Preaching that Addresses Suicide from the Pulpit
Preaching that Addresses Suicide from the Pulpit
“In time, even hope demolished can become hope rebuilt, if it is realistic and rooted, not just in the cross and the empty tomb but also in the garden and the sweat-like blood.”
Zack Eswine - Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Suffer from Depression
Pastor John was confronted by the death of Megan, a sixteen-year-old who died by suicide in her home. It was his first funeral.
Sam died in a suspicious car accident—later ruled by the coroner as a suicide. Pastor Carter was at a loss as to what to do or say.
Suicides have a way of shaking preachers and people to the core. How are we to approach preaching in the wake of suicide? Is there anything we could have done to prevent it?
For many pastors, we are not sure where preaching and suicide prevention ends and where it begins. We are filled with questions when we face the heartbreak of suicide: How can a pastor adequately prepare the congregation for a tragedy like suicide? What can pastors do to engender the hope of the gospel in the regular rhythms of congregational life? What does a pastor need to know as he or she prepares to preach to the bereaved?
There are four considerations preachers will want to keep in mind as they deal with the specter of suicide in their congregation and as reflected in our wider culture.
Know the Facts and Features of Suicide Prevention
Coming to terms with the facts and features of suicide prevention will help a congregation prepare for a tragedy like suicide. Here are a few facts and features that will assist you as a preacher to engage with suicide prevention from the pulpit:
Fact #1: Suicide is a top killer.
As of 2018, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. In 2018, 48,344 Americans died by suicide—many more than the 18,830 Americans who died by homicide, the sixteenth leading cause of death.
Fact #2: Suicide should be viewed in the context of mental health.
Suicide often happens in the context of mental health conditions—depression, anxiety, PTSD, or impulse-control disorders like substance abuse.
Fact #3: Suicide is an attempt to escape from pain.
When some older adults were asked why they attempted suicide, the reason given most often was a desire to escape from pain. Suicide is less about attention seeking, selfishness, vengeance, or anger, and more about escaping from pain.
Fact #4: Some suicides are preventable.
Not every suicidal person reaches out for help. Not all people who are suicidal go on to attempt or die by suicide. Many are dissuaded from suicide because of faith, of ultimate meaning. One’s faith can also protect against suicide.
Fact #5: Suicide attempts are serious.
One of the most important facts about suicide is that practice makes perfect. With each attempt a person develops greater ability to harm oneself more seriously, using more deadly methods.
These are only a few of the facts for suicide prevention. So, what is the preacher to do considering these facts?
How These Facts and Features of Suicide Prevention Shape a Vision for Preaching
In light of these facts, we want to have a biblical approach to addressing the facts noted above and shape our preaching toward addressing them.
For the Christian, suicide is never justified when life is painful. The Bible is full of people in pain who don’t kill themselves. Although there are instances of people in Scripture who did choose suicide, the Bible never recommends suicide, not even in the midst of suffering.
Fear God and keep his commandments is the advice from the writer of Ecclesiastes, even though he recognizes that “everything is meaningless” (Ecc. 1:2), he does not recommend suicide.
The Bible lays out moral objections to suicide. For example, God commands his people, “do not murder” (Ex. 20:23; Deut. 5:17). Life is a gift from God, and the natural courses of life should be preserved (Deut. 32:39; Job 1:21; 1 Cor. 6:19-20; Eph. 5:29; Phil. 1:20-26).
Determine how to shape your preaching by considering a few of the following “fences,” preventions:
Fence #1: Preach and teach on connection to others.
One of the most hopeless situations for suicidal Christians is that they have lost a sense of having strong bonds with others.
Fence #2: Preach and teach on the worth of every person.
Another seemingly hopeless situation for suicidal Christians is their enduring self-hatred, sense of being a burden, or sense that their significant others would be better off without them.
Fence #3: Preach and teach on hope.
Preachers cannot help but soak their congregants in hope because the Bible is full of narratives of hope.
Fence #4: Preach and teach on moral objections to suicide and reasons to live.
Most pastors believe that suicide is morally wrong. Suicidal people need their own moral objections to suicide. A moral objection to suicide is a conviction that suicide is forbidden by God.
Although these are only a few of the fences for preachers to help prevent suicide in their congregation, these will help you to consider ways to cultivate suicide prevention in your church and ministry.
The Hope of the Gospel Is the Foundation of Your Preaching and Pastoral Ministry
Pastoral care in the preparation for a funeral for the suicide bereaved is crucial—but this is only one aspect of cultivating hope in listeners. Hope is engendered with awareness, presence, and pastoral follow-up. Speaking about Christian hope at the funeral service is one thing, but demonstrating it in other aspects of pastoral ministry is another. Both are needed for strengthening the faith and life of a congregation.
For pastorally sensitive preaching, one will be helped by offering hope in our preaching:
Preach the gospel.
The gospel’s good news is deepened when we offer hope, remembering that always we preach the good news of the gospel for non-believers and believers, including ourselves.
Emphasize the hope of the gospel
We preachers are experts at pointing out the sins of others. But we don’t want to forget that the gospel brings incredible hope to those who are struggling with sin, doubts, fears, or despair.
Help believers to remember.
We can remind our listeners who they are in Christ. Help them to remember in the sermon who God has called them to be—those who have been given his grace (2 Thess. 2:16), transformed into his likeness (2 Cor. 3:18), made children of God (1 John 3:1), sanctified (Rom. 15:16), loved (John 3:16), given the fruit of the Spirit (Rom. 8:23; Gal. 5:22), the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12), and the Spirit himself (Luke 11:13), and so much more! These are powerful, hopeful reminders of what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in their lives.
Cultivate the power of worship.
The gathering of believers in Jesus Christ is a compelling reason for hope and encouragement for those who may be struggling.
Ask questions of your listeners.
Asking questions in a sermon can move listeners to a new place of growth or reveal those who contemplate suicide.
A pastor simply must understand the gravity of the situation and be at least somewhat familiar with the dynamics of suicide. Preparedness for preaching a suicide funeral sermon is a time-consuming endeavor, but it is incredibly important. A pastor must tenderly, solemnly, and yet with hope, guide listeners through the denial, anger, numbness, grief, and a rush of other powerful emotions of those present. They are gathered to grieve—all the listeners need to hear a clear word from God.
Care for Yourself by Reminding Yourself About the Hope of the Gospel
Pastors themselves need care in seasons rocked by suicide. The pastor is challenged emotionally, physically, and spiritually, especially since he or she is caring for the burdens of so many. Cared-for pastors are better equipped to preach and persuade people with hope if they are confident in the hope of the gospel themselves. Pastoral care for the pastor is crucial.
We have an immensely holy task in front of us as we bring God’s Word to God’s people, and to those who do not yet know him. Suicide has taken a prominent place within our culture. For many of us, a suicide death has already punctured the ministry God has given us. For others, you shudder to think that sometime in the days ahead you will be called upon to preach to a grieving group of the suicide bereaved.
When confronted by a death by suicide, we want to be more informed than Pastor John or Pastor Carter. We want to keep in mind the suggestions listed above which will help preachers begin to shape a well-informed preaching that can be life-giving and hope-producing even in the midst of grief.
Editor's Note: For more on the topic of addressing suicide from the pulpit, please see Scott M. Gibson and Karen Mason, Preaching Hope in Darkness: Help for Pastors in Addressing Suicide from the Pulpit (Bellingham: Lexham, 2020).
Scott M. Gibson is the Professor of Preaching and holder of the David E. Garland Chair of Preaching at Baylor University/Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas.
Karen Mason is a professor of counseling and psychology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA).