Can I Be a Force for Life in a Culture of Suicide? With Dr. Matthew Sleeth [Episode 193]

Force Life Culture Suicide Dr. Matthew Sleeth

Every single day, someone in our world is thinking about choosing suicide. It isn’t just one or two people, but ten million Americans will consider killing themselves in the upcoming year. That’s an alarming number!

But today’s guest, Dr. Matthew Sleeth, believes Christians—and our churches—can be the first to offer hope. As a physician and minister, Dr. Sleeth will give you the practical and spiritual tools you need to help those who are wrestling with suicidal thoughts.

This is a really sensitive conversation—one that many people in the church feel ill-equipped to have—and that’s why I’m so grateful for Dr. Sleeth. When his life’s work brought him face to face with suicidal situations on a daily basis, he didn’t sit back and accept the statistic, but he redirected his life and ministry to preventing it.

Dr. Sleeth was an emergency room physician and chief of the hospital medical staff, but he resigned from his position to teach, preach, and write about faith and health. Now he has spoken at more than one thousand churches, campuses, and events, including serving as a monthly guest preacher at the Washington National Cathedral. As the executive director of Blessed Earth, Dr. Sleeth was recognized by Newsweek as one of the nation’s most influential Christian leaders. He’s also the author of numerous articles and books, including Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Life in a Culture of Suicide. Currently, Dr. Sleeth lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with his wife of forty years, Nancy.

You can see why Dr. Sleeth is the perfect person to help us wade through this difficult topic. During this conversation, he’ll give you biblically-based information and practical steps to engage with those who are dealing with suicidal ideation, and he answers some really tough questions, including:

  • What does the Christian worldview reveal about a person’s value?
  • Is the church equipped to handle this epidemic of suicidal thoughts?
  • How can the church cultivate a community of hope for people?
  • How can I start a conversation with someone I believe may be wrestling with this?
  • What’s the first step I can take to help a loved one who is contemplating suicide?

I know this is tender for some of you because it hits too close to home. There are spiritual and emotional battles that so many of us face, and if you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can trust that God is near to you right now, reminding you that you matter and your loved ones matter.

Jesus said He came to give us life (John 10:10), and today, we get to be part of His mission. This was an honest and surprisingly hopeful conversation, and I pray it will help you be a force for life in a culture of suicide.

You can make a difference, and you can be a light of life and truth to those around you because you can do all things through Christ who gives you strength.

[Listen to the podcast using the player above, or read the transcript below. Then check out the links below for more helpful resources.]

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Episode Transcript

4:13 Podcast: Can I Be a Force for Life in a Culture of Suicide? With Dr. Matthew Sleeth [Episode 193]

Dr. Matthew Sleeth: Having come out of emergency medicine, I always deal with the worst things first. It's called triage in medicine. And if somebody is suicidal and they have a plan and they have the means to do it, that's an emergency.

Jennifer Rothschild: Every single day, someone in your world is thinking about choosing suicide. It isn't just one or two. Ten million Americans will consider killing themselves in the upcoming year. Today's guest, though, Dr. Matthew Sleeth, believes that Christians and our churches can be the first to offer hope. And he's a physician and a minister, so Dr. Sleeth is going to give you practical and spiritual tools to help those who are stressed and struggling. Jesus said that he came to give us life, and today we get to be a part of his mission. This was a very honest and, I got to be honest with you, a surprisingly hopeful conversation. I was so glad about it, so I can't wait for you to hear it.

K.C., it's time to get it going.

K.C. Wright: It's time. Welcome to the 4:13 Podcast, where practical encouragement and biblical wisdom set you up to live the "I Can" life, because you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. Now, your host and my buddy, Jennifer Rothschild.

Jennifer Rothschild: Hello, our dear people. We're so glad you're here. I'm Jennifer, here to help you be and do more than you feel capable of as you live this "I Can" life of Philippians 4:13. And I will tell you this, my friends. May is a lovely month because spring has sprung.

