Thoughts About Suicide

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There’s been no shortage of online attention the past couple of days given to Robin Williams’ suicide. Understandably. It’s hard to make a case for anyone contributing more to American entertainment in the past forty years. Very few have provided more laughs. So now we cry. The nation mourns.

What I haven’t seen yet, and what I think a community of largely bipartisan thoughts is longing for right now, is a “trispectival analysis” of the issue of suicide. I find it helpful to use this particular assessment tool whenever possible – consider what an irreligious assessment, a religious assessment, and a gospel assessment of a given situation would all uniquely look like.

I’ve used this tool before, but as a reminder, here’s a quick summary:

An irreligious person sees morality as relative, believes people are born basically good but sometimes hurt others or themselves when put in bad circumstances, and acknowledges no higher authority than man. Irreligion is perhaps best characterized by self-indulgence.

A religious person sees morality as purely black and white, believes there are good people and bad people, and while he acknowledges God as the ultimate authority, he believes that because of his good behavior he is more deserving of God’s blessing than the “bad” people. Religion is perhaps best characterized by self-righteousness.

A gospel-thinking person understands the black and white of morality but recognizes there is a shaded spectrum of motives, believes we are inherently born broken and powerless to put ourselves back together, and acknowledges Jesus Christ as both Lord and Savior. Gospel-thinkers are perhaps best characterized by humility about self and confidence in Christ.

With that said, how shall we understand suicide?

The Irreligious Viewpoint

The majority media viewpoint regarding Robin Williams is that he was a sensational talent who died too soon and left us with many fond memories. We (i.e. Christians) can agree with that…in part.

For the dozens of articles I’ve now glanced through on the topic, I haven’t seen any more insightful commentary on William’s life, career, and death than the one Newsweek provided. The author here astutely points out that for all the brilliance of Williams’ improv comedy, his most profound roles were in Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam and Good Will Hunting. He observes, “That all three of those characters—Adrian Cronauer, Keating and Sean Maguire—were  men dedicated to enriching the lives of young men whose paths were at a crossroads was probably no coincidence.” I think the Newsweek author is spot on. Williams played what he knew – be it the fifty-two hilarious characters he wove together as the genie in Aladdin, or a middle-aged man reflecting on the internal conflicts of life in those three aforementioned - suicide 3

While remembering the brilliance of Williams’ career, however, you’ll notice that the irreligious world cannot ever offer a reasonable diagnosis of what drives such a talented man to take his own life. You hear a lot about mental illness as disease. You hear about addiction. I’m the last person to discount the occasionally debilitating effects of neurochemicals. But if the chemistry of the brain is the only contributing factor to Williams’ suicide, how do we account for the sixty-three previous years? Doesn’t even brain chemistry sound a little superficial to something so tragic? Fascinatingly, as though finally aware that there’s more going on here than mere chemical interaction, in such moments, even the irreligious community resorts to dabbling with the spiritual when it uses such expressions as “fighting his demons.”

The Religious Viewpoint

In our current age, it’s considerably rarer to hear the other end of the spectrum – the religious viewpoint. But it’s certainly still there. And it’s loud. This is the view of religious people that we are simply the product of our choices. We are who we’ve chosen to be. And we also then have responsibility for those choices. We (i.e. Christians) can agree with this also…in part.

Self-determination, as a philosophy of the individual, has not exactly died, but it’s certainly going away in Western thought. Born out of the ideas of Plato, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and others is the idea that “you can be anything you want to be if you simply put your mind to it and work hard.” It was considered a mere matter of choices. This was the predominant thought in our “Land of Opportunity” for middle part of the 20th century. As the century closed, however, the Nature vs. Nurture issue changed the discussion about how we become who we are. You’ll notice, however, that neither of those arguments (i.e. nature or nurture) has anything to do with our personal choices. Genetics and upbringing are now considered to be major causes in our personalities, our morality, and yes, even our choices. Put differently, people are thinking less and less that we do bad things, like commit suicide, simply because we choose to do bad things.

This has raised many social questions. For instance, consider this: how accountable for their actions should we hold a child born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or one raised with Reactive Attachment Disorder? I don’t think anyone would suggest, “Not accountable at all.” But I also think that many people would assume it only natural that we’d have some additional understanding and sympathy for a child who suffers with a condition that he clearly did not choose for himself.

