Over the past 16 months, we have all become more familiar with the term pandemic. Regardless of what people may believe about COVID-19, the word pandemic has filled the airwaves, print media, and been a part of one-on-one conversations as well.
The prefix pan – means all or every. Thus, a pandemic is something that is global. A similar word is epidemic. This word is more localized. The exact amount of people or space involved is somewhat arbitrary, but the point is that the effects are more localized, or at least regional.
We are in the midst of an epidemic. But this epidemic affects tens of thousands each year around the world, so perhaps, it is similar to a pandemic. It is not a microscopic disease, however. The issue is suicide.
In 2019, nearly 50,000 Americans died due to suicide. (1) From 1999 to 2019, the number of deaths by suicide rose 33%. 47,500 people died by suicide in 2019, which is about one every 11 minutes. The number of suicides in 2020 actually dropped by a few thousand to just under 45000. (2) But any suicide is one too many, and in the aftermath of this past year, it is not unrealistic to think that the numbers will increase.
But those numbers only represent those who have died. Overall, 1.4 million adults have attempted suicide, 3.4 million have made a plan, and some 12 million adults have seriously considered it (3) – including me, while I was in college. In fact, I also had a plan.
I honestly do not know why I did not follow through, but obviously I did not. And as I look back at the 30+ years since, I see all that I would have missed – and I am so thankful that I did not do what I considered, and planned, to do.
The reality is that people struggle for many reasons, but much of the issue is a lack of hope and a lack of realizing that others love them. That’s why, as a church, our ultimate aim must be to love others and give people a reason for hope. That’s it. Two words – love and hope. In fact, I would like to submit that idea as our new vision statement. Fairfax Baptist Church aims to be a church that loves Jesus and brings His love and His hope to a lost and dying world. In other words, “Share hope with love.”
I want to look at Psalm 88 today. I first decided to do this particular sermon on June 2 on my drive to Chillicothe for camp while listening to a podcast on this subject. It was already in my mind, but that drive gave me further clarity. Then, about a week later, on June 8 and 9, Rick covered this particular Psalm in the devotional emails he sends each weekday. (If you are not receiving them, I would encourage you to contact him and get on the email list.)
But before we look at Psalm 88, I want us to realize that thoughts about death and dying can happen to the best of us. This Psalm was a part of the psalms from the Sons of Korah, and was written by Heman the Ezrahite, whose name means faithful, was one of the leaders of worship (2 Chronicles 5.12) and was one of the wisest people alive (beside Solomon, see 1 Kings 4.31).
But you likely have not heard of Heman. However, you likely have heard of Paul. And this week’s sermon title is a quote from 2 Corinthians 1, where Paul wrote of the challenges he and his companions faced. Read 2 Corinthians 1.8-9.
Now granted, Paul did not say he was going to commit suicide, or had even considered it. However, to despair of life is to not see any hope of living. Granted, in Paul’s case it was the results of others trying to kill him, but the solution for Paul is the same solution as it is for anyone – realizing that maintaining hope – and specifically hope in God, is what is necessary. (Hope is not blind faith, it is recognizing the difficulty and being confident of prevailing overall.)
So, we see that Paul had issues of despair in life. David did as well. We have the 23rd Psalm, where he says he had to confront the valley of the shadow of death and yet persevere, which again, was possible because God was with Him. Likewise, we have the example of Job who knew God was the great redeemer even in the midst of Job’s trials (Job 19.25).
With these people in mind, let me read Psalm 88 and make a couple of comments about it. Read Psalm 88.
In verses 1 and 2, we can have confidence in this author because He starts the psalm with an acknowledgment that God is powerful…that He is real, and that He does care (the author knows He can hear…the question is, Will He?).
He then begins to share various reasons why He desires the Lord to hear his cries. He is near death (Sheol, and counted as one ready for the pit). He says that the dead are not remembered by God and are thus cut off. And this man is overwhelmed by all that he faces.
It appears this man, this faithful, wise, and dutiful servant of God and king is in need of hope. But he is not done.
In verse 8, he claims his companions have abandoned him. He is shut in, the sorrow keeps him from seeing clearly (a likely reference to tears). This man wants deliverance. He is despondent. And, in the midst of that, he continues to call out to the Lord – and he receives no response.