K.C. Wright: Oh, thank you.

Jennifer Rothschild: I know, right? But the other thing about May is it is Mental Health Awareness month in the United States. And so I wanted us to be able to talk candidly about this difficult subject because I think Dr. Sleeth gives us a lot of hope. I was listening to the radio -- this was a couple of weeks ago -- and they were talking about post-pandemic, you know, the residuals. And, of course, anxiety, depression is still way high. They were talking about how right at the beginning of the pandemic, alcohol purchases and consumption went up way high. But what they have recognized is that that has not gone down to pre-pandemic numbers.

K.C. Wright: Wow.

Jennifer Rothschild: So people are still obviously -- well, either they just got into a habit or they're still finding ways and using alcohol to do it to deal with stress and anxiety. And it's a real thing. I mean, joy is sometimes hard to find. In fact, you made me laugh this morning, K.C. You were telling me about this meme. Because we were talking about Marie Kondo Sparking Joy. Remember those days when everything --

K.C. Wright: Yeah, remember that?

Jennifer Rothschild: Yeah.

K.C. Wright: Yes.

Jennifer Rothschild: Okay. Well, what was that meme you read? It was funny.

K.C. Wright: Oh, I just chuckled when I saw a meme the other day that said, "If I got rid of everything that didn't spark joy in my life, I'd be standing on the side of the road holding my dog, my iPhone, and a cup of cup."

Jennifer Rothschild: And all the people said --

Jennifer and K.C.: Amen.

Jennifer Rothschild: Okay. So, yeah, we get it. And we're not making light, we're just laughing at the fact that it is true.

K.C. Wright: True.

Jennifer Rothschild: Sometimes you're like, "There just ain't much out there to find joy." Okay. But here's the thing, y'all. This physician, Dr. Sleeth, whom you're about to hear from, I had a really great conversation with him. He's written an amazing book called "Hope Always," and he is going to give you so much optimism and hope when it comes to this very difficult subject.

So K.C., let's introduce Dr. Matthew and get this going.

K.C. Wright: Dr. Matthew Sleeth was an emergency room physician and chief of a hospital medical staff. He resigned from his position to teach, preach, and write about faith and health. Dr. Sleeth has spoken in more than 1,000 churches, campuses, and events, including serving as a monthly guest preacher at the Washington National Cathedral.

Jennifer Rothschild: I love that.

K.C. Wright: Recognized by Newsweek as one of the nation's most influential Christian leaders, Dr. Sleeth is an Executive Director of Blessed Earth and author of numerous articles and books, including the one he and Jennifer are talking about today called "Hope Always." He lives in Lexington, Kentucky with Nancy, his wife of 40 years, and their grown children serve with their families in full-time parish ministry and as medical missionaries in Africa.

Jennifer Rothschild: Wow. That's so cool.

K.C. Wright: What a family.

Jennifer Rothschild: Yeah.

K.C. Wright: You're really going to get a lot from this conversation. So pull up a seat. There's room at the table for you. Let's listen in.

Jennifer Rothschild: So, Matthew, I have heard that suicide -- it's described like an epidemic in the United States. So let's start with this. Let's set up the facts about suicide, because then we're going to dive into some of the hard feelings and, of course, the hope that surrounds this issue, too. So let's start with the facts. What's the situation with suicide in America?

Dr. Matthew Sleeth: The situation is that we are in a place that no society has ever been. We have about 50,000 suicides a year, and we have over 100,000 overdoses, and a lot of those are suicides. But that doesn't really tell the story because we have fantastic technology saving most people -- thank God -- who are trying to commit suicide. If we were to subtract modern technology, which can reverse overdoses and dialyze off overdoses and -- even 20% of people who use firearms or who jump can be saved if they're gotten to a trauma center in the golden hour of trauma. But if we were to subtract all this modern stuff, keeping folks alive after they've attempted suicide, we would probably have roughly a million suicides a year in the United States. In the next year, 10 million Americans are going to wrestle with whether or not to end their lives, and a million and a half of them will be seen in emergency departments and need to be treated.

