Pastoral Issues Surrounding Suicide
By Richard D. Dobbins
According to the Center for Disease Control, 30,622 Americans succeeded in taking their own lives in 2001. That same year, however, more than 120,000 attempted suicide. Among the adult population, most suicide attempts are made by women in their 20s and 30s. Those most likely to succeed, however, are white males in their 40s and 50s. One explanation for this is males use more violent means in their suicide attempts.
Even though suicide rates among teenagers have declined slowly since 1992, suicide is still the third highest cause of death among people 15 to 24 years of age. In 2001, nearly 4,000 young people committed suicide (86 percent were male), and 5,393 Americans older than age 65 took their lives (85 percent were male).1 By multiplying these numbers several times pastors can realize how many families in their churches and communities can be affected by this heartbreaking crisis.
Suicide is not foreign to those who study the Bible. The most famous examples of suicide in Scripture are those of Saul, Samson, and Judas. A careful look at these stories reveals the motivation for suicide to be different in each case.
For Saul, the humiliation of military defeat was too great for him to bear. He chose to fall on his own sword rather than be captured and put to death by his enemies.
For Samson, taking his own life was his way of compensating for compromising himself with Delilah. He considered this a small price to pay for bringing down the temple of Dagon on the Philistines. Remember, Scriptures say he killed more Philistines in his death than he did in his life.
Judas, who betrayed Jesus, is the most famous suicide in the Bible. Suicide was Judas’ way of dealing with the overwhelming guilt he experienced for taking 30 pieces of silver in exchange for betraying his Lord with a kiss. Rather than face his Lord as Peter did following his denial of Christ, Judas hanged himself.
These biblical examples indicate the many different motivations driving people to suicide. Only God knows the weight to give these motivations in the final judgment of the person who committed suicide. A wise pastor will not assume this role.
A pastor is expected to deal with suicide-related issues from two different perspectives. First, there are people threatening to take their lives who need pastoral protection from themselves. Other than “his only begotten son” (John 3:16, KJV), life is the greatest gift God has given.
Second, the families of people who took their own lives need the pastor’s prayers, comfort, and emotional support.
Protecting Suicidal People
Sooner or later, nearly every pastor will be called on to give pastoral care to people in his congregation who have experienced a suicide. Several years ago I was discussing teenage suicide in a seminar when one pastor expressed his need for help in dealing with both of these perspectives. Here are the questions he asked:
- How can a pastor know when a person is going to commit suicide?
- Are there any reliable indicators?
- Is it true people who talk about suicide seldom commit suicide?
- Is the person who threatens suicide simply asking for help?
- What should a pastor say to someone who has lost a family member to suicide?
As one might suspect, a week before this pastor came to the seminar a young person from his congregation had taken her life. He had talked with her, prayed with her, and felt she had experienced real deliverance from her troubling situation. Imagine how shocked he was to learn the day after they had talked she took her life.
There is no way to eliminate the possibility someone might take his life. Well-informed families, however, can limit the possibility by taking timely action. Here are some suggestions I gave this pastor.
Do not believe the myth that people who talk about committing suicide seldom do it. The fact is many people who commit suicide do talk about it.
Most people think suicidal thoughts at some time during their lives, and they may share these thoughts with their families and friends. Healthy people, however, do not entertain these thoughts for long. On the other hand, those who do take their own lives dwell on suicidal thoughts and often share these thoughts with their families and friends. Unfortunately, uninformed people may not take these remarks seriously.
If a person begins talking about not wanting to live anymore, get him to his family doctor or a trained mental health professional who knows how to assess suicidal risk. Even those who are trained to evaluate suicidal patients find these evaluations challenging and difficult. A pastor should not rely on his own judgment.
For example, once a person has made the decision to take his own life, he often appears to be less anxious and depressed. Unfortunately, family members may perceive this apparent improvement in their loved one’s mood means the threat has passed.
The apparent improvement results from no longer being in conflict over the decision; the person has made up his mind. He will commit suicide. He feels he can no longer endure the misery of life. He may not want to die, but he sees death as the only way of relieving the pain of his present misery. Being able to anticipate the end of his misery brings relief.
A competently trained mental health professional is not likely to miss this observation. Among other things, he will want to know:
- How often does the person think about suicide?
- Does the person have a plan for committing suicide?
