WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Are you having suicidal thoughts and feelings? Perhaps you are convinced that life is not worth living. You feel like your world is collapsing in on you. Your life seems hopeless—like a black hole with all love, hope, and joy sucked out. If you are contemplating suicide, you have already done a lot of thinking about your life.
But have you thought about how God views your life?
Right now you are living in a world of despair. You can't see any solution to your problems. You're not looking forward to anything. The future seems empty.
God's perspective on your life is very different. Your life is precious to Him. He knows everything about you—even how many hairs are on your head (Matthew 10:30). Your life is so significant to Him that He forbids you to take it. God says that all murder is wrong, and that includes the self-murder of suicide (Exodus 20:13).
Bring your hopelessness to God
God is not surprised or put off by your hopeless feelings. He wants you to bring your despair to Him, and cry for help right now, in the middle of your darkness and pain. Throughout history God's children have cried to him and He has helped them. Listen to the voice of David who cried out his despair to God thousands of years ago, "In the day of my trouble I call upon you, for you answer me" (Psalm 86:7).
Today is your day of trouble. Tell God all your sorrows, all your troubles, and all the reasons suicide is on your mind. Do you feel, like David, that you are in the "depths of the grave"? Ask God to hear your prayer and listen to your cry for grace (Psalm 86:6). On this day the living God promises to listen to you and help you.
Your reasons for despair; God's voice of hope
Why are you feeling hopeless? Are you struggling with physical suffering? A broken relationship? Shame and guilt from mistakes and failures? An unrealized dream? What problem do you believe suicide will solve?
Your suicidal feelings and actions don't come out of the blue. They have reasons you can discover and understand. Your particular reasons will show you how you're experiencing, interpreting, and reacting to your world. When you discover your reasons, you will also be describing what is most important to you. The loss or pain that makes you feel like your life is not worth living points to the thing that you believe would make your life worth living.
We will look at four kinds of reasons for hopelessness. As you read, look for the specific reasons you are feeling hopeless. And then listen to what God says to you about your particular troubles that brings hope.
Unrelenting suffering. Your hopelessness might stem from overwhelming suffering. The death of someone close to you, your own chronic pain and illness, postpartum depression, a broken relationship, poverty, racial prejudice, etc., are all situations that can fill you with despair.
If this is why you feel hopeless, read through Psalm 31. Written by David, these words vividly capture the feeling of wasting away with grief.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress;
my eye is wasted from grief;
my soul and my body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing; (v. 9-10)
Is this what your life is like?
But this psalm is also filled with hope. David remembers that God sees him in his affliction and knows all about his troubles. He remembers that in God's presence he is safe:
Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of the children of mankind! In the cover of your presence you hide them from the plots of men; you store them in your shelter from the strife of tongues." (v. 19-20)
David's life, like yours, was full of troubles and discouragement, yet because God was with him, he has hope. He says, "But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy when I cried to you for help" (v. 22). And he ends with this call: "Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord" (v. 24). David is able to endure with courage because God is with him.
God is calling you to persevere in your suffering, but not by simply gritting your teeth. Persevering through suffering is only possible when you put your hope in the living God. He promises to come near to you, to be present with you, and to let you experience His goodness right in the middle of your pain and difficulty.
Personal failure. Your suicidal thoughts and feelings might be related to mistakes and failures. Is your hopelessness an attempt to atone for your sins, to punish yourself, to avoid feelings of shame? Perhaps you are so full of guilt and shame that you don't want to be around people or even continue to live. Can you find hope when you've blown it so badly that you think you will never be able to hold your head up again?
The amazing thing about the Bible is that it is full of real people who made serious missteps—just like you. David wrote Psalm 32 after he committed adultery, got a woman pregnant, and then tried to cover things up by arranging to have the woman's husband killed. You can read the whole story in 2 Samuel 11-12.
In Psalm 32:3-4 he vividly describes his experience of despair. Perhaps you are also feeling like this:
… my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
David's experience of guilt and failure comes partly from God and partly from his own conscience. But why is this psalm full of joy instead of shame? Because of what God has done for him in the middle of his nightmare of guilt. His joy comes from God's forgiveness of him and from God's promise to guide him (Psalm 31:1-2, 8).
