In January 2020, I preached a three week series on the topic of faith and mental health. Over the course of the three week series I broached the topics of addiction, suicide, and depression/anxiety. Below is the text of the second sermon of the series entitled, “No Way Out,” which looked at the subject of suicide.
The most difficult part of preparing sermons to preach into these areas was ensuring that they remained as sermons and did not become mere public service announcements. I hope I managed that.
As with all my sermons, what you are going to find below is the general script I followed. The script will always be close to what was finally preached in the sermon, but there also will always be those last minute edits, and inspired moments when something was added to the script. To get those, you might want to check out the video of the sermon, which you can find here.
Each of these sermons was opened with video of an interview I had recorded with members of our church who are mental health professionals. The one for this sermon can be heard in the sermon video above or it can be seen on its own here.
Thank you for taking the time to read.
No Way Out
It was 2012 and I had been the pastor of Shankill Methodist Church in Belfast for a couple of years since my commissioning as a Methodist minister. The church was situated in a working class inner city community and was a small but close unit of people. David would come to church pretty much every week with his two boys. Together they would sit with his sister and her daughter on the second row of the church on the right hand side as I would look down from the pulpit. David was quiet, but always pleasant as he greeted me on the way out of church every week.
“How are you?” I would ask each week. And regular small talk would ensue. I would say “God bless you.” And that would be that until we would see each other the next week. Until that one Sunday. We had our normal conversation as David and the boys walked out of the church that day.
“How are you, David?”
“I’m doing well, Charlie.” He said.
“I’ll see you next week then.”
“Yep. See you then, Charlie.”
I did not get to see David the next week. Instead I preached at his funeral. David had gone home from church that day and decided that what was going on in his life was just too much to bear. David died that day from suicide.
Just like we said about the problem of addiction last week, suicide is increasing in our society and times.
- In 2017, there were 47,173 recorded suicides, up from 42,773 in 2014, according to the CDC
- In April 2016, the CDC released data showing that the suicide rate in the United States had hit a 30-year high, and later in June 2018, released further data showing that the rate has continued to increase and has increased in every U.S. state except Nevada since 1999.
- On average, there are 123 suicides per day.
- A person dies by suicide roughly every 12 minutes in the United States.
- White males accounted for 7 of 10 suicides in 2016.
- The rate of suicide is highest in middle age—white men in particular.
Suicide is a problem within our military personnel. A 2009 U.S. Army report indicates military veterans have double the suicide rate of non-veterans, and more active-duty soldiers have died from suicide than in combat in the Iraq War (2003–2011) and War in Afghanistan (2001–present).
It is also a problem among college age students. In the college population, suicide is the second highest cause of death.
Among LGBTQ youth and adults in the U.S. attempted suicide rates are three times higher than national averages.
And those who suffer with chronic pain are twice as likely to attempt suicide compared with those without chronic pain.
Suicide is an issue in our society. It is an issues in our community and it is an issue that has touched the lives of members of our church family.
I know individuals who have attempted suicide or been very close to it. As I listen to their stories I can tell you that these are individuals who feel utterly alone and completely bereft of hope in life. They speak of feeling as though they have no purpose in life and no direction for their futures. They speak of feeling cornered by life. Stuck. Feeling like they have no way out.
I know families who have lost their dear ones to suicide. As I listen to them I can tell you that suicide leaves a unique pain for those family members. They are left with all the pain of loss and grief that could be expected in such unexpected and tragic circumstances. They are left with questions that they will never have the answer to. They are left with shame thrust upon them by the stigma around suicide. They are left lonely and distanced from the friends who just have no clue what to say to them or how to care well for them after such a loss.
One of the things that has been taught and handed on regarding suicide is that those who die by suicide will be kept out of heaven. This seems to have been a teaching of the church for a long, long time. I can remember talking with a friend once in the early years of my faith journey. Brian was not a Christian but he liked to think he knew a lot about the Christian faith. Somehow this topic came up in a conversation one evening and he tried to assure me that suicide is a sin that would close the door of heaven to an individual. I asked him to tell me where I would find that in the Scripture. He was unable to show me. This is one of those half truths that we have received and assumed to be correct, but I want to state clearly to you this morning that I do not at all believe this to be true and that it really has no strong basis in Scripture at all. Dr. Clay Smith, a Baptist Pastor from Sumter S.C. speaking to this very point states: “The manner of a person’s death does not determine their relationship with God. When a Jesus follower chooses to end his or her life, I think Jesus meets them with a mixture of sadness, because they have arrived at heaven early, and compassion, because he understands their pain.” Perhaps the apostle Paul puts it best at the end of Romans Chapter 8 when he says these words:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Suicide is on the increase in our times, but it is by no means a new phenomenon. In the Scripture we read of several instances in which individuals die by suicide. Perhaps the most well-known are the story of King Saul in the Old Testament and then that of Judas in the New Testament. In the reading we shared in this morning from 1st Kings we read of Elijah and his own deep struggle. Elijah has had quite the run of events in the previous chapters of the book. He has been fed miraculously in times of drought with ravens bringing him food and meat and he has drank from the Wadi Cherith. He has been instrumental in reviving the life of a widows son who had become so ill that there was no breath in him. Elijah has stood up to King Ahab. He has called down fire from heaven in front of 450 prophets of Baal and shown himself as a prophet of the one, true God. He had been successful, victorious, and close with God and yet when his life is threatened by Jezebel he feels utterly alone. He runs to the wilderness and stops under a broom tree, and says those words to God: “It is enough; now O Lord take away my life for I am no better than my ancestors.”
