Preaching about suicide is not something many pastors are well-trained for. Unfortunately, as suicide has become a leading cause of death—and because September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day—weekend services that follow may be an appropriate time to do so. But is there a way to preach hope-filled messages about suicide that also helps protect against it?
Scott M. Gibson and Karen Mason say yes, and it’s what undergirds their book Preaching Hope in the Darkness: Help for Pastors in Addressing Suicide from the Pulpit.
Scott, a preacher and homiletician, and Karen, a suicide preventionist who filters her research through the grid of faith, invite readers to join the conversation that their unique book centers on: preaching the hope of the gospel is key to protecting against suicide—and it’s an unexplored area of suicide prevention.
Backed with thorough and sound research including interviews of 20 pastors, suicide-bereaved persons, and funeral directors—plus over a thousand clergy—they’ve also included case studies and follow-up questions, sample sermons, Bible studies, a bibliography, and practical tools.
In the below excerpt adapted from Preaching Hope in the Darkness, Gibson and Mason share five ways pastors can move listeners to a new place of growth—or reveal those who are contemplating taking their life—when preaching about suicide.
Preaching that protects against suicide centers on the hope of the gospel.
When we preach, what are the ways we can advance hope and offer grace to our listeners, cultivating a manner of preaching that moves listeners from discouragement to gospel hope?
We’ll consider five ways.
1. Preach the gospel.
The gospel means “good news.” Our credibility in offering hope is deepened when we remember that we preach the good news of the gospel for non-believers and believers, including ourselves. Non-believers are shown in the gospel the forgiveness of sin through the life, death, burial, resurrection, and promised return of Jesus Christ. They have come to terms with their sinfulness and turn away from that which displeases God by taking on a new direction, a new life in Christ (Rom 3:19–26).
Yet the gospel is for believers too—for growth toward maturity in Christ. Believers continue to claim forgiveness in Christ every day, for we sin every day. Believers are deepening in faith, holiness, knowledge of the Scriptures, and overall discipleship.
Not only do we want to preach the gospel to those who have yet to come to faith in Christ, but also we don’t want to forget to preach the gospel to believers. We want to help Christians preach the gospel to themselves and each other. Doing so makes a difference. When we articulate the gospel from the pulpit, we help listeners understand it for themselves and enable them to speak it to each other. Jerry Bridges observes, “Christians are not instructed in the gospel. And because they do not fully understand the riches and glory of the gospel, they cannot preach it to themselves, nor live by it in their daily lives.”1 Our task as preachers is to define the gospel, speak it, and model it.
Further, we don’t want to get in the way of helping our listeners understand it and live it. We are not the savior; Jesus is. As Zack Eswine warns, “When Jesus and the larger story of the gospel are eclipsed,” we may “unwittingly exalt ourselves to a high place of knowledge and importance,” shrouding people from hearing the gospel.2
The gospel—and preaching it to non-believers and believers (and to yourself)—is key for everyone to have confidence in the present and the future.
2. Emphasize the hope of the gospel.
We preachers are experts at pointing out the sins of others. But we don’t want to forget that the gospel brings incredible hope to those who are struggling with sin, doubts, fears, or despair. Roland Leavell advises, “Preaching should do more than denounce the sinfulness of sin; it must also declare the eternal hope which is promised through Christ.”3 The hope to face today and tomorrow resides in the promise of abundant life now and forever.
The Old Testament prophets are sometimes thought of as doom-and-gloom preachers. However, their message was not simply condemning; they also offered hope: turn to God from depression, from despondency, from a life that displeases him. As Roland Leavell notes, “The ever-brightening hope which the Old Testament prophets preached was but the foregleam of the sunrise of the blessed hope which was revealed from God through Christ.”4 He continues, “The gospel of Christ offers such heavenly gifts as forgiveness of sin, cleansing of the conscience, power over temptation, joy in service, happiness in Christian fellowship, growth in Christlikeness, a triumphant victory over death, and eternal blessedness in heaven.”
New Testament preachers preached fulfillment in Christ, who is the hope for every believer. They gave hope to listeners struggling in sin and tangled up in life’s questions. Peter prompts his readers to their struggles with hope: “Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pet 1:21). Paul underscores this hope when he reminds the Colossian Christians of their hope in Christ:
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. (Col 1:21–23)
Listeners need hope, no matter what challenge they face. The gospel is a gospel of hope—and that is what we preach. Paul’s benediction to the Roman Christians inspires us to preach to those who may not think they have hope but need to hear it: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:13).
The hope that we provide our listeners is seen in the promise of the gospel. Hearing sermons of this hope-filled gospel and helping our listeners preach the gospel to themselves daily can be transforming. “Preaching the gospel to myself every day is a great way to keep myself established in ‘the hope of the gospel,’ so that I might experience the practical benefits that such hope is intended to bring me here on earth,”5 says Milton Vincent. He continues, “Preaching the gospel to myself each day keeps before me the startling advocacy of God for my fullness, and it also serves as a means by which I feast anew on the fullness of provision that God has given to me in Christ.”6
When our listeners are challenged with overwhelming depression, doubts, or fears, hope can be what they need to make it through the darkness. Vincent writes, “Hope of eternity with Christ in heaven also enables my heart to thrive during the most difficult and lengthy of trials here on earth.”
3. Help believers to remember.
We can remind listeners who they are in Christ. Help them to remember in the sermon who God has called them to be—those who have been given his grace (2 Thess 2:16), transformed into his likeness (2 Cor 3:18), made children of God (1 John 3:1), sanctified (Rom 15:16), loved (John 3:16), given the fruit of the Spirit (Rom 8:23; Gal 5:22), the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12), and the Spirit himself (Luke 11:13), and so much more! These demarcations of the Christian life are powerful, encouraging, hopeful reminders of what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in them.
