No, you’re not alone
If you have suicidal thoughts, friend, you need to know you’re not alone. You’re also not crazy. Officially, about 4% of adults think often about suicide in the U.S. each year, but I have a hunch the number is larger than that. I simply know too many people, many in our Legacy family, to believe otherwise. With people being isolated and even furloughed from their jobs in the COVID19 response, suicidal thoughts are becoming more common and more intense. Twelve people in East Tennessee took their own lives in the last two weeks. I can guarantee quite a few of us at Legacy are suffering from suicidal thoughts right now.
Yes, I said “us.” It’s not something I particularly advertise, but those close to me know that on a daily basis, suicidal images and thoughts hammer against my mind. For those of you alarmed by this, please understand I am not afraid of these thoughts. I have control of them, and I’m not ashamed of them. For those of you who have suicidal thoughts and do not have control of them, please understand that you will. You can endure them. To be completely honest, you’ll eventually learn to redirect them so quickly, you’re basically completely ignoring them.
Relatively few of those with suicidal thoughts ever act on them or even concretely plan something out. To be fully honest, most of us don’t particularly want to harm ourselves. We simply don’t want to exist. One of the most important things to know about suicidal thoughts are a strong expression of our desire to escape: to escape pain, escape shame, escape hopelessness, escape uselessness. Suicidal thoughts are our minds expressing a strong desire to escape it all.
I might want to escape into non-existence. But my wife wants to escape into a floating cabin with no responsibilities and just fish all day. I have times I want to escape into mindless entertainment. I have times I want to escape into work. There are a lot of responses to the same felt need – that existential loneliness we all feel here in this wilderness called Earth. I’ve found that the more Ecclesiastes-minded among us tend to be more drawn to suicide because we see too readily how vain things are here on Earth.
I would also suggest that your suicidal thoughts are, when you really think about it, a desire for rest. In fact, I bet when some of you merely read the word “rest,” you immediately react with deep longing. It’s not necessarily escaping all that exists that you want. It’s escaping all that gives you unrest, all that accuses you, all that defines you, all that you’ve suddenly lost, all that screams you’re not valuable.
You’re late to the game
The ironic thing about suicide isn’t that you aren’t supposed to think about it. Believe it or not, it’s that you’re honestly a little late to the game. The beautiful thing about suicide is that someone already beat you to the punch. It turns out that you’re already dead. That person you hate, that person who’s hurt others, that person who simply doesn’t belong, that person who was abused like an animal, that person who has no future? Already gone. Already dead.
It never ceases to amaze me how beautiful and restful that truth is. You want to kill yourself and escape it all, and look I get it. Seriously I do. But believe it or not, someone’s already done that. The gospel is a lot gorier than you think. The bloodiest horror movie you’ve ever seen pales in comparison to the gospel. The goriest image you’ve fixated on while longing to not exist (and yes, I know for a fact how gory it gets) simply pales in comparison. The gospel is messier than you are, it’s more real than your suicidal thoughts, and it’s unbelievably restful.
We don’t know everything that happened on the cross, but we have some clues. First, physically, it was a complete nightmare. If you know anything about the practice of 39 lashes, there wasn’t much left of Jesus that wasn’t bleeding even before He was hoisted up on the cross, but that’s a distant and minor analogy of what He was really about to face.
Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” after an eternity of being so close to the Father they are best described as being literally one being. Jesus literally became sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21). That means that on the cross, God turned away from Jesus in disgust and shame. Jesus turned from feeling the Father’s unfailing delight to feeling so much disgust, the Father couldn’t even look at Him. How often have you felt like that with other people? It turns out that Jesus already beat you to it.
Glued to Jesus
Everything that happened to Jesus also happened to you, friend. I don’t mean figuratively. This isn’t one of those areas where the Bible is using flowery hyperbole. It’s simply repeated too many times in too many ways. It’s literally true. You died with Jesus. It would do you a lot of good to read Romans 6 tonight. Take off your innocent Sunday School glasses, and read it fresh through the lens of your suicidal thoughts. Yes, friend, you died with Jesus. You died. It’s done.
I read Jesus’s words, “It is finished,” and I think, “Yes, finally. It’s finished. I’m dead. It’s done. Thank you, God.”
When it comes to suicidal thoughts, for most of us, it’s all about the images. I’m not going to inflame your imagination with the ones that hit my mind daily, but those of you dealing with suicidal thoughts know exactly what I’m talking about. I find it’s helpful to have other images to work with, images that are actually true.
So, I’m glued to Jesus. What does that actually mean? How do I use that? It’s helpful to have images that represent the truth on the ground level where you live. The Bible is chock full of this.
I’m a sheep walking through a valley with death looming over me, blocking out all that comforts me (Psalm 23). Even there, I won’t give into fear. Why? Because, God, You are with me. The Bible encourages images. It encourages little movies to stoke your desires for God. Movies like a Father hiking up his ancient Near East man-skirt to come running like an idiot toward his son he has every reason to hate. See, that’s a beautiful movie to fixate your mind on. This, by the way, is called “meditation.” It’s not some mindless, emotionless endeavor. It’s meant to captivate all of you.
