Sermons

Summary: God's mercy and our anger can often be in conflict. Such conflict can lead to discouragement that in turn can lead to despair. The child of God must guard his/her heart to avoid falling into deep gloom leading to thoughts of suicide.

“[God’s mercy toward Nineveh] displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’” [1]

One of the first funerals I conducted upon assuming the pastorate of a previous church was a service for a man who had committed suicide. The man, despairing as result of unrealised and unattainable ambitions, attempted to end it all. The man lingered for a long time before death at last released him. After weeks of suffering, he finally succumbed to his wounds. His family was devastated by his actions. Somehow, the minister was expected to help survivors pick up the pieces and make sense of the devastation his actions had imposed.

There was no sense of “celebration” for that funeral, as might be witnessed in other situations. The service was an especially sobering occasion. As the minister conducting the service of remembrance, I seized the opportunity to remind those present that day of the tenuous nature of life, explaining that we are not capable of judging those who have made the decision to take their own life. There is a perfect Judge who knows the heart; we must leave all judgement to Him. However, I did emphasise the responsibility each of us bears to lift up the fearful, to encourage the discouraged, to be sensitive to the struggle others that face in daily life.

Suicide is a topic we preachers seek to avoid. However, we should speak more of the issue. The number of suicides in the United States increased 24 percent between 1999 and 2014. After 2006 the increase each year jumped between one and two percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Let those numbers sink in before weighing what comes next. The biggest jump was among adolescent girls and men aged 45 to 64. [2]

These statistics mirror the situation observed in Canada. Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in Canada. Suicide accounts for almost 4000 deaths each year. [3] For children and youth, and for young adults as well, suicide is the second leading cause of death. [4] For every suicide recorded, we are told that thirty-three attempts at suicide were made. [5] I would contend that these statistics are shocking. Consider, as well, that by a figure of almost three to one, males are more likely to commit suicide than are females, though females are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide as are males. [6] For every suicide, seven to ten people are profoundly affected. [7] Clearly, suicide is a problem; and the churches are not immune to this growing problem.

A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics journal reports that the number of children under the age of eighteen who visited emergency departments between 2007 and 2015 as result of either a suicide attempt or suicidal ideation doubled during that time period. [8] The lead author of the study is a pediatric emergency room physician at Montreal Children’s Hospital of McGill University Health Centre. He comments, “We are seeing an acceleration of this issue, and I worry that we have not yet seen the peak.” [9]

A news item encountered during my morning reading first stimulated me to develop this message. The report detailed the death of a minister at his own hand. Reading the item, I became aware of a growing number of ministers of the Gospel who have committed suicide in recent days. [10] We can’t just write off these reports as desperate moves from preachers who have a lack of faith. You see, I’m not speaking about ministers of liturgical congregations, or those who identify as theological liberals—I’m speaking of Evangelical ministers. A sufficient number of pastors of evangelical congregations are taking matters into their own hands that some have compared what is taking place to a spiritual storm, a catastrophe of major proportions. In a surprising number of instances, these are pastors that would be considered extremely successful. They pastored large congregations that were the epitome of success in the Evangelical world.

Pastors are people. Sometimes we forget this truth. Our tendency is to elevate the man of God as though we expect him to walk on water—at least until he upsets us. However, pastors grapple to overcome the same struggles that characterise the whole of humanity. Pastors can be elated when matters are going well, (something that doesn’t happen all that often). By the same token, pastors can become depressed and despondent because of the work to which they are appointed. They can be discouraged and need encouragement. Preaching is demanding work. The message of God is almost always an emotional event for the preacher. When the man of God delivers a message that he knows hurts the people whom he loves, or when he brings a message that he even thinks hurts the people of God, I can assure you that the preacher feels the pain of that action—and the pain can be acute.

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