I’d been a candidate in the United Methodist ordination process for a year and a half. I’d been a seminary student for two semesters, and I’d been a solo pastor for three months when a member of my tiny little congregation at Linvale United Methodist Church outside Princeton, New Jersey went home one Sunday after the 10:00 worship service, climbed downstairs to his basement, spread out the plastic tarp that was still dirty from a long ago family camping trip, unlocked the deer rifle with which he’d once taught his son to hunt in the Pine Barrens, sat down in a wrought iron lawn chair, and killed himself.
It had been seven years since I’d given my life to Christ. I had ten ‘Master of Divinity’ courses notched on my transcript. I’d been a minister for a dozen or so Sundays. And, suddenly, one of my first tasks in that role was to minister to the family of a church member who had taken his own life.
The man was elderly, and he was terminally ill with cancer, painfully so. This was my second direct experience with suicide.
The first came had come at the church at which I’d interned just a few months previous.
A friend recently lost a good friend the same way and asked me the question that always comes up in those situations:
What does the Church believe about suicide?
Is suicide really an unforgivable sin?
Before anyone goes about answering such a question to distinguish suicide as a rational choice and suicide as the result of mental or emotional illness.
There is a deep difference between, say, Inspector Javert and Rick Warren’s who tragically suffered mental illness and recently sucumbed to it.
With the former example in mind, the Christian tradition has historically held suicide to be morally wrong because the act of suicide represents a refusal to live moment-by-moment. In this sense, in suicide, the creature seeks to exercise the autonomy of the creator. Thus suicide marks a rejection of our status as finite creatures made by God. Because it’s not solely “my” life that I’m taking, suicide can, theologically speaking, be understood as an assault or affront to God, the One to whom “my” life belongs. For Christians, this kind of suicide is an attack on someone else’s property.
Suicide is an issue around which many painful myths cohere so it’s important to point out that, from a Christian viewpoint, suicide does not necessarily condemn one to irretrievable punishment.
God no more judges a person on the single sinful act of suicide than God judges any one else solely on a single sinful act.
Rather the Christian understanding that even with those commit suicide God takes the measure of a whole life and judges based on the sum of that life.
When it comes to the first sort of suicide, the sort I encountered in my first parish difficult though it was, what is important for a Christian ethical perspective is that Christians refuse to speak the culturally dominant language of independence. This is hard.
The language of individual autonomy, though common, is deceptive. It may sound true that my life is my life, yet a family’s experience of suicide proves just how false a claim that really is. The language of individual autonomy is limiting because the fact is our lives are bound together with family and friends in a number of ways.
My life is not just my own because it’s a life that exists in relationship with scores of others: many who love me, many who depend upon me, many who understand their life in relationship to my own.
I learned this fact firsthand while ministering to the church member’s family I mentioned above. His suicide was hardly a solitary act with limited consequences. On the contrary it caused pain to all those others to whom his life belonged.
Christian tradition, then, defines suicide as a moral wrong first because it’s a rejection of our created-ness and hence an assault on God and, secondly, Christian tradition defines it as a moral wrong because, whether it’s intended or not, it’s an assault on others too.
Having said all that, it’s critical to stress that most of us have more experience with examples like the heartache Rick Warren and his family are presently enduring.
To listen to a very good and pastoral conversation about this topic, I’d encourage you to take a listen to the recent podcast at Homebrewed Christianity.
To take a step back, I think what’s critical to remember in all cases is that suicide isn’t so much a question what a person will suffer in God’s eternity rather suicide is but one example of how God’s creation continues to suffer- groan, Paul says- under the power of Sin and Death.
The saving power of the cross is both perfect and yet mysteriously it’s still most definitely NOT YET.
As in most things, I think Karl Barth puts it well.
This is from Church Dogmatics 3.4:
“Sickness, like death itself, is unnatural and disorderly. It is an element in the rebellion of chaos against God’s creation. It is an act and declaration of the devil and demons. To be sure, it is no less bound to God and dependent on Him than the creature which He created. Indeed, it is impotent in a double way. For like sin and death, it is neither good nor is it willed and created by God at all, but is real, effective, powerful and menacing only in its nullity, as part of that which God has negated, as part of His kingdom on the left hand.…
“The realm of death which afflicts man in the form of sickness … is opposed to His good will as Creator and has existence and power only under His mighty No. To capitulate before it, to allow it to take its course, can never be obedience but only disobedience towards God. In harmony with the will of God, what humans ought to will in face of this whole realm on the left hand, and therefore in face of sickness, can only be final resistance.… Those who take up this struggle obediently are already healthy in the fact that they do so, and theirs is no empty desire when they will to maintain or regain their health.”
“When one person is ill, the whole of society is really ill in all its members. In the battle against sickness the final human word cannot be isolation but only fellowship.”