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Introduction to Personal Bible Study - Videos (2007)

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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

A Fresh Look at Suicide

But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper-tree: and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, It is enough; now, O Jehovah, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.

-1 Kings 19:4

Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind.

-Ecclesiastes 2:17

The two men we are dealing with in these verse are two of the greatest men who have ever lived: Elijah and Solomon. Yet these men, at some point, find life to be not worth living. The first a prophet of the Living God and the second a king blessed and adorned by God as no other (Matt 6:29). We can find room in our hearts for Elijah's predicament and we can readily understand his desire to live no longer, but Solomon is another story.

Solomon had riches untold. In today's economy of value, he had sexual satisfaction at his disposal as well (700 wives and princesses plus 300 concubines).  Sexual satisfaction is something sought after by many in our world. Yet we find this man, who had his fill, writing one of the most despair-filled books (Ecclesiastes), not only in scripture, but in all of ancient literature. It is hard for many of us who struggle day to day with bills, emergencies, hunger, and loneliness to find pity for someone like Solomon. We cannot imagine how he could find life so vain in light of his circumstances.

This is a reasonable thought. I admit I envy those who do not worry about expenses. I envy those who don't live in fear that the car won't start or that the roof might spring a leak or that they might need a new prescription. These seemingly small issues can throw a balanced budget into turmoil. How can those who have no fear of the ordinary be in any darkness of mind? But my envy is my sin. I have no right to pretend to translate my envy into another's sin.

Likewise, anyone who has suffered a broken heart cannot fathom the love of a thousand at one's beck and call. Even more to the point, we feel the pain of a single spouse who discovers the unfaithfulness of one to whom he/she has pledged his/her heart. This is devastating. We understand the despair. We sympathize. We reach out in love. How could one so awash in physical satisfaction be depressed? One who had 700 spouses? How could one who had guards standing by making sure his wives were faithful find himself in despair?

One of the insights gleaned from Solomon's other inspired book, The Song of Solomon, which we should not miss, is how one woman in particular stole the heart of the King. He had a thousand women available to him, yet he longed to be held in the bosom of only one. Of all he could have, one stole his heart.

Like a lily among thorns,
So is my love among the daughters.

Solomon is fortunate in that his beloved returned his love. We have great sympathy for the one whose love is rejected, especially the one who is rejected after giving many years of self to another. How tragic it is to see a family broken by infidelity or selfishness. How we hate to witness the denying or breaking of vows. Yet it happens. And we acknowledge it can happen to anyone. We are fallen creatures, weak and carnal. Even the believer carries his old nature about with him. Even one who loves his/her spouse dearly is subject to falling to the flesh. 

Imagine the soldier, far from home in a war zone. This one may seek comfort in a moment of weakness. He may become overcome with guilt and his wife back home may be crushed by his infidelity. Despair may abound! 

There are countless scenarios whereby we can certainly understand despairing of life, even for those we deem "lucky" or "winners of life's lottery." Even if we are puzzled by certain circumstances we observe, we recognize pain when we see it. We find solace in "love" songs which are often "rejected love" songs. Pain of soul has many origins and plays out in many ways. 

Let us turn back to Elijah for a moment. Imagine in today's world a pastor who is depressed and finds himself in the darkness of despair. We are tempted to claim such an one lacks faith or that he must be hiding a secret sin. But as with Elijah, he may be carrying a great burden from the Lord for the Lord's people. He may be suffering attacks from the world or even from his own flock that we cannot fathom or see. 

My understanding of suicide and suicidal thoughts has evolved over the years. Growing up in the Roman Catholic faith, this is how suicide was officially seen by my church: 

That suicide is unlawful is the teaching of Holy Scripture and of the Church, which condemns the act as a most atrocious crime and, in hatred of the sin and to arouse the horror of its children, denies the suicide Christian burial. Moreover, suicide is directly opposed to the most powerful and invincible tendency of every creature and especially of man, the preservation of life. Finally, for a sane man deliberately to take his own life, he must, as a general rule, first have annihilated in himself all that he possessed of spiritual life, since suicide is in absolute contradiction to everything that the Christian religion teaches us as to the end and object of life and, except in cases of insanity, is usually the natural termination of a life of disorder, weakness, and cowardice.

