped. Paul prevented this action by calling out to him not to harm himself for they were all there. That same evening the jailer and his household were converted and baptized (Acts 16:25–33).

An uncertain example is Samson, who died when he brought about the collapse of the temple where the Philistines were feasting. He killed three thousand as well as himself—more than all the enemies of God that he had killed in his life (Judg. 16:28–30). While this may have been an act of suicide, it appears more likely that Samson sacrified himself to defeat the enemies of God. Since the LORD grants his request to restore his strength for this one last act, it would appear that the LORD permitted him to die in fulfillment of his mission as a judge of Israel.

Examples of Despairing of Life

Scripture also records the experience of various individuals who experienced dark days of the soul and longed for death. Moses, the “man of God,” overwhelmed by the burdens of ministry and despairing of life, prays the prayer of the discouraged pastor: “If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin” (Num. 11:15, NIV). The LORD does not grant Moses’s request for death. Instead he provides elders to share the burdens of ministry with him.

Elijah, the prophet of the LORD, exhausted after his contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel and under threat from Jezebel, echoes Moses’s petition of the discouraged pastor and asks the Lord to end his life (1 Kings 19:4). Again, the LORD declines. Instead, he feeds him food and drink, gives him rest, gently but firmly counsels and encourages him, and returns him to ministry. But he also provides for him an assistant, Elisha, who will later become his successor when the Lord finally does relieve him of his stewardship.

Job, who endures a difficult stewardship of sorrow and bereavement, initially responds with strong trust in the LORD. Despite huge losses of family, friends, and wealth, he submits to these hard providences (Job 1:20–22). But as the suffering persisted and increased to unrelenting physical suffering, he began to fray at the edges. He challenges the LORD, despairs of life, and wishes he had never been born (Job 10:1–2, 18–19).

David, throughout the Psalms, frequently laments in words which reflect despair of life. Psalms 22, 69, and 42–43 find David apparently overwhelmed by his circumstances. The first two are recognized as anticipating the experience of suffering of the Lord Jesus himself. Psalms 42–43 find David’s soul cast down for reasons he cannot discern. But he speaks to himself and to his readers to hope in God. He does not view his downcast state as permanent, but trusts he will yet again praise the LORD. However, sometimes David knows precisely the roots of his despair. In Psalms 32, 38, and 51 he admits that his unrepentant sin has led to despondency and he pursues relief (and finds it) by seeking God’s grace and forgiveness.

Jonah, bitterly angry because God had not destroyed the Ninevites as promised, and frustrated over the loss of a temporary shade bush, pleads for the Lord to end his life. Even though Jonah is frustrated by the LORD’S compassion, the LORD does not slay his grumbling prophet. Instead he extends that same compassion to Jonah. God reasons with him and points him to the need to have compassion and to value life both human and animal (Jon. 4:5–11).

A Biblical Perspective on Suicide

These examples reveal that the Bible recognizes suicide, and the despair of life that may tempt a person to it, but says little else. Surprisingly, the subject of suicide is not found in the case law of the Old Testament. Does this mean the Bible is neutral about suicide?

The answer is no. In the several examples of suicide surveyed above, none of them are commended (with the possible exception of Samson). Likewise, requests for death from Moses, Elijah, David, Job, and Jonah come in the context of despair. They are portrayed realistically and compassionately, but not positively. The LORD ministers to their sorrow but does not grant their petitions.

Despite the lack of elaboration and reinforcement given in the case law, taking one’s life clearly violates the principles of the Sixth Commandment. The Bible teaches that the LORD is the one who gives life. He also preserves and protects it. In the Noahic covenant God preserves life by declaring the one who takes another person’s life potentially forfeits their own. The reason provided is that such an act defaces the divine image of God with which he has created humankind (Gen. 9:6–7).

Not all taking of life is forbidden. When a soldier kills in the context of battle, this is not murder. When a person kills to protect himself or others, this is not murder. When a murderer who has been found guilty (according to a clearly defined process and very restrictive rules of evidence) in the Old Testament is put to death, this is not “state-sanctioned murder,” it is God-sanctioned justice.

