The call came late one evening. The ringing phone jolted me out of a dead sleep as the voice on the other end said, "Patty tried to commit suicide. She's been admitted to the psychiatric unit over at the hospital." I hurried over to the hospital with a hundred questions--none of which I could answer--swirling in my mind. Why would a Christian try to commit suicide? What happened in Patty's life that she lost sight of God's goodness and sufficiency? What could I have done to prevent this?
I visited Patty in the hospital as she recovered and wondered why no one else from church stopped by. I later learned that many felt uncomfortable with the topic of suicide and preferred to remain silent rather than discuss those things in Patty's life that led her to this point.
I experienced something similar many years later when Jeanne, an online friend and fellow writer, wrote, telling me her concerns about her son--a Christian--who seemed to grow more despondent each day, spending hours alone in his room. She wrote, "I should probably take him to a Christian counselor, but I'm afraid of what others at my church will think. He's getting worse, and I'm concerned."
"Please make an appointment today with a Christian counselor," I wrote back. "It's okay if the church doesn't understand. God understands."
She assured me she would and promised to write later that afternoon.
The next day I received an email from a mutual friend, saying, "Jeanne's son killed himself yesterday afternoon. He left a stack of letters and journals with a letter to his Mom, a published writer, on top. It said, "Mom, please write about the dangers of depression. Tell the church, ‘Even Christians can get depressed.'"
Incidents like these occur in churches across America and around the world. What can we do and say to help those struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts? What role and responsibility do we have in the life of someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts?
God's Word makes it clear.
The Call to Comfort
"‘Comfort, O comfort My people,' says your God. ‘Speak kindly to Jerusalem'" (Isaiah 40:1-2, NASB).
We live in a broken, hurting world filled with wounded, damaged people, many of whom have committed their lives to Christ and serve Him as part of a local body of believers. Some, through sinful choices, bring pain upon themselves. For example, a woman walking in immoral behavior experiences an illegitimate pregnancy, or a gambler suffers financial and personal ruin, losing his home, family, and job because of his uncontrolled behavior. Others find themselves victims of another's sin--an abused wife succumbs to depression, a woman suffers because of her husband's repeated infidelities, or a child lives with a birth defect because his mother drank during her pregnancy. Incidents like these contribute to depression.
Often, the wounded individual reaches out to the church for help during a crisis, but instead of comfort, receives condemnation. We, as the church, are accountable to God to bear one another's burdens. God calls us to a ministry of comfort, regardless of what caused the pain and suffering.
The Call to Compassion
"‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice, for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners'" (Matthew 9:13, NASB).
As we study Jesus throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus, moved with compassion, ministering to the hurting. Effective ministry always originates from a heart of love and compassion, a heart like His. We love others not because they are lovable, but because Christ commands it. Compassion means demonstrating the love of God in practical ways; it means recognizing an individual's suffering and working to ease the pain in spiritual and practical ways.
The Call to Counsel
"‘But when I look, there is no one, and there is no counselor among them who, if I ask, can give an answer'" (Isaiah 41:28, NASB).
I think we, in the church, sometimes attempt to ease another's suffering with a Band-Aid when, in fact, it requires the touch of a skilled physician. We need to admit that we don't have all the answers. "We know in part" (1 Corinthians 13:9), but we lack a full understanding of the source of someone's suffering. God alone knows the heart and the intimate details of another's pain. We would do well to listen more, speak less, and encourage someone struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts to seek the help of a trained, Christian counselor. With our limited understanding, we often do more harm than good when it comes to offering counsel to someone who is clinically depressed. Remember, it's the Holy Spirit's job to convict others of sin.
In situations like these, it's best to limit our counsel to simple issues, encouraging those who are hurting to rest in God's love, draw near to Him in their pain, and trust Him to provide when their strength is gone. We should leave the deeper issues to professional Christian counselors, who have extensive training in helping others walk through difficult issues.
Christians sometimes suffer with depression and suicidal thoughts or behaviors. God calls us--as the church--to minister His comfort, compassion, and counsel to the hurting, to step outside of our comfort zone, and to address those issues that make us uncomfortable. When we respond in obedience to God's Word, we become conduits of His healing and co-laborers with Him as He offers hope to a dying world. "It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15, NASB), even those sinners within the church.