Thursday, January 27, 2011

Quick-Fixing Ourselves to Death

Title: Quick-Fixing Ourselves to Death - (Part 1 of Stuck-In-a-Rut series)
Date: 27 Jan 2011
Text: Mark 10:17
Written by: Conrade Yap
This is a series of 3 articles on Spiritual Growth. It deals with the frustration of being stuck in a rut. In Part One, we deal with frustrations that arise out of a quick-fix paradigm in our spiritual growth. Part Two deals with the fallacy of a feel-good mentality, and Part Three proposes an alternate understanding of spiritual growth.  This week, we deal with the folly of "Quick-Fixing Ourselves to Death."

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)

MAIN POINT: Growing spiritually is not a matter of quick-fixing a problem. It is recognizing we first need Christ.

Have you ever wanted to grow spiritually but are frustrated because you feel stuck in a rut?

Last week, I asked a group of adults this question. It generated a number of frank responses. The vocal ones verbalized the obvious “i-want--to-grow-but-i-don’t-know-how.” The quiet ones silently anticipate a “show-me-what-to-do-and-i-will-do-it” expectancy.

I harbour mixed feelings when I reflect upon what has happened. On the one hand, I am glad that people recognize their desire to grow. Yet, on the other hand, I am not sure how far these people are willing to go, in terms of willingness to do what it takes to follow Jesus.

It is often said that the Christian life is likened to a long marathon rather than a short sprint. Unfortunately, many people acknowledge the marathon in their heads, but behave the opposite of what they claim to believe. This is the crux of the problem. It is not “I want to grow but I don’t know how.” It is “I would like to grow but only at my own comfort level.”

A) Quick-Fix Approach (Problem-Solution)

Image Credit: KettleBellBootCamp
Many in the West are fanatical about speed. People upgrade computers primarily because they want faster and better performance. They surrender their old cell phones in favour of newer gadgets that can do more with less time. They pack the expressways because the highways are free of traffic lights, and represent the fastest way to get form one point to another. Unfortunately, we often bring these quick-fix approaches and unwittingly apply them to our spiritual walk.

We approach spiritual disciplines as if it is a quick-fix formula to spiritual growth. A few days ago, I was having lunch with a friend. He was complaining about such a quick-fix tendencies being highlighted in teaching themes. He astutely observed that quick-fix titles attract more people. If we can market our topics based on quick-fix themes, we can generate a larger following. Titles like:

  • How do I have a better prayer life?
  • What are the steps to better Bible study?
  • How do I witness to my non-Christian friends?
  • What does it take for me to be know God better?


Show me what to do. Give me the to-do list. Just send me the instructions to get things done quickly.

B) Is Spiritual Growth Mechanically Possible?

In other words, if our problem is ‘how to pray,’ the solution is recipe for praying. If our problem is ‘how to do Bible study well,’ the solution is a formula for study. If the problem is ‘how to witness,’ the solution is some steps to evangelism. If the problem is ‘wanting to know God,’ the solution is again a framework for knowing God. If we can name something as a problem, the next logical step is to look for a suitable solution. Name it. Search for methods. Apply it. Solve it.

Sam invited Melissa for a Valentine’s Day date. Throughout the candlelight dinner evening, Sam was visibly anxious, looking at his iPhone looking like he was expecting an important phone call anytime. Toward the end of the evening, Sam went to the restroom. Melissa noticed Sam’s iPhone vibrating in its silent mode. Curious, she took a peek, and to her bemusement, it was a flowchart of what to do during a dinner date! Sam, in his desire to please Melissa, had to rely on a series of problem-solution steps just for an evening date. It turns a romantic outing into a ‘mechanical’ and artificial puzzle to solve. When a relationship gets mechanized like that, love becomes fodder for self-satisfaction.

This is how we sometimes approach our Christian lives. In societies that worship efficiency and productivity, nearly everything is viewed like a problem to be solved. If you have a headache (problem), take an aspirin (solution). If you have relationship issues (problem), see a counselor (solution). Worse of all, we adopt an attitude of if there is no problem, assume it is ok. This is the root of all relationship issues. We spring into a quick-fixer when we find a problem. When there is no problem here, we concentrate on other problems elsewhere. We behave in such a manner that makes our living simply a life of solving problems.

