The death toll from wildfires on Maui is now the highest in the US in more than a century. Survivors are describing an inferno that blackened the sky and laid waste to entire neighborhoods; some fled into the Pacific and stayed there for hours, dodging burning tree branches and watching their town burn. Now consider this Associated Press headline: “US suicides hit an all-time high last year.” About 49,500 people died by suicide last year in the US, the highest number ever. This comes to 135 per day, even higher than the death toll on Maui so far.
The CDC lists anxiety and depression as significant factors with regard to suicide; teens and their parents are especially at risk. Serious illness such as chronic pain, criminal/legal problems, job/financial problems or loss, impulsive or aggressive tendencies, substance use, current or prior history of adverse childhood experiences, violence victimization and/or perpetration, and a sense of hopelessness are the other factors cited.
The recent apparent death by suicide of a beloved pastor in Texas made the issue more real for me. It caused me to reflect on other pastors I’ve known over the years who died in the same way. And to relive memorial services I have conducted for suicide victims and their families, among the most painful experiences of my life.
These reflections raise a formative question: Does our faith help to prevent suicide? If so, why? If not, why not?
Harvard professor writes on faith and suicide
David H. Rosmarin is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the founder of the Center for Anxiety. His recent article in Psyche, “Why religious belief provides a real buffer against suicide risk,” is worth reading in full. It provides substantive scientific evidence that faith is in fact enormously significant in helping to save lives.
To summarize his research: religious faith helps people counter hopelessness, the best-known predictor of suicide. It also helps create a buffer against impulsivity, another key suicide predictor. And it helps us reframe depression and other problems as being potentially constructive in our lives. He therefore encourages his fellow mental health professionals to “take a page out of religion’s playbook” by seeking to “build up our patients’ resources through the avenues of hope, optimism, and meaning-making.”
While Dr. Rosmarin’s research is very encouraging with regard to the mental health benefits of religious faith, it does not engage an underlying theological issue of enormous importance: the difference between a religion about God and a personal relationship with him.
Religion is our attempt to find God. It rests on legalism—rules and actions we must take in this pursuit—and produces shame and guilt when we inevitably fail. A relationship with God in Christ, by contrast, rests on grace—God’s unmerited love for us demonstrated in his Son’s atoning death for our sins—and produces hope and community.
Distinguishing between the two is vital with regard to suicide, mental health, and human flourishing.
Hope when life feels hopeless
Consider the risk factors listed by the CDC: religion can make each of them worse. When we connect God’s favor with our legalistic performance, we see any problems we experience as proof of our failures. Consequently, issues regarding our mental health, physical well-being, legal or financial challenges, personality shortcomings, substance abuse, childhood trauma, victimization, and hopelessness are all seen as evidence of our inadequacies.
This pattern can be especially acute for religious leaders. We can be afraid to share our struggles with others lest they think poorly of us and our ministry suffer as a result. We tell ourselves that we have to “stay strong” for those we serve and thus live with lies and pain that can consume us.
By contrast, a personal relationship with God built on his grace and love for us can empower us when we face suicide risk factors. We can turn our depression and anxiety over to him, choosing to value ourselves as he values us. We can ask for his help and that of our faith family when we face life’s struggles and the loneliness they can produce.
This emphatically does not mean that those facing suicide risk factors do not also need the help of mental health professionals. They are often a very significant way God helps us find the hope and healing we need when experiencing the disease of depression and other challenges. Nor would I ever suggest that Christians who died by suicide simply needed to have more faith. I cannot begin to understand the pain they were facing or the grief their loved ones feel every day.
My point is simply this: an intimate relationship with our loving Father, as opposed to a legalistic religion about him, is vital for human flourishing.
This is by design. Our Creator made us in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:27) for the express purpose of loving him and each other (Matthew 22:37-39). When life feels hopeless, we can make this declaration: “‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him” (Lamentations 3:24).
How "the greatest spiritual battle begins"
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, I encourage you to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (dial 988) or go to their website: 988lifeline.org. Our website also has practical resources from mental health professionals here and here. And I invite you to watch a video in which I discuss suicide in biblical context.
Let’s close with this reflection from Henri Nouwen. I hope you’ll take his wise words to heart:
“The greatest spiritual battle begins—and never ends—with the reclaiming of our chosenness. Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love.”
Will you reclaim your chosenness today?
NOTE: Should Christians boycott? Is Christian nationalism biblical? Should Christians send their kids to public school? We tackle these questions and seven more in our latest volume of Biblical Insight to Tough Questions. Support the mission of Denison Forum and request our new book today.
Publication date: August 14, 2023
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.
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