Here's someone, like you, who is living with terrible personal failure. But instead of meditating on his failures and turning his sins and mistakes over and over in his mind, he chooses to remember who God is. He knows the God who forgives. He trusts the God who promises to keep his eyes on him, who will personally instruct, lead, and counsel. So he ends like this, "steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord," and adds a call to joy, "Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!" (Psalm 32:10-11).
What an amazing turnaround—someone who knows his sinfulness, but also knows God's mercy, can be called righteous by the grace and mercy of God. You, too, can experience what David experienced. But to do so, you must seek this Lord. David described how he felt after his sin was exposed, but he hadn't confessed his sins to God. His vitality drained away, he felt hopeless and lifeless. If that is how you feel, then do what David did—go to God with your sins and failures.
Here is a wonderful description of seeking God in the middle of your failure and guilt, David says, "I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,' and you forgave the iniquity of my sin" (Psalm 32:5). Notice that David is turning to God with his failures—not to those around him. He doesn't live in shame anymore because he is forgiven. He can hold up his head, even though everyone knows about his failures, because God is with him.
And then David gives the key to having God with him, "Therefore, let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you." He knows that prayer brings him into God's presence where he is safe from trouble, even the trouble he brought upon himself.
Failed dreams. You can also struggle with hopelessness when the thing that has given your life meaning is taken from you. Perhaps it's a job you didn't get, an unrealized life goal, or your children turning out a certain way. Whatever you have organized your life around, its absence can leave you feeling empty and despairing.
Perhaps you didn't know how important your dream was to you until it didn't happen. Now you are experiencing the hopelessness of a failed dream. But what does your failed dream reveal about where you find meaning? When what you have lived for is taken from you, it can feel like you are dying. You are in so much pain that suicide seems like your only alternative. But God has a better way. He will give you true, lasting hope that can never be taken away from you.
God says, in Psalm 33, that it is He who "frustrates the plans of the peoples" (Psalm 33:10). Later in the psalm he says why—because all those hopes are futile. "The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue" (Psalm 33:16, 17).
These are things that people trusted in thousands of years ago. What you trust in—those things on which you built your life, your identity, your success—are different, but the result is the same. Anything you trust in besides God's steadfast love for you is futile. When you put your hope in God's love, He will deliver your soul from death (Psalm 33:18, 19).
Let the death of your dreams be the door into putting your trust in God's love for you. He will be your help and shield. As you "trust in His holy name," He will deliver your soul from death, from thoughts of death, and from trying to take your own life.
False hopes. Perhaps your suicidal thinking is not from hopelessness, but from false hopes. Dreaming about and planning your suicide is what brings you hope. You believe that killing yourself will bring about some wonderful answer or solution to your problems. If you have been deeply hurt by someone, you might see suicide as a way to make others suffer. You might hope that suicide will bring an end to your suffering and those you love will be better off without you. Or you might hope that your suicidal gesture will get you what you want—attention, love, or even a break from the pressures of life. But whatever your hopes are—"I'll be in a place of peace," or "Then everyone will know how much they made me suffer"—if they include suicide as a solution they are a false hope.
Suicide is never an answer. Two wrongs never make a right—don't forget that suicide is a great wrong. If you have been wronged, please don't think that suicide is the way to make that wrong better. God offers you true, living hope—not a false hope based on your death. Hope from God comes in the midst of evil and trouble and it is a hope that will never end.
Paul talks about true and living hope in the second half of Romans 8. True hope comes from knowing God as your Father and receiving His Spirit as a gift. Living as a child of God means that instead of responding to trouble by hurting yourself, you go to your heavenly Father for help. He gives you his Spirit to help you in your weakness and even teach you how and what to ask for (Romans 8:15, 16). It's the Spirit of God that will teach you that your present sufferings "are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed" in you (Romans 8:18).