C) Not Another Quick-Fix Spiritual Pill

What I am going to suggest is spiritual growth is NOT a religiously coated problem solving enterprise. The rich young man essentially fails Jesus’ test because he adopted a problem-solving approach to eternal life. He sees eternal life as a goal that requires him to do things, like obeying the commandments, and to fulfill tasks. This is not very different from a kind of salvation based on works.

Due to the persistent pleas from the man, Jesus suggests three actions (GO, SELL, GIVE) for the man to follow.

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

The man asks for a quick-fix solution. Jesus offers him a 3-stage solution. What is telling is the man’s reaction.
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Mark 10:22)

If one dares enough to ask, he needs to be dare enough to obey and follow through.

The reason why quick-fixes approaches often fail is because our hearts are not on Jesus in the first place. We are in a rush because our focus is on the procedures of growing. We are in a hush because our eyes are fixated on self-gains instead of on Christ.

D) All Eyes on Christ Not Quick-Fixes

My friends, some of us may approach spiritual growth like the rich young man, in terms of seeking a quick-fix solution to spiritual health. If we keep pushing the Holy Spirit to give us that to-do list, the question is no longer the list, but how willing are we to obey the to-do list. Are we then prepared to GO-SELL-GIVE all that we have in order to inherit eternal life or for our case, a quick-fix solution to establishing spiritual growth?

This is what I will suggest. Our Christian life is not a matter of doing things for God. It is about being the best we are called to be, in God. In other words, we must surrender our own whims and fancies to God. We must give up trying to solve God. We must yield ourselves from works-driven kind spirituality, to a Word-based spiritual encounter with God.

We cannot quick-fix ourselves to death. Spirituality has to be done not at our own speed, but to be in step with the Holy Spirit. Frederick Buechner, suggests that we are called to surrender ourselves to God, if we really want to grow in Him. Spiritual things are to be spiritually discerned, not quick-fixed into our own timing and speed.
Power, success, happiness, as the world knows them, are his who will fight for them hard enough; but peace, love, joy, are only from God.” (Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, NY: Seabury Press, 1979, p18)

Be careful that our spiritual growth is not dependent on our own human versions of quick-fixes. Even things like prayer, witness and studying the Bible can easily become spiritual plasters that covers only surface cuts, but leaves deep wounds badly hurting. Hope in Christ. Wait for the Holy Spirit. Be faithful in Christ, to obey the Word.

There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, no tonic so powerful as expectation of something tomorrow.” (Orison Swett Marden)

Spiritual things can only be spiritually discerned. Fixing God or figuring God out is not our business. Our business is to fix our eyes totally on Christ, and to let God fix us.


sabbathwalk



Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Unconditional Love

TITLE: UNCONDITIONAL LOVE
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 19 Jan 2011
Note: This article is the second of a 2-part series on the call to unconditional love in marriages.
“It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Cor 13:7-8a, NIV)

MAIN POINT: Romance is merely a spark. It is Unconditional love that fuels any marriage. Such love is made possible in the Christ Jesus.

Marriage is not for the faint-hearted. Weaklings, please do not apply. It is not a competition, combative athletes please do not participate. It is also not a relationship to be easily entered into. People with less than 100% commitment, please walk away immediately.

Saying “I DO” marks the beginning of a journey of unconditional love. Before God, before a multitude of witnesses, before each other, the marriage vow is a declaration that two bachelor selves end in order for ONE united couple to begin. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder. Two has become one flesh.

The Unity Candle
One of the most significant marriage rituals is the lighting of the unity candle. I remember that day well. Three tall candles visible in front of the altar inside the beautiful Methodist Church. Before the bride walks in, two candles on the sides are lit, while the center candle remains unlit. After saying our wedding vows, my wife-to-be and I take a lighted candle each, and pass the flame to the third candle together. This third candle is called the unity candle. Once this is lighted up, we blow out the candle in our hands and are subsequently pronounced husband and wife.

A) Danger: The ‘Bachelor’ That is NOT Snuffed Out

The snuffing out of 1st and 2nd candles represents the extinguishing of our old bachelor selves.

Husband: "I no longer belong to me. I belong to each other in the Lord."

Wife: "I no longer belong to me. I belong to each other in the Lord."

The lighting of the 3rd candle represents the beginning of a new married life. The biggest danger in many marriages is that our bachelor selves have not ‘died.’ We forget our new identity. We see marriage from self-seeking eyes instead of the unity perspective. This leads to an unbalanced expectation.

