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.


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