Jennifer Rothschild: Okay, so that does sound like an epidemic. But, you know, every life matters. So even if it were 10 rather than 10 million, it is so worth us diving into this topic and addressing it and becoming a force of life. And I'm curious for you, because you are a doctor, you know, your whole goal is to preserve, to save, to enhance life. So how did you get involved in this topic of suicide?

Dr. Matthew Sleeth: Well, as a physician -- and I used to run an emergency department -- it was an everyday thing that you're dealing with people who have attempted suicide. And in that setting, for almost all the time that I was a physician, I was not a Christian. Nonetheless, I believed in the Hippocratic Oath, which says that no physician will ever help anyone commit suicide or have an abortion. And so I believed in that even before I was a Christian. When I became a Christian, I got the rest of the story as it were. And in writing this book, I come at it both -- and the book, by the way, is "Hope Always." Sorry to plug the book there for a second. But in writing "Hope Always," I came at it both as a physician and as a pastor, a minister of the Lord. And so this is one instance where when Christianity is teamed up with something else -- syncretism it's usually called. That's a big word for Christianity hooking arms with something else. In this case, it's a good thing.

Jennifer Rothschild: Oh, yeah.

Dr. Matthew Sleeth: And so that's how I got involved in it initially, was as a physician, but then as a believer in Christ.

Jennifer Rothschild: Well, because -- I mean, our souls -- we are, you know, body and soul. The Lord has made us in such a fearfully and wonderfully way is what the book of Psalms says. And we're so valuable. Each soul is so valuable to God. So to be able to see it from both sides, just the medical and the spiritual, just our human value, it means so much.

So you mentioned -- you went even deeper with your commitment, of course, as you came to Christ, and you're part of what he's doing in our world, because Jesus says, "I came to give life, and life more abundantly." So let's talk -- let's just shift over there for a second. The Church, Christians, we're supposed to be the people of hope. Okay? And so we're surrounded by this epidemic that you started to describe. Do you think we're equipped? I mean, you know, I look -- I think when I walk into my church on Sunday morning, are we equipped to handle this kind of epidemic?

Dr. Matthew Sleeth: We're not. I was preaching not too long ago in my home state, in Louisville, at a large church there -- which I think had roughly 30,000 on a Sunday amongst its various campuses and everything -- and I asked the question, "How many of you have ever heard a sermon on suicide?" And it's an eerie thing to look around thousands of people and not a single hand has gone up. And I think the church has been quiet. I don't think there's any evil intent or anything about that, I think that it was just assumed that Christians knew that suicide was wrong. But we've come into a place where we have to step up and we really have to be the voice of life. We have to trumpet the cause of life, I believe, as Christians. And the first thing I did was go to the Bible and see what the Bible has to say. And there on the first page is Adam and Eve being told that if they do this one thing, in that day they will surely die, they will be committing suicide. And not only did they do it, but they had somebody lying to them that it would be okay, and that was Satan. And so in Scripture, we find out where suicide comes from.

And by the way, there's no other creature on this planet that commits suicide. Humans are unique in this. There's never once been a zebra that woke up one morning and said, "To heck with it, I'm not going to run from the lion today."

Jennifer Rothschild: Yeah.

Dr. Matthew Sleeth: But suicide is a uniquely human thing. And if you trace through Scripture, every time Satan shows up, he's trying to get somebody to take their life. He tries to do that with Job. He certainly does that with Judas. And even when Satan interacts with Jesus, one of his three ploys is to try to get Jesus to jump off a high tower and kill himself.

When you come at this from the backside, if you will, in Scripture, when Jesus goes across the Sea of Galilee and he encounters someone who is possessed by many demons, and he takes those demons and he throws them out of the man and puts them into a herd of pigs, a couple of thousand pigs, and those pigs immediately go and do the one thing animals will never do, they all go and kill themselves.

Jennifer Rothschild: Oh, you're right. You're right. Wow.

Okay. So you just helped us understand, yeah, this is a bigger topic than the churches often -- than we talk about and that often we feel equipped to deal with. But I think, too, sometimes, Matthew, it's because we're kind of nervous, you know. We're nervous that we're going to make things worse if we bring up depression or suicide with someone who's hurting. We're just not sure. So what can we do? Or, like, how could we start a conversation? What should we say, what should we not say, that kind of thing?

Dr. Matthew Sleeth: Well, I think the first thing we have to recognize is that lots of people are dealing with this. I don't think there's a church that gathers that there isn't somebody in there that either they or someone in their family are wrestling with this. And so it's very prevalent, it's very prominent. And then the second thing is is that we are told to be the hands and feet of Christ. And as you quoted in John 10:10, Christ came that we'd have life and that we'd have it more abundantly. So it really is our job. We are our brothers' and sisters' keeper.

And I think when you open a conversation like this, the first thing that you do, if somebody's looking like they're depressed or despondent or they're not acting like themselves, is just to say, you know, "How's it going for you?" And if you get some kind of an answer that doesn't really -- they haven't engaged, you know, press in a little bit more and say, "No, I really care about you, I want to know how you're doing." And at that point, most people will open up. And if they say anything about, you know, I'm thinking that life isn't worth living or that, you know, everybody would be better off without me, you never react by saying, "Oh, that's not true." This is the time to lean in and you're walking with that person through their dark night of the soul. And so you lean in and listen, I think is the very first thing that you have to do.

Jennifer Rothschild: So instead of just saying, "Oh, no, that's not true," maybe you ask, "Why do you feel that way?"

Dr. Matthew Sleeth: Exactly.

Jennifer Rothschild: To keep the conversation going?

Dr. Matthew Sleeth: Absolutely. If somebody is -- having come out of emergency medicine, I always deal with the worst things first. It's called triage in medicine. And if somebody is suicidal and they have a plan and they have the means to do it, that's an emergency and that person needs to be taken to an emergency department or in some ways gotten into the mental health system and to be treated. It's not a time to ignore. And I have been amazed at the number of children who have been saved because a child came to their parents and said, "My friend is thinking of this," and the parent didn't just discuss it and let it be, the parent interceded. And I have just met dozens of young people whose lives have been saved by somebody caring enough to get involved in their kids' friends' lives.

Jennifer Rothschild: I wonder, you know -- because we are often nervous because we think, well, I don't want to insult someone, or whatever it may be. I think what I'm hearing you say is your risk of offending someone is far less than the risk of you saying nothing and them making a decision that you could have helped, perhaps, steer them in a different direction?

Dr. Matthew Sleeth: That's right. People have varying degrees of education and that sort of thing. But the one thing I like to point out is that everybody's got a Ph.D. in attitude. And if you approach somebody with an attitude of love, that comes through. And by the way, it has been studied and shown again and again and again that asking somebody about suicide lowers the risk of it happening, not the other way around.

Jennifer Rothschild: Interesting. Okay, that's a really good -- that's really good word there.

And so you've already told us that one of the things we can do is listen and enter in. You mentioned the importance of a triage response if someone has the means and intention, it appears. So let me just be super clear for someone who's listening. And their emotions are swirling right now, so let's make it super clear. What is the first and most important step when it comes to helping a loved one who's struggling with suicidal ideation?

Dr. Matthew Sleeth: The first and most important step is to not downplay it, but to take it seriously, to say, "Hey, that is really serious." And then to immediately say, "And I care about you." If you're having this conversation, you care about them. And one of the things that is going through people's heads when they're wrestling with suicide is that nobody cares. And just to say I care and I care enough and I will have this conversation. And even if it's awkward and even if it's hard, I love you enough to do this, I think is really important.

I think one thing -- everybody who's listening should just pause this and do, is to put in their phone 1-800-273-8255. That's the National Suicide Hotline. Because if things are bad, you want to have a next step. And that's the next step, is the call.

Jennifer Rothschild: Okay, that's really good. And we will, of course, have that also on the show notes so it will be very easy to get to.

Matthew, I'm curious also of some practical ways that we as the community of believers, the church, can cultivate communities of hope. Because in this culture, it seems like death is a viable choice. And we have people in our lives -- and I've been to funerals of young people -- young people in our lives who have made this choice. So what can we do as a body of believers to cultivate a community of hope for people?

Dr. Matthew Sleeth: I think that we have to understand that although we may not have medical degrees and be able to do pharmacology and that sort of thing, the church has an answer here that the world is missing, and that is a philosophy that we are not mistakes, we just don't happen out of primordial soup. That the Lord knows us and that Christ died so that we'd have life, and that life is precious. And not only that, but we are at the threshold of eternity in this life. And Christ not only wanted us to have life now, but he wanted us to have life for eternity with him.

And so the secular thinking is that you're a mistake and when you die, nothing happens. The Christian worldview is that you are a creation of God, made in his image, and that God wants to bring you back into right relationship, and if that happens, we get to spend eternity with Christ. And so I think we have to articulate very clearly our worldview, what's different about that, and that's why we have hope.

Jennifer Rothschild: Wow. You know what I'm grateful about? And I'm hoping our listeners are sensing this right now. This conversation where we're dealing with a very difficult topic of suicide, to me, even though that's the topic, feels very hopeful. You're presenting such hope that there is an answer. Of course, ultimately Christ. But as you said, we can be his hands and his feet.

So this will be my last question, Matthew. I'm very curious, as you have studied this, what did you learn about the nature of God? As you studied, you know, death, suicide, hope, the church, all of this, what did you learn about the nature of God?

Dr. Matthew Sleeth: Well, I think that what -- by the way, a committed Christian is -- and this has been well studied as well -- is six to eight times less likely to take their own life than an atheist, even though we think about suicide at the same amount. And what I learned about God is that he really is the source of life. That's the power source. And we're supposed to be grafted into that Living Water and we're supposed to abide there. And we're going to go through tough times. I look at the news. Oh, my heart just breaks and everything. And nonetheless, I am the Lord's, I'm in his hand, and that's where the Lord wants me. That's what I learned.

Jennifer Rothschild: There are spiritual and emotional battles that so many people face. And this book, "Hope Always," plus the RightNow Media resource that Dr. Sleeth mentioned, they're going to be really good. Like, they're going to serve as a very practical toolkit for you. They're going to help you find hope and give hope.

K.C. Wright: Yeah. And this book is such a great resource that's now at your fingertips to build communities of hope that help save lives. And we're all about life. We love what God loves: people.

Jennifer Rothschild: Yes.

K.C. Wright: People are the only things you can take to heaven with you, right?

Jennifer Rothschild: Yeah.

K.C. Wright: We value what God values: people. So our 4:13ers, I know this was a very tough subject today, but let's be a part of the solution. Let's become forces for life. And it's an honor for Jennifer and I to be life speakers right here on the 4:13 Podcast.

Jennifer Rothschild: Yeah, it really is, to speak life.

We know this may have also been very tender for some of you because it hits way too close to home. So we just want to say to your heart right now, trust that God is reaching out to you. He's reminding you that you matter, your loved one matters. So don't allow this conversation to be anything other than a blanket of comfort on your heart right now. Okay?

Go to the show notes at to read a transcript of this conversation. And you can get the "Hope Always" book and you can get a link to the RightNow Media video, free resources that Matthew mentioned. And Dr. Sleeth gave the Suicide Prevention Hotline number earlier. We'll also have that number on the show notes at

All right, our people. God's got you. You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength. I can.

K.C. Wright: I can.

Jennifer and K.C.: And you can.

Jennifer Rothschild: Let's go spark some joy.


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