We want the excitement and privileges of marriage without all the challenges. We want the juicy fruits but not the hard work needed to cultivate them. We want things fast and easily get impatient when things do not turn out according to our bachelor schedules and expectations.

A monk once remarked to a couple celebrating their 40th Wedding Anniversary.
“Mamma mia! 40 years of martyrdom.”
Incidentally, that celibate monk knows more about marriage than most couples today. Marriage is about dying to our bachelor selves, and living married wholes. It is about saying goodbye to our old selves, and resolving to build a new identity TOGETHER. It is to grow a new tree TOGETHER. It is to build a new home TOGETHER. For Christian couples, marriage is about affirming one another and to build each other up in the LORD. The French actress, Simone Signoret, says it very well.
“Chains do not hold a marriage together.  It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years. This is what makes marriages last - more than passion or even sex!” (Daily Mail, London, 4 July 1978)
This unity candle represents the desire of the couple to continuously and unconditionally sew threads of love to hold the marriage together. When we retain our bachelor self, we see our commitment in marriage like a chain. We feel trapped. Chained-in. Imprisoned. We seek to be liberated from such chains. We see ourselves having to do all the work. We carry within ourselves a 50-50 tendency. I will only put in my 50%, IF my spouse puts in his/her 50%. This tit-for-tat behaviour stunts rather than build marriages. A person still living his/her bachelor self will behave in such a calculative and transactional manner. Romance is important, but it is only a spark. We need real fuel to keep the unity candle burning.

Depending on romance as fuel is dangerous. Like food, we cannot base our marriages on the sugar of romance. We need solid food of hard work, creativity, and commitment. A Christian marriage is entered into unconditionally, and should be continued unconditionally. Romance is at best a spark. It is the giving of love that fuels any marriage. The aim for every married person is to give until it becomes a natural way of life. Make our expression of love for our spouses be another thread to sew the marriage together.

B) Warning: Romance is only a Spark, not Fuel

I have heard so many times about people lamenting the loss of romance in their marriages. While I do not disagree with the importance, I caution one against using romance, ecstasy, or emotional highs to describe a 'good marriage.' Romance is merely a spark. Something else is needed as solid fuel.

We need to be careful not to be overly interested in the ‘orgasm’ (quick-fix) of marriage. Instead, we need to develop the organism (slow intentional growth) of marriage TOGETHER. The former (orgasm) concerns itself with the results, and the thrills of a relationship, and quickly dispenses with the process and hard work of improving the organism. Self-help mechanisms tend to focus on how to get something fixed quickly and superbly, and how to reach an ‘orgasm’ or a high point. It is geared toward achievement of one’s end: Self-love again.

An organism on the other hand is a contiguous living system. In marriage, it is two becoming one flesh. It contains both the good and beautiful as well as the bad and ugly. This is why in many marriage vows, the words make it clear:
“ (Bride/Groom), take you (Groom/Bride), to be my (wife/husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part. “
Read it forward, backward, or sideward. The key point is UNCONDITIONAL LOVE.  This is the true fuel to sustain marriages. Romance is only a spark. Unconditional love is the fuel for sustaining marriages.

Married couples enter into this relationship willingly for better or for worse. In self-seeking love, we want the better without the worse. We want the richer without the poorer. We want the health without the sickness. We want the beautiful without the ugly. The tough truth is that we willingly enter into the WHOLE PACKAGE, and we must see it through. In a nutshell, the vow is an unconditional pledge to take each other as husband or wife. It is a commitment to love regardless of whether one is loved or not. It is a covenant made before a Higher Authority amid a multitude of witnesses. Only the LORD can snuff out the 3rd candle when the couple leaves this earth.

C) What About Troubled Marriages?

