When a Christian is suicidal...

Christians can feel suicidal. How might we help a brother or sister in those circumstances?

There is a wonderful exploration of this in John Bunyan’s masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian, the pilgrim in view, is imprisoned with his friend Hopeful in Doubting Castle – home of Giant Despair. The giant beats them senseless and throws them into a dark, stinking cell.

Bunyan spent twelve years in Bedford gaol for his refusal to conform to ‘official’ Christian forms of worship. He lived on the edge of poverty much of his life and his dear daughter was completely blind. He is writing from experience:

So when morning was come, Giant Despair goes to them in a surly manner as before, and perceiving them to be very sore with the stripes that he had given them the day before, he told them, that since they were never like to come out of that place, their only way would be forthwith to make an end of themselves, either with knife, noose or poison, for why, said he, should you chose life, seeing it is attended with such bitterness?

Here’s Christian’s reaction to the Giant’s speech, these are the thoughts of a believer on the edge of suicide:

Brother, said Christian, what shall we do? The life that we now live is miserable. For my part I know not whether is best, to live thus, or to die out of hand. My soul chooseth strangling rather than life, and the grave is more easy for me than this dungeon.

At this moment Christian’s friend, Hopeful, begins a conversation (healing always begins with a conversation). To be honest, he does not get off to a great start, he plays the guilt card; suggesting that suicide is self-murder and that God won’t like it.

This was typical thinking for Bunyan’s time - until 1961 suicide was a criminal offense in England and those who took their own lives were not buried in consecrated ground – but times have changed, and it is not recommended to use this kind of reasoning with a potential suicide.

But Hopeful soon gets down to saying something useful. He listens to Christian’s woes, but gently challenges his pessimism:

My brother, said Hope, rememberest thou not how valiant thou hast been heretofore? Apollyon could not crush thee, nor could all that thou didst hear, see or feel in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. What hardship, terror and amazement thou hast already gone through!

Later, he reassures Christian that he is not alone, encouraging him to be patient, reassuring him that his mood will lift.

Thou seest that I am in the dungeon with thee, a far weaker man by nature than thou art; also, this Giant has wounded me as well as thee, and hath also cut off the bread and water from my mouth; and with thee I mourn without the light. But let us exercise a little more patience.

Hopeful stays with Christian, gently encouraging him away from despair, towards hope (Bunyan’s choice of his character’s names are a clue here!). Eventually, Christian gets the message. Here’s how Bunyan pictures it:

On Saturday, about midnight, they began to pray, and continued in prayer till almost break of day. Now, a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in this passionate speech; What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon when I may as well walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in Doubting Castle.

At first sight this looks contrived, “Dude, I just found a key!” But Bunyan is telling us that the key to a suicidal crisis in within ourselves all the time. John Bunyan knew from experience that the simple things – God’s promises, hopeful waiting, prayer, trusting, reasons for living – are completely forgotten in a crisis. The job of those who support is to keep our friend alive until they find their keys and use them.

In summary, what does Hopeful do that we can emulate? 

·     Listen and sympathise

·     Gently challenge irrational and pessimistic thinking

·     Stay with our friend

·     Pray

·     Remember the promises God makes to people in crisis

And one last thing, unavailable to Hopeful and Christian in their stinking dungeon, get help! Keep a note of the contact number of your local crisis support team on your phone, you never know when you may need it.