However, there can be no unauthorized taking of human life and suicide is not authorized. Nowhere in Scripture is it permissible to take one’s own life unless it is done to lay down one’s life for another in battle or out of love (John 15:13). Suicide is a form of murder. The difference is those who commit it make themselves both the perpetrator and the victim. To deface the image of God in this way is really a sign of rebellion. It is a rejection of the life that God has given. Suicide is a sin.

Suicide and Salvation

Does this mean that a professing Christian who takes his or her own life is not saved? This is not a simple question, but the short answer is no. The reason it is not simple is because none of us have access to another person’s heart or motives. That is why we receive people into the membership of the visible church on the basis of a credible profession of faith. It is all we can do. It may be a person who makes a profession of faith is not a Christian in their heart. And, if they subsequently commit suicide, that could be evidence of their unbelief.

Nonetheless, if a person takes their own life it should not be viewed as proof positive that they were not believers.As we have seen, many godly individuals at certain points in their life and ministries have despaired of life. Two of them, Moses and Elijah, respectively inaugurated and restored the prophetic office in the Old Testament and later showed up on the Mount of Transfiguration! Is it possible for a Christian in a low moment of despair to end their life? Absolutely. Just as it is possible that a person like David, a man after God’s own heart, might succumb to adultery and a murderous cover up. Or a man like Peter, who really loved Jesus, might, in a moment of crisis, swear with an oath that he never knew him.

To be sure, taking one’s life is sin. It involves rejecting the gift of life that God has given. It disbelieves that God is able to sustain us in difficult circumstances. It denies that God will not tempt us beyond what we are able to bear. It is contrary to God’s will. We ought neither to contemplate it, nor do it. But this does not mean that a person who commits it does not belong to the Lord. Scripture speaks of only one unforgiveable sin. Suicide is not it.

All of us will die with unconfessed sin without jeopardizing our salvation. No one is justified by their obedience. Our only hope on the day of judgment is what Christ has done on our behalf. Salvation has always been dependent upon the Lord and his ability to sustain us. It has never rested upon our ability to sustain ourselves spiritually or physically.

This is true of all of us who know the Lord and who, sadly, sin every day. It is also true of all who know the Lord and who, sadly, take their lives. We have every reason to believe that a Christian who commits suicide remains a Christian despite this sin, and, being joined to Christ, experiences the forgiveness of Christ’s atoning work in regards to it. I also believe we can comfort those who have been left behind with those words, and ought to do so.

However, here as elsewhere, we are not to presume upon the grace of God. We are not to sin that grace may abound. While “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), and to “be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8), we are never encouraged to accelerate this outcome. Those who are despairing of life should seek help, not death.

The Aftermath of Suicide

While taking one’s life does not rob the person of their salvation, it can produce other tragic consequences. Sadly, despite what we just discussed, suicide can carry with it a lingering doubt in the minds of those who are left behind about the spiritual state of the one who died. Further, the trauma of suicide greatly amplifies and complicates the grief of those who are survivors. Many spend the balance of their life trying to cope with its aftermath. Finally, ending one’s life carries with it the potential of causing others to stumble: Those who have been contemplating suicide may be emboldened by the example of others to proceed with their own plan to end their life. These are all powerful additional reasons for not committing suicide.

2. Ministering to Those Who Despair of Life

Suicide is an uncomfortable topic, and its discomfort might tempt us to shy away from ministering to those we encounter who are contemplating it. We should not do so. Even if you do not have formal training, you know more than you think you know, and you can be more helpful than you might expect.

Many people are ambivalent or conflicted about taking their life. This is in our (and their) favor. A kind word, or the sharing of hope, can make a huge difference. I mentioned how my college roommate helped me work through my own period of despair. I also reported how my parishioner was relieved of the temptation to end her life by a serious, but encouraging, conversation. Remember the LORD himself did something similar to Moses, Elijah, Jonah, David, and Job. He did not shy away from their despair. He ministered to it. So should we.

