The news last week of Robin Williams’ death was painful for millions of people, not only because he was a beloved entertainer (count me a fan of his clean stuff) but because suicide is not a topic which lands on us lightly. This is especially true for the countless number of Christians who are still grieving for loved ones or who have struggled with suicidal thoughts themselves. Not surprisingly, in the wake of such big national news, the internet lit up with commentary and critique, point and counterpoint. Some of it helpful, some of it not so much.

Without trying to sift through all that has been said, and without pretending to say everything that needs to be said about such a difficult subject, I thought it might be helpful to try to cut through some of the fog and look at four brief theses. Perhaps these can help us think theologically and pastorally about suicide.

1. The subject of suicide should be approached sensitively and compassionately.

We need to know the time and the place. This is a blog post addressed to a general audience, so I don’t believe it’s insensitive to step back and parse out “four theses” on suicide. But I would not present four points like this to someone mourning the death of a friend or to someone contemplating suicide. Those situations call for hugs, tears, questions, listening, personal contact, and prayer–all things that are impossible or nearly impossible in a general blog post. Having said that, even in a general piece to no one in particular, we must keep in mind that anyone may be reading. The wise Christian is always aware that people are listening with different ears. For some this topic is an interesting theological question. For others, they are thinking about how to minister effectively when the need arises. And for others, the mere mention of suicide summons from within them a pain too deep for words.

2. Suicide is complicated and happens for different reasons.

I think many people were angry at the critical responses to Robin Williams’ death because the critiques failed to grasp–or at least landed on people as failing to grasp–the moral differences surrounding the different contexts for suicide. Surely someone struggling with depression on and off for twenty years who takes his own life deserves more sympathy than the man who loses everything on the stock market and jumps off the 75th floor in a moment of monetary loss. There is a moral difference between the person who gets caught in adultery and–full of embarrasment and an unwillingness to face his sin–commits suicide, as opposed to the person who finds out she was cheated on and, feeling her life cannot go on, decides to end it. The person who guns down children and then kills himself is selfish and evil and a hundred other things. The person who takes his own life while in the throes of a depression that is unwanted, unbidden, and seemingly unending will be appraised much differently. Our last action–even a sinful one–does not define the totality of our existence. We are right to remember all that was good and true in those who succumb to the temptation to self-destruction.

3. Suicide is a sin.

Of course, this is not what I would lead with in pastoral counseling or in pastoral care or in conducting a funeral, but it is one aspect of this difficult topic we cannot avoid. While there may be extreme cases where a suicidal person has clearly lost control of all his faculties (i.e., dementia, closed head injuries), in the vast majority of  cases we are right to see suicide as a morally culpable and morally blameworthy choice. For centuries, the church has consistently viewed suicide as a violation of the sixth commandment. Self-murder is still murder. As John Frame points out in The Doctrine of the Christian Life, there are five instances of suicide in Scripture (Judges 9:52-54; 1 Sam. 31:3-5; 2 Sam. 17:23; 1 Kings 16:18-19; Matt. 27:3-5) and all of them are in a context of shame and defeat (p. 738). Likewise, when more noble characters ask God to take their lives, God never obliges (Num. 11:12-15; 1 Kings 19:4; Jonah 4:1-11). In the cases of Jonah and Job, God clearly views their self-destructive requests unfavorably.

While we want to empathize with those who suffer–from regret or depression or disease or any other unrelenting malady–surely it is poor ethical reasoning to think that suffering is the means which justifies any end. As we saw yesterday, our choices should be deemed “free” so long as they are not subject to external coercion and compulsion. Julie Gossack–a wife and mother who has five times had to suffer through the suicide of a family member–sums up the matter well: “Suicide is not a genetic trait nor is it a family curse. Suicide is a sinful choice made by an individual. This statement is neither unloving nor disrespectful. It is the truth. I dearly loved my family members that committed suicide, but their choices were sinful and not righteous” (JBC Winter: 2006, 22). Suicide may feel like the only way out, but Scripture tell us God will never lead us into a situation where violating his commands is the only option (1 Cor. 10:13). We do not help struggling saints by refusing to tell them that suicide is displeasing to God; lovingly spoken that may be one of the means by which God jolts the suicidal soul back to better, more godly thinking.

4. Suicide is not the unforgiveable sin.

We do not have a system of penance and last rites. While it is particularly sad for a Christian to die in this way–confused and without hope–this loss of perspective does not necessarily mean the person was not a born again, justified Christian. John Frame, who argues that suicide is sinful, also tells the story of a missionary friend who drew closer to Jesus as he battled depression, but in the end killed himself. Frame doesn’t hesitate to say confidently that this man was a genuine Christian (p. 39). We are saved by the blood of Christ, not by whether our last moment was triumphant or tragic. Suicide should not be lightly dismissed. It is unimaginably painful and displeasing to God. But for the truly repentant, truly believing, truly justified child of God, God is greater than our sins, even ones that grip is in our dying breaths.

