Last week I received a message that a young person, capable, full of promise, her life ahead of her, had taken her own life. The method of choice in Singapore — jump from a tall building. Although I didn’t know her, I was overwhelmed with a deep sadness. It reminded me of the time when I was a dentist in charge of a team of school dental nurses. There was one nurse who was outstanding, far ahead of her peers. She was highly capable, friendly, with exceptional leadership abilities. I had no hesitation recommending her for promotion every time there was an evaluation exercise. I lost touch with her when I left dentistry to pursue theological studies. When I came back to Singapore years later, I asked about this nurse. I expected to hear that she had risen high in her profession. I was told that she had taken her life. She had climbed to a tall building, taken off her shoes and jumped. I was stunned. No one saw it coming. (Do we ever?) Did I mention she was a Christian?
Why do people take their lives?
Why do people take their own lives? Gary R. Collins gives us a list of possible reasons:
- To escape from loneliness, hopelessness, depression, academic or work difficulties, financial pressures, or conflicts with other people.
- To punish survivors who are likely to feel hurt and guilty.
- To gain attention.
- To manipulate others (often this can best be accomplished by the threat of suicide.
- To join a loved one who has died.
- To escape from some difficult situation.
- To punish oneself for something that has created guilt.
- To prevent oneself from becoming a burden on others.
- To avoid the suffering and other effects of some dread disease.
(Christian Counselling, 3rd Edition, Nashville, TX: Thomas Nelson, 2007, 651.)
Of course Collins is quick to point out that “Some of the reasons on this list are not very logical. There is no guarantee, for example, that suicide will enable the victim to join a deceased loved one. Gaining attention isn’t very satisfying if the person is not present to enjoy the public reaction” (Collins, 651).
Is suicide an unpardonable sin?
Understandably the church has taken a strong stand against suicide.
We must understand suicide as free and uncoerced actions engaged in for the purpose of bringing about one’s own death. Once we define it this way, it is easy to grasp the church’s clear teaching throughout the centuries that suicide is morally wrong and ought never to be considered by the Christian. Life is a gift from God . . . Our lives belong to God; we are but stewards. To end my own life is to usurp the prerogative that is God’s alone. (Thomas D Kennedy, “Suicide and the Silence of Scripture“)
Suicide is wrong but it is not an unpardonable sin. Kennedy moves on to say:
If we define suicide as consisting of only free and uncoerced actions, we must ask a series of questions as we try to understand any particular suicide: To what extent do we know the suicide in question was genuinely free? Could pain (either physical or emotional) have coerced the individual to do what he otherwise might not have done? But even if we could know that an act of suicide was genuinely free, can we know that the aim of the act was indeed one’s own death rather than a misguided cry for help? Can we know that the suicide believed this action would really kill?
These questions lead us to withhold judgment in many cases; but more telling yet is this question: Did the individual aim at removing himself from God’s goodness by suicide? Was this an act of suicide directly aimed at saying no to God? Or was it rather a tragically misguided attempt at saying yes to God? Eternal punishment is reserved, Christians believe, for those who directly reject God and reject God as a consistent pattern in life, not merely in a solitary final act. (Kennedy, “Suicide and the Silence of Scripture”)
Helping to prevent suicide
However, it is not quite enough to clarify theologically that suicide is not an unpardonable sin. The more pressing question is: how to we help our people find the resources that will inoculate them against the temptation to take one’s own life? I believe we need to do at least the following:
First, we need to give clear teaching on the subject. Suicide is one of a number of taboo subjects in most churches. We pretend that suicide is something that doesn’t happen among believers. And when it happens we respond with theological discussions and quickly move on.
Second, we need to help our folks understand and experience the “joy of the Spirit” (Galatians 5: 22) which is our birthright in Christ. We need to help people see that joy is something deeper and more resilient than emotional happiness, and that we can have joy even in the midst of tears because joy is a fruit of the Spirit, predicated on God’s ultimate sovereignty and love, and on His commitment to make right a broken world.
Third, the church must truly be a gracious community where it is safe to share our deepest pains and despair, a place where people listen lovingly and carefully, a place where you are accepted, pain and all, so that together we can seek the healing of God. Few churches I know are like that.
Fourth, we must ensure that we all walk through life with a few real friends, confidants with whom we share the joys and wounds of life (Ecclesiastes 4: 9-12). I can’t help but link the growing number of suicides, especially among the young, with the increasing loneliness of modern society. Dr. T Maniam, a Malaysian psychiatrist, comments on this trend:
If 50 years ago the majority of people who attempted suicide were middle-aged, today the bulk has shifted. Sixty percent of those who attempt to do so worldwide are now under 40. While this is yet the case in Malaysia, Dr T Maniam of UKM said that the proportion of youths with suicidal tendencies is fast rising, with depression seeking ever younger targets. Chief of the factors behind this, he said, is the “epidemic of loneliness” brought on by a rise in urbanization, and exacerbated by the lack of quality in relationships. “Young people are more connected through technology, but virtual relationships are solitary pursuits,” said the psychiatrist and medical researcher. (Christine Chan and Aidila Razak, “Those considering suicide more of younger age.” Malaysiakini, 24th December, 2009.)
Are you walking thorough life with a few close friends? If you are, at least there are a few people who might “see it coming” if you ever turn suicidal, and have the opportunity to do something about it. But I fear most of us are walking though life, indeed following Jesus, alone.
May the death of the girl who took her life last week be another voice in a growing chorus calling us to wake up to the despair of life, and to Hope.