First of all, a further apology for such a time between posts. Productivity is likely to remain low over the next couple of months so apologies again in advance.
On a recent Sunday past, a group of students from a nearby Bible College were responsible for our Morning Bible Hour. Their preacher was a young Dutchman who spoke ably. His topic was interesting, indeed arresting. He spoke in a general and pastoral way on Psalm 23 and made a number of pertinent comments. He related the Psalm to a very personal and moving account of his young, pregnant sister-in-law’s tragic suicide some three years previously.
The juxtaposing of Psalm 23 and the suicide of a confessing believer in Christ was startling and provocative.
Psalm 23 extols God’s providential care of his people. David, a literal shepherd in his youth and in his adult life, as King of Israel, a shepherd of a different sort (for kings in Israel were regularly described as shepherds of God’s people), confesses rightly and humbly, ‘the Lord is my Shepherd’. The Psalm extols the shepherding care of God in David’s life. Whether in pleasant times (when led by still waters) or difficult dark times (in the valley of the shadow of death) the Lord is his protector and keeper. David need fear no evil. Indeed in the very midst of his enemies, when threatened on every side, David’s faith depicts the Lord seating him at a banquet; the Lord’s provision makes a mockery of his enemies and every fearful situation. David is safe in the epicentre of the storm because the Lord provides abundantly.
The question hangs begging in the air. Why then did the young Dutchman’s sister-in-law commit suicide? If God protects his people then why did he not prevent this young mother (and mother-to-be) from self harm? Where is the God who gives banquets to his troubled and beleaguered people?
It would be a foolish person who did not see that here we are in deep waters. Deep waters for faith that is. This kind of topic is neither easy (or safe) to preach or post on for not only is suicide a subject that sends a chill down the spine of most but, more pertinently, who knows whether those who hear or read are themselves contemplating suicide or have a relative who has taken this tragic course. Discoursing on suicide means we must be particularly conscious of our audience.
So what points ought preachers to make when grappling with the subject of suicide of a believer? Let me suggest a few.
1. Preachers should stress the need for those who feel suicidal to see their doctor, and soon. Many suicides arise from clinical depression. Clinical depression is an illness that drastically skews our thinking. It is not merely the normal experience of being down in the dumps. People who are clinically depressed are unable to raise their mood however hard they try. For whatever reason something has ceased functioning as it ought in their brain or nervous system that results in a mind flooded with dark thoughts and a mood that is deeply depressed and perhaps anxious. They have a sustained disturbance of mood that is tangible, abnormal, and profoundly affecting their sense of well-being. Medical attention can help dramatically. The depression and symptoms can be treated (and significantly alleviated) and the underlying cause diagnosed and tackled. Clinical depression is pathological; it is an illness and should be recognised as such.
Preachers should stress that just as a heart condition or blood pressure or a broken leg requires medical treatment (and perhaps lifestyle change) so too does clinical depression. The depressed person is as clinically ill as is the person with say angina. And while there may be spiritual issues that the illness reveals or creates (as there may be in any illness) the whole story is not likely to be spiritual. The advice to see their GP soon and speak openly must be clear and unambiguous. Where symptoms of depression or anxiety are persisting and are moderate to severe in intensity a visit to the doctor is a must and preachers must avoid suggesting the whole matter is spiritual and must be handled at that level.
Let me say it once again, preachers who preach about suicide and depression and other depression related topics must impress, as part of their message, the value of visiting the doctor, to fail to do so is irresponsible. Medical attention can help dramatically.
2. Preachers should not pronounce whether the person who has committed suicide is presently in heaven or hell. They should avoid this for reasons both theological and pastoral. They should avoid pronouncements for the simple reason that they do not know. Preachers simply do not have the authority to pontificate for the Bible gives no sure word on this. Preachers have no theological mandate.
At one time the almost uniform view was that no suicide has eternal life. Nowadays the opposite view prevails. Preachers tend to fall over themselves to assure those who grieve that their loved one is in heaven. Such diametrically opposing views exist because pastors go beyond what Scripture reveals. On the one hand those in Scripture who commit suicide (like Saul and Judas Iscariot) are hardly comforting company. It is those faithful unto death who are promised the crown of life (Rev 2:10). Scripture affirms that it is those who stand firm to the end who are saved (Matt 24:13). Endurance in faith is a hallmark of the redeemed (Hebs 6:11; Cf Rev 13:10). At the same time, God is not unrighteous and will not forget their work and love (Hebs 6:10). More could be said here but for brevity’s sake I shall say no more.
Pastorally it is disastrous to affirm those who commit suicide will be in heaven. For the believer in the audience with suicidal thoughts such cavalier assurances act like green lights. For some, the only brake on suicide is the worry that they may end up somewhere worse. This is a healthy fear and is no bad deterrent and preachers should not undermine it by pronouncing where they have no word from the Lord.
