The Rev. Peter Preus has written a book for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod Life Ministry. This book, I Will Grieve for the Suicide: Gospel Comfort for Loved Ones Left Behind, will soon be available from LCMS Life Ministry. Sign up on the LCMS Ministry Resources email list to receive a notification when it is available.
by the Rev. Peter Preus
“He lost the battle against depression and hopelessness, but today his pain is over.” There are those who try to comfort the bereaved of a suicide with these words. Unfortunately, the message leaves much to be desired. This sentiment finds meaningful comfort, not in a message of grace, but in the fact that his depression and hopelessness has ended. It fails to connect relief for the suicide to Christ, who is the resurrection and the life; instead, the relief of the suicide is linked with death. The grieving may envision the final days of his life as having been comprised of nothing but suffering and torment. His prognosis was self-evident: unrelenting misery with no end in sight — no hope of relief. But then it did end. And we may find comfort, the grieving are told, knowing that as tragic as his death might appear, he’s at peace.[i]
The sentiment seems to offer a refreshing change to former days of judgment. The notion that all suicides are damned may be traced back to an Early Church edict. The edict asserted that those who would escape the ills of time by voluntary death will not obtain a better life but plunge into the ills of eternity.[ii] The intent was to curb a suicide epidemic among Christians.
Believers had suffered under brutal and relentless persecution, being thrown to the lions, ripped apart by dogs, set on fire or crucified. Despairing of life, early Christians sought suicide as an escape; they viewed it as a form of martyrdom. No doubt, many suicides were prevented by the edict. Unfortunately, despite the campaign to curb suicide, no thought was given to curbing suicidal thoughts and urges. Rather than offering Christian hope to the despairing, to say nothing of comfort to the grieving, the Early Church settled for stigmatizing and condemning suicide.
Many in the church today, sadly, can be just as cold. It is often asserted that true Christians don’t entertain thoughts about suicide. Moreover, if you are thinking such thoughts, you are failing to trust in God, and it’s time to suck it up. One survey reveals that in 32 percent of the cases where those who committed suicide had met with their pastor before taking their life, their pastor told them they did not have a mental condition but a spiritual problem.[iii] Too often, depressed Christians are advised that they lack faith and may choose not to be depressed. Furthermore, as long as a person is thinking about dying instead of setting his sights on the hope of everlasting life, such hope, it’s believed, is not for him.
A different sermon is heard from the supporters of today’s secular culture of death. Supposedly, they know how to be more supportive of the despairing; they’re more empathetic than Christians who coldly condemn suicide. They feel for the one whose sole desire is to escape a life of hopelessness or cure an illness the only way they know how. Shall we offer current death activists our ear? Shall we embrace their message of empathy? “Don’t tell the despairing they’