Remembering is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. We remember his sacrifice and love for us as expressed in the Lord’s Supper, wherein we gather with other believers around the table. There we eat the bread and drink the cup “in remembrance of him.” We remember with gratitude and praise the life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of Christ.
Pastor Lee Eclov shares, “One of my favorite pastoral duties is to make people homesick.” The local church celebrates the hope of heaven through the testimony of believers in their midst, and the deep-down confidence in Christ celebrated in funerals of believers in Christ.7 Even music can remind believers about Christ’s return and of heaven. This homesickness is filled with gospel hope. Roland Leavell agrees:
Within every heart there is an unquenchable thirst for assurance of a better life to come. The human heart is weary of spiritual wanderings and it wants an eternal home. It despairs under continual disappointments. It is restive under the frailties of the flesh and with the illnesses that plague the body. There is an irrepressible faith that springs up continuously in the human heart, believing that there awaits a heaven where no sin abounds and no sorrow comes, a heaven of bliss in the presence of Deity and all his redeemed.8
When we preach about heaven, we want to be clear about what we’re communicating. Brian Croft and Phil Newton observe, “The gospel is frequently obscured when a pastor offers comfort about heaven when how heaven is received is not made clear.”9A clear articulation that the way to eternal life is only in Christ is essential for remembering the gospel and finding hope in it.
Milton Vincent affirms, “The more I experience the riches of Christ in the gospel, the more there develops within me a yearning to be with Christ in heaven where I will experience His grace in unhindered fullness.”10
Says Albert Hsu, “Remembrance as a spiritual discipline gives us strength to live in the present and direction to move forward.”11 We help our listeners remember as we preach. We remind them who we are in Christ, what Christ has done for us, and the promise of eternity with him. The power of the gospel we preach can be an encouragement to those affected by suicide and hope for those contemplating it.
4. Cultivate the power of worship.
The gathering of believers in Jesus Christ is a compelling reason for hope and encouragement for those who may be struggling. “Worship can bring to life a healing perspective,” observes Edgar N. Jackson. He continues, “Worship can also bring a healing quality of appreciation to life.”12The pastor who intentionally develops worship that is restorative, biblical, and gospel-oriented will cultivate hope in the congregation. Jackson elaborates:
The act of giving thanks helps to bring life back into balance by weighing the blessings against misfortunes. Though no life is free of its disturbances, there are multitudes of things and people and happenings for which one can truly be thankful. We need the reality to see life as it is and not as it may seem to be. That person who finds not opportunity for thankfulness is neither fair to himself nor to life in general when he begins to count his misfortunes. That person who has learned the art of thankfulness learns life’s quiet satisfactions, and finds a balance that tends to discount anything that would destroy right relations with his Creator.
Acts of worship—like giving thanks in word, expressing praise in song, praying to the Lord, listening to the preached Word—encourages the deepening of faith, bolstering believers to face the challenges of life with renewed strength. Worship engenders an appreciation of life and hope. Thoughtful, prayerful worship planning is key to inspiring hope in the prevention of suicide.
5. Ask questions of your listeners.
Finally, asking questions in a sermon can move listeners to a new place of growth or reveal those who contemplate suicide. Reflecting on the death of a pastor friend who died by suicide, Marty Thurber says that, although he is not an expert on suicide, he knows what he would do differently: “I would not be afraid to ask someone about their future. What are their dreams? Their hopes and plans?”13 Pastors are on the front lines of helping people cope. The sermon is an obvious time during which good, thoughtful questions can be asked for listeners to consider—you don’t need to answer them, but only articulate them. Listeners will see themselves in your questions and will be challenged by them.
Watch the Facebook Live webinar “The Current Mental Health of Pastors” on demand and hear from Dr. Karen Mason, who has devoted her research and practice to this very topic.
Explore other topics related to preaching about suicide in Preaching Hope in the Darkness, like:
- Understanding Suicide
- Preventing Suicide
- Pastoral Care after a Suicide Crisis
- The Funeral Sermon and Post-Suicide Care
- Young Adult and Youth Group Preaching and Teaching Activities
- Making a Difference through Cultural Exegesis
Get Preaching Hope in the Darkness, available now from Lexham Press.
- How to Write a Funeral Sermon: 4 Principles to Herald God’s Message
- The Christian Understanding of Death and Dying According to Scripture
- Has Your Congregation Ever Heard a Sermon on Suicide?
- Funerals: For the Care of Souls by Tim Perry
- Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals: Applying the Gospel at the Unique Challenge of Death by Brian Croft and Phil Newton
- Pastoral Leadership: For the Care of Souls by Harold L. Senkbeil and Lucas V. Woodford
- Jerry Bridges, Discipline of Grace, 46.
- Eswine, Spurgeon’s Sorrows, 125.
- Roland Leavell, Prophetic Preaching: Then and Now (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963), 69.
- Leavell, Prophetic Preaching, 71–72.
- Vincent, Gospel Primer, 44.
- Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians (Bemidji, MN: Focus, 2008), 45, 47.
- Eclov, Pastoral Graces, 152.
- Leavell, Prophetic Preaching, 74.
- Brian Croft and Phil Newton, Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals: Applying the Gospel at the Unique Challenges of Death (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 13.
- Vincent, Gospel Primer, 43.
- Albert Y. Hsu, Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers & Hope (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 70.
- Jackson, A Psychology for Preaching, 84, 85.
- Marty Thurber, “Suicide Affects Us All,” Ministry 77.9 (September 2005): 10–11.