Soon you will be able to dial 988. That is all it takes. Earlier this summer the Federal Communications Commission officially designated ‘988’ as a 3-Digit Number For National Suicide Prevention Hotline. I encourage you to read the important press-release and why the US has a number (similar to the emergency 911), for suicide prevention: Link to press release here. Important: 1-800-273-
8255 is the current suicide hotline; 988 will eventually redirect to it. Stay tuned.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month, which is an important time to reflect on how each of us can make a difference. We have become a Church of Invisible Diseases.
The first funeral I ever officiated left an impression – it was a “Christian suicide.” While I am thankful for my seminary and theological degrees, there are specific experiences no classroom will adequately prepare anyone for. At forty-three, Kim was in the prime of her life and a devout Christian who regularly attended our church. She was married with four beautiful children, a lover of animals, and nominated by the local school district for Teacher of the Year, with twenty years of stellar performance. Even as a follower of Jesus, Kim struggled with chronic depression, and one day, she saw no way out, went into the woods, and completed suicide. My experience with Kim and her family awakened me to the stark reality of mental illness—the invisible illness—within our church families, a reality we rarely hear addressed from the pulpit. I know this because after receiving thousands of questions at our Christian Thinkers Society events, the most frequently asked relate to suicide and mental illness, topics we rarely hear addressed from the pulpit.
More Americans die by suicide than from war, cancer, and HIV/AIDS combined. Tragically, there have been scores of deaths by suicide among pastors and their children throughout North America. Until you have been brought to the brink, you may not understand the intensity of another individual’s struggle that might trigger a suicide attempt – even if they are a “minister.” What’s more, we have become a church full of invisible diseases – serious mental illness, even suicide rampages through our congregations, yet most attendees fail to see or recognize the reality of this disease. Mental illness is the elephant in the room each Sunday, yet no one feels comfortable talking about it. Yet, the ministry of Jesus focused on removing barriers to belief and restoring people who were suffering: “When Jesus heard this, he told them, ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners’” (Mark 2:17 NLT).
Unfortunately, mental illness One LifeWay Research study noted, “Nearly 1 in 4 pastors (23 percent) acknowledge they have ‘personally struggled with mental illness,’ and half of those pastors said the illness had been diagnosed, according to the poll.” No one is unaffected by mental illness. If you have not personally struggled with mental illness, chances are that your friend, spouse, child, coworker, or neighbor has. As Christians, we need to build awareness of the problem and remove the stigma, because mental illness is widespread and affects everyone. Said LifeWay Research survey found 66 percent of pastors rarely or never address the subject of mental illness from their pulpits and the same survey revealed that the majority of churchgoers wish their pastors would discuss it.
Here are some very important reminders:
Stop the Silence
Many stigmatize the mentally ill as people in hospital gowns committed deep inside a psych ward. This is an exceptionally inaccurate depiction of someone with a mental illness. Would it surprise you to learn people with mental illnesses worship at your church and probably attend your Bible-study group with you? It is unfortunate we say so little about mental illness in the church. We act as if it does not exist. Rarely do we hear sermons or read Bible-study material on this topic. Notwithstanding, forty-eight percent, or nearly half the world’s population, will have direct experience with mental illness themselves over the course of their lifetime.
The number one problem in our churches related to matters of mental health and mental disorders is silence. Statistics reveal that one in four people suffer from mental illness. Invisible illnesses of the brain have the power to isolate you, cause you to cease to be a productive member of society, and shorten your lifespan. Mental illness is not a choice, but the good news is that it is treatable – when we shine light on the “invisible” diseases of our brain.
The Bible has much to say about mental health, right thinking, and loving God with our mind. In response to the expert in the law who asked Jesus which of the commandments was the greatest, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37, see also 2 Timothy 1:7; Isaiah 26:3; 1 Peter 5:7; Romans 12:2). What is lost in that passage is the commandment to love God with our minds, our intellect, our thinking. The Bible discusses mental health; so should the church, regularly.
Stop the Shame and Exclusion
Mental illness does not separate people from the love of God, and it shouldn’t separate us from the love of our church, either. Far too often the average Christian feels ill-equipped to respond to a suicide or mental crisis. Too often, instead of integrating and assimilating those who struggle with a mental illness, we segregate and exclude them. We may not mean to, but in this process, we shame people who don’t deserve it.
It is possible for a Christian to be chronically depressed. Many Christians suffer from a myriad of mental illnesses. If you are depressed, you are not alone. Following Jesus Christ as Savior does not eradicate anyone’s behavioral weaknesses; hereditary; or biological, mental, and emotional state. Mental illness is isolating. Those who suffer feel cut off from the church and abandoned by God. People with sick brains may not simply be “fixed” at the altar by a passionate prayer or anointing oil. Does God heal? Absolutely. Does He work miracles? Absolutely. However, just as we have people who continue to struggle with physical problems, there are also those who continue to struggle with mental/emotional problems – which is defined as a physical dysfunction of the brain. We must avoid shaming them.
The Healing Equation: Be Present
Babe Ruth once said, “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” The church should never give up on, cast aside, or push out the mentally ill. The church needs to be present on the frontlines, ministering to all those who’ve been afflicted, by implementing a healing equation:
· Admit that every family struggles. We’re all broken. We’re all messed up. Every family needs ministry. Anxiety is real, but so is our Hope!
· Love instead of judge, condemn, and misunderstand. One of the convicting observations I made very early in my ministry is that Christians don’t gossip—they share prayer requests. One of the reasons we do not discuss mental problems in the church is due to a fear of people gossiping and ostracizing us.