Having been so successful, and seemingly so full of the power and presence of God, Elijah is suddenly left feeling isolated and helpless. He is left feeling that there is no way out.
We see similar sentiments of desperation in the words of the Psalmist too. We could land on any number of lament Psalms that were written to communicate the “no way out” feelings, the struggle, and the desperation that humans experience at times in life’s journey but this morning I wanted to stop for a while in Psalm 40. This song opens with the lyrics:
1 I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.
Psalm 40 is a song of the Psalmist’s testimony and ongoing journey of deep struggle and subsequent recovery in the Lord. “I was down in the pit and you lifted me up. My footsteps were firm then and I could stride forward on sure ground. You put a new song in my heart and I did not hold back from singing it. I sung it and I told the story of my rescue.
As the Psalmist writes this song and as we read further along in it, it almost feels like the Psalmist is bargaining with God, giving God motive to act again in his life. Almost as if he is saying: “Hey…you up there…I was down that one time in my life…like really down..deep in the hole…and you rescued me. You rescued me and put a new song in my heart which I sung at the top of my voice. I’m here to tell you that I am in that hole again right now and I need you to act again. Don’t withhold your mercy from me, God. Do not delay.”
Psalm 40 is a remembrance of a previous rescue as well as being a request for a repeat of that rescue. It is a song about an individual who found himself in the pit of despair, but by the hand and power of God came out of it and was given a new song to sing. This is a Psalm that declares the power of God to meet the individual right where he or she is at and join them in their deepest, darkest, and most lonely moments. God joins us there in the pit and then lifts us out at just the right time. This is a psalm that laments the present reality of the Psalmist, but it also acknowledges the power of God to rescue the despairing.
In our times we are seeing a continued increase in rates and instances of suicide, and I contend that this is because more and more individuals in our fast-paced, look after number one world actually find themselves to be existing in their own pits of despair. It is quite unbelievable really. I mean we are more connected in the world than we ever have been and yet the cry rising out of the pit is one of isolation and loneliness. We have more opportunities that we can count in this world, and more resources to help us take those opportunities, and yet the cry rising out of the pit is one of hopelessness.
What are we to do with this?
I suggest we listen to the words of the Psalmist this morning. I suggest we listen to them and find in them divine hope.
We listen to the Psalmist as he describes a God who is willing to climb in to the pit of despair, and loneliness and hopelessness and sit there with us to bring comfort and company.
We listen to the Psalmist as he describes a God who will not only climb into the pit and sit with us, but who is able and powerful to lift those that are struggling up out of the pit and set their feet upon solid ground.
We listen to the Psalmist and we encounter a God who can take the dirges that dominate and drown out so much in our lives, and can turn them into new songs for our hearts to sing.
So we listen to the Psalmist and we recognize hope in even the most dark and desolate places of our thoughts, and we recognize that this hope is embodied in a merciful God who is mighty to save and restore, and who is creative and loving enough to put a new song in our hearts.
So what do we do with all this? In a world in which so many seem to be stuck in their own pits of despair, what are the people of God do with the hope of God?
Like I say, we listen to the Psalmist, we hear of a hopeful and powerful God who climbs into the pit with those who hurt and lifts them out. But we must do more than simply hear a message of hope and internally acknowledge its truth. Once we recognize that God has climbed into the pits of despair that individuals may find themselves in, we make the choice to follow God into that place. We follow God into the places of hurt in our world and we become willing to sit a while with those who are struggling and we embody the truth that they are not alone, that they matter, that their lives are not without purpose, and that you are willing to sit with them and help them see that there is hope for a different tomorrow in their lives. We follow God into those spaces and we become the hands and the feet and the embodiment of Godly hope in a hurting world, and we help those who are hurting become those who are lifted up out of the pit, to become those who have a new song placed in their hearts to sing.
Perhaps you are struggling today. perhaps you have come to church this morning but if you are honest you feel like you are stuck in your own pit of despair. If that is you today – I want you to hear clearly the truth that God is there with you already. If you are here today and you have found yourself having suicidal thoughts, I want you to hear clearly that God is with you, that God is for you, that God loves you dearly and deeply, and that God holds out for you the hope of a new and different tomorrow.
Or maybe you know someone that is hurting today. Maybe you know someone that seems stuck in their pit of despair. If you do, I invite you to follow God into that pit and to sit with your loved one a while. In doing so you will remind them that they are loved, that they matter and have worth, and that there is always hope.
Remind them that this way out is actually no way out at all.
And then, perhaps, we will be able to join together in the singing of that old hymn:
“My hope is built on nothing less,
Than Jesus blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But Holy trust in Jesus name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.