Nonetheless, the religious voice that you hear right now will tell you that Williams took his own life and will have to answer to God. He did this because he’s selfish, godless, and has no concern for the effects of his actions. There’s some truth there, but it’s typically said with such unsympathetic disdain that it disempowers any truth it proposes. If you’re really curious, it tends to sound something like this. When you’re telling someone “how it is” in a moment of tragedy, the smugness doesn’t quite reflect God’s spirit of “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11)

By the way, ALL Christians, myself included, are guilty of both the Irreligious and Religious Viewpoints on occasion. The question is not whether we’re ever guilty of them. The question is, when we are, do we defend them or do we recognize them for what they are and repent of them.

The Gospel Viewpoint

This post is not a comprehensive summary on the Bible’s position on suicide. For such information, I’d go here. This is simply my thoughts on two common positions on the topic of suicide and how I believe the Bible guides us to a better one.

Suicide is NOT a product of faith. I want to be absolutely clear about that. However, the act itself doesn’t necessarily declare the complete absence of faith either.

If you’re thinking, “But I always heard when I was a kid that if you commit suicide you’re guaranteed to go to hell”, my guess is that you also heard that wearing jeans to church was also near the unforgivable sin too. Where are we at on that one today? I’m not suggesting doctrine changes. I’m suggesting the application of it sometimes changes and quite frankly, the application is sometimes just a bit off, an occurrence that is sometimes easier to see several generations out.

blog - suicide 2The Church automatically proclaiming hell for everyone who commits suicide in the middle 20th century is in some ways analogous to the Church finding as a heretic anyone who didn’t believe the earth to be the center of the universe in the early 16th century. It’s a claim that the Bible itself doesn’t make. And then Copernicus came along. And many ministers looked pretty silly as a result.

What we now know about neurosciences, although there’s still a LONG way to go, suggests that someone’s behavior, to some degree, can be affected by their brain chemistry. That some behaviors are also then more erratic, more consequential, more life-threatening than others seems obvious. In other words, it would appear possible for someone who is not thinking straight to take their own life due to poor momentary choices rather than outright unbelief.

Does that take away all culpability? Of course not. Suicide is still sin. Murder, in fact. And humans are guilty for their sins. But it doesn’t track that this particular sin forfeits salvation simply because there is little window for repentance after it is committed. Let’s flesh that thought out. What do you think the odds are that from the time of your last repentance until the moment you die you will have perfectly repented of each of your failures?

Not sure, but I wouldn’t bank my salvation on it.

In other words, your salvation is NOT based on your perfect repentance, but on your perfect Savior. So, if you confess your sins at church on Sunday, slip into a hateful thought about a fellow church member on your drive home, and as you’re distracted by your anger, you get into a car accident and die, THANK GOD your eternal life is not in jeopardy. God’s grace is a state that you live in, not a needle that you balance on. And therefore, if someone who professes Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, in a moment of weak faith, takes his or her own life, it’s tragic, it’s painful, it’s horrible, and it likely won’t ever fully be gotten over by the loved ones left in the wake. What it is not for us, however, is an occasion to declare someone in hell.

I have absolutely no idea about Robin Williams’ eternal life or death. I know he was raised Episcopal. I know that I’ve never heard of him professing faith in Jesus as his Lord and Savior. I know suicide points to either weak or no faith. All that said, I also know that because God fulfilled his promises in sending a Savior to pay for mankind’s transgressions, heaven or hell does not come based upon our actions in life…or death. Jesus is magnanimous enough that he paid for ALL of those sinful actions completely when he suffered upon the cross in our place. Heaven or hell comes when we either receive Jesus as Savior by faith or when we reject him.

God can save murderers. Even self-murderers. In fact, he’s in the basic business of saving murders, as we all are responsible for Jesus’ death. BELIEF in that is what ultimately makes the eternal difference.

