Suicide and the Church – Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1999 to 2018, the suicide rate in the United States jumped 35%. As a result, it has become the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
These rates have increased in almost all age groups and for both men and women, with men remaining the most likely to die by suicide. In 2018, the suicide rate was 22.8 per 100,000 men. This is almost four times the rate for women. But the increase in suicide among women is more significant. Between 1999 and 2018, the rate for men increased by 28%, but for women it increased by 55%.
But then, thankfully, for two consecutive years – 2019 and 2020 – the suicide rate went down.
It was a short reprieve.
After two consecutive years of decline, the suicide rate in the United States increased by 4% in 2021, mainly due to suicides among men. Men between the ages of 15 and 24 saw the greatest increase (8%). Sally Curtin, health statistician at the National Center for Health Statistics, said: “The declines have almost been completely erased by this increase.”
Suicide has historically been condemned by the Christian faith, and rightly so. The Bible is clear: “Thou Shalt Not Kill” (Exodus 20:13, NIV). And the reason is simple: life is sacred. The fact that each of us was created in the image of God gives each of us infinite worth and value. Taking it upon ourselves to end a life is the ultimate act of defiance against God, for life is his and his alone to give and take. To take a life is to despise God and his image; it’s not up to us to do with it what we please.
This includes killing ourselves.
But it’s not the unpardonable sin, nor something that automatically commits you to hell. This is clearly a wrongful taking of life and a violation of the Sixth Commandment. It is never God’s dream or desire. This is why the dramatic increase in suicide rates should be alarming to all Christians.
But not only alarming.
This should be a clear call for change.
These are people who need our compassion and help.
Yet within the Christian community, where openness and grace should be richest and deepest, where masks are meant to fall and security offered to all, possessing depression is virtually taboo. There is an unwritten rule that believers should not be depressed. The prevailing idea is that the Christian faith should be a faith of joy, making depression a sin, which means that there is no excuse for a depressed spirit. As a result, depressed people were riddled with guilt, hid in shame, and were afraid to surface to get the help they needed.
It can lead to suicide.
Let’s be clear on a few things. First, depression and strong, vibrant faith are not automatically incompatible. Throughout Christian history, men and women deeply attached to Christ have been caught, sometimes without mercy, in the icy clutches of depression.
Let me introduce you to some names you may know.
In 1527, the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther, the man who founded the Lutheran church and wrote the words to one of the greatest hymns of all time, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, wrote these words: “For more than a week I was near the gates of death and hell. I was shaking in every limb. Christ was completely lost. Luther would go on to write that “the content of the depressions was always , the loss of faith that God is good and that he is good for me”.
Translation? The Depression.
Charles Spurgeon, the dynamic pastor behind the 19th century revival movement and considered the Billy Graham of his time, told his congregation in 1866 about his struggle: “I am subject to depressions of mind so scary that I hope none of you come to such extremes of misery that I will [through].”
Translation? The Depression.
A famous missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, who founded the China Inland Mission, struggled with severe depression all his life. At one point, as an unpublished note in his papers finds, he even contemplated the “horrible temptation” to “end his life.”
Translation? The Depression.
These people walked with God, loved God, gave their lives to God, and suffered terribly from depression.
How is it possible ?
First of all, it’s because we are all broken, and anyone who is broken can suffer from depression. Yes, the Holy Spirit is alive and well and lives in us, but He lives in us as fallen creatures in a fallen world. Each of us can be depressed.
Is it just a spiritual battle?
Psychologist and author Larry Crabb writes that some efforts to treat it as a psychological disorder might, in fact, “depreciate the mysterious battle raging deep within the soul.” Crabb adds, “Let’s assume that many of the struggles that we assume to be symptoms of a psychological disorder are actually evidence of a disconnected soul… a soul starving for life, then connecting with [the] source of life, and not professional treatment, is [what is] call for.”
But it’s not always just a spiritual battle.
It can be a physical battle.
Clinical depression is one of four illnesses doctors call mood disorders. Just as diabetes is linked to the body’s inability to regulate blood sugar, mood disorders result from the brain’s inability to regulate the chemicals that control mood.
Specifically, nerve cells in the brain communicate with each other by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. Noradrenaline and serotonin are the two neurotransmitters involved in depression. When there is enough of these neurotransmitters available to stimulate other nerve cells, one generally feels “normal.” You may still have your usual ups and downs, but you’re not fighting the disease of depression.
But in clinical depression, fewer of these neurotransmitters are released because the first nerve cell reabsorbs them before they have sufficiently stimulated other nerve cells. Antidepressant drugs work because they increase the amounts of norepinephrine or serotonin in the body.
The need for antidepressants to meet this physical need can be caused by a number of factors, including life circumstances and genetic makeup. Any combination of genetic predisposition or emotional trauma can initiate the chemical changes in the brain that cause depression, including long and sustained stressful seasons.
So end of medical history, and also “end” of having nothing to be ashamed of or being spiritually aware of. It is a physical deficiency that can and should be corrected. If someone is clinically depressed, they must take antidepressants, just as a diabetic must take insulin.
So whether they are spiritual or clinical, they need help. And asking for it should be without shame or incrimination.
Pastors don’t tell their people that.
James Emery White
Gaby Galvin, “The suicide rate in the United States has skyrocketed since 1999”, US News and World ReportApril 8, 2020, read online.
Brianna Abbott, “U.S. Suicide Rates Rise in 2021 After Two Years of Decline,” The Wall Street JournalSeptember 30, 2022, read online.
Charles Swindoll, Become strong in the seasons of life.
Dwight L. Carlson, “Exposing the Myth That Christians Shouldn’t Have Emotional Problems,” Christianity todayFebruary 9, 1998, read online.
Samuel H. Chao, “Remarkable and Little Known Facts About Hudson Taylor and the China Missions,” Christian history 15, no. 4.
Larry Crabb, Connecting: Healing Ourselves and Healing Our Relationships.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture podcast. . Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president.
His latest book, After “I believe”, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture podcast. .
Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.