Myths and Misunderstandings

Several urban myths that surround suicide need correction. For example it is often stated that if a person talks about suicide they will not do it. This is patently false. Seventy percent of successful suicides have made at least one comment about taking their life before they do it.[4] The reason is that almost all suicides are purposeful. Those contemplating it are agonizing over what they perceive to be real problems in their life, and they are viewing suicide as some kind of a solution. Usually they have been thinking about suicide for some time. However, they are also conflicted. Many do not really want to take their life, but they feel they have no other choice to end their personal or physical pain. If a person should share their secret plan, this should be taken seriously and followed up. It should never be dismissed or ignored.

A second myth is if a person tries and fails, they will not try again. This is incorrect. Most successful suicides have had at least two prior attempts. They are four times more likely to succeed the second time.

A third myth is that you can insert the idea of suicide in someone’s head by talking to them about it, thus increasing the risk of its occurrence through the power of suggestion. Untrue. Never hesitate to ask someone if they are contemplating ending their life. Suicide is rarely a rash or spontaneous act. If someone is suicidal, it is likely that they have been thinking about it for some time. If they are not suicidal, and you ask them the question, they will likely simply deny being so. If they are, it may be a tremendous relief to be asked and to be able to share their secret burden. Indeed, they may be exceedingly grateful that someone has taken them seriously enough to raise the issue.

A fourth misunderstanding is that suicide is hereditary. Not true. Suicide is a highly individualistic act. However, depression, which can predispose a person to contemplate suicide, can be a family trait. Further, if a person has experienced the sorrow of a friend or family member escaping their struggles by taking their life, that person may be tempted to follow suit. Such an experience can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with dealing with life’s problems this way. However being close to someone who has committed suicide does not inevitably lead to a parallel destiny.

Some Reasons Why People Take Their Own Lives

Suicide is a very personal and highly individualistic matter. While there may be some common elements among those who commit it, there is no cookie-cutter pattern. The reasons are as unique and numerous as the individuals themselves.

Nonetheless, certain patterns of thinking may be discernible, many of which should elicit empathy. Many suffer personal pain that has persisted over a long period of time(as in the example of Job). Personal emotional pain is very difficult. It feels like bereavement. Persistent physical or emotional pain can be a recipe for despair, and those who suffer from it may believe that suicide will release them from it. They have lost any sense of volition. They feel they have no other option or choice. The examples of despair of life in the Bible mostly reflect this view.

Some believe they are a burden to others or that they have behaved so badly that ending their life will relieve friends or family of some of their pain. They justify it by convincing themselves, “They would be better off without me.”

A few years ago a childhood friend took his life. He had been laid off as a professional older worker with dated skills and had difficulty finding new employment. He struggled to provide for his family and to retain a vocational identity. Crushed with a sense of failure, he convinced himself that by taking his life he would once again be able to provide for his family, looking to insurance to reduce financial pressures. Unfortunately, he did not share his misguided plan and did not reach out to anyone who might have dissuaded him. His death took his wife and extended family completely by surprise. He did not understand the loss of his presence was far greater than the monetary gain of an insurance policy. The sorrow was immense and his “solution” caused much anguish. Suicide does not end personal pain, it simply passes it on to the survivors.

Some contemplate suicide because of anger, frustration, or a desire to get back at someone. Taking their life is designed to make another suffer for what they have done as in, “I’ll show them! They’ll be sorry when I’m gone!” This reasoning can be a special temptation for teens who are shunned or bullied. Some may leverage the threat of suicide to control their situation and manipulate others to do what they want. Jonah’s death wish may contain some of this element.

Others are tempted to end their lives when they feel they have committed some great sin. A person may be traumatically afraid of being shamed if they are guilty of sexual sin or are exposed after committing a crime. Others may feel they need to be punished or make atonement for their failure. Ironically, people who are spiritually sensitive can especially be vulnerable at this point. We need to be better at embracing and restoring those who have been shamed. As churches and Christians we should always lead with grace.