For more resources on suicide, check out the list of articles at CCEF. They are worth the few dollars it may cost to access them.

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Comments:


25 thoughts on “Four Brief Theses on Suicide”

  1. Peter Rufus says:

    Thanks for this, Kevin. Simple. Succinct. Clear. And I agree with and affirm all your points.

    Therefore, when someone asks me – Can a Christian commit suicide? – I will answer in the affirmative.

    But a larger question, I believe, is — Can a Christian be suicidal? In other words, can a Christian be marked by a life of continuous suicide attempts (albeit unsuccessful)?

    Personally, I don’t think so. Because of the fact that a Christian is not one who lives in a state of perpetual despondence.

    But I am happy to be corrected and would love to have your views.

    I cannot thank God enough for your faithfulness. And I cannot thank you enough for your diligence.

    Peter

  2. Phil H says:

    One area much different than suicide in the case of depression or similar, is cases similar to that of journalist James Foley. My immediate visceral reaction to the confirmed report and after the reading the sickening account, was how it would be better to have been carrying some sort of cyanide or suicide pill and take your own life rather than be slowly beheaded by a (quite possibly blunt) knife AND being forced to say things publicly that you don’t believe (in our case denying Christ).

    I doubt seriously that a case can be made for this since we have scriptural references such as Jesus, Paul and Peter (as well as most probably all of the Apostles minus John) who were put to death by their captors willingly.

    Any thoughts on such a scenario for say a Christian journalist, soldier, missionary, etc? My thinking now is we leave our lives in the hands of God for courage and look forward to the glory that follows.

  3. Bob Smallman says:

    Because I struggled with very serious depression in the past, I seem to attract a fair number of fellow-sufferers. Here’s what I can tell you from my own experience, both as a past sufferer of depression and a helper of those with depression:

    If you haven’t been there, you literally have no clue what it’s like. Not even closest family members — as sympathetic as they may try to be — have a clue. Not by a long shot. Depression of this sort is so much more than just really bad sadness, it’s an overpowering sense that you are being drained of all your physical, psychic, and spiritual energy. So people who (either by words or attitudes) convey the idea that you “just need to get over it!” not only don’t get it, they often only drive the person into deeper depression as they get even more depressed about being depressed.

    The “normal” person sees the panorama of life — all the colors, the good and the bad — and they’re able to put the bad stuff into some kind of context. The clinically depressed person looks at life as through a paper towel tube — they see this tiny spot of life — and to make it worse, almost reflexively they are drawn to the dark stuff as to a magnet. To use another analogy, they feel themselves getting caught up in a downward spiral in which, as they think about life, they can only imagine the progressively worst possible outcomes.

    There are, of course, both medical and talk therapies that can often help the seriously depressed person. And different people respond differently to various approaches. (And some, sadly, don’t seem to respond to any. Though I have found that time can be a great healer.) But the worst “help” is to try and convince such a person that she has some spiritual defect that if only she would repent of it, she could move on. Believe me, depressed people get that message in all sorts of ways from their family members and fellow Christians — and it only adds to their frustration.

    Healing has a chance to begin as family members, friends, physicians, and/or counselors are able to “come along side” and let the depressed person know that he is not alone. I find praying with a sufferer to be amazingly helpful, because most of the time, they don’t even have the energy to pray for themselves. And — as contradictory as it sounds — giving a Christian “permission” to be depressed (and letting them know that it’s not a spiritual defect) helps free them from at least some of the guilt that has piled on top of their depression.

    Not everyone has the patience to deal with truly depressed people. But patience and lots of grace are necessary in helping people with this incredibly complex suffering.

    One final observation: you need to distinguish this “clinical” (for want of a better term) depression from “situational depression” (resulting from a death, loss of a job, financial calamity, or other loss). I believe that kind of depression is actually helpful, as it acts as a sort of psychic “shock absorber” to slow us down and get us gradually through the acuity of the loss.

  4. anaquaduck says:

    Not sure where Samson would fit into all this but godly advice & instruction certainly contrasts with worldly values. Its always good to reflect on the faithfulness of God, but especially so during times of suffering as we live by faith.

  5. Matt Viney says:

    Does anyone know how I can get permission to reprint this article? I wish to provide it in printed form to my small (50) congregation (free of charge of course).

    This is an important topic that my church family needs to think about more.

    Help anyone?

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  7. EricP says:

    Great comment Bob Smallman.