Remember the TIP. A marriage is a ‘Transformation-In-Progress.’ Are you doing it alone or in prayer with God as your help? Are you bitter about your marriage hobbling on only one leg, in particularly your leg? If there is one tip I can give, it is this. It is far easier to change yourself than it is to change your spouse. In fact, I will venture to say that if we spend more time trying to be the best spouse we can be, we will have LESS time to pin-point our partner's faults and errors.
“Success in marriage does not come merely through finding the right mate, but through being the right mate. “ (Barnett Brickner)
It is because marriage involves two parties, it can never be a single effort. The American psychiatrist, Rudolf Dreikurs’s suggests that couples see every single problem as a COMMON task.
The most severe predicament which may befall a married couple does not necessarily endanger the union; on the contrary, it frequently knits them more closely together. Everything depends solely on the ability of the mates to stick together when confronted with a difficult task.” (Rudolf Dreikers, The Challenge of Marriage, NY: Dutton, 1990, p165)
Just because one spouse does not want to do his/her part, does not exempt us from doing OUR part. Unconditional love again. Focus on being the best spouse we can be, and pray to God to help our spouse do the same.

KEY POINT: Every problem, no matter how small needs to be seen as a common task. There is no place tit-for-tat reactions. No exceptions.

D) Unconditional Love, Unlimited Love

Let me share an encouragement. True love always perseveres. There is always a brighter side. For every one trouble, there is also an overcoming of that trouble somewhere. It is not whether a marriage works or not. It is a married couple working together to overcome any trouble, with God’s Help. Each challenge can be seen as an opportunity to strengthen the marriage. For every negative thought, follow it up with at least 2-3 positive affirmations of your spouse. Prefer a baby step forward, than a giant leap backward.

Unconditional love is not natural to the earthly person. In fact, two imperfect persons coming together does not make anyone else more perfect. Rather, it reveals how much each person has to willingly surrender his/her ideals for the partner. It is not longer yours or mine, but OUR marriage. Not yours or mine, but OUR children. Not yours or mine, but OUR home, OUR future, and OUR love. We need each other. We need God.

The marriage vow is not a one-off deal. It is but a beginning of a relationship of helping each other become better selves IN the LORD. Remember that romance is only a spark.

Perhaps your marriage has lost its romance. Perhaps, your marriage needs another spark. Whatever the challenges, work at it from the eyes of God. Work at it together as equal partners. Work at it unconditionally to present each other to God, beginning with ourselves. Demonstrate your desire for a better spouse, by first being a better spouse yourself. The sparks of romance are depressingly temporal and short-lived. The perseverance of unconditional love will fuel the marriage for the long haul.

Love unconditionally. This is the fuel that will sustain a marriage. Any marriage.

Thought: "A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it." (John Steinbeck)

sabbathwalk


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Self-Love a Marriage Killer

TITLE: SELF-LOVE IS A MARRIAGE KILLER
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 14 Jan 2011
Note: This article is the first of  a 2-part series on the call to unconditional love in marriages.
It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Cor 13:5, NIV)

MAIN POINT: Self-love is deceptive. Before true love can increase, self-love must decrease. 



One of the most popular topics I have dealt with in my years of ministry is marriage.
  • “If there is no more love, should I leave my husband?”
  • “I am no longer in love. What’s the point of continuing in the marriage?”
  • “I do not have a happy marriage. I am not sure if it is God’s will for me to remain in this unhappy state.”
  • “At home, we quarrel and fight a lot in our marriage. When outside, we pretend we are the nicest couple. I feel like a hypocrite.”
  • “Apart from adultery, is it ok for Christian couples to divorce when they no longer love each other?”

Troubled marriages affect people of all cultures, and all classes of income levels. Both riches and poverty can cause dissent, discontentment, stress and unhappiness. I have personally gone through both ends in my growing up years. My parents quarrelled very often when I was growing up in the 70s. The D-word was liberally used. Fights were frequent. Furniture were often the first victims. My siblings and I would huddle together in fear, hoping that the storm would abate sooner than later. One common chorus that came up during such fights was this:
“If not for the kids, I would have filed for a divorce.”
Now as I look back, romance is never really a major part of my parents’ marriage. In some way, I can see how my parents’ marriage is transformed from romance to commitment; from fantasy to reality; from childishness to maturity. Marriage is a TIP: Transformation in Progress. It begins with a transformation of self. It requires one to look beyond self-importance. It needs one to move away from self-love.

A) Love is Many A ‘Self’-Splendored Thing
You may ask: “But isn’t love necessary for relationships, especially marriages?