One major contributing cause of suicide is depression. This is a huge and complex subject, which would require a separate article to do it justice, but a few words are in order. Depression exists on a spectrum ranging from mild to moderate to severe. Depression is a real and serious state, especially in its severe form. It can be provoked by experiential factors such as trauma, severe loss or bereavement, or chemical changes stemming from medical conditions, medications, or sudden hormonal changes. The last category includes postpartum depression which can be genuinely risky for women and should be carefully monitored.

Severe depression robs people of joy, hope, motivation, and pleasure and can lead to overwhelming feelings of guilt, sadness, weariness, and a despair of life that can tempt people to end their lives. Medical intervention may be necessary and should be actively pursued if required. The use of certain modern medications, coupled with counseling and personal support, often leads to substantial recovery. However, there is no magic bullet and relapses can occur.

Ministering to a Suicidal Person

There is no “one size fits all” approach for talking with someone who may be despairing of life. What follows is not a procedure. It is simply of one a number of things to keep in mind, especially if you never had such an encounter. Recognize that in a single conversation you will not be able to touch on all of them, let alone go into depth, and you should not try. You also need not proceed in the order they are discussed below.

Things to Avoid

First, there are some obvious approaches to avoid. Do not ridicule, be skeptical or harsh, or overly preachy. Try not to be uptight or anxious. If you have never encountered this situation before, you may need to put on the best theatrical performance of your life! Be kind, empathetic, and concerned, while at the same time remaining calm. Agree that the situation is serious, but encourage the person that there are many alternatives to ending one’s life. Do not focus on how sinful suicide is unless a person directly asks you if suicide is a sin. Emphasizing the sin of suicide may only add to the pain which you are trying to alleviate. Likewise, never get into a power struggle with them (“I don’t think you have the courage to do it!”). It might push them over the edge.     

Second, when you encounter someone despairing of life do not be quick to provide advice. It is likely you do not really know what is going on in their minds. The most obvious problem may not be the issue that is tempting them to flee this life. The path to despair can be a long and twisty road, and many have traveled it some distance prior to their sharing with you.

Encourage Them to Share

Try to get them to talk, while you listen. Do not pressure them, but encourage them to share the things that are troubling them. Take the time to get a better sense of why they are contemplating ending their life and why they understand it to be a solution to their problems. See if you can discover what they are hoping to accomplish. What they share may sound strange or even humorous. But take it seriously. Gently suggest to them that whatever they hope to accomplish will not be achieved by ending their life. Remember, they are viewing suicide as a solution to some problem. Point out calmly, not harshly or argumentively, that what they hope to achieve will not be realized and that there are much better solutions.

Remember, people tend to be conflicted about suicide. Use that to advantage by encouraging them to talk about their pain and to move them away from the edge. Let their ambivalence rise. Let them know you care about them and want to help them. Those who want to kill themselves need alternative choices. They have been likely stewing in their own gravy for a long time and that has colored their perception of what is happening in their life. Encourage them to look at their situation through your eyes, the eyes of others, and the eyes of God and Scripture.

If you can try to identify specific events or circumstances that have precipitated this crisis and encourage them to share as much as they can. This may help you get to the real engine that is driving them and the real pain with which they are suffering. A concern about damaging the family car may reveal an ongoing struggle in their relationship with their parents. A disappointment about not being asked to the prom may uncover a deep sadness about being alone, or unattractive, or being ostracized from others. Personal despondency may be rooted in serious problems in marriage or family. Despair over whether or not they are really Christians may uncover a sexual or substance addiction or some serious transgression.