So what does meditation look like for those with suicidal thoughts? For me, it looks like imagining everything I feel is looming over me, every deadline I missed, every person I’ve failed, every person who’s abused me, every fear I have, everything accusing me. I imagine it all being thrown at me like a giant laser about to burn right through me.
Then. Then, I imagine Jesus hovering right over me. And what does He do? He gets in front of it, and He absorbs every last bit of it with literally nothing escaping, not the smallest bit. I imagine it hammering into Jesus with a force I can’t begin to imagine. I also imagine Him not even bending under the weight. He’s so strong, He takes it all without even moving, and He doesn’t deflect it. He doesn’t redirect it. He absorbs it. He takes every ounce of it into Himself.
And the old me? The version of me I hate? The version of me that’s a victim? The version of me that’s a failure? The version of me that’s so shameful others have to turn away? That person dies with Jesus. That person is gone, long gone. That person is no more. I’m free. I’m released. I can, for the first time in what feels like ages, draw in a deep breath as someone completely new. And this newness doesn’t happen once. It happens literally every time I meditate on this little mental movie I find so incredibly beautiful.
The crazy thing about Romans 6 is that you didn’t just die with Jesus. You also rose up with Him. The old you, the person you so long to kill into non-existence with gory images of suicide – that person does die with Him. But a new you also rises up from the gory trauma of Jesus’s death, where He absorbs everything looming over you. The new you rises up with no baggage. The new you can walk in new life with new desires and above all: rest.
Take a deep breath, friend, and rest from your suicidal thoughts.
Disregarding suicidal thoughts
I can’t say if suicidal thoughts are formally considered by psychologists to be “invasive” thoughts, but I can say that you handle them in similar ways. It’s not wise to explicitly fight against suicidal thoughts. They’re there, and you probably already know from experience that in directly fighting against them, you usually only find them getting stronger. There’s actually a biblical precedent for this.
In Hebrews 12:1-2, we read, “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
There’s a lot of helpful stuff in there. You don’t fight with suicidal thoughts. You “lay them aside.” In other words, you disregard them. Your suicidal thoughts are going to come. Accept that. But don’t legitimize them any more than that. They are your heart expressing its desire to escape. And your suicidal thoughts aren’t entirely wrong. Something does need to die. Don’t directly fight against them. Instead, use them to see the gospel more clearly. This can be said of probably all sinful thoughts, in fact.
Redirect the suicidal thoughts toward the gospel. Bring God into them instead of hiding them from God. “God, I want you to kill me. I want to not exist” Is a helpful start. The very act of coming to God is a trusting act, even when we say, “God, I struggle to trust you at all.” But you can keep going, “God, I’m sorry. What I really want is rest, and it feels miles away. It feels impossible.” Yes, that’s good honesty. You can keep going, though.
Begin to imagine Jesus absorbing into Himself and literally becoming everything you hate about yourself, everything you believe is hopeless. Visualize it. Let it consume you. Then, imagine Him lifting you up out of the ashes of the trauma of that death as a new person. Take joy in that newness. Visualize it. Let it consume you.
Don’t run from your suicidal thoughts. Don’t pretend they don’t exist. Use them. Encounter Jesus with them. Bring them into the light of truth, and bring them into their intended context. You were meant to want to die. You were wired for a different world than this one. It’s natural to want escape. Bring it all into the light of the gospel, and when the episode has passed, dream of heaven where this extremely disturbing trouble will never be a part of your life again.
Learning to endure
I have suicidal thoughts and images in my mind every single day. Some of you might wonder at that, but I challenge you to think of what troubles you every single day. It might not be suicidal thoughts. It might be escaping into another person’s body and embrace. It might be escaping into feeling valued through your work. It might be escaping into the void of substances that take away your pain. It might be escaping into the void of entertainment that placates your loneliness. You know what an everyday struggle is.
Some of you might wonder, “With enough faith, shouldn’t this leave you alone at some point?” Maybe, maybe not. Paul had faith, and he had a thorn in the flesh that caused him agony until the day he died. It also kept him from leaving Jesus behind in his natural pride and self-centeredness by reminding him every moment that he was in need.
You aren’t the only person to say, “God, why won’t you just take this away from me?” Most of us say that, and I think the only ones of us who do not are simply so calloused by sinful placation in this world that we simply don’t see our need clearly enough to cry out. It’s OK to hurt. It’s OK to be in need. God uses these things to do beautiful things in your heart and in your life. He sees you. He knows you. He has not forgotten you.
You can endure suicidal thoughts and have a life that has joy and vibrance. I’m proof of that. I have daily depression, daily anxiety, frequent panic attacks, and daily suicidal thoughts. And my life is good. Endure the challenges you’re facing. Set your eyes on today, not tomorrow or a year from now. You can endure for the next five minutes. You can endure today. That is enough. Tomorrow, you get new grace to endure, and when tomorrow comes, it will be enough again.
Open up to your friends
Tell your close friends that you have suicidal thoughts. Let them into it. Let them see. What you’ll find is that you have more in common with them than you think, and they can understand you more than you think. If you’re in a crisis, call someone. If you feel too ashamed for that, friend, you can even call 911. There are resources here for you. You aren’t alone. You aren’t crazy. You can endure, and we are here for you.