It’s National Suicide Prevention Awareness Week. I’ve seen lots of posts on social media drawing attention to suicide prevention and I’m grateful. It is time that we bring suicidality out of the shadows of shame and into the light of hope and healing. Now if we can get the church in all its varied forms to join in this movement to provide safety and welcome to those who struggle with suicidality, I’d be so much more optimistic about shattering the stigma and shame that surrounds suicide. I’d also be much more hopeful about saving lives.
This essay is intended primarily for clergy, but if you are a person of faith, please keep reading. Colleagues in ministry, the time has come for us to do better in suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. I’m going to begin with a rather bold statement that wherever you are on the continuum from very conservative to extremely progressive, when facing the crisis of suicide, your theological convictions are not relevant. When an individual tells you that they are thinking about suicide, your beliefs about whether or not suicide is a sin should not enter into the conversation. When you are preparing and conducting a memorial service for one who has suicided, your convictions about heaven or hell should never be spoken aloud. When you are offering pastoral care to a survivor of suicide loss, your theological understanding of suicide is not relevant. Let me explain why.
In my years as a clinical chaplain at a state psychiatric hospital, the most frequently asked questions were “How does God feel about suicide?” and “Will I really go to hell if I die by suicide?” As you might imagine, the individuals who asked this question were experiencing an acute mental health crisis and were in a great deal of emotional pain. They were often feeling ostracized by their community, unwelcome in church, and disconnected from family and friends. They didn’t have a lot of reasons to live or protective factors. The risk for suicidal behavior and suicide was very high. Each person who asked this question believed that they would go to hell or be cast away from God if they died by suicide.
Let’s think for a moment how responding to this question from a theological perspective could determine whether a person lives or dies. If one leans toward more traditional theology, then one would affirm that hell is, indeed, the consequence of suicide. Someone who is experiencing deep psychological pain is not thinking clearly about the value of their life. If traditional Christian theology is upheld, the person may not engage in suicidal behavior because they do not want to go to hell. This is the desired outcome. On the other hand, the person could also conclude that God already hates them (why else would they be experiencing the horrific pain of mental illness?) so they have nothing to lose if they suicide. This is not what any of us wants to happen.
If one leans more toward progressive theology, one would speak about the amazing love God has for all God’s people and affirm that suicide does not lead to hell. It’s possible that the suicidal individual may hear an affirmation of God’s love for them even in the midst of their pain. However, it is far more likely that the individual will hear tacit permission to die by suicide as you have just removed their last protective factor – the belief that they will go to hell if they suicide. Surely, your intentsion as a clergy person is not to remove protective factors, especially when removing them is likely to lead to death. Do not let your desire to correct what you perceive as bad theology determine what you say here. Your job is, first and foremost, to save a life not to correct theology.
Now let’s imagine that you are having a conversation with a survivor of suicide loss. They tell you that they believe their loved one is in hell, eternally cast away from God’s presence because they died by suicide. If you express your agreement, however sorrowfully, that this is theological correct, you have just increased this person’s risk for suicide. Who wants to think about a loved one alone in hell forever? If this person also dies by suicide, they will be able to be in hell with their loved one and that is better than contemplating their loved one suffering alone for all eternity.
On the other hand, if you say that suicide is not a sin and God forgives the one who dies by suicide, you may provide comfort to the survivor of suicide loss. However, you might just as easily put others at risk. Grief is incredibly painful under the best of circumstances, but suicide creates a complexity of grief, shame, and guilt. Again, if we remove the protective factor that the belief in hell can be, the risk of suicide increases.
If our own personal theology or the theological perspective of our denominations doesn’t have a place in the conversation, then what do we do? How do we answer the question of how God feels about suicide? What words do we use at a memorial service for one who died by suicide? What do we say to survivors of suicide loss? As clergy we have a moral and ethical responsibility to respond in a way that increases hope and saves lives over and above a theological duty to save souls.
My answer to “How does God feel about suicide?” is simple: God is not a fan of suicide. I can say this with absolute certainty. Everything we know about God says that God loves and values the whole of creation and human beings in particular. God does not want anyone to suffer nor does God cause suffering. Based on this way of thinking which is grounded in scripture (“God so loved the world…” John 3:16), it is fair to conclude that God is not pleased with suicide. There are seven suicides in the Bible and not one of them says anything about God’s response. No matter what traditions tell us, we honestly do not know God’s response to one who dies by suicide.
We can, however, affirm God’s love and mercy. We can say that God is present in our deepest pain and in the fullness of joy, and all places in between. God wants only goodness and wholeness for each one of us. God wants us to recognize our status as God’s beloved children and to live into the fullness of the gifts we have been given. While we may, at times, feel distant from God, God is always present with us. We need to affirm the life we have been given.
As clergy, we are obligated to save lives. Ethically, proper theology cannot be more important than the life of the person in front of us. Please think about these things. Please be mindful of what you say to those struggling with suicidality and those living with suicide loss. Our words matter and can quite literally be the difference between life and death for someone. Think about offering hope and possibility rather than definite answers that we truly do not have. All of our theology around suicide is speculation and tradition. The only thing we can safely surmise based on scripture and experience is that God is a loving God who is not a fan of suicide.
In addition to this moral and ethical consideration, be aware that the language around suicide matters. We no longer say that someone “completed suicide” or the death was a “successful suicide.” We say that someone suicided or died by suicide. Similarly, we no longer say that someone “attempted suicide.” The more accurate and safer description is that someone engaged in self-harming or suicidal behavior. No one engages in suicidal behavior for “attention.” Anyone who engages in suicidal behavior is experiencing emotional and/or spiritual pain and needs compassionate care.
Please educate yourself on the signs and symptoms that someone is at an increased risk of suicide. Know the limits of your expertise and what you personally can offer someone struggling with suicidality. Know the resources in your community. If you, yourself, have thoughts of suicide, please reach out for help – call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255, call your local crisis line, talk to a friend, or look here or other resources that might be helpful for you.
We are God’s beloved children. When we come together in love we can save lives. If you would like to read more about my approach to suicide intervention, prevention, and postvention, my next book, The Life-Saving Church, will be published by Chalice Press in 2018. If you would like to be added to the email list that will receive a one-time email notice when the book is released, please email me at Rachael@beachtheology.com with subject line “Let me know.”