Thursday, November 15, 2012

Suicide & The Bible

Have you known anyone who has committed suicide? Have you contemplated it yourself? Statistically, you would be in the minority if your answer to either of these questions is "no."

In North America, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young adults fifteen to twenty-five years old. Most of these commit suicide either during college or upon facing sexual confusion such as homosexuality. Still more shocking is the data for youth. Even among children between only five and fourteen years of age, suicide is the sixth leading cause of death! On average, an American commits suicide every seventeen minutes, bringing the annual total in the United States to over five hundred thousand.

Without a doubt, far more people contemplate suicide than actually commit it. Suicidal ideation is associated with nearly every psychological disorder, including depression. When we account for the fact that depression is the most commonly diagnosed disorder throughout the world, it is clear that nearly all people have at least contemplated taking their own life at one time or another.

The Christian response to suicide has always been the same. Suicide is labeled a mortal (condemning) sin by the Catholic Church, and an "unpardonable" sin by nearly all mainstream Christian denominations. At the very least, it is said to only be committed or pondered by people who are not truly saved.

As with most issues, Christendom has taken the "fear is the best motivator" approach with suicide. This logic supposes that the more people fear committing suicide, the less likely they will be to do it. Regardless of their circumstances, no amount of suffering is said to be worthy of taking one's own life.

Now, before I continue I must state that this article is certainly not a condonation of suicide. On the contrary, it is an effort to shed light on the failed system that only serves to exacerbate the tragedy and a call to action for preventing it.

As always, we would do well to consult the Scriptures to see what they teach us in regards to suicide. When we do, we discover some interesting facts. 

There are six biblical accounts of suicide. They are Abimelech (Judges 9), Samson (Judges 16), King Saul (1 Samuel 31), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17), Zimri (1 Kings 16), and Judas (Matthew 27). In addition, there are several other cases of men asking God to take their life or begging another to take it. In Numbers 11, Moses, in despair, said to God, "Kill me here and now." In 1 Kings 19:4, Elijah pleaded with God to "take away [his] life" for his shame. Likewise, Jonah asked God to take his life after His change of heart toward Nineveh. 

Moses, Elijah and Jonah - all great prophets and men of God - asked the LORD to kill them. True, they did not ultimately take their own lives as several others did, but they wished for it and even requested it. No doubt, if God would have acted on their request, they would have willingly endured it. If the common Christian argument that a true believer can't even think of suicide is true, then these great servants of God would certainly have some explaining to do.

Ironically, the dominant catalyst which led most of these men to kill themselves - or at least wish for death - was shame, not merely despair. They viewed suicide more as the just punishment for their sin than as a convenient way out of their problems. After all, is there a greater acknowledgement of personal failing or a more devoted way of paying restitution for it than to take your own life?

Today, we place so much emphasis on the notion that all people who commit suicide do it out of hopelessness, despair and hatred toward the world. While this may be true much of the time, is it possible that we are missing something? Could it be that people who commit suicide are often so ashamed, self-loathing, and guilt-ridden that they view ending their lives as an atoning form of righteous self-punishment? 

Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: rather than deter people from suicide via fear, we should take the time to genuinely listen to their struggles and bear their burdens. Rather than make them feel even more ashamed than they already feel for their thoughts, we should remind them of the glorious fact that Christ renders them completely guilt-free. If we view suicide and even suicidal ideation as cardinal sins, how can we help anyone struggling with these fears? Help demands compassion, and compassion must be free of judgment.

If you know anyone who is in despair and contemplating suicide, do not follow the common Christian model of warning them that suicide is an unpardonable sin that will eternally damn them. Not only is this not true; it is likely to make the person's resolve to kill himself even stronger by crushing his hope. Take the time to listen, bear people's burdens, and remind them of their identity in Christ. Encourage them with Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 10:13 that no trial is ultimately too difficult for them to endure. Remind them that every trial they encounter is given to them by God, out of love, for their ultimate good, knowing they can look forward to unspeakable happiness in the future.

If you have considered - or are considering - taking your own life, heed these same words. Know that in Christ you are free of guilt! No shortcoming on your part can separate you from your Father's unfailing love. Recognize that your thoughts are not necessarily indicative of a shameful lack of faith, but may actually be a sign of your desire to make restitution for your shortcomings, similar to Moses, Elijah and Jonah. The good news is that Christ has already accomplished that goal for you!

If you or someone you know is suffering so much that God seems distant or uncaring, think again. Christ's sacrifice - the most noble act ever committed - provides us with every hope and ability to overcome any struggle. When words mean little amidst the struggles of this life, think of what Christ has been through. No problems we face can begin to compare to what He has endured for our sake. Run the race with the prize always in full focus and with the realization that God's promises are every bit as real as the hardships you're currently enduring in this wicked world. No hurt you experience is beyond what the Son of God has personally known. Trust that no matter how bad things get, they will get better. In every struggle, whether someone else's or your own, conquer fear with love and despair with hope, keeping your eyes fixed upon Christ!

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

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