Thinking about the Unthinkable

Article ID: JAS554 | By: Elliot Miller

This article first appeared in the From the Editor column of the Christian Research Journal, volume31, number3 (2008). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Over two decades ago something happened in my church from which I and many others may never fully recover. A Christian woman who had a reputation for joyful and selfless service of the saints took her own life while her children were in the next room.

I had known this woman since she accepted Christ thirteen years earlier. I knew she continued to suffer from her own father’s suicide that occurred when she was a child, and I knew that at times life was emotionally difficult for her, but I never imagined that she would follow her father’s devastating example.

After this mind-blowing event occurred, everyone coped as best they could. Our church held a memorial service for her, eulogizing her commitment to Christ. Her husband eventually remarried, so the children had a new mom. Everyone went on with their lives, but although this woman was not a close friend of mine, her suicide was difficult for me to process internally—so difficult that even today I wince when the memory surfaces.

Sadly, this woman was the first but not the last Christian I have known who has committed suicide. The co-pastor in a church I briefly attended, in whose home I had good Christian fellowship, fell into hard financial times and ultimately decided to end it all. Further instances of suicide committed by Christians whom I had known, or people I know had known, have occurred, including one just last month. With each new occurrence the same old questions arise.

How could a Christian take his or her own life? Few actions seem more at odds with a Christian belief system. Some Christians wonder whether suicide is the “unforgivable sin” the apostle John wrote about in 1 John 5:16. I do not believe it is, but I still would not want to face God after taking my own life, since Scripture exhorts me, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19–20 NASB).

Long before God gave the Law to Moses, He enjoined the human race to execute capital punishment on those who commit murder, since taking the life of someone created in the image of God is an act against God Himself and therefore deserves the ultimate penalty (Gen. 9:5–6). Suicide can be viewed no less seriously. It’s true that those who commit it do not directly assault another person, but they nonetheless do the same violence to the image of God as do those who commit other forms of murder, and they indirectly but profoundly assault all of the loved ones and dependents they leave behind. They furthermore do severe violence to their Christian testimonies, sending a message to both believers and nonbelievers that they did not find Christian faith and hope sustaining in the face of life’s difficulties.

What then could drive a Christian who seemingly loves God and is concerned about his (or her) witness for Christ to take, or attempt to take, the life that God gave him? Studies have shown that in many cases the suicidal person has sunk into a pit of depression from which he sees no way out.1 Clinical depression can so warp one’s perspective that he actually believes he is doing everyone a favor by removing himself from their lives. No one should consider himself exempt from clinical depression, and so anyone who finds himself chronically depressed or thinking about suicide should immediately seek pastoral and psychiatric care before it becomes more difficult for him to draw back from this yawning pit.

Since in my own private life I’ve encountered the unsettling reality of Christians contemplating, attempting, or completing suicide several times, it seems you should be prepared to encounter it too. What then should you watch for, and what should you do? Befrienders Worldwide, an international suicide prevention group, states that the strongest signals are verbal: “‘I can’t go on,’ ‘Nothing matters any more’ or even ‘I’m thinking of ending it all.’ Such remarks should always be taken seriously.”2 Other warning signs include depression or withdrawal, reckless behavior, “getting affairs in order and giving away valued possessions,” and marked changes in behavior, attitudes, or appearance.

If you see a person displaying such signs, reach out to her (or him) and let her know you care and that there is someone she can talk to. Alert her pastor to the situation. He can provide spiritual guidance and assess the nature and severity of the problem, and this assessment may well lead to the procurement of qualified clinical care.

In a culture where human life is progressively being devalued, Christians need to think deeply about a biblically grounded theology and philosophy of suicide and emerge with one that they can articulate and defend. This may sound daunting, but take heart! My associate editor, C. Wayne Mayhall, has laid the groundwork for you in this issue’s important cover article.

— Elliot Miller

NOTES

1. See, e.g., Z. Rihmer, “Relationship between Recognized Depression and Suicide in Hungary,” European Psychiatry 11, 4 (1996): 181.

2. Befrienders Worldwide, “The Warning Signs of Suicide,” Help and Support, http://www.befrienders.org/support/index.asp?PageURL=warningSigns.php. It should be noted that Befrienders Worldwide is not a Christian organization.