February 12, 2023
Last fall I went to the New Room Conference for church leaders in Nashville. On the second day, they had “breakout sessions,” where you could choose a speaker and a topic you were interested in. I went to one on suicide. Partly, because I know that it’s a terrible problem right now. And partly because I really like the speaker who was presenting it, Dr. Matthew Sleeth.
I was aware of the problem but not the scope of it. We are living in the midst of an epidemic of suicide. It is the leading cause of death among teenagers. The suicide rate in the US right now is the highest in our history, tied with what it was at the height of the Great Depression. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. At the time of the Great Depression, all drug overdoses were counted as suicides. Today most of them are not. Most are considered accidents now. So already, we’re at the highest suicide rate in our history. But the other thing is that medical technology, 90 years more advanced than during the Great Depression, is shielding us from the full effects of the epidemic. Today, most drug overdose suicides are reversed. And many who attempt suicide in other ways are also saved. Without these advances in medicine, it is estimated that the suicide rate today would be about 20 times higher than it was in the Great Depression. To put in other terms, 1.5 million Americans attempt suicide every year. And the number is increasing by 2% every year. And there are similar situations in many places around the world. There are efforts to reduce the number of suicides, but not many answers.
What is suicide? It is a sickness of the soul. We know that because animals do not commit suicide. Not even lemmings. That’s a myth. Animals don’t have souls. Maybe that offends some people, but it’s true. Because only human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and so only human beings have souls. The soul is what allows us to have self-awareness and self-reflection. We ponder questions like the meaning of life because we have a soul. And if we come to the conclusion that life has no meaning, well, then suicide becomes a more attractive option.
What does the Bible say about suicide? There are stories of suicide in the Bible. Several Old Testament figures, such as King Saul, the royal advisor Ahithophel, and King Zimri, commit suicide after suffering defeat in some way. There are no positive stories of suicide. The one possible exception to that is the story of Samson who brings the temple of Dagon crashing down on himself and the Philistines after he is captured and blinded. But, I think we could say that story is more a story of self-sacrifice. And self-sacrifice is not suicide. Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than he who lays down his life for others.”
What is the spiritual significance of suicide? It is an act of rebellion against God, who is the giver of life, the God who says, “I have placed before you life and death. Oh, that you would choose life.”
Dr. Sleeth argues that the first mention of suicide in the Bible is in Genesis. God creates Adam and Eve, puts them in the Garden, and says, “Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for if you do, you will die.” Satan encourages Adam and Eve to eat, encourages them to choose death. They eat and experience “spiritual death,” a broken relationship with God, which leads to physical death. Genesis 3 is not just a story of rebellion. It’s also a story of suicide, choosing death over life.
Jesus says of Satan, “The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but I have come that you might have life in abundance.” Satan continues in this pattern of encouraging death. He encourages Jesus to leap from the top of the Temple. He takes possession of Judas. Judas betrays Jesus and then hangs himself. When Jesus casts the demon Legion out of a man and into a herd of pigs, what do they do? They rush down the hill and plunge to their deaths. And remember, animals don’t commit suicide. God wants us to have life. Satan wants us to die.
The point of all this is to say that suicide is morally wrong. The world won’t say that, or at least most people in the world won’t say that. But the Church should say it. Life is a gift from God. It is wrong to destroy God’s gifts. The New Testament calls our bodies the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and 1 Corinthians warns against “destroying God’s Temple.” Is suicide an unforgivable sin? Some in the Church have said so down through the centuries. I am not in a position to answer that question. That’s in God’s hands. But it is wrong.
And now suicide is being “normalized” many places in our world. Many nations now allow “assisted suicide.” Obviously, it’s a fact of life that sometimes people face terminal illness, and there’s nothing easy about it. But suicide, even in those cases, denies the possibility of good happening after such a diagnosis. And now some places allow “assisted suicide” even for those who don’t have a terminal diagnosis. It’s becoming just an option. Not happy with life? We’ll help you end it.
What can we do? What can the Church do about this epidemic?
Some things are beyond our control. The general state of the world is beyond our control. It is an absolute mess, in case you haven’t noticed. And there is a widespread degradation of truth in our world. And there is a general devaluing of human life. It is interesting to note that suicide and murder trend together. When the number of suicides go up, so do the number of murders, and vice versa. Devaluing human life is at the root of both.
There are things we can’t control. But there are also things that we can control.
One thing that we can control is our “diet,” what we are consuming. Jesus said the eye is the window to the soul. I’m sure there are other ways to understand that, but I think what Jesus means is that what we put in front of our eyes affects our souls. We can’t fix our eyes on death and then hope to experience life. I’ll give you an example: Horror movies. I don’t think Christians should watch horror movies. There’s a constant trend to push the envelope there, to make something that is more violent, more gruesome, more brutal than what has already been made. And I don’t think that as people called to life, love, and goodness we should be fixing our eyes on murder, brutality, and ugliness. And just in general, we need to watch our consumption of media. What we are watching affects our souls.
Second, we need to take care of ourselves. Self-care is necessary. Think about the story of the prophet Elijah. He ends up tired, hungry, and lonely. What does God do? God tells him to eat some food and take a nap. Then God sends him on a 40 day long “personal renewal retreat.” And then God sends him Elisha to be his helper. At the start of Elijah’s ministry, we see him all alone. It’s just him against 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah. But by the end, not only does he have Elisha, he also has a “school of prophets.” Part of self-care is good relationships.
We need to take care of ourselves, and we need to take care of each other. In book of Acts, God breaks open the cells of the Philippian jail. The jailer, thinking he is done for, pulls out his sword to fall on it. And Paul shouts out, “Don’t kill yourself. We are here.” Are we here for people going through difficult times? One of the two most frequently cited reasons why people who consider suicide and decide not to go through with it is concern for what it would to other people.
I’m convinced the suicide epidemic in our world is related to another epidemic: The loneliness epidemic. So many in our world are disconnected from others. And that is not God’s design for human beings. We were made for relationships. The pandemic certainly didn’t help matters out. But there are other problems. The prevalence of social media is one of them. It offers the promise of meaningful connection, but it really doesn’t deliver. The Church must be a place of meaningful connections. If we are not offering love and relationship, we are not offering the gospel. And we need to have a special concern here for young people because they are the ones most prone to suicide. I did a series of sermons a year and a half ago about how the Church can be more effective in reaching young people, and one of the keys is to be involved in their lives. How many young people, aside from family, can you say that you have a significant relationship with? If the answer is zero, then you can’t expect to see young people in your church.
Here’s the bottom line: God wants you to choose life. And I will add to that, God also wants you to be part of other people choosing life.