‘We must seek a balanced picture on this issue. We ought not to beat up on those who have attempted to end their lives, nor offer no hope to those who have lost those who have ended their lives. There but for the grace of God go we. Compassion and understanding are the order of the day. That said, we must not lose sight of the grievousness of this sin. Suicide is shameful, selfish, destructive’ (R. C. Sproul).
I started to write this post the day after attending the funeral of a young man who died by suicide. It was a deeply moving occasion. The speaker was brave enough to talk about how the deceased had died, that suicide is never the right thing to do, and that the young man who had taken his life had grown up with great parents who loved him deeply. I watched my pastor friend weep with the lad’s mother and I thought that that is the sort of empathy I want to have.
The young man who died professed to be a Christian, and it was not long until someone asked me, ‘if a Christian commits suicide, will they go to heaven?’ I am always a bit frustrated when someone asks me that. It suggests that the questioner hasn’t fully understood the nature of the gospel. When someone is brought to faith in Christ the verdict that God places over them is ‘now no condemnation’ (Romans 8:1). That verdict stands even when the Christian sins. I am not saying that sin does not matter. In fact, if you think that sin does not matter to God you probably don’t know him. However, God holds on to his people even when they temporarily fall and fail.
I am aware that the young man whose funeral I attended suffered from deep anxiety. I know that he had no intention of hurting anyone, and he was not seeking to rage against God. He had simply lost all sense of hope and felt that he could not live with the pain. Indeed, many people who die by suicide actually think that those they love would be better off without them. Similarly, in the midst of their despair, many Christians struggle to have any realisation that God cares for them. What this young man did was wrong, but he was not thinking clearly about the wrong he was doing.
Jesus is a compassionate man of sorrow and was familiar with grief (Isaiah 53:3), who knew such anguish that he despaired of life (Matthew 26:38), nevertheless he says that we are not to take life (Luke 18:20), even our own. He longs for you to access the truth that God will never forsake you if you trust in him (Hebrews 13:5). He longs to hold you in your pain and bring you through the storm. Of course I don’t want to be naïve, I do realise that even those who trust the Lord can find ourselves in that place where we feel that darkness is our closest friend and the darkness feels like it will never lift (Psalm 88:18). But in that darkness we should be seeking to honour Jesus and resist the temptation to do what he forbids.
Ireland has a bad history on suicide. There was the idea of consecrated ground, as if where your body is buried actually mattered to God. Those who died by suicide were excluded from such ‘holy’ soil. How harsh such thinking was! We must deal with this issue in a way that reflects our compassionate and forgiving Saviour.
The city of Limerick has a painful history of suicide. Drive through town any weekend and you will see people patrolling the rivers ready to rescue those who have thrown themselves in. Everyone in this city knows what you mean when you say that someone went into the river. In such a dark society Christians need to be people of the light. To those who are racked with guilt, we can talk of how Jesus came into the world to save sinful people like us. To those who despair, we can speak of a love that will never let us go. We must seek to befriend the isolated and lonely.
As I attended the funeral of that young man who took his life, I thought back to a couple of times in my life when I felt hopeless and anxious. I am sure that my pain was not as dark as his. I couldn’t say that I was fully suicidal. Yet I do remember wanting to die. But I am glad I didn’t. Now I can look back from a much happier place. That’s what makes the funeral of suicide so tragic. If only he could have made it through that day, that week, that month or that year. The light might not have come quickly, but I am sure it would have. If he had lived, I know that he would have arrived at a place where he was glad to be alive.
Rick Warren is a famous pastor in America whose son, Matthew, died by suicide. He shares a few words with those of you who are tempted to take your life. He says that if you are contemplating suicide, you need to remember that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Most people who are suicidal do not want to end their life; rather they want to end their pain. Suicide is not the right way to do this. Warren points out that the emotions you are feeling at the moment will pass. No emotion lasts for ever. You will not always feel the way you feel now. Indeed, even if the pain doesn’t lift, you are called to honour Jesus by resisting suicidal temptations. Warren also reminds his listeners that God does not want you to travel through the pressures you are facing on your own. Find someone who cares and tell them how you feel. Never try to face suicidal feelings on your own.
Finally, you need to hear the gospel if you have lost a loved one who has died by suicide. I have listened to a friend who feels guilt over their loved one’s death. Maybe he wouldn’t have done it if she had been better at being there for him. I told her that God did not want her to live with that guilt. None of us are perfect husbands or wives, parents or children, neighbours or friends. But God wants us to know his forgiveness. I have also listened to a friend who feels angry that her loved one inflicted such pain on her through his death. Such feelings are normal, and need to be worked through, but if they are not dealt with they will damage you. The gospel enables us to forgive the inexcusable in others as the Holy Spirit shows us how God has forgiven the inexcusable in us.
John Newton, the writer of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, was a great friend of the poet William Cowper. Cowper struggled with terrible mental health, felt utterly forsaken by God and was often tempted to take his life. Newton once wrote to Cowper with the following advice: ‘I can only advise you to resist to the utmost ever dark and discouraging suggestion ... Take encouragement hence to hope that he will not forsake the work of his own hands … though He may hide himself from us for a moment, He has given us a warrant to trust in him …’ Suicide is never the right solution to your pain. For those of you who are grieving a suicide, I hope that you might experience the truth that the psalmist speaks of when he claims that the Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).