Matthew recently sat down with John Stonestreet and Shane Morris to discuss Hope Always and the Church’s Answer to Suicide.
There is a pandemic that has lasted far longer than COVID. It’s also been more deadly. It’s more difficult to treat, and there’s no vaccine for it. Masks are ineffective in stopping it and may actually make it worse.
America’s pandemic of despair shows up most obviously in the mounting number of suicide and suicide attempts. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide rates are higher today than at any other time since the Great Depression. Unless one takes into account just how different our world is today, it’s impossible to grasp what that data point really means. Today, we have emergency rooms, a much better knowledge of poison and poison control, better technologies, and emergency medications like NARCAN. These incredible, life-saving medical interventions mean that a large percentage of patients who attempt suicide survive. But adjusting for these medical advances, we are likely living through the worst suicide crisis in our nation’s history.
This is a crisis that is, at its root, fueled by despair. Hopelessness afflicts individuals and entire communities. Deeper than economic hardship or access to firearms and opioids, we have created, to borrow words from my friend Matthew Sleeth, “an unlivable society.” Loneliness and isolation are the norm, and they pre-existed this Coronavirus.
Matthew’s latest book is the most direct, helpful, and clarifying book for Christians on this topic of suicide. It’s called Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Life in a Culture of Suicide. In it, he combines his first-hand knowledge of America’s suicide crisis as an emergency room doctor with statistical insights, a biblical overview of the topic, and an incredible amount of wisdom. His conclusion is nothing less than a calling. When it comes to addressing this culture-wide pandemic, if not the church stepping up, who will?
Scripture, as Dr. Sleeth points out, says a great deal about suicide, and therefore has a huge role to play in preventing it. From the beginning, Satan tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden to, in effect, kill themselves. Ever since, demons, both literal and figurative, have been whispering lies and words of despair into human ears.
Throughout the book, Sleeth threads an important needle. On the one hand, he argues against a materialistic view of suicide. Humans are, he argues, the only creatures that knowingly take our own lives. Thus, this terrible decision has an irreducible spiritual component. On the other hand, Sleeth warns Christians not to ignore the very real medical and mental health factors that drive people to self-harm.
By holding together the material and moral sides of suicide, Sleeth addresses the issue from the best foundation available: who humans are as image-bearers of God. Thus, Sleeth makes clear why Christianity has proved to be the most powerful and effective response to those whispering demons that call us into the darkness.
Near the beginning of Hope Always, Sleeth tells an especially touching story of two patients from his time as an emergency room physician. The first was an able-bodied young man, full of promise, who chose to shoot himself in the temple. The other was a joyful, wheelchair-bound man, slightly older with a permanent neurological injury, who had come in for a minor infection.
A nurse asked Dr. Sleeth if he recognized the patient. “It’s the man you saw last spring who shot himself.” The two patients, as it turns out, were the same person. As the young man’s parents later told Dr. Sleeth, after surviving his suicide attempt, their son had found a reason to live. In their words, “He got his faith back,” and his faith had given him fresh hope. (This kind of powerful storytelling, born in his wealth of experience, is just one example of Matthew Sleeth’s compelling writing style.)
To be clear, having a Christian faith is no guarantee that, ultimately, the demonic voices will go away, or won’t steal, kill, and destroy a life. Still, especially in this area, only the Church is properly grounded in both Scripture and science. Only the biblical vision of the imago Dei, of our creation and fall, can address the fullness of the human condition. In light of this, I say with Matthew Sleeth, if not the church on this issue, then who?