We live in a world where bad things happen. But you have received the best gift of all: the Spirit of life, the Holy Spirit of Jesus. You have been given the gift of a relationship with God now that will lead to an indestructible life forever. There is nothing in this world that can separate you from God's love—not trouble, distress, hardship, or anything in all creation (Romans 8:35). God's love will keep you safe, and it's yours for the asking.
The resurrection—your reason for hope
How do you know that the promises God makes to you are true? How do you know that the living God gives true, substantial hope? Because Jesus defeated death when He died on the cross and rose again. Peter explains it this way, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, " (1 Peter 1:3-4).
Jesus is alive. His resurrection is your guarantee that real hope can be yours. Your hope is not based on a vague belief that changed circumstances, time passing, or a new set of friends will cure how horrible you feel. It's a living hope based on the physical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because the resurrection really happened, your story will end in life.
The passage goes on to say, "to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading." When you have this living hope, then what you get out of life (your "inheritance") won't be destroyed or ruined by your troubles.
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO
It's easy to see the risk factors for suicide—depression, suffering, disillusioning experiences, failure—but there are also ways to get your life back on track by building protective factors into your life.
Ask for help. How do you get the living hope that God offers you in Jesus? By asking. Jesus said, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matthew 7:7-8).
Suicide operates in a world of death, despair, and aloneness. Jesus Christ creates a world of life, hope, and community. Ask God for help, and keep on asking. Don't stop asking. You need Him to fill you every day with the hope of the resurrection.
At the same time you are asking God for help, tell other people about your struggle with hopelessness. God uses His people to bring life, light, and hope. Suicide, by definition, happens when someone is all alone. Getting in relationship with wise, caring people will protect you from despair and acting out of despair.
But what if you are bereaved and alone? If you know Jesus, you still have a family—His family is your family. Become part of a community of other Christians. Look for a church where Jesus is at the center of teaching and worship. Get in relationship with people who can help you, but don't stop with getting help. Find people to love, serve, and give to. Even if your life has been stripped barren by lost relationships, God can and will fill your life with helpful and healing relationships.
Grow in godly life skills. Another protective factor is to grow in godly living. Many of the reasons for despair come from not living a godly, fruitful life. You need to learn the skills that make godly living possible. What are some of those skills?
- Conflict resolution. Learn to problem-solve by entering into human difficulties and growing through them. (See Ask the Christian Counselor article, "Fighting the Right Way.")
- Seek and grant forgiveness. Hopeless thinking is often the result of guilt and bitterness.
- Learn to give to others. Suicide is a selfish act. It's a lie that others will be better off without you. Work to replace your faulty thinking with reaching out to others who are also struggling. Take what you have learned in this article and pass it on to at least one other person. Whatever hope God gives you, give to someone who is struggling with despair.
Live for God. When you live for God, you have genuine meaning in your life. This purpose is far bigger than your suffering, your failures, the death of your dreams, and the disillusionment of your hopes. Living by faith in God for His purposes will protect you from suicidal and despairing thoughts. God wants to use your personality, your skills, your life situation, and even your struggle with despair to bring hope to others.
He has already prepared good works for you to do. Paul says, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). As you step into the good works God has prepared for you—you will find that meaning, purpose, and joy.
I have been depressed and sad for so long, I feel like I am a burden to my husband, my children, and my friends. Even though they don't say it, don't you think it might be true that everyone would be better off without me?
The way you are thinking is tragically wrong. It's a lie that your parents, children, spouse, friends, co-workers, or even mere acquaintances would ever be helped by your suicide. Someone else's suicide is very shocking, disturbing, and unsettling. Those you leave behind will NOT be relieved. Instead they will be left with terrible burdens.
What are those burdens? First, those who know you and care about you will never understand why. They will ask the same questions over and over again: Why did you to do this? Why did you leave them? Why didn't you ask for help? Why weren't they able to help you? The "why" questions will haunt those you leave behind.
Second, they will feel guilt. Added to the heartache of losing you will be the heartache of feeling responsible. They will wonder if your suicide was a response to something that they did or didn't do. They will be left with a feeling of overwhelming, personal failure.
