How to Help the Suicidal

Fewer topics provoke more fear and trembling than suicide. Just the word itself fills one with sadness and heartache. Writing on the topic somehow seems even worse. There are difficult questions around every bend and tender feelings at every intersection. In fact, I would venture to say that there is nothing that inhibits lay counseling efforts more than the fear of someone uttering the word “suicide.”

But we cannot let our fear and sadness over a dark and difficult issue keep us from moving toward one another. Therefore, it is with clarity, compassion, and conviction that we must speak to this terrible reality.

How Should We Respond?

How do we respond to someone contemplating suicide? With loving compassion and winsome honesty. When most engage someone considering suicide, they react out of stark terror. Speaking before hearing, they try to shut the other person down or give them a “life is worth living” pep talk. Yet what the person who struggles with suicidal ideation often needs most is a loving ear without incredulous responses or patronizing promises.

Don’t get me wrong, there are actions that need to be engaged in the moment whenever suicide is on the table. But calmly listening, shedding a sympathetic tear, giving a shoulder of comfort; these are the first steps for helping to restore hope to the hopeless.

It may seem out of order to discuss our response to a discussion of suicide before we offer a definition of what suicide is; however, it is important that whenever this topic is brought up that people see in us the peace, grace, mercy, comfort, and assurance that can only come from those who find themselves firmly situated at the foundation of the cross.

What Is Suicide?

Speaking compassionately then, we must also speak honestly. What is suicide? Suicide is the intentional murder of one’s own physical body. That definition is stark, but its two components are equally important.

It is the intentional ending of one’s own life. One may unintentionally kill himself, as is the case with an accidental drug overdose, but suicide — like homicide — denotes intentionality. To this end, suicide was once referred to more commonly as “self-murder.” This term will seem deeply offensive to some. And it should. Intentionally ending the life of an image bearer, from unborn to elderly, whether your own life or someone else’s, is an incredibly grievous act (Exodus 20:13).

It is the physical body that they kill, not the immortal soul. In that moment, existence does not end but it radically changes. Paul tells us that for those who are in Christ, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). This is not of secondary importance but a truth that brought Paul enormous comfort in his ministry (Philippians 1:18–26). Further, Paul was not a Pollyanna idealist, but was intimately acquainted with long-term suffering (2 Corinthians 11:24–28; 12:7–10). The reality of glory did not push Paul to end his life, but invigorated him to give that life away in pursuit of gospel ministry, becoming a picture in himself of Christ.

What Is the Eternal Consequence?

This leads to an incredibly difficult question: if our souls continue on after physical death, what happens to the souls of those who commit this terrible act? The answer is both incredibly convoluted and simple all at once.

The question most people wrestle with here is whether or not suicide is a “cardinal sin,” that is, a sin which is unforgivable. When dealing with an issue of this magnitude our starting place must always be Scripture. According to both Matthew 12:32 and Mark 3:29, there is some act described as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” which is, in fact, unforgivable. This is an incredibly disturbing reality.

There is wide-ranging debate on what exactly this act entails. For my part, I believe it is a life of unrepentant disbelief which shirks the truth of the Father’s love, belittles the Son’s sacrifice, and therefore rejects the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Suicide might actually be the fruit of a life of such disbelief, but it is not necessarily so. More importantly, our assurance and the assurance of our loved ones is not founded upon my sin-influenced actions, but on the actions of my sinless Savior. While all genuine faith has genuine fruit, and the act of suicide is so heinous that it can (and maybe should?) call into question the validity of a Christian’s witness, the simple truth is this: not even suicide can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:38–39).

How Do We Use That Assurance?

If it is true that suicide is not necessarily a one-way ticket to God’s eternal wrath, the question is, what are we to do with this knowledge? There seems to be wisdom in caution. Listen to Luther who says,

I do not share the opinion that self-murderers are certainly lost. Nevertheless, one should not hold up such a pronouncement to the common people, for then Satan is easily given opportunity to cause people to commit suicide.

With knowledge comes responsibility. There are times when the only thing keeping a person from ending his own life is the fear that he will lose his salvation. At such times, it’s important to keep in place whatever impediments are keeping such people from attempting to take their own life.

That said, the only long-lasting cure to such a terrible darkness is the brilliant light of God’s unfailing grace. At some point there needs to be a follow-up conversation where the totality of God’s love is discussed. Where they know, in no uncertain terms, that God’s love includes those whom Satan successfully tempts to end their own earthly life. Otherwise, we do disservice to the peace offered only through the cross of Calvary.

Balance is essential. That’s the answer to how we approach a topic as difficult as suicide. We are compassionate in our response, showing care and concern (Romans 12:15). We are honest in our evaluation, that it is a grievous and terrible sin to take one’s life (Deuteronomy 5:17). We are clear in our hope, that nothing can cause the Good Shepherd to lose a single one of his sheep (John 10:28). We are discerning in our application, that there are times and places for truth to have its effect (Proverbs 26:4–5).

(@RevJASquires) serves as pastor of counseling and congregational care at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife have five children.