I believe it is, but I do not want to romanticize the word ‘love.’ This is one reason why I prefer the King James Bible use of ‘charity’ (more giving rather than receiving) in 1 Corinthians 13. I am afraid many Christians translate subconsciously:
And now these three remain: faith (in me), hope (for me), love (me). But the greatest of these is (self) love” (a self-seeker rendition of 1 Cor 13:13)
Such interpretations betray the very essence of love; where love is not self-seeking, not easily angered, and not keeping record of wrongs. (1 Cor 13:5b)

I think society at large has overstated the importance of love. Not that I disagree with the idea of love. I think people have defined ‘love’ based on their own terms more than anything else. Self-love appears to be the trend in many marriages, masqueraded as needs. Self-love remains a primary motivator.

  • “He does not love ME anymore, why should I care about the relationship?”
  • “I do not feel loved. He doesn’t care for ME.”
  • My needs are not met.”
  • “What’s in the marriage for ME?”
  • I have given in so much, but she hardly contributes anything to the marriage.”

Human beings have a tendency toward self-love. Giving does not come easily. Forgiving appears foreign. Seeking the benefits of others first remains the ideal picture that can work only within the printed pages of many marriage books. Ever thought about how big the SELF-HELP industry is? A quick check on Amazon.com reveals a whopping selection of materials for “Health, Mind & Body” section. There you can find books such as:

  • “When am I going to be Happy?”
  • “The Power of Self-Coaching”
  • “The Courage to be Yourself”
  • “Learning to Love Yourself”

You get the point. If you want to sell books, talk about self-love. If you want attention, talk about loving the self more than others. Unfortunately, marriage is not a proverbial ‘nail’ for any self-help ‘hammer’ to work on. It is a plant that needs cultivating. Our chief problem in marriage is our tendency to see marriages with goggles of self-love. Staying in marriage becomes a conditional ‘Only-If.’ Only if the husband treat her well. Only if the wife behaves in a certain way. A 50/50 marriage looks more like a contract fulfilled only 50% at best. It is not Christian at all. Self-love is 50/50. True love is 100/100 regardless.
KEY POINT: Self-Love restricts oneself toward a contract (50-50) rather than a covenant (100% regardless).

B) Marriage as a Plant
A marriage is not a path toward self-fulfillment. It is about planting a seed of love together. It is about watering this plant gently with care. It is about giving it enough sunlight. Not too much that the young seedling gets scorched. Not too little that the plant becomes wrinkled. Just enough for it to grow well. This cycle of care will result in a tree that brings forth fruits in its season.

A self-seeking person is not patient to wait for the seed to germinate. No pause for admiration. No time for perspiration. The self-seeker will rush the growth. If the growth is not there, he/she will find all kinds of formulae to try to spear its growth artificially, not naturally. The self-seeker will add in additional supplements, or growth accelerators. If possible, this self-seeker will even attempt a transplant. The self-seeker seeks to control growth. Anything that frustrates this control tempts this person toward the D-word. He/She demands results. He/she demands fruit even though it is out of season. Like a tree that refuses to shed its leaves during Winter, the self-seeker dehydrates the tree and freezes the relationship.

KEY POINT: Self-Seeking kills relationships.

C) A Story Of Two Gardens
Two gardeners began planting shrubs in early January. The rain, snow and frosty conditions have practically laid bare the garden for planting.


The first gardener tried to do things in a rush. He used chemical de-icers to melt any frost and icy grounds quickly. Concerned only about his dream plant, he did not bother with the rest of the plants in the garden. Seeing a cup-like bird feeder on the fence as an eye-sore, he removed it and threw it away, sensing that there is no use for it anyway.

The second gardener also planted the same shrub in almost identical conditions. Instead of using chemical de-icers, he used compost to work the ground. Though it took a little more time, the ground became more enriched by the organic mixture. He cleaned away the foliage in the surrounding plants, believing that the neighbouring plants do affect the growth of his shrub. He added bird seeds to the bird-feeder, hoping to encourage birds to visit his garden.

Spring arrived. Both shrubs germinate and grew. The first gardener saw results only for that year. The second gardener saw results year after year, after year. Why?

In rushing the de-icing, the first gardener’s use of chemical de-icers damaged the ground. The higher salt content from the chemicals may have sped up the de-icing, but it made the soil more toxic for plants. He left the surrounding plants untouched, even the eggs laid by bugs and insects. No bird feeders meant there were no birds to reduce the insect population.

