There are some words that are perhaps viewed as forbidden in the community of faith: abortion, sex, divorce, sexual preference, finances, solicitation and suicide, to name a few.
With Suicide Awareness Month (September) being less than two weeks away, I want to give attention to some thoughts on this very sensitive subject. For the sake of this dialogue, our working definition of suicide is “an act or an instance of taking one's own life voluntarily and intentionally.”
I attended a Suicide Awareness event two weeks ago. I was amazed at what I saw and heard. At the tender age of 19 years old, after a series of events, a teen jumped from California’s Golden Gate Bridge with one goal in mind: death by suicide. Unlike many before and after him, he lived to tell his story.
Fast forward to just a few days ago. I was scrolling Facebook and ran across a post sharing information on the death of a priest who was also a military chaplain. According to the post, this chaplain’s death was ruled as suicide.
Now, let’s rewind a couple of years back. My sister-in-law, who was a woman of strong faith, died as a result of suicidal ideations that she was unable to overcome.
The issue of suicide is “real” and it is prevalent, even in the community of faith.
An authentic Christian life does not exempt a person from experiencing suicidal ideations. One can be set apart for service while at the same time be suffering in silence. People can believe there is a God who came that they might have life and have it more abundantly, yet, still sense they are better off dead. One can be saved and sanctified, holy ghost filled and fire baptized and still have suicidal ideations.
Yet, the community of faith has made it taboo, a forbidden subject, and we fail to give proper time and attention to the issue, and as a result, believers and nonbelievers alike, succumb to the pressure and shame associated with these ideations and they commit this dreadful act.
As I said, my sister-in-law, who was a devout Christian, died as a result of being unable to cope and overcome suicidal ideations. Most recently, my colleague in ministry, a military chaplain, allegedly died as a result of suicide. At an alarming rate, people of faith are taking their own lives.
If you surf the net, you will find that this is true for pastors as well. Pastors who, from the outside looking in, appear to have it all together – happy marriage, strong family bonds, wonderful church life and a bright future – continue to take their own lives. I was disturbed when I read about the death of two 42-year-old pastors from two different states who were serving in fairly progressive churches. Both were married with two small children, yet they succumbed to suicidal ideations, one of them right after preaching the early Sunday morning service.
Pastors serve as the primary mental health counselors for millions of Americans when often they, themselves are in crisis and need to be counseled. Pastors are broken people just as many of you are. According to statistics, 70% of pastors struggle with depression. Those same statistics report that 70% of pastors say they do not have a close friend they can rely upon when they need to talk. Pastors are wounded healers and at times are also suffering saints. They are imperfect people trying to do the work of a perfect God! And, they are not exempt from suicidal ideations.
Although faith is supposed to be a source of strength for believers, studies show that in some instances, religiosity might be linked to feelings of rejection and abandonment, which leads to increases in suicidal behaviors. My friends, faith is a powerful thing, but the Good Book is right, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). And, this work must be done within the community of faith as a whole.
The community of faith must resist the urge to impose its personal theological rhetoric and doctrine upon those who are either battling with suicidal ideations themselves or are closely tied to someone who is. The church must abstain from the urge to cast peoples out and condemn them rather than provide support when people cry out for help.
The community of faith has a responsibility. We are our sisters and our brothers’ keepers. We must stop judging and start loving. We must stop shunning and start talking. We must continue praying but, in addition to intercessory prayer, we must begin participating in people’s lives.
How many people have you been in the presence of this week that you failed to acknowledge with a greeting or a smile? Interaction with you might possibly have saved someone’s life. How many times have you said to someone, “You need to pray. You need to know God for yourself. You need to get yourself together”?
We all know what we NEED to do, but at times, we will just not have the wherewithal to do it. We are living in a multi-layered pandemic right now. We are experiencing civil unrest, an exacerbated health crisis, racial injustice, sexism, political uncertainty, police brutality, all at the same time and all of which could heighten suicidal thoughts, ideations and temptations.
The community of faith cannot afford to respond with blinded eyes or deaf ears, pretending the issues are not there. We must answer and be there for those in need when tragedy strikes, but we also need to be proactive and aware of how the stage is set in the lives of those who profess their faith, yet make the decision to take their lives.
We must be intentional in our communication with others. We must not dismiss their struggles as a lack of faith, but rather, we must encourage them in their faith to seek the help they need. We are all in this together and must therefore never assume that any of us will be immune from the stresses of life.
Let us commit to being prayerfully attentive and wisely engaged with one another from this day forward as we strive to end the silent suffering of our brothers and sisters, eradicate the shame and erase the stigma associated with suicidal ideations. Let us replace isolation with interaction and, perhaps, save a life.
My friends, you are not alone. You are important, you are valued and you are loved. And, your life matters. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, confidential help is available for free. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also reach out to me if you would like via email at email@example.com.
Standing by to assist. Be well and know that your life matters!
Michelle M. Law-Gordon is the pastor of Open Door Baptist Church and a lifelong member of New Ebenezer Baptist Church in Florence. She is a member of the Morning News’ Faith & Values Advisory Board. Contact her and other board members at fvboard@florencenews.