A few months ago, a former bandmate committed suicide. I didn’t see it coming. Less than two weeks before, we were discussing Queen Elizabeth’s political theology and wondering if we could jointly write a paper about it. Then, a couple of weeks ago, one of my writers took his own life, and he had just sent me two articles to edit. And now, a few days ago, another friend confessed to being depressed with suicidal thoughts, and we had to take away his guns. All men. All about my age. And all three of them were Christians.
What can you say to someone who is struggling with depression? What can you do for someone thinking of taking his own life?
Once you have believed in Jesus for eternal life, you are secure forever, including if you commit suicide. Warnings that people who commit suicide will go to hell assume works-salvation or Lordship Salvation. Suicide has consequences, but losing eternal life is not one of them. But knowing that bare theological fact is not the same as knowing how to help the person struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. I asked a community of Free Grace people for advice. Here is a sampling of their advice.
Several people confessed to suffering from depression:
“I have suffered with both anxiety and depression most of my life and contemplated suicide in my early twenties. Depression is an ugly beast. My daughter, 24, told me she remembers me just sitting on the couch staring at the wall at times. I don’t even remember anything like this. So, depression literally clouds your mind…” (~C.C.H.).
Talking theology may be of limited value to the depressed or suicidal person, because they probably aren't thinking clearly:
“I have not had suicidal thoughts in many years but constantly deal with depression. In the midst of suicidal thoughts losing rewards would not have changed my mind. The reward is closeness to Christ. I didn’t feel like I deserved that.” (~R.B.)
“Keep in mind, if a person is serious about suicide, they aren't thinking what we would describe as '"rational thought." They may well think they are doing their friends and family a "favor" by getting out of their lives…” (~R.F.).
You can't help your friend all by yourself. Helping them will always require a wider network of support. And even if you can’t help someone directly, you can stand alongside them as you find help together:
“I tell them to keep reaching out... not only to their pastor, but trusted friends and family, but also to their doctor or therapists as there could be an underlying medical issue or chemical imbalance causing the problem...And to never give up, because Christ is always for them, and will never give up on them” (~S.N.).
Several commentators emphasized the importance of simply listening. Indeed, that was the most common suggestion for helping a depressed person. But not all types of listening are created equal:
“I would ‘listen intently’ to them. I would be empathetic and non-judgmental.” (~R.W.).
Ask your friend if he’s talked to anyone about his struggles, and really listen to what he says. You might need to get him started by asking questions:
“If they show symptoms of or reveal that they are depressed, ask if they've talked to anyone. Realize it usually takes a lot of work to get out from under depression. And the person likely cannot do it alone. Probably ask them if they've talked to someone, even if you don't know if they're depressed. Ask follow-up questions depending on their responses. Ask them to promise you that they won't do anything today; that you'll be back tomorrow” (~R.F.).
As he talks, listen to his pains and struggles. Just being there can make a difference:
“Your compassionate, loving, listening presence is needed most of all, not a tactful theological presupposition of how to help. Unless you have listened to their entire story (especially childhood), can one even get a glimpse of what their spiritual needs are? As you suggest, having a one size fits all theological presupposition is not enough.” (~K.K.).
One man shared how his depression was tied to hating himself and how being listened to help to make him feel loved:
“What they don't have usually is an outlet for honest expression of the pain they are living with. Also, they have deep toxic shame. I hated myself. Literally hated every aspect of myself…Sure I knew many scriptures, but I had so much emotional baggage. If I told you some of my pain, you could try and reason with me all you wanted, but I couldn't overcome the vice grip of self-hatred and pain…What happened to heal me? Well, Christ, of course, but in a way I had never been dealt with before—people listened, just listened, and said they loved me just the way I am or was then.” (~M.R.)
But as important as it is to listen if the situation is severe, you may have to do more than listen and take action immediately:
“My first question would be, “Do you have a plan? If they do, I take them immediately to the ER. Theology is out of the question unless it’s helping your neighbor.” (~K.K.).
Society doesn’t do a good job of helping people with depression. Perhaps we never have. The church is no exception:
“And, as a side note, churches need to do a better job of making a safe place for people suffering depression or other mental illnesses.” (~R.F.).
The church is a body of people—a redeemed community. And as a body, we need to do a better job ministering to the depressed and suicidal. And that may be a perfect opportunity to demonstrate why God designed the whole body to do ministry. Loving and listening to the depressed and suicidal is not only a job for the pastor. Not by a longshot. You don’t need a seminary degree or ordination certificate to be present with a suffering person, listening to their stories and showing them love. When one part of the body suffers, it's the concern of every other member.
Send your comments or questions to Shawn.
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