4 ways you should respond to suicide

August 12, 2014

I can remember driving down the highway in Virginia in a state of depression. I’ve slipped into depression – probably a milder form than many have experienced – two or three times in my life. One was during my first pastorate, back in the late 80s. Every Saturday I’d get a copy of the Richmond newspaper and peruse the help wanted ads to see if there was a way for me to provide for my family if I threw in the towel on ministry. Honestly, if I’d had a fall-back option then I’d probably not be in the ministry today. As I drove down the rural highway in Southside Virginia my mind was walking through the valley of deep darkness that David spoke of in Psalm 23.

I looked at trees in the median and thought I could just swerve the wheel into one of those and the pain would stop.

I never seriously considered turning the wheel, but I had a deep longing for death that was evidence of the hopelessness and despair in my heart.

It was a lie, a lie I was believing, one that insulted the God of heaven and gave glee to the accuser of the brethren. My life was not hopeless, not as long as God was there with me. My feelings deceived me. The situations that I felt were beyond repair have all worked out – some took a short time, some long, but God resolved them. God worked to restore my heart, my joy and my passion for Christ. It is always too early to despair when the Living God of heaven is your Father. By believing the enemy’s lie, I teetered on the edge of spiritual self-destruction. I thank God that he led me through the valley of deepest darkness and back to his light!

I’ve had too many friends and family fall over the precipice and leave the earth by their own hands. My wife’s brother took his own life 30 years ago and the family still grieves today. The toughest funeral I ever did was for one of my deacons, a close friend and pillar of the church, who took this path out of his problems. Just recently, a fellow Iowa pastor ended his own life, leaving a grieving family, a devastated church and a stunned and sorrowful convention. There have been many others through the years. Of course, the Southern Baptist family was rocked yesterday with another such tragedy.

Suicide is the most devastating form of death because of the scars it leaves in the souls of those who are left behind. Could I have done something? Why did I say what I said? Is this my fault? We are left wondering what was going on, obsessing on why this person we loved felt that this was their best option, engaging in self-recrimination and examination of every word, deed and conversation, and feeling guilty – not just a little guilt, but massive, soul-stealing, gut-wrenching, keep-you-up-at-night guilt! Suicide may be an act of physical violence committed against oneself, but it is the most horrendous act of spiritual violence imaginable against family and friends. It leaves hearts bleeding, spirits broken and souls wounded.

And the worst part of it is that there is little that anyone but the Savior can do to salve these wounds. We can be there to hold up the family. We can express our grief. We can offer what help we can give. But the wounds of suicide are such that we can do little except express unending, indefatigable love and support – for the next decade or two!

A family touched by suicide will never be the same. In 1979 I was in a skiing accident in Eldora, Colo., that left me with permanent injuries. I recovered and have completed marathons, played softball, basketball, soccer and a host of other sports. But the limitations and effects of that injury are always there. If I move or sit a certain way, I can get shudders of pain throughout my body. It’s been 35 years and I’ve lived my life, but the accident on the ski slope left injuries that never fully heal. That is what it is like for a family that has been touched by suicide. Perhaps, in time, they learn to go on with life, to walk and even run. But the pain is always there. Certain triggers will bring a stab of pain regardless of how many years go by. Sweet memories now soured by grief, shame and pain. A sudden burst of guilt and self-condemnation. Questions without answers. The limp of a battered soul.

The victims of suicide (family, friends, etc) will carry those scars as long as they live.

So, what can we do? What can we as Christians, as the church of Jesus Christ, do to help our grieving brothers and sisters, to alleviate their pain? I would make several suggestions. In general, I think the advice given in Todd Benkert’s excellent post on dealing with cancer victims applies here – both the positive and the negative. I would give the following as suggestions for helping people who are going through this kind of tragedy.

Thoughts on Helping Victims of Suicide

1) Pray. Then pray again. Then some more. Don’t just say, “I’m praying for you.” Actually do it. Keep praying for about 25 years. 

The promise of prayer is too often trite and empty, or even a lie. But prayer is our greatest resource in the moment of grief. I cannot heal the hurting but my God can. He is the Great Physician, the Balm of Gilead, the God of all comfort. We can go to him on behalf of a family member or friend and the fervent, faithful prayers of the Body of Christ help. We can pray comfort for the grieving; pray that God’s presence will surround them and sustain them.

2) Be present. 

If you call someone “Job’s friend” it is not a compliment. The friends of Job tried to make sense of his suffering and did so in a petty, theologically shallow and ineffective way. But what we often forget is that before they were horrible friends they were the best friends ever. They sat in silence with Job on the ash heap for 7 days. They were there. They were present. It was when they opened their mouths that they lost their place as the greatest comforters ever.

The greatest gift you can give is your continued friendship, your presence in the wounded life. It is a blessing to sit with a person the day of the death or to be there for the funeral. But in the days and weeks thereafter – that is when true friendship is needed. You become God’s physical therapist to help the hurting work through the healing process. Through your love, patience, fellowship and consistent friendship, God’s healing takes place.

Be there, not just for the short term, but for the long haul.

3) Cierra la Boca. 

Keep your mouth shut!  Job’s friends blew it by talking.

Of course, I’m not advocating actual silence. I’m just saying that you needn’t say anything witty, insightful, or life-changing in these situations. When you try to communicate something profound, it often comes out as a cliche, or trite, or condescending  – it is generally not helpful.

Unless you are the mentor or spiritual authority of the grieving person (and even then, tread lightly) it is not your job to sort all this out and explain the inexplicable. That was Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar’s mistake. They tried to tell Job exactly why this tragedy came upon him (they were wrong) and how he could make things right (again, they missed the mark). They didn’t understand God’s sovereign plan and were therefore wholly incapable of explaining it to anyone else. They spoke out of ignorance and made Job’s suffering worse.

It is NOT your job to explain the activity, purposes and plans of God in a specific situation. This is not the time for you to test drive your theology on a fragile soul.

When I visit a family that has suffered a tragedy, I generally warn them that they need to be prepared for people who want to help to say incredibly foolish things. There are only three things we need to communicate to a person in grief.

Of course, then you have to follow through. Pray and be there. It is your actions, not primarily your words, that will help the suffering.

4) Be patient. 

This is going to be a long (lifelong) process. When someone has a sniffle, they snap out of it in a few days. When I had West Nile, it took a few weeks. But this is going to take years to heal, and even then there will still be the spiritual limp. You just have to be patient and faithful as a friend or as a church.

Along the way, don’t be surprised if you hear or see some things that both you. Grieving people can become so overwhelmed they evidence emotional instability and even bizarre behavior. Unless it is extreme (you never take a threat of self-harm lightly) you just weather the storm. People will sometimes even lash out at God. Job did. God can handle it. You don’t need to be the theology police to correct every little thing they say. Just assure them that God is good and faithful. Encourage them to trust God even if they do not understand his works.

When someone you love becomes the victim of suicide, you have a long task in front of you. You cannot cure the wound, but you can be an agent of God’s healing, if you point people to the goodness of God, show your constant and faithful love and endure in this grace.

NOTE: If you know someone who is considering suicide, do not leave him or her alone. Try to get your loved one to seek immediate help from his or her doctor or the nearest hospital emergency room. Remove any access they may have to firearms or other potential tools for suicide, including medications. Call 911 or the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

This article was originally published here.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24