12 September 2014

The Realities of Suffering, Hope and Love

headhandsOn Wednesday, it was World Suicide Prevention Day. For the last 11 years, 10th September has been a day for awareness-raising about suicide and about prevention programmes and techniques. So, at the prayer meeting on Wednesday, I brought some meditations from the Bible on psychological suffering, including suicidal thoughts, and also some meditations on how we experience the comfort of Christ in the midst of psychological suffering, whether from loneliness, addiction, anxiety, or depression and other mental illnesses.

Globally, around 800,000 people commit suicide each year, according to the WHO. That’s more than are murdered and killed in wars combined. In Scotland, there is some good news – suicides have decreased by around 20% over the last decade – but in 2013 almost 800 people took their own lives. There are few communities not touched by the tragedy of suicide. Young and middle-aged men are the highest risk groups. Those suffering from depression are more likely to consider suicide. And those living in poorer communities are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. In one part of Easterhouse in Glasgow, 1 in 7 adults are taking prescribed medication for depression, psychosis or anxiety. The despair that drags people towards contemplation of suicide is produced by different factors in different cultures around the world. At the heart of so many of the problems in our own communities is a spiritual emptiness that comes from the denial that we have deep spiritual needs. The bankrupt wisdom of our consumer culture presents to the poorest a false dream that’s always out of reach. And the truth remains that in any culture or community, whether poor or wealthy, urban or rural, life in this broken world is difficult.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, proclaimed by the Christian church, speaks powerfully to these realities, and to the deep spiritual need of all people. Yet, Christians who believe the Gospel and follow Jesus in faith cannot escape the trials of living in this broken world. Our hope is in the redemption of all things, the putting right of all things, but for now we live at the friction plane between God’s coming Kingdom and the failing kingdoms of this world. The Gospel of a redeemed world and a redeemed people is a Gospel both of the now and the not yet. Despite our transformative experience of God in Jesus Christ, Christians are not immune to suffering in the world. We are not immune to loneliness, addiction, anxiety, depression, mental (or physical) illness. The Bible witnesses to the psychological sufferings, and even the suicidal thoughts, of the psalm-writers and the prophets (e.g. Psalm 13, Psalm 42, 1 Kings 19:4, Jonah 4:8, Job 6:9). The Church has not always spoken helpfully into this area. Sometimes lovely Christian people suffering from clinical depression commit suicide. It is simply not true that God will not forgive them. That doesn’t mean that suicide isn’t wrong. It is wrong. It is wrong to take our own lives. It dishonours God, and his gift of life. It cuts short our sanctification. It denies the reality of Jesus’ hope. It provides no ultimate answer. God’s heart is for life, not for death. But depression can render a person immobile, unable to call out, unable to think, or to see any way forward.

The Church speaks an answer to suffering and despair, whether amongst God’s people or those outside of the Church. The Gospel is a message of good news of hope and love. Psalm 42 speaks of hope in God in the face of suffering. In Psalm 13, the psalmist defiantly hopes in the covenant love of God. The Gospel of Jesus Christ speaks of reconciliation to the life-giving, life-loving God; of redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and of the living presence of Jesus Christ in our lives, bringing direction, strength and comfort in the midst of suffering. In chapter 14 of John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who communicates Jesus’ presence to us in our physical bodies. Jesus himself comes to us. When we pray, and meditate on him, we are aware of him. And he is aware of us. In depression, in anxiety, Jesus our Great High Priest knows, he feels, he understands, because he has lived in this same broken world – he is touched by our weakness (Hebrews 4:15).

Yet, this is not the only way in which we encounter the presence of Christ. The Gospel of Hope and Love is not merely a spoken message, but a message which produces a Community of Hope and Love. That is what the Church is – it is the embodiment of the Gospel. And so we encounter the presence of Christ in the Church, which is the body of Christ. We are the reaching hands of Christ, the listening ear of Christ, the overflowing compassion of Christ; we speak the comforting words of Christ. Our salvation is given to us not just for God’s glory, or our benefit, but for others. It is given so that we might love as God loves (1 Peter 1:22). The Hope and Love of Christ are to be realised, in the face of suffering, as we meet Christ in one another. This aspect is so important for those immobilised by suffering. When I cannot reach upwards, cannot look upwards, cannot call out to God from the blackness, how does Christ come to me? Through you. You are Christ to me.

Those working in the fields of mental health and suicide prevention say that listening and talking are a huge part, the largest part, of helping people who are suffering. Giving time, love and sympathy to those struggling is what produces hope. So here is the challenge to the Church in the face of the suffering of the world. Are we doing this? Jesus spoke of the last being first. In our churches there are many people who, because of their suffering, feel as if they’re at the bottom of the pile. Will we prioritise them, as Christ does? Do we only talk the easy conversations; conversations with the doing-well professionals, or the cheery characters? Or are we reaching out with the love of Christ to the despondent, the depressed, the anxious, the struggling? Are we bearing one another’s burdens? This is how we fulfil the Law of Christ.