- What has kept him from committing suicide?
People who have planned how they will commit suicide and do not have a good reason for not committing suicide are most at risk.
If a person’s talk of suicide is simply a cry for help, counseling is recommended. When this is the case, it is important the counselor is a Christian since the underlying issues are often more spiritual than psychological.
However, if a person is considered at risk for suicide, a doctor will want to hospitalize him for his own protection. Pastors need to support this decision. The suicidal person may strongly protest hospitalization, but later will be grateful to God for a family who cared enough to ignore his protest and provide him the protection he needed.
Other Myths About Suicide
1. Suicide runs in families. In certain families there may be a history of suicide. This history may unconsciously suggest suicide is a means of coping with life’s overwhelming moments. Pastors need to assure people that suicide is not genetic in origin.
2. People who talk about suicide never commit suicide. This myth has been debunked. Threats of suicide should never be ignored, even when these threats appear manipulative. Every threat of suicide needs to be given serious consideration. In most instances, this means the threat should be professionally evaluated.
3. Suicide happens without warning. Careful studies of events leading up to a person’s suicide reveal this is seldom, if ever, true. Usually there are several warnings given to those close to the victim. Because these warnings are often disguised, families and friends need to learn to recognize them.
A father took his golf clubs to his son’s home and gave them to him. “Here, Son,” the father said, “you may as well have these. I will not be needing them anymore.” Unfortunately, the son was so excited about getting the golf clubs he did not hear the suicidal warning his father had given in this gesture. Two days later, his father killed himself.
4. People who take their own lives are fully intent on dying. In most cases, nothing could be farther from the truth. Most people who commit suicide do not want to stop living; they only want to alleviate their pain. At that moment the overwhelming pain of living seems intolerable, and they want to escape it.
5. Once a person is suicidal, he will always be suicidal. The chronically suicidal person is rare. This is evidenced by the fact few people who escape a serious suicide attempt ever try to take their lives again.
6. Improvement in a person’s mood after a suicidal crisis means the risk of suicide is over. This is one of the most dangerous myths about suicide because the opposite is true.
The apparent improvement often means the person is no longer carrying on a mental battle over whether or not to commit suicide. He has already chosen a method and set a time.
Making this decision has resolved the person’s ambivalence making him less anxious and depressed. The person appears to have improved. However, what looks like improvement to the uninformed person automatically alerts the mental health professional to a dangerous escalation of suicidal risk.
7. Suicide occurs more frequently among the rich than it does among the poor. The fact is suicide cuts rather equitably across socio-economic boundaries.
8. The most common myth is all suicidal persons are mentally ill. Although suicidal people usually feel hopeless and depressed, most do not suffer from severe mental illness. This explains why it is important to protect at-risk suicidal persons from themselves. Once most people survive a suicide attempt, they never try again. But suppose a person succeeds in taking his life. What can be said to comfort his family?
Christian Views Of Suicide
Institutionally, the church’s theological perspective on suicide can be traced to the 4th century. Until then, Christianity made no formal link between suicide and sin. During this time, however, excessive martyrdom moved St. Augustine to categorically reject suicide. He defined suicide as a crime because it involved killing without any provision for repentance.
St. Thomas Aquinas later identified suicide as a mortal sin because it usurped God’s power over life and death. The 16th Council of Toledo in A.D. 693, decided to excommunicate any person who attempted suicide, but this view was later modified.
For the Christian, the fear of going to hell still remains a strong deterrent against committing suicide. This fear often rules out suicide as an option for desperate Christians, and a wise counselor will not remove it.
What about the eternal state of a person who commits suicide? For a Calvinist, this poses few, if any, problems. However, among Armenians there is great concern over this issue.
Surviving members of a suicide victim’s family may ask their pastor: “Since my loved one took his life, is he in heaven or hell?”
Since the moral circumstances of each victim’s death are unique, the honest answer to that question is, “I do not know.”
An ambiguous answer, however, will not bring much comfort to the victim’s family. When I was pastoring, I responded to this question by saying, “Your loved one is now in the arms of Someone who loves him even more than you do. Why not leave him there? Believe that our loving God will not only deal with your loved one justly, but mercifully.” Such an answer avoids meaningless speculation, reaffirms God’s love for the victim, and respects the sovereignty of God.