Standing Between Life and Death

Hands of the old man and a young man on a white bed in a hospital.

John C. Johnson, Ph.D.

A Gospel-Law-Gospel Approach to Helping Christians Who Are Suicidal

Introduction (1 Cor. 13)

If I speak in the tongues of man and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

I. Understanding the Motive for Suicide

  • To escape pain

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Cor. 4:8-9)

  • To attain “pleasure”

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Cor. 12:9)

II. How to Detect an Imminent Suicide Attempt

“My dear brothers (sisters), take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak . . .” (James 1:19a)

A. Signs of an Active Crisis

    • disorganized thinking
    • impulsivity
    • hostility and emotional distance
    • acute anxiety
    • immobilization
    • feelings of helplessness/hopelessness
    • loss of behavior control
    • panic
    • escape through substance abuse

(Brown & Srebalus)

B. Assessing the Potential for an Attempt

  • The presence of severe depression or the lifting of such a depression, making available the energy needed to take one’s life. Adding risk are other dysphoric states such as rage or panic.
  • The presence of psychosis, especially with hallucinations to commit suicide.
  • A history of substance abuse, which increases a history of poor impulse control, especially toward violence.
  • The loss of a loved person, job, residence, academic, or social standing.
  • A history of marginal adaptation with few accomplishments.
  • Lacking support and living in a hostile environment (e.g. a teen who is subject to harassment from a gang).
  • Thoughts and fantasies with destructive content, including revenge and “resting in peace.”

(Brown & Srebalus)

C. Increased Risk Factors Linked to Suicide Attempts

  • suicidal intent (decision to die) with decreased tension
  • presence of a specific plan
  • availability of means to kill oneself
  • previous attempts to commit suicide

(Brown & Srebalus)

III. What You Can Do To Help

The Empowerment Model:

  • So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty. What are you, O mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!'” (Zech. 4:6 & 7)
  • You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. (Romans 8:9)
  • “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” (Romans 12:9-10)

Phase I – “Parakaleo” – walking alongside

Jesus clearly understood that helping people to grow involved a process. Therefore He spent time with people patiently working through their problems in an in-depth way:

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.

He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

“What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

A. An “encourager” will invite people to tell their story.

B. An “encourager” will attend both to the person and to the story.

NOTE: This phase demonstrates love and acceptance (a forgiving heart) and causes a lowering of the sinful defense mechanisms making the person more open to the healing power of God’s Spirit. Acknowledging our vulnerability and feeling the pain opens us to God-reliance rather than self-reliance. Trusting the counselor helps us to trust what God has already given. GRACE.

Phase II – Seeking Transformation
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)

A. An “encourager” will use active listening responses to discover what the person is thinking (cognition), feeling (affect), and doing (behavior).

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

  • This answers the question: “How are things now?”
  • Be ready to acknowledge and understand the despair

NOTE: Thoughts, feelings, and behavior play a major role in our distress.

B. An “encourager” will seek expression(s) of change by the person.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

  • This answers the question: “How would you like things to be?”
  • Be ready to offer practical help and assistance

NOTE: Even though God’s grace permeates the encouragement experience (i.e. the agape characteristics of the encourager), at this point in the process it is often necessary and beneficial to overtly share grace . . . God’s redemptive act (the gift of Jesus) God’s sanctifying act (the gift of His Spirit)

C. An “encourager” will seek to engage the person to cooperate fully in the change.

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work for your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Phil. 2:12 & 13)

  • This answers the question: “How can you bring that about?”
  • Be ready to make an appropriate referral

Phase III – Giving Thanks
. . . give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (I Thess. 5:18)


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