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18)

13 thoughts on “Thoughts About Suicide

  1. This reminds me of Professor Deutschlander’s answer to the question, “What if I’m sinning when I die?” His answer was: “Count on it.” Having said that, I do think that right now, for whatever reason, Lutheran literature seems to be very sympathetic to those who commit suicide, and while I agree that unbelief is what ultimately condemns us to hell, as opposed to any particular sinful act, the fact remains that none of the examples of suicide in the Bible leave us any hope for their victims. So I was glad to read your line: “I know suicide points to either weak or no faith.” I also think there are words that have to be said to those who are hanging their entire happiness on the sliver of hope that Scripture holds out for those who commit suicide. If your happiness were to collapse if you were to find out that your self-murdering relative was, in fact, in hell, then your own faith is ill-placed and your own salvation is in jeopardy. Our faith is in Christ, not man, and our ultimate hope is of seeing HIM face-to-face, not of seeing our dearly departed.

    • Good thoughts! I think you’re right about the subtle priority shift of those seeking more to see departed loved ones than to see the ONE they were made for. Certainly both are beautiful, but a priority clarification is probably important there.

      Whether or not we’ve become sympathetic to the issue of suicide or not is probably for debate. If it’s true, I think the hyper-sensitivity is probably necessarily true because of some previous rigidity on the matter.

      As for the suicide examples of the Bible, I think Samson is a fascinating character study. I recognize he’s in a unique situation that probably rests somewhere between soldier and suicide. Nonetheless, he rarely had shown himself as particularly spiritually mature, which would seemingly be consistent with some of his actions even near the end. I’m not saying one way or the other, I’m just saying the motives behind these actions can be complex.

      • Thanks for the reply, Pastor Hein. I must admit that Samson had not crossed my mind when I was writing my reply. I was actually basing my reference to the biblical examples on Armin Schuetze’s nice little article on suicide in his book “Guidance from God’s Word.” He mentions “the few examples Scripture records of such who committed suicide” and says that they all “found themselves in great difficulty and despaired” (p. 90). However, he goes on to cite those examples (Ahithophel, Zimri, Saul, and Judas) and Samson is inexplicably left out. I agree that Samson “is a fascinating character study” and that “the motives behind these actions can be complex” (emphasis on “can”).

        With my assertion about Lutheran literature becoming more sympathetic to those who commit suicide, I was thinking, for example, of NPH’s recent book “And She Was a Christian: Why Do Believers Commit Suicide?” – a book which I think, at best, makes some rather assertive judgments that should have been made much more cautiously. I agree with you that “the hyper-sensitivity is probably necessarily true because of some previous [undue] rigidity on the matter.” As you know, though, “necessarily true” is not always to be equated with “justifiably true” or “excusably true.” We always have an obligation not to overreact when correcting; otherwise we end up in Formula of Concord situations.

        Thanks again for your article and your reply. I subscribe to your blog, enjoy reading it, and am edified by it.

  2. Shiloh Monday says:

    Thanks for this, Pastor Hein. Thanks for helping us dispense with the notion that a person’s actions are caused or motivated by one factor; there are always multiple motivating factors, not one or the other but both or more. Your trispectival analysis method is helpful, too, although I hesitate to cede the biblical word “religious” to those who are better termed “self-righteous.” Thank you for reminding us that salvation is by God’s grace alone, through faith, and that suicidal thoughts and actions do not spring from faith but our unbelieving Old Man. (We can and should say that much, even though we cannot always say with confidence whether a self-murderer was a believer or not.) Thank you for reminding us that repentance is not the same as the act of confession, and vice versa. Repentance is an attitude that is either present or absent at a particular time when we sin. The first of Luther’s 95 Theses correctly understands the Bible word “repent” in this way. Finally, you have made me curious about how the church in history has viewed and treated suicides. Has it always blanketed them all with a condemnation to hell? I recall the recent Luther movie as portraying Luther’s attitude to not be that way, but I don’t know how historical that portrayal was. Again, thanks much for the post. I posted a devotion on this topic yesterday here on our church blog/mailing list if anyone is interested:

    • Thanks for reading, Shiloh, and for addressing the topic as well!

      I might have to post something eventually about the “religion” word. I find a number of people, primarily ministers, have trouble with using the word that way. I’m curious to get to the affinity for the word and the dialogue of whether or not it’s still helpful today. I address this on a comment at the site as well.

