On November 1, 2014, Brittany Maynard, a young woman with a terminal illness, ended her life. Her story caused quite a stir in Christian circles, and discussing life and death is a worthwhile conversation to have.
It’s easy to function in a black and white world. When our options are limited to black and white, right and wrong, the choosing process becomes simplified. It is when we add the many-varied shades and colors of reality that life gets exponentially more difficult.
As children we are taught things in black and white because that’s the way a child’s brain operates. If I tried to teach my kids how to use discernment between varied shades I think their heads might explode—or mine would. They’re too young for that right now. We all teach our kids in black and white. Sadly, sometimes we forget to help them move beyond that into the world of grown-up discernment.
When I was a kid I remember learning the black and white of suicide. I was always told that it was one way—suicide is a sin (therefore wrong) and that those who commit suicide are eternally doomed to remain outside the presence of God. In fact, many parts of the worldwide Church still teach people that black and white truth. Too many of us in Christianity have not moved beyond into adult discernment.
As an Evangelical pastor, I believe that the Bible ought to be our primary guide for action, thought, and behavior. But too often we look to man-made traditions to shape our beliefs rather than what God has revealed through the Bible. So the really tricky question about suicide is: What does the Bible actually say about taking your own life?
I only say “surprisingly” because, as strongly as the church preaches against suicide, you would think that the Bible would say quite a bit.
No “Thou shalt not’s” or “You’re gonna be soooorrrry!” about suicide. There are a few stories about suicide, but those stories simply relate the tale—there is no judgment, guilt, or moral derived against suicide.
Judas, the infamous (which, according to the Three Amigos, means MORE than famous) disciple of Jesus, was so filled with sorrow and regret for his behavior that he committed suicide. But one of my favorite stories in the New Testament is actually a suicide prevention story.
The apostle Paul and his colleague Silas were imprisoned for sharing their beliefs about Jesus. Late at night, there was a massive earthquake and the jail cells and prisoners’ chains broke free. The guard who had been sleeping (hey, it was late!) woke up, saw the busted cells, and decided that the only way to regain any sense of honor for his family after the prisoners escaped on his watch, was to kill himself. As he was about to plunge his sword into his body, Paul calls out, “Hey, don’t do it. We’re all still here!” Paul was able to share about Jesus with this jailer. Even still, there is not any condemnation of the guard’s intent. Just a story of how Paul introduced him to faith in Jesus.
So why do we tell people that those who commit suicide are hell-bound for eternity? The human logic behind it is this: suicide is murder and, since that grievous sin is the last thing you do before eternity, there is no chance to confess and repent. Thus you are doomed to Hell.
I don’t buy it.
The Bible only says that there is one unforgivable sin: blasphemy against the Spirit of God.
That’s it. Everything else is forgivable. The only permanent, unforgivable sin is to credit God’s work to Satan, to accuse the spirit of God of evil. I don’t see that with suicide. Which means that even suicide is a forgivable sin.
But what about the lack of confession and repentance? It’s a common human misunderstanding of how grace and divine forgiveness works. It’s not a quid pro quo kind of deal. We don’t offer one confession for one act of forgiveness. Grace is freely given to us. When we become believers in Jesus and surrender to God, then his grace covers us. We ought to be sorrowful for sin in our lives, but I do not think that individual acts of sin will prevent us from an eternity in his presence. Otherwise, everyone who dies unexpectedly without confessing and repenting is going to be spending a long, hot eternity away from God.
My theology says that God is bigger than that. My theology says that God’s grace covers us, and that God understands that we are still broken people trying to do our best to live righteous lives in a broken world. But I don’t have to worry about dying without being able to confess and repent. His grace covers us.
Thus I believe an honest understanding of the Bible admits that people can have “committed” sins and still be covered by grace. I believe that a Christian who commits suicide will still spend eternity with God. Frankly, I believe a lot of people who are in heaven will surprise us (and a lot of people who DON’T make the list will also surprise us)!
But let’s look at the other side of the same coin:
Though suicide is not an unforgivable sin, I do not believe that Christians ought to commit suicide. Suicide tends to be about seeing no other alternative to terminating suffering in this life. Suicide is the human attempt to exercise ultimate sovereignty over life. This is the wrong attitude. God is sovereign, not us. We don’t know what tomorrow brings. Or next week. Or next year. There’s no way to know that your life situation will stay on the setting “SUCK” for your entire life. It could change at any moment.
Perhaps God is trying to use your misery and suffering to refine you—to help you become a better you. Perhaps he’s prepping you through your suffering to minister to and help others. Bottom line—don’t try to take control away from God. Let God be God, even through the junky times where we’d rather just give up.
If you’re reading this and you’ve ever thought, “It would just be easier if I weren’t even here,” I’d like you to know that you’re not alone. Those kinds of thoughts are normal things for us to think when we’re suffering. Welcome to normalcy! But let God be God. The tougher the situation, the more we should lean on him and lean on a good, caring spiritual family.
If you’re reading this and you’ve had loved ones take their own lives—know that suicide is not a one-way ticket to hell. God’s love and grace are bigger than you can imagine.
In the end, I don’t know all of the specific reasons for suffering. Some of it is because stupid people do stupid things and those things have consequences. Sometimes suffering is redemptive and makes us better. Sometimes suffering is punitive and we pay the price for our own wrongdoings and behavior. Through it all let God be God. Trust him. Lean on him.
And, in the words of the illustrious Captain Jason Nesmith:
NEVER GIVE UP. NEVER SURRENDER!