· Encourage the mentally ill to serve within our church communities. Most people struggling with mental illness are extremely witty, good-humored, and highly intelligent. It is an often-overlooked fact that some of the greatest Christians of all time have had lifelong struggles with depression, thoughts of suicide, and mental illness.
Be sure to save the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in your phone contacts, as I have:
Steps of intervention
When someone close to you talks about suicide or exhibits signs of suicidal desires, you can respond by taking five specific action steps. This is a strategy of compassion, concern, and intervention.
STEP 1: CAREFULLY LISTEN AND OBSERVE THE PERSON.
When someone is struggling, do not dominate the conversation or preach at the wounded person. Emotions are raw when a person is suicidal. Think of how gently you would respond to someone who had a broken arm, wrist, or leg. Approach the person with the same care, calmness, and attentiveness. Ask the suicidal person to explain to you what is bothering them. Let them talk. Even though it may be difficult, remain calm, listen, and look the person in the eyes. When someone is suicidal, they frequently self-medicate by abusing drugs and/or alcohol. When a friend or a family member is dependent on drugs, they are communicating to you by their behavior, not just their words. Care enough not to allow their addiction to grow worse year after year. A suicidal individual is counting on you to go the extra mile by carefully observing them, listening to their words and actions, and loving them enough to intervene. Listen and keep listening.
STEP 2: IDENTIFY WITH THE HURTING PERSON. If you do not identify with the suicidal person, there is a much higher risk that you will lose them to suicide. Do not use guilt by suggesting that if they were closer with God, they would not have suicidal thoughts. That is a myth. A Christian who acts like a judgmental Pharisee overlooks the fact that statistically, most people have entertained a momentary or perhaps more prolonged thought of suicide under intense stress.
STEP 3: INITIATE A LOVING, CALCULATED RESPONSE, BEING VERY CAREFUL AND SENSITIVE. Ignoring the suicidal person is the worst possible scenario. Perhaps you were raised in a family that never addressed issues and always swept problems under the rug. That approach is dysfunctional. A healthy person seeks healing for a friend or a family member who is struggling with suicidal thoughts. Saving your family member or friend will require you to interrupt your normal schedule. That is OK. Remember that most people spell love T-I-M-E. Invest time in creating an action to bring the person out of the depth of their suicidal struggle.
STEP 4: ASK THE KEY QUESTION. Whenever you suspect that someone close to you is contemplating taking his or her life, an essential question must be asked: Do you have a plan or method to take your life? Have you considered an actual time to do it? If they have a plan, method, or timeline, they are in immediate danger. Stay with the hurting individual at all times. They should never be left alone. You must also commit to the time and expense of professional . You do not need to lead the person to heal alone. Perhaps the person might need to be hospitalized. I always encourage a reputable Christian counselor and/or psychiatrist or a trained, experienced pastor to lead an intervention with specific healing steps. Don’t do it alone.
STEP 5: ACCESS THE NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE.“Like” the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Facebook page: www.facebook.com/800273T
ALK. This phenomenal organization interfaces with Facebook to geographically pinpoint suicidal comments on Facebook and intervenes with responses to provide assistance. Or phone them at 800.273.TALK.If you are struggling with Unanswered Questions, check out my Bible study – Answers to Tough Questions! Many Christians consider apologetics (the study and practice of defending the faith) a discipline reserved for people in academic circles, but all followers of Christ should carefully consider why they believe what they believe. In a culture that says all beliefs are equally valid, it’s critical that we recognize the dangerous delusion of that idea and equip ourselves to speak with confidence about biblical truth. Examining the six questions in this study will move Christians beyond the cultural norm of “This is what I think” to the truth that compels others to believe.Thanks for your friendship. Most of all, thanks for your commitment to be Christian Thinker and loving God with your heart, soul, and mind.
Jeremiah J. Johnston, Ph.D.
Mark Lanier on Christian Justice and EvidenceMark Lanier is well known for his work as an attorney, but it is his love for the Bible that led him to establish the Lanier Theological Library, an exquisite facility with about 17,000 square feet of literary resources, artifacts, and study space in the Houston area.
Lanier originally felt he might serve the Lord as a vocational minister.
“I thought I’d love to be a preacher. I love the Lord. It occurred to me, I really ought to pursue a legal career but continue to serve the Lord bivocationally. So I became a lawyer really just to pay the bills, but my passion has always been trying to teach people the Word of God and trying to the Kingdom of Christ.”
In his theological study, Lanier has been a student of Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Syriac.
“Language is a deep love of mine. It unlocks Scripture. Much of Scripture is understood more deeply with an understanding of the original language and civilization. Today we know [that] brain cells process thought. In the Old Testament mindset, they thought the seed of thought was the heart.”
“When you read all of these passages in the Psalms that talk about getting your heart right before the Lord, we tend, in 21st century America, to think that means to get your emotions and feelings right before the Lord. It’s not talking about emotion; it’s talking about thinking and using your thoughts to focus on God and what God wants you to do. It’s not talking about emotional religion first and foremost.”
Rather than simply being a personal choice, Christianity has served to form the basis for the Judeo-Christian legal system. It is a truth that Lanier greatly values as a law professional.
“If you remove God, at the end of the day, [the] law is what people say instead of what God says. God told Israel, ‘I’ve created male and female in my image. All people have equal dignity and rights and access to justice and all basic core human principles,’ that’s different than anything else we find culturally then and now.”
To be kept from becoming swept up in the tide of popular beliefs, Christians should renew their minds with the truths of the Bible.
“If we remove God from our system, we have removed the bedrock foundation and our system is shifting sand. We all need to be before God on a daily basis.”