Third, those you leave behind won't think you did them a favor with your suicide, instead they will feel as if you didn't love them. How could you have loved them and hurt them so badly? Suicide is a selfish act. It cuts off a relationship, and leaves no hope for reconciliation. Those you leave behind will feel a very deep emptiness.
Fourth, it models running away and killing yourself as the way to solve life's problems. Suicide says that the way to deal with guilt, failure, disappointment, and hardship is to take your own life. That model has a powerful negative influence. So rather than leaving those around you better off, you are actually leaving them a role model that could negatively impact how they handle their own struggles.
Suicidal thinking is full of lies. It can be hard for you, as you are struggling, to recognize those falsehoods. So stick to a few simple truths about God and you. Remind yourself of them every time you start thinking that suicide is a good solution to your problems.
- God loves you and has given you a Savior to save you from death (Isaiah 43:1; John 3:16; Romans 5:8).
- God says that suicide is wrong because you are taking a life (Exodus 20:13).
- Pour out your heart to God. He will hear you (Psalm 31:22; 55:17).
Share your struggles with those who love you and ask them to pray for you. God will answer your cries and theirs.
I have a close friend who is talking about suicide. How can I help him?
You may feel like you can't relate to your friend's struggle, but even if you've never had suicidal thoughts and feelings, you have probably had times of suffering, discouragement, and despair. So you can empathize at some level with what your friend is going through.
Listen closely to what your friend is saying. Enter into a dialogue with him and find out why he is hopeless. What has happened to destroy his hope? Listen hard and well and love him in the midst of his guilt, dismay, heartache, and despair. Just being with him by listening and putting your arm around him can really make a difference.
Speak openly about his suicidal thoughts. Don't think that by talking about it you are putting the thought in his mind. It will probably be a great relief to your friend to talk openly about his suicidal thoughts and feelings. Here are some questions you should ask:
- Are you thinking about suicide?
- Do you have a plan? Are you thinking about a specific method or way of committing suicide?
- Do you have the means to act out your plan? Have you acquired a gun, pills, razor blades, or found a bridge?
- Have you planned a time?
As you ask your friend these questions, you will be able to get a good sense of how serious his struggle with despair is. The more "yes" answers your friend gives you, the more cause you have for concern.
God uses people as His touch, to express his kindness and comfort. So freely express care and concern. Take your friend or loved one's despair seriously, and let him know that you love him. Suicide is a world of despair, death, darkness, and aloneness. Your caring is bringing light into a very dark place.
Don't leave your friend alone, especially if he has made specific plans for suicide. And get help from others who are wise and skilled in helping people. You might not think you have the expertise to help your friend, but you have a relationship with your friend that others don't have. So you can be a bridge to another person—a pastor, a wise Christian counselor, a mental health professional, a mental hospital, or the police.
Don't promise him that you will keep his struggle a secret. You don't keep secrets about anything that could cause someone's death. When you share your friend's struggles with an appropriate person, you're not violating privileged information. You are trying to help someone who's in dire need. So don't keep it secret, get help, and then follow up with the person.
Finally, you are not responsible for what your friend does. If your friend is determined to kill himself, it's possible that he will find a way. But often the intervention of a friend is what God uses to help someone find genuine hope. Your caring, listening, questioning, and bringing your friend to the right people can be the beginning of rebuilding your friend's life.
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© Copyright 2010 by the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For more help on this topic, read David Powlison's minibook, I Just Want to Die: Replacing Suicidal Thoughts with Hope, from New Growth Press.
More information about the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation is available at its website. To look at all available CCEF resources, visit New Growth Press.
David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D., is a faculty member and counselor at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF) with over thirty years of experience. He has written several books, including The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context; Seeing with New Eyes; and Speaking Truth in Love; and numerous minibooks, including Breaking the Addictive Cycle; Facing Death with Hope; Grieving a Suicide; Healing after Abortion; I’m Exhausted: What to Do When You’re Always Tired; I Just Want to Die: Replacing Suicidal Thoughts with Hope; Life Beyond Your Parents’ Mistakes; Recovering from Child Abuse; Renewing Marital Intimacy; Sexual Addiction: Freedom from Compulsive Behavior; and Sexual Assault: Healing Steps for Victims.