How should believers think about the matter of suicide?
‘Hmm, another light and breezy topic from the pen (keyboard) of Bill’ you might be thinking. Yes, well, I confess – I do tend to shy away from fluff pieces and cotton candy articles. But suicide is of course a huge problem in the West – even more so with all the draconian, disproportionate and untargeted lockdowns we have been going through of late.
So who am I to write on these matters? Am I a counsellor, a pastor, a psychologist or a mental health expert? No. So I claim no expertise there. But I do know a bit about theology and Scripture, so I can say a few things from that angle. And I can run with a bit of personal application on this as well.
Indeed, in my non-Christian youth I was suicidal. I also know of various Christians who struggle in this area. And in my book on euthanasia I did speak to this matter as well. Let me proceed then in offering a few thoughts on the issue. Two main ones will be presented here.
Firstly, some biblical and theological considerations. Scripture takes a very dim view of suicide. All up five cases of it are reported in the Bible, and all of them are viewed in a very negative light. For a full exploration of these five episodes, see this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/14/suicide-a-biblical-assessment/
Why is it the case that suicide is seen as being so wrong? There would be various answers that can be given here. Augustine had looked upon suicide as being doubly sinful: first it involves taking an innocent life (self-murder); but also, it leaves no room for repentance following the act.
One clear reason why this is so sinful is what it says about God. The person contemplating suicide is telling God he did a lousy job of creating him, that he blew it, and that the person himself could have done a much better job of things. It is the age-old problem of man wanting to play God, and thinking they can do things much better than God can.
So it is to slap God in the face. But it is also to slap others in the face. All the people who care about and love the one considering suicide are also being viewed as being of no worth. The person thinking about suicide has a very low view of not just God, but of others. And of course he has a very low view of himself as well.
But the truth is, in many ways it is the height of selfishness. To shake your fist at God and spurn all your friends and loved ones is to focus exclusively on oneself. The essence of Christianity is to love God and to love your others. Suicide is the exact opposite of this.
Sure, when you are going through all the terrible things that you might be going through that leads you to think about taking your own life, it is pretty hard to focus on God and others. I get that. But all sin is basically selfishness, and all such selfishness is the antithesis of what we are called to be and to do.
In this regard something that G. K. Chesterton wrote back in 1908 – and which I quoted in an earlier article – is well worth sharing here again. He wrote:
Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world….
Obviously a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live. The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2016/04/19/christianity-and-suicide/
And it is not just the Judeo-Christian tradition that has viewed suicide as wrong – even sinful. Most cultures have as well, and until recently, many even made it an illegal offence. Sure, those who may have been successful in this will not need to worry about any sanctions thereafter for breaking the law, but there you have it. Most cultures do not look favourably on suicide.
The second main thing to say about this is more practical in nature, and will hopefully be of some help. It goes without saying that it is vital for the person going through these periods of suicidal thoughts that they do not keep it bottled in, but reach out to others. Hopefully they have friends, family members, and/or others that they can share their concerns with.
And it works the other way as well. Friends and loved ones who know of people in this state need to reach out to them – often, if need be. They need to check up on them, seek to offer any help they can, and at the very least keep them in regular prayer. We ARE our brother’s keeper, and we all do have an obligation to look after one another, especially those who are in such vulnerable and precarious places.
One also needs to speak of the issue of depression, which so often is closely linked with the one contemplating suicide. I have written about this often before. I have myself been depressed to various degrees over the years, and any general knowledge of church history will reveal that many of the great saints have been as well.
The great English preacher Charles Spurgeon is just one such example, and I have discussed him more than once in this regard. See these two pieces for example:
And of course biblical characters could be mentioned here. The weeping prophet Jeremiah may well have been easily depressed. So too Elijah, or Jonah, and so on. Being depressed is not necessarily sinful at all – it is more a matter of how we deal with it.
Yet many ‘hyper-spiritual’ Christians have the mistaken notion that no true believer can or should ever be depressed. I disagree. It is a very prevalent condition amongst Christians, and even some of the greatest of Christian giants have struggled with it.
Sure, depression can very easily veer into sinful attitudes and actions. One can live in perpetual pity parties and always carry on about how bad things are. When we focus exclusively on ourselves, and not on Christ, and simply wallow in pity and the like, we do indeed move into selfish and sinful territory.
So biblical balance is needed here. Let me finish by sharing three paragraphs from an earlier article of mine. In it I quoted from Martyn Lloyd-Jones and his 1965 volume, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures:
“We all agree that we should examine ourselves, but we also agree that introspection and morbidity are bad. But what is the difference between examining oneself and becoming introspective? I suggest that we cross the line from self-examination to introspection when, in a sense, we do nothing but examine ourselves, and when such self-examination becomes the main and chief end of our life. We are meant to examine ourselves periodically, but if we are always doing it, always, as it were, putting our soul on a plate and dissecting it, that is introspection.”
As to actually dealing with depression, he reminds us that ultimately it all comes back to knowing God and his Word: “Spiritual depression or unhappiness in the Christian life is very often due to our failure to realize the greatness of the gospel.” He goes into more detail on this here:
“In other words, the great antidote to spiritual depression is the knowledge of Biblical doctrine, Christian doctrine. Not having the feelings worked up in meetings, but knowing the principles of the faith, knowing and understanding the doctrines. That is the Biblical way, that is Christ’s own way as it is also the way of the apostles. The antidote to depression is to have a knowledge of Him, and you get that in His Word. You must take the trouble to learn it. It is difficult work, but you have to study it and give yourself to it. The tragedy of the hour, it seems to me, is that people are far too dependent for their happiness upon meetings. This has been the trouble for many years in the Christian Church, and that is why so many are miserable. Their knowledge of the Truth is defective.” https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/10/02/on-depression/