This another question posed by Adrian Warnock in his post: Suicide and Religious Faith following on from his question about mental illness which I posted about in mental illness and my faith. This week, his question is:
Research suggests that religious faith protects against suicide. Why do you think that is in light of how your community responds to suicide? How can we tread the fine line of discouraging suicide while not making the grief of family members worse?
The depressions that have afflicted me time and time again often come with thoughts of suicide. When the pain is unbearable, and light seems so far away, then the only thing that comes into my mind is thoughts of dying. It starts with prayers and wishes that something will happen to me; cancer, a terrible accident; a random knifeman, anything. Then when those prayers are (not surprisingly) unanswered, the other thoughts come. Then I feel like I really cannot go on, like there is nothing in my future, nothing in my present which can outweigh the awful feeling of depression. When I do not want to die – but I cannot bear the life that I have. That is when I make plans. Suddenly the knife I use for self harm becomes more than an agent of temporary relief; the medication meant to help me becomes a more final help than that; and I begin to wage a war in my head between what is left of my reason, what is left of the normal “me,” who knows that suicide is a bad thing to do, and between pain, who listens to no one.
I have been suicidal both before I was a Christian, in the terrible time that led to my first diagnosis with bipolar disorder, and which also helped me discover a faith I didn’t know existed in myself, and later, when I had already accepted Christ. I have not, however, made a serious attempt on my own life since that first episode.
Did my faith protect me from suicide attempts, and therefore the threat of completing suicide? Partly. While many in the West, and in the evangelical tradition of which I am somewhat a part, have condemned those who commit suicide as being sinful, and which have sometimes taught that those who kill themselves are destined for hell, for they have been unable to repent of the suicide they have performed, I do not agree with this. I have written before about whether suicides go to hell, and the answer is, I believe, that they do not. There are several suicides mentioned in the Bible and it simply has nothing to say, either positive or negative, about the manner of their death. Going from that, I do not think that God approves of suicide – but I do think that he understands it. When pain is so intense that it seems there is no alternative, when the mind is not right, when we are, as it used to (and maybe still does) say, that the “balance of their mind was disturbed” then I think that God sees, and understands, and loves us anyway. I believe that we cannot say someone who has killed themselves has gone to hell, and if they have, I do not believe it is because they killed themselves, and I see no reason to say that. I have heard people say that it is good that we tell people that if they kill themselves they will go to hell, that God will punish them for their “sin” because it may keep someone from suicide. I have heard it said that even if we believe that God will welcome the believer who has killed themselves, loving them regardless, we should not tell someone who is depressed that, for fear that they might go ahead and do it, lest we should give them encouragement. I don’t believe that, either.
The Samaritans have a page on myths about suicide where they talk about what happens if someone is allowed to talk about suicide. What they describe is the sense of relief you can get if someone gives you permission to talk about your suicidal feelings. I know that I felt that. I have a very good friend who has listened to me pour out my heart when I have felt so awful that I wanted to die, who listened and who gently helped me to think about what I might do. I remember coming out of hospital where I had been in overnight with an overdose to sit in her house and just talk. It felt like lancing a boil, and letting all the bad stuff out. Once you begin to talk, accept that you are suicidal instead of just saying “this is bad” – once someone listens, and helps, then that is when healing can begin.
I do think that we, as Christians, need to talk about suicide. We need to talk about mental illness in general. Things left hidden under the rug, made taboo can cause more problems than if they were in the open. We, to my mind, can acknowledge the grief of the bereaved by saying that, yes, God loves their loved one, that he does not condemn those who are suffering, as it says:
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory. (Matthew 12:20)
We do no harm to tell those who are in pain, who suffer mentally, that they are that bruised reed, and we, whose light may burn dimly because of disability, human frailty and pain, are worth a great deal to God. He will not put us out, neither can we put ourselves out, for we all believe that this life on earth is not everything there is to our lives. We can tell the bereaved that their loved one is now with Christ; and we can tell those who are suffering that the Lord is also with them. I don’t think that suicide is a good answer to our problems, but I do think that if we encourage people to talk about it, to have them be listened to by people who care and who know what help is available to the sick, who know about counselling and therapy and medication and who also know about God, prayer and the church; if those people listen and seek out those who are suffering then we can teach truly, that God does not condemn the suicide but understands the pain they are in. It is not a perfect solution – I myself have not been granted instant healing from my pain, but I do know that God does not want me to die, that he has plans for me. I may not be able to see it when I am ill, but I have been able to cling to that idea, and it has been something, at least. We can, of course, also teach that Jesus brings justice – and justice for those of us who are sick means help in this world, in terms of benefits, employment, legal rights (and those are things the church should be fighting for) and eternally, means that God will take all of this away, and give us the victory over the brokenness of this world of ours.
We need to talk about suicide – as a society, individuals and the church. Let that poison out, get it in the open and talk about what is so often seen as taboo. If we acknowledge the pain, the thoughts, then we can do something to help them – keep them locked inside and they only fester, and I think that they increase the likelihood of us doing something permanent to end them. I’ll leave you with another verse, that always comes into my mind when I’m thinking of whether we should talk about, acknowledge suicide, and whether that will help or hinder:
He reveals the deep things of darkness and brings utter darkness into the light. (Job 12:22)