-New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia 

Persons who willfully and knowingly commit such an act die in a state of mortal sin [no hope, eternal damnation] and are deprived of Christian burial.

-Baltimore Catechism

They have, in recent years, allowed for the idea of those suffering “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” Of course, this is a very recent change (after I left the RCC) and the victim still has no access to "Christian burial" in the RCC.

I only note the teaching of the RCC because it has always clouded my thinking on the subject. Living in fear of dying in a state of "grave (mortal) sin" colored my view of suicide. It was considered an act of pure evil ("a most atrocious crime"), on the level of premeditated murder. The more recent "nuanced" (their description) only adds to the fallible nature of RC doctrines. But that's another matter. 

My liberty from that system, my reliance on scripture, and the illumination of scripture by the Holy Spirit have helped me better understand suicide. I do not deny that it can be a selfish act (to one degree or another), but it cannot be seen on the same level as murder. Only because it is irreversible we deem it worse than other sins. Here's an irony: if one survives a suicide attempt, he may receive absolution for that sin in the RCC while the one who succeeds cannot. It's an insane system.

But on this last point, we must point the finger at ourselves. Imagine a father is despair. He has lost his job. Because of this, he may find himself and his wife and kids homeless and hungry. He cannot bear the thought. He blames himself for their misery. If such a man attempts suicide and survives, we often pour out our love on him and his family. We rally to his side. But if he had succeeded, we may be tempted to call him "selfish" and cast aspersions upon him in our hearts. Our reasoning is just as insane as the religious system of absolution. 

The Lord's despair in Gethsemane was much different from anything we could experience, but it was despair nonetheless.

He went a little farther, and fell on the ground, and prayed that if it were possible, the hour might pass from Him. And He said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.”

-Mark 14:35-36

Gaebelein in his commentary interprets this moment this way:

What was the cup He dreaded? The Sinless One, who knew no sin, was now soon to be made sin for us. God’s face upon which He had ever looked was soon to be hid. And what was it when at last He was made sin for us on the cross? One sentence gives us the answer, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”

Again, we cannot enter into this moment of dread, but many have experienced a level of dreading to face another day. The Lord persevered out of love for the Father and out of love for us, but some cannot always find the same strength. I believe this moment is recorded in scripture to help us see the way out of crushing despair. But as with all guidance from the Lord, it is given to weak men. "The Lord knows our frame, that we are but dust" (Psalm 103:14). Even if one loses the battle to despair, the Lord still has pity on him and so should we.

Suicide can the be result of many things (guilt, fear, suffering, painful memories, etc.) and we cannot pretend to understand the mind of another. We leave that in God's hands. What we can do is make ourselves available for those contemplating the idea and comfort those left behind in this instances when, sadly, someone is moved to take his own life in despair. 

For the brother or sister in Christ, we can remind them of God's forgiveness and his promise of abiding love. We can help them put their faith in God's will again. The latter is not always easy. The man who has lost wife and children in a horrible accident will find it difficult to see "God's good will" behind the scenes, but somehow we must help him get to that point. 

For the unbeliever, there is an opportunity to practice the ministry of reconciliation to which we have been called (2 Cor 5:18-19). As Ambassadors of Christ, we have a message of hope in this life and in the life to come through His name. 

In all cases, looking to lover of our souls must be a priority and compassion for the hurting must be our commitment. Judgment has no place. 

As my bones break,
my persecutors deride me,
all the time saying “where is your God?.”
Why are you so sad, my soul,
and anxious within me?
Put your hope in the Lord, I will praise him still,
my savior and my God.

- Psalm 42