  3. Lexi says:

    I have to thank you on two levels. First of all, I had been feeling terribly sad about Robin William’s death and had really been praying there was a chance he was in heaven. I know we can never know for certain until we meet our heavenly Father, but you gave me hope and I thank you for that!!
    Perhaps more importantly, you referenced people who have been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder(RAD). My husband and I adopted our almost 9-year-old a year ago in January, and it’s so rare for anyone to reference RAD in any kind of capacity that recognizes it’s had for families and their children. Just hearing that recognition that it affects children into adulthood really made a difference to me and I thank you!!!

  4. J. Dettmann says:

    Lutheran theology (as we currently practice it) can be a cause of suicide. I say this as someone who loves Lutheran theology very much. I am aware of a certain WELS individual who committed suicide nearby a WELS pastor in a manner which fit into the very trap which Lutheran theology sometimes leads. The trap works like this.

    1. Sin leads to Guilt (which is accepted)
    2. Forgiveness (not accepted)
    3. Sin leads to Guilt (which is accepted)
    4.& repeat
    9999999. Person wants to die to alleviate or simply escape guilt, and wants to make a confession & receive an absolution so as to repent of it just in time before dying.

    Why don’t they accept forgiveness? Could be a lot of reasons. Here is one: Most people have had others (even their own mother as a baby) say nice things and not really mean it. As a result nearly everyone can tell the difference between genuine love and well-intentioned non-genuine loving expressions. If forgiveness from other people (and from God in the absolution) just doesn’t sink in all the way, then what?

    Okay, now you may be saying–where’s the proof? Here it is:

    A Lutheran Plague: Murdering to Die in the Eighteenth Century

    This link will give you a substantial preview. Especially helpful is the opening case study. While all histories like this one involve wrong interpretation, the evidence that Lutheran theology was causing the problem is shown by how the king stopped the crime wave. If Lutheran theology had nothing to do with the crime and it was caused by other factors like mental illness in the population, the solution would not have worked. Hence I am inclined to believe that the author was correct.

    Note that Lutheran theology was also a way out of the problem, via the two kingdom’s doctrine. But the underlying problem is still latent within our church culture.

    Now that I’ve laid out a problem, what are the solutions? I’m sure there are more. And maybe mind aren’t the greatest, but here is a stab at it:

    1. We must stop playing mind games with each other, so people don’t become skeptical of God’s forgiveness.

    2. Official clergy-related uses of forgiveness should not be emphasized to the detriment of forgiveness from fellow Christians, both specifically with respect to certain sins, and generally with respect to a culture of mutual conversation and consolation of brethren.

    3. Not have pastors tell stories to suicidal people about giving spiritual comfort to dying people. Don’t tempt them.

    4. Not use guilt and forgiveness to train young people to do/don’t do things. Guilt is already natural to nearly all people. Guilt, shame, and honor should be used for their spiritual purposes rather than for training children to do what we want. While this sounds un-Lutheran, Luther himself says that good works are not pleasing in the eyes of God when motivated by shame and honor: . Honor is dangerous because it leads to pride, and shame and guilt serve to tear down honor lest it be a barrier to coming to Christ. They also serve to drive us to Christ for forgiveness. Our main current version of Lutheranism deviates from Luther–yet we do it because it works in the temporal sense. And for authoritarians among us, it is what they know and believe in.

  5. Brian says:

    I think that before one judges someone, one should understand where they are coming from and how it is that they got there. I am a Wels Lutheran, been so all my life, in fact, my family has been attending the same lutheran church for 146 consecutive years, so I am well versed in the ins and outs of the Bible and what it says. Saying that, i did attempt suicide twice by the age of 12. Where i was at the time and who i was at the time, were someone and somewhere will i never want to be again. I felt that i had been abandoned by all including the Creator and Savior Himself. It was only through time, nearly 28 years later, that i understood that i was the one who had abandoned Him.

    No amount of moralistic preaching at the time would have done me any good, and telling me that i needed forgiveness for thinking that way wouldnt have helped either. I needed to come to the conclusion with assistance from the pastor at the time, and my wife, to understand that i was wrong and that i had failed God not Him me. Maybe before we toss a bible at someone who sees no other option but to end their life, we need to see where they are instead of seeing them as a sinner needing a dose of morals and forgiveness.

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