Where the Bible remains silent we should remain silent. In this way we avoid encouraging possible suicides or devastating grieving relatives and we stay within the bounds of ‘it is written’.
3. Preachers should make clear that suicide is always an expression of a collapse of faith. I imagine I hear shocked protest. However, we must be blunt and unambiguous. It is never faith that leads to suicide. Faith trusts God. It never gives up. It never despairs. It never loses hope. Faith endures. Suicide results from a loss of hope. It flows from despair. It happens when the pain (emotional or physical) is so great that the person no longer believes the resources are available to cope with it. When pain exceeds pain-coping resources, suicidal feelings are the result. To believe we have no resources is the essence of unbelief.
Now it may be that the mind which commits suicide is so overwhelmed and distorted that all personal responsibility is gone. None of us knows – only God knows.
I speak about this subject with some personal insight. I have known deep depression that created suicidal thoughts. I know others who have similarly suffered from depression and experienced suicidal thoughts. In my case, profound and deep though the depression was, insistently mind-altering though it was, I did not lose completely the sense of personal responsibility and accountability. Indeed it was faith asserted when I did not understand and when my mind was screaming otherwise that preserved me. To have succumbed to suicidal thoughts would only have been possible had I finally (however briefly) abandoned faith.
Perhaps there are depths of depression where such abandonment is inevitable and leave the person without any responsibility for their actions. I do not know… and neither do you. What we can say, is whether faith is abandoned knowingly (and so culpably) or otherwise, it is nevertheless abandoned and it is this that frees the person to commit suicide. Where there is clinging faith there is hope and no suicide.
Of course, the person who commits suicide may have such distorted thinking that he believes he is doing the best/right/believing thing. He is convinced he is a burden on others etc. We should be clear (and preachers should make clear)that such ‘convictions’ are not true faith but a deception of Satan. Again, true faith clings to God and what Scripture has revealed even when the mind and spirit are being swamped by all kinds of deceptive lies.
Again, I ask, is there a point at which the lies become so overwhelming, so compelling, that all personal responsibility is gone? Only God knows. But one way or another, either culpably or otherwise, faith has collapsed and the preacher, let me repeat, should make clear that this is the case. We do none any favours by shielding them from this harsh reality.
This collapse of personal faith by the suicide is what helps us make sense – at least to some extent – of the tension that seems to exist between the announcement of Psalm 23 that God is the shepherd who protects his people and the suicide of a believer. Why does David feel secure when threatened on every side? Is it because he is super-brave? No. It is because of his faith. It is because David believes that the Lord is his Shepherd that he is strong in spirit and stands firm. It his resolve to believe and trust that gives him strength and resilience. If his faith were to collapse then David would be overwhelmed and crushed.
Yes the Lord keeps his people but he keeps them through faith (Roms 11:30). It is faith that gives us victory (1 Jn 5:4). It is the shield of faith that defends us against the fiery destructive darts of Satan (Eph 6). It is faith that enables us to endure (Hebs 11:27, 12:3; Rev 13:10). Where there is faith there is endurance and divine keeping and protection. It is those who trust the Lord promises to keep. Not those who trusted in the past but those who trust now. While we trust we are invincible. When we trust we shall never be put to shame. It is when we cease to trust we fall and sometimes catastrophically.
Of course, this does not answer all questions. We are still left asking why the Lord allows faith to collapse. Why did he allow the Dutch preachers sister-in-law to commit suicide or for that matter the preacher who married my wife and I? But that question is but one of a whole parcel of such questions. Why did he allow the young child prayed for and loved to die? Why did he allow the cancer that took away a loving and needed father? Why did he allow the pastor to commit adultery? Why the genocide in Rwanda, the killing fields of Cambodia, the WW2 concentration camps? Why did he permit Job to lose all that he had? Indeed the most basic question of all – why did he permit Adam to sin?
To these questions no answer is given. Such questions are too wonderful for us. We are but creatures and God alone is the Creator. In him alone are found the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Like Job we may in our confusion and pain question God and even, fools that we are, impugn his righteousness. But like Job we will finally need to learn that God is God and we are but men. We will need to hear the Lord say to us tenderly but firmly,
Job 40:1-8 (ESV)
And the Lord said to Job: “Shall a fault-finder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.” … “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?
Like Job we will need to humble ourselves and discover that what faith really requires is not answers but a fresh vision of God himself, a fresh realization that God is trustworthy even when we are in the dark, that God is righteous and every man a liar and unrighteous. Then like Job we will confess,
Job 42:3-6 (ESV)
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
In Christ, we have a far greater grasp of the ‘godness’ of God than Job had. We have far more reason to trust unconditionally. And faith does this; it trusts Christ because of all he is and is content to forego understanding in a host of other areas.
The preacher who discusses suicide will want to make this point, and the previous ones, and perhaps others that I have not considered. Are there any you feel ought to be included?