On the other hand, the second gardener, saw a bigger picture. He cared for the soil. He cared for the surrounding plants. He cared for the birds. In turn, the soil helped the plants. Insects are fewer, thanks to the clearing of eggs from the surrounding foliage. Birds came that Spring to help reduce the insect population. The entire ecosystem becomes a pleasant experience that enriches the visitor.


KEY POINT: A caring heart learns to see the big picture, and will care beyond oneself. The Self-Seeker only sees one small rabbit's hole.

D) Cultivating a Godly Marriage
Marriage is like planting a seed. We cannot rush it. We need to care for it selflessly. We need to see the big picture, instead of a tiny world of self-love. We should never depend on quick-fix solutions like chemical de-icers. Even if our spouses do not bother with bird-feeders, does not mean we do the same. Let our patient gardening be a demonstration that it is possible to grow our marriages, beginning with us.

  • Let our faithfulness please God first of all;
  • Let our reward be in the LORD;
  • Let our commitment to love be motivated by God’s love;
  • Let our diligence be toward honouring God, regardless of how our spouses treat us;
  • Let our love for the LORD lead to to practice love unconditional.

There is a biblical pattern of being an example so as to win the spouse over. In God’s time.
“For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. “ (1 Cor 7:14)
Though written for the wife unequally yoked with a non-believer, the principle of being a blessing to the family is still applicable. This willingness to be a blessing is NOT contingent to the spouse playing his part.

Cultivating a marriage needs time. It needs patience. It needs more God-seeking rather than self-seeking. In God, we can become the person we are meant to be. Banish self-seeking. Banish self-love. Cultivate charity to God and to others, especially your spouse. Unconditionally.
Success in marriage does not come merely through finding the right mate, but through being the right mate. “ (Barnett Brickner)

Thought: It is always easier to change oneself than to change your spouse. If you take care of your own flaws, you will not have enough time to be too critical about your spouse's shortcomings.

sabbathwalk


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Problem of Suicide

Title: The Problem of Suicide
Date: 5 Jan 2011
Written by: Conrade Yap

"How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, Whose hope is in the LORD his God" (Ps 146:5)

MAIN POINT: Coping with Depression and Reflecting on the issue of Suicide

Alex was a brilliant student, a loving husband, and an encouraging friend. After he graduated with a Masters of Theology, he went back to the business world to do some consulting work, to support his wife’s PhD studies. He was dearly loved, and loved others dearly. Amid this cheery outer expression, belied a deep and dark inner depression. On August 31st, 2005, Alex took his own life. His wife was devastated. The Regent community was left dumbfounded and shocked. Confusion seemed to reign.

I was a first year theological student then at Regent-College when the news broke. Even though I did not know him, I remembered being confused and lost. My main question was:
“How can a student so rich in the Word of God take his own life?”

A) Some Traditional Views on Suicide

The catechism of the Roman Catholic Church reads:
“Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.”
The stand is firm and clear. Many people has since pointed out that suicide is a sin, even an ‘unforgivable’ sin. The Vatican’s position is influenced heavily by the fourth century bishop, St Augustine. Basically, Augustine’s position reflects the need to keep the sixth commandment, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’ In the City of God, Augustine writes,

We have to understand that a man may not kill himself, since in the commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ there is no limitation added, nor any exception made in favour of anyone, and least of all in favour of him on whom the command is laid!” (Augustine, The City of God, Book I Section 20)

It is Thomas Aquinas who hammers in the ‘unforgivable sin’ aspect. In his classic Summa Theologia, Article 5, his three main assertions are:
  • suicide is always a mortal sin;
  • suicide injures the community;
  • only God can pronounce life or death on a person’s life.
Simply put, Aquinas builds on Augustine. The Roman Catholic Church builds on Aquinas’s theology. The result is a strong but hybrid position on suicide. Needless to say, in our modern world, with such a strong position taken by both the Catholic Church and many Protestants, it is theologically devastating for families and friends, whose loved ones take their own lives. How should Christians deal with suicide?

