On Faith: Suicide and Christianity
Pastor Stew Carlson
Sychar Lutheran Church in Silver Bay
The big news of the past week has been the sudden and tragic loss of comedian and actor Robin Williams. The following are partial reflections that I gave on suicide and Christianity in a March 2014 sermon entitled "Killed by a Robber." Full text of the sermon is at www.sycharlutheran.org.
Is suicide a sin or a decision brought on by mental illness? The Bible gives either six or seven examples of suicide. None of the Biblical characters who commit suicide are portrayed in a positive light within its pages. These examples are why the church, for years and years, didn't bury suicide victims.
The most well-known example of a suicide in the Bible would be Judas Iscariot, who was driven to suicide over his guilt at betraying Jesus. In every Bible story dealing with suicide, suicide is portrayed as a lack of faith, hopelessness and despair over one's life situation.
Suicide goes beyond a lack of faith. When I was in seminary, I had a classmate who was kind, sweet, generous and sincere in her faith. She ended up hanging herself one night, reminding us that human depression is such a powerful force that it often can't be stopped.
When people ask if suicide is a sin, a two-part answer has to be given.
Suicide is a sin in that it's not what God intends for his creation. If there were no sin in the world, there would be no suicide. Suicide is a sin because it's ultimately the most selfish of acts a person can commit. I had a grandfather who committed suicide. His death brought the curses of alcoholism, depression and ultimately a cycle of mistrust to those whom he held the dearest.
At the same time, we believe the issues with suicide often go deeper. Suicide is often brought on by emotional crises or psychological issues. We cannot ultimately judge anyone's faith. It's important to note that it is not actions or poor choices that condemn us, but rather unbelief. We don't take hope because we've lived perfect lives, but because our lord and savior died then rose again.
The film "Luther" (2003) had a great scene about the impact of suicide and grace. In the scene, a young abused child is driven to such a state of despair that he takes his own life. The boy is then refused a Christian burial by one of Luther's fellow monks.
Upon hearing this, Luther sent for the boy's parents and the boy's body with the following command:
"Tell him: Some people say that according to God's justice, this boy is damned because he took his life. I say it was overcome by the devil. Is this child any more to blame for the despair that overtook him than an innocent man who is murdered by a robber in the woods? God must be mercy. God is mercy."
Luther then personally buries the child in front of the child's parents and prays:
"He is yours. Save him."
The key point in talking about suicide from a religious point of view is: while suicide is nothing we would ever celebrate or portray as a positive course of action because of the pain it causes, we would never say that suicide isn't a sin whose victim cannot receive God's forgiveness.
If one is to appreciate a biblical perspective on this issue, we should note that both Elijah and Job, who were both considered heroes of the Christian faith, pleaded with God to take their life during their darkest hours. Their stories remind us that we cannot begin to comprehend the depths to which Christians might sink in a fallen world.
The struggles people go through in life are often much more complicated than can be fixed by just hurling a few Bible verses their way. Being a Christian is not a promise to avoid all anxiety and always be giddy and being a Christian doesn't mean that Satan will never make the "hideously ugly" look beautiful in one's life.
Being a Christian means you have a God, who embraces you in your emotional struggles. Our gospel promises us is that there is nothing that can stand in the way of the love of our lord and savior.