    Peter Rufus, a Christian can be continuously suicidal. Being suicidal is a mental illness, and a Christian can have any mental illness, just like they can have any physical illness.

    Kevin DeYoung, great point that suicide is a forgiven sin.

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  9. Carolyn Cantwell says:

    Thank you, Bob Smallman for giving those who do not understand the abject depths of organic (clinical) depression a picture of what it is like. This level of depression is not “the blues,” but something so deep, those who suffer from it lose perspective and are not thinking or functioning at level that helps them see alternatives to “ending it all, ” or the catastrophic consequences to their loved ones should they commit suicide. Thank you, too, Kevin for your compassionate but straight forward post.

  10. Randy White says:

    How does this align with your January post on Providence? Or, to use your words, “How would the Heidelberg Catechism, particularly Lord’s Day 10, help you minister to someone who lost…” a loved one to suicide?

  11. Jaycen Saab says:

    Great read. We wrote on this when the Robin Williams’ story broke. Hoping God would use your piece, ours, and others to restore hope in brothers and sisters that are struggling.

    http://wv4g.org/sufficiency-gospel-midst-suicide/

  12. Thanks for a balanced and sensitive approach, Kevin. I wrote on this myself this week. I think it’s very important not to sentimentalize suicide or de-emphasize the darkness of it, and unfortunately that’s just what I see a lot of people doing for Robin Williams. It’s taken a punk rocker (Henry Rollins) to shake America up a little bit with the “news” that suicide isn’t romantic or freeing at all.

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  14. John Myer says:

    I think it’s interesting that the Bible does not directly address suicide, other than the indirect appeal to “Thou shalt not murder” and the record of some in the narrative taking their own lives. It is certainly not a recent invention, having been practiced in shame-honor based societies. and no doubt a solution many have resorted to over the span of human history. I agree it is dark and confusing, just don’t know why it receives no press in the holy writ. Of course to catalogue all possible sins would leave no room for anything else…

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  16. Aaron says:

    As a Christian who is currently suffering from clinical depression suicide has been on my mind many times, I know how easy it is to do, I know how I could do it and I know why.

    When you are depressed your mind is messed up. Up is down, left is right and decision making can be difficult. I can look at my life and how I think I am negatively impacting people and believe that I am doing what’s best for them by permanently removing myself from their lives. I know that some people will be sad, and they will mourn but I also know that it will pass (very quickly in my mind) and then they will be free from worrying about me, or having to care about me.
    I can feel so isolated and unloved by people that it would take weeks before anyone noticed, I’ve even felt this way in the middle of a church camp.
    I have felt that my death might even be an aid for other people who don’t realise how serious depression can be, and that other lives might be saved because of my suicide.
    And I am definitely aware how false this is but in the moments of despair it is easy to lose sight of. Imagine being stuck thinking like that for days or weeks at a time, depression can lead to suicide very easily. It is only by the grace of God that I haven’t been brought to the edge of actualisation.

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  18. Peter Rufus says:

    EricP,

    Unfortunately, I cannot agree with you when you say ––– “Being suicidal is a mental illness, and a Christian can have any mental illness, just like they can have any physical illness.”

    The reason for my disagreement is plainly stated here:
    http://thegospelcoalition.org/article/christian-reflections-on-mental-disorder

    Happy to chat through further.

  19. EricP says:

    Hi Peter,
    I think Heath has it exactly backwards. We should not treat medical problems as moral problems. Just like the blind man’s medical problem was not a result of his or his parents’ sin, so our medical problems are not the result of our personal sin. Health also seems to forget that therapy is a medical treatment. Therapy is a perfectly reasonable response to mental illness and is often prescribed. It’s often even prescribed for clear cut sins such as battery, through anger management or domestic violence classes.

    I think he is trying to make a point that not all mental illnesses require medication, but that is no different a point than any secular psychiatrist would make.

  20. Peter Rufus says:

    EricP,

    Actually, Heath Lambert has it the right way around – we should not medicalise morality. Admittedly, not all mental illness can be traced to specific personal sins; nor should they be.

    But the fact remains, that the medical world is still to find physiological evidence for mental illness, in the same way that we have such evidence for medical illnesses.

    That’s a key point you’re choosing to ignore.

  21. Cheyne McLean says:

    Here is a good teaching on mental illness and chemical imbalance by someone who has credentials on this subject. The secularists are flat out lying about these subjects and as Peter Rufus stated there is no evidence for this and to use theories (like they do with the big bang) as a science or medical standard of practice is not science at all! If they come up with the proof then, hey, lets practice it.

    http://www.shepherdsconference.org/media/details/?mediaID=6777

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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