B) Some Background Behind Augustine and Aquinas

Before I lay down my position, let me share some background behind the early Church fathers' stern position against suicide. The common English word ‘witness’ is translated from the Greek word, ‘martus’ from where we get the word ‘martyr.’ During the first three centuries, Christians were persecuted harshly. They endured much pain, especially under the evil emperors of Nero, Trajan, Aurelius, Decius and many others. Two of the most famous martyrs are Polycarp and Perpetua. They became the heroes of the Christian faith, and during that time, the best witness for Christ is to be killed for the sake of proclaiming the gospel. Being burned at the stake is a great honour. Many believers in the second century openly courted death in order to become the ultimate witness (martyr). Needless to say, some of these attempts are foolish, even suicidal. We need to distinguish between true martyrdom, versus the ‘glory’ of foolishly courting death? This is the context to understand Augustine and Aquinas' stance contained within their writings. Lloyd Carr, Professor Emeritus at Gordon College commented on Augustine’s concern:

His concern in the City of God is first of all to make it clear to his readers that deliberately seeking death is not the best, nor even an appropriate way to demonstrate one’s faith.” (G. Lloyd Carr, et al, Fierce Goodbye, Herald Press, 2004, p76)

C) Suicide is NOT ‘Unforgivable’

While I disapprove of suicide in general, I do not condemn the ones who have taken their own lives. Neither do I condone the ending of one’s life. More importantly, I do not believe that suicide is a ‘unforgivable’ sin, the position taken by some Christians. I believe that God loves us, whether we are alive or dead. His grace is not limited by our mortality. I believe that the Bible does not specifically condemn suicide, even though I think suicide is wrong.

For grieving families of suicide victims, be comforted to know that God still loves that person. The act of taking one’s life may have broken the sixth commandment, just like our half-truths, and our covetousness have broken other commandments. We do not live by the law, but by grace. In fact, when we live by grace in Jesus, the law is not abolished but fulfilled. The law is there to remind us that we are sinners, and how easy it is for the common person to fall into sin. The law helps to bring some sanity into a world that has no control over its own morality. For example, if there is no traffic laws on the streets, driving will become a dangerous nightmare. We need the law to keep society in order. The fulfillment of the law is by grace and graceful, gracious living in Jesus. Keep a check. We should not overestimate sin. Neither should we underestimate grace.

D) Tips for helping the Suicidal - COPE

Firstly, COMMUNITY is the essence of living. We need not suffer alone. Like other humans, there are Christians like Alex cannot face up to life anymore and choose suicide. If one lives in a healthy community, the negative effects of depression can be minimized. In fact, having fellow brothers and sisters to walk with the bereaved brings loads of comfort. Jean Vanier warns:

"To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefor unloveable. Loneliness is a taste of death. No wonder some people who are desperately lonely lose themselves in mental illness or violence to forget the inner pain." (Jean Vanier, Being Human, NY: Paulist Press, 1998, p10)

Secondly, OPEN UP. When one is depressed, one needs to open up and communicate the feelings to another person he/she trusts. This is an opportunity for all believers to equip themselves by learning to listen well. Listening to our fellow brethren is a calling. Simon Stephens writes:

They must forget self and encourage the bereaved to talk at length and in detail about their loss. There will be tears and long silences. …. Just to be there and listening to what the mourner has to say is a major contribution to that person’s social rehabilitation.” (Simon Stephens, Death Comes Home, Mowbrays, 1972, p66)

Thirdly, PRAY. This remains a powerful key to healing and comfort. Those having suicidal thoughts should ask others to pray for him. Caregivers like you should let the suicidal person know that you are praying for him. Make sure you then pray for him. Pray together with him. Get a few other people and pray for him. Do not underestimate the power of prayer.

Fourthly, ENCOURAGE. This is a priceless gift anyone can give. Frequently, the mere presence or a short visitation brings a lot of encouragement to the depressed person. One example of encouragement is to bring a balance. Most depressed people tend to talk about what they cannot do. Encouragement is about sharing what they CAN do. Encouragement brings hope. I like this encouragement from Richard Bach, who talks about hope of a brighter future.

“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly."

My fellow readers. Depression and suicide are real issues of life. Some people needs medical or psychological treatment. Others simply needs a hand of friendship and encouragement. The rest of us should never underestimate depression.

I am still shocked when I think about Alex’s suicide. There remain unanswered questions. Perhaps, the best thing we can do is not to lament the past, but to learn from it. Equip ourselves with the COPE mechanism, and shine for Christ in a world of darkness. That is our calling as followers of Christ.

Thought: Forgiveness and Hope. Forgiveness heals the past. Hope seals the future. Let Christ help us do both.


sabbathwalk



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