As a general rule in counseling I frequently urge those who are struggling with a problem to pursue a less radical, rather than a more radical, solution. For example it is better to get a tutor or seek extra help from a teacher rather than to quit school. It is better to try to change your attitude toward a job situation and make it better than to simply resign and find a new one. It is better to try and sort out the problems in a marriage and seek reconciliation rather than to divorce. Suicide is the most radical solution of all. Press the point that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It is far better to pursue alternatives and there is hope and help available. This may provide some traction for further ministry

Assess the Risk

Try to discover how great the possibility is that they will do themselves harm. Ask them point blank if they are planning to take their own life. If they admit they are tempted, ask them what means they have in mind, if any. Try to discern if they have a specific plan, if the means of taking their life are accessible, and how lethal they are. Try to confiscate pills or remove firearms, car keys, or anything else they might identify as a means.

Find out if they have a medical condition. Ask them if they have been abusing any substances like drugs or alcohol and if they are presently under the influence of any medications. If this is so, it greatly complicates your ministry to them because you are speaking to the abused substance not the person. But encourage them that help with the substance problem is available; and that they are not in any condition to make such a serious decision while they are under its influence.

If you are talking to a person on the phone, try to get them to reveal where they are. If they are reluctant to tell you, try to weave into the conversation comments or questions that might help you figure that out: “Are you with someone?” “If so are you at their house?” This could be vitally important in case they hang up and you need to direct emergency help to them.

Offer Them Biblical Hope

This is vitally important. Point out that others have despaired of life and been tempted to take their life and have been delivered (1 Cor.10:13). Give examples from Scripture or life. Encourage them that you are there to help them handle their present crisis which you believe is serious and painful, but manageable. Remember they are taking a risk in revealing their vulnerability. Be steady. If you are unable to handle the crisis, they may not believe they can trust you.

Remind them that grace is available. Jesus’s experience of enduring temptation makes him a merciful high priest who can sympathize with their struggles and give them the mercy and help that they need (Heb. 4:14–16). The accessibility of grace is especially important if they are despairing of life because they feel they have committed some terrible sin. Pray for them.

Make a Covenant with Them

After you have gained some insight into the situation, ask the individual if they want you to help them. If they are willing, press for a commitment or try to make covenant with the person to promise they will not harm themselves. Explain that you are making a commitment to them and that you want them to make a commitment to you. If they are reluctant, seek a lesser covenant that they will not harm themselves without talking to you first and face-to-face. Make sure that any means of harming themselves are removed or disposed of. If you are talking on the phone, make sure that someone will be with them in person within the hour (you, if no one else). Within 24 hours try to have them counseling with someone.

Avoid getting drawn into an unhelpful covenant. Many persons who share deep private thoughts will want to swear you to secrecy and make you promise you will not share what they have said with anyone. Inform them that you cannot swear to promises that might put them at risk or keep them from getting the help and encouragement they might need. But also make it clear you have no intention to gossip about them or humiliate them or encourage anyone else to do so.

Even if you have made a covenant and the immediate crisis subsides, be alert to any unsual change of mood. If people who have been depressed and despairing suddenly have a new outlook on life, it could be a warning signal that they have made the decision to take their life. Their mood may have shifted because they are relieved of the agony of making the decision and are in the process of carrying out their plan. This needs to be addressed and quickly.

What to Do If You Are Suicidal

Much of what I have said about ministering to others also applies to ourselves if we are despairing of life. First and foremost, talk to somebody. This is non-negotiable. Do not trust your own perceptions of the situation. You have been confined to your own thoughts for too long. You need some objective input outside of yourself. Reach out to someone. It may be a family member, a trusted friend, pastor (or fellow pastor), or counselor.

Have hope. Remember the question of Psalms 42 and 43: “Why are you cast down, O my Soul?” The Psalmist is depressed. He does not even know why. But he speaks to himself to hang on and to hope in God. Why? Because he will again praise him. How we feel at any given moment is not a predictor of how we will feel tomorrow. Remember, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” This testimony is true. Do not forget it. Do not end your life. Ask for help. Reach out to somebody.

If your despair of life flows from feelings of anger or revenge, remember what the Bible teaches about that. We need to deal with our anger, not by killing ourselves or someone else, but by repentance. Grace gives us both the means and the motivation to be reconciled, to offer forgiveness and receive it, and to bring healing to broken relationships. Bitterness only destroys our inner life.

Remember that while suicide might seem to relieve our personal pain, it does not remove it. It only passes that pain on to those who are left behind. If you love your family, why would you want them to suffer as you have suffered?

Make a covenant with someone you trust. If you feel that you might be at risk of harming yourself in the present or in the future, reach out to someone and make a covenant with them that you will never do so without speaking to them. It is not uncommon for ministers to make a covenant with another friend or minister to gain support and have a contact person if they ever find themselves in a situation of temptation or compromise. This is a wonderful instrument of protection and accountability. Extend it to the potential of despair or self-harm. It can even be with the same person.

Minister to your body. Remember that before God addressed Elijah’s despair, he gave him lots of good food and rest. If you are struggling with depression and are tempted to harm yourself, get a general medical checkup to determine whether there might be some underlying hormonal or metabolic condition that might be contributing to it such as thyroid problems, diabetes, or anemia. Bad eating habits, lack of exercise, or insufficient quantity or quality of sleep can also be a significant factor.

Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship leader Paul Little once offered this wonderful practical advice: “Never commit suicide until you have had at least 12 hours of sleep!” Remember these words. They are words to live by! I have often had the opportunity to apply them to myself and to share them with others.

Some Final Comments

Remember not all people who are despairing of life actually want theirs to end. They want hope. Offer it with strength and calmness. They are like sheep without a shepherd. Shepherd them, and seek to point them to the Great Shepherd. As officers in the church of Jesus Christ, we have both the obligation and privilege to minister to troubled people. We do what we can. But we are limited in what we can do. There are many who are conflicted about ending their lives. Unfortunately, there are some who are committed to it. As in all helping professions, it is very possible that someone to whom you are ministering may commit suicide on your watch. It may even be a family member or someone else very close to you.

This is a terrible thing to cope with. However, if it happens, there are several things to remember. First, there is nothing we can do to prevent a person from taking their life if they are intent on doing so. We can try to put obstacles in their way and reach out and offer them hope and alternatives, but we cannot prevent it.

Second, there is nothing you have done or failed to do that is the ultimate cause of someone’s suicide. It is not your fault. It is their choice. Most likely you did what you could. It is not wrong to wish that things had turned out differently, but it is not fruitful to punish yourself with vain regrets or “If only” scenarios. This, of course, is much easier to say than to embrace. If you struggle with a sense of failure, remember there is grace for you as well.

Finally, it is pure hubris to think that we can control someone else’s life. We cannot live other peoples’ lives for them. We are not even able to sustain our own. We must trust God for both ourselves and others.

While we may not have special training, there is still much we can do to promote a ministry of encouragement to those who struggle in our congregations. We have the gospel. We have the Word of God and prayer. We have a testimony. We have love and hope to give. We should share it generously. Be hospitable to those who are lonely or distressed. In this way you can do more than you think in ministering to your congregation in general, and to those who may at times despair of life, in particular.

There is much more that could and should be said. But let me close with this. As officers of the church, we are called to shepherd the flock and minister to those who are troubled by binding up the brokenhearted. This includes those despairing of life. “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18).

Endnotes

[1] This information was taken from an unpublished syllabus from the Larry Crabb’s Institute of Biblical Counseling, 1987. The syllabus does not cite a source.

[2] These numbers are consistent with a variety of sources in print and on the internet. I took these from James T. Clemons, What Does the Bible Say about Suicide? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 1.

[3] For an excellent discussion of ministering to survivors see Gordon H. Cook, Jr., “Suicide: A Complicated Grief,” Ordained Servant 22 (2013): 49–54. While my discussion will overlap his, my focus is on ministering to those who are tempted to end their life.

[4] Karen Mason, Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014), 52–53.

Douglas A. Felch is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and retired as professor of theological studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, April 2020.

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