Category Archives: practical theology

Saved From Suicide

Recently I learned that 12% of current American college students admitted to having seriously considered suicide. I am not a psychologist, counsellor or sociologist. I am a professor, and I must walk into my classroom next Monday (August 27, 2018) to meet my new students. This statistic forces me to consider what silent despair may be hidden behind those youthful eyes. I teach about 100 students per year, and each one is a unique living, breathing human being, loved by God. Each is capable of so much good or evil, love or hate, hope or despair. And when I think that 12 of the 100 may be thinking seriously about taking their own lives I begin to seek for something to say that might replace their despair of life with hope.

As I said, I cannot speak as a psychologist, counsellor or sociologist. I can speak only as a fellow human being, from life experience and faith. I thought I would share with you what I think I would say to my students if I were to speak to them about suicide:

I know what it is to despair of life, to suffer inner pain and to feel that no one understands or can understand your suffering. I know what it’s like to be unable to think of a reason why I should expect tomorrow to be any different than today. When I was 17 years old, not much younger than you are today, I suffered such isolation and hopelessness that I concluded that it would be better had I never been born. I worked hard to hide my despair from others by an outward show of wittiness and from myself by staying busy. But when alone my thoughts would turn to my unhappiness, and my gaze only magnified my misery. I didn’t feel worth anything. I didn’t like myself, but felt unable to change or forget. And if I did not like myself how could I believe anyone else could? I saw no way forward and no way out. But I did not kill myself.

I said above that I saw no way out. And I didn’t. But I believed it was possible, though I could not imagine how. This slender thread of hope kept me from utter despair and suicide. Even in the depths of the pit I could still cry out to God and still believe he could save me, though I could not feel his presence or see his light. And he saved me. That little ray of light was God’s way of being present and of pointing toward the future he had planned for me. That period of near despair taught me two lessons I don’t think I could have learned any other way: (1) I am utterly dependent on God for my being, worth, meaning and hope. Without God I can do nothing. I have been in the pit. God was there. (2) I have great compassion for any one suffering from the despair I felt. I know what it’s like, and I know there is hope even when you cannot see it.

When I was in despair, as I said, (1) I felt alone and believed that no one could understand my pain, (2) I did not like myself and thought no one else could either, and (3) there is no reason to believe that the future will be better than the present. I was wrong on all three counts.

You are not alone. Many have suffered as you are, and there are many good and kind people who will listen as you express and deal with your fears and wounds. Don’t suffer in silence. I understand that the thought of letting someone else into your head and heart is terrifying. Please believe me, there are others who will understand; they will not gasp in horror or laugh in derision. Find them.

You are worthy of others’ love and respect. You are God’s creation, and God thinks you are worthy of life and joy. It doesn’t matter what you look like or what you have done. When I was in despair I was afraid to learn what other people thought of me because I suspected their thoughts would not be kind. I did not yet know the rule I have since learned: if you love others they will love you back, but if you determine only to get love from others they cannot love you in return. Love can’t be earned or forced but must be freely given. However little you feel it, however tiny that ray of hope may be, believe that you are loved already and are worthy of human love. Act on that faith and you will find it confirmed.

Things will get better! Even from a common sense point of view, things are always changing. The present is not fixed in concrete. Different stages of life bring different challenges and rewards. The weather changes! Moods change! Not all these changes can be bad. New opportunities arise. From the point of view of faith in God a wholly new perspective arises. God is in charge of the future. God may require hard things of us, but he will not ask us to face these challenges alone and unequipped. He will be there.

This life is not eternal sentence. This may seem strange advice to give to those tempted with despair of life. But listen. Life doesn’t always feel good. There is much evil in the world and many regrets and anxieties dog our paths. So, when you think of the troubles of life and the evil that seems to rule the world, remind yourself that it won’t last forever. There is a way out. I think I would go completely crazy if I thought I had to live forever in this world. Thankfully, we don’t! But let God make that decision. God is the only one capable of making the right decision at the right time.

 

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“How Can I Experience God As Real?” (The Highfield Letters #1)

Over the years I’ve received many letters asking my opinion on various issues or requesting my help with a troublesome concern. I take these inquiries as occasions not only to do something good for others but also to think about an issue of interest. I received a letter a few years back in which the correspondent asked this compound question: “Why does God seem so distant to me, and how can I experience God as real?” Perhaps you’ve also felt this absence and asked this question. I know I have. I was so happy to receive this note, because it gave me an occasion to think about my own experience. Here is the essence of what I wrote in response:

Dear God-Seeker:

God is not a physical object we can experience through the five senses. God is not merely a concept we can think in a clear and simple way. Nor is God an idea or image we can picture in our imaginations. How then can we experience God, if God is not like anything else we experience? Let’s not give up hope. God can be real and active without being real and active in the same way that other things are. I know you believe that God exists, creates, and takes care of us and our world. And because of Jesus, you believe that God loves the whole world and you. Hence you know that God is everywhere active and loving. But we don’t experience God’s omnipresent action in the way we experience the local acts of people and animals and the forces of nature. Why? Local acts stand out from their backgrounds and call attention to themselves, but God’s action—except in the case of miracles, which we are not discussing—touches everything at once. As the most universal agent, God’s actions are undetectable in the ways we notice other actions. So, we should not be surprised that we feel God’s absence from the array of our ordinary experiences. But we are not satisfied with this. Is there another way to experience God as really real?

We crave experience because experiencing gives us immediate certainty, which beliefs, thoughts, and ideas do not. To experience something is to be changed by that thing so as to become in some way like it. In our awareness of ourselves—in what we call our feelings—we also experience the other thing. I know you believe that God is active and loving. The idea of God is clear in your mind. What you want now is experience. Here is my opinion on how to attain what you seek: In this life, we can experience God best by becoming like God in his activity. God is present in our world in his loving, self-giving action. Hence when we join with God in loving what God loves in the way God loves it, we will experience God in action in us. We will experience ourselves as changed and formed by God’s loving action on us and through us. As in all experience, we receive an immediate certainty of the presence of the thing we are experiencing; we know that the changes in us don’t come from us alone.

And perhaps you have guessed already that I am speaking here of the action of the Holy Spirit, which is the cause of all human experience of God. As Paul promises, “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Notice also how John connects our confidence, our immediate certainty, with the action of the Spirit working in our actions of loving others in imitation of God’s love for us:

 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other…This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters…Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us (1 John 3:14-24).

By the witness of creation and Word we come to believe that God is real and that he loves us. And by the action of the Spirit we are prompted and empowered to respond to God’s love with our love. God’s love frees us to love him in return and to love what God loves in the way he loves it. In our acts of love we experience a taste of God’s own feelings of love for us and the world. What joy and certainty can be ours if only we will heed the Spirit’s prompting, follow Jesus’ example, and dive into the flow of God’s love.

I hope these thoughts help.

In Jesus,

Ron