Isn’t that what many who commit suicide believe? Don’t they believe that no one cares? Well, here is a man who is crying out to the God of whom the Bible says will never leave or forsake us – but this man obviously feels forsaken. Let me go on before coming back to that thought.
Again, this man mentions death. He mentions the grave and Abaddon (the Hebrew name for the underworld and a place of destruction). Then, in verse 12, it is darkness and the land of forgetfulness. All the while, he is wondering what awaits…and what he will find. Do the dead rise to praise God? Can God’s righteousness be known and experienced after death?
Still, no answers are given. And still the man cries out to God. And still God does not answer (vv. 13-15). And the closing of this psalm is still without hope. Read Psalm 88.15-18 again.
We expect the Bible to resolve itself. We expect the stories to end well. We expect to see the prayers answered in a certain way. But this psalm is real. It is raw. It is similar to what I shared from Habakkuk during our prayer service earlier this year. God invites us to be real with Him, but that does not mean that He must answer when we expect Him to or as we expect Him to.
But even though this man’s cries and pleas were not met within this psalm, this man appears to not lose hope. Unfortunately, many do lose hope. And that is not because God has abandoned them, but because others do.
Think about it. When you are down, you may know that God cares, but it is the call from a friend, or the touch of a family member that makes a big difference. That is true for you because it is true for all of us.
As we think about this psalm, it is fair to ask, Did God forsake this man? I don’t think so, but it does remind me of Paul’s words in Romans 9 that we studied a couple of months ago. Paul, in quoting from Exodus, wrote that God will have mercy on whom He has mercy. But as we saw in Romans 12 earlier this month, it is because of the mercies of God that we should respond to God.
This man, Heman, is responding to God without a response. And his friends and companions have abandoned him. He appears to be waiting for death. And he is waiting alone. As I move to make a comparison to our present time, we must be careful not to conclude that this man had any thoughts of killing himself. The text does not say that. It does allude to the fact that he believes he is near death in some way (see verses 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 15). But he continues to seek God daily (v. 13)! And that is why I believe he never truly lost hope.
But I have to wonder how he would have felt if he had someone with him? Again, verses 8 and 18 imply he was utterly alone. But more than being alone, he was abandoned and was lonely.
Real or not that is why many people commit suicide. They feel abandoned. They feel lonely. They feel unloved. Maybe they really haven’t been, but most of the time our perspective supersedes reality (whether that is for the good or the bad). At times we all find ourselves alone. And at times we may even feel lonely. But when being lonely turns into true loneliness and feeling isolated, then problems can arise.
And let’s realize that Satan knows how to play this game. Satan got Eve and then Adam to choose death over life when they took of the fruit – saying, surely you will not die. That is, effectively the serpent said, “it can’t be as bad as you think.” But it was worse. In the NT, Satan tempted Jesus to commit suicide when he was alone in the wilderness. He told Jesus to jump from the top of the temple, but unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus would not do it.
Satan is conniving and he can convince us of things we might not otherwise believe. But remember, Satan’s endgame is to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10.10). But Jesus came to give life – and abundant life at that (also John 10.10).
Our words, our presence, our hope, our love may be the difference between someone choosing life or choosing death. Many might say, “Well, suicide would never happen to anyone in my family.” I could line people up to speak all day and night for the next month (at least) to say that they never thought it would happen to someone in their family either. But it did.
Let me remind you that as of 2019, 12 million adults in the United States have seriously committing suicide at some point – and I am one of those 12 million, and I was even one of the 3.4 million who had a plan. 12 million…that is about 6% of the adult population in the United States. That is more than 1 in 20. And that doesn’t count teenagers and even 11- and 12-year-olds that are looking for a way out of the challenges in their life.
Thankfully, we have a psalm like Psalm 88 that shows the raw emotion of someone who loves God, but is struggling with life. Again, I do not believe Heman took his life, but we do not know. Thankfully, many of the people who seriously consider suicide, and even make a plan, do not attempt it. As I said earlier, I am not certain why I did not take action, but so many do. And even one who does is too many.
So, what can we do to help?
Well, we need to be a people of hope and love. Again, you have been hearing this emphasis on Hub Sundays now for about a year (and continually since September). And the situation is urgent as the months of May and June have taught us. I had already planned this message before the events of the last week, but given the number of attempts recently, we must consider how we should respond.
What’s Next?: Three responses we can make this week: 1) Make a call. 2) Send a note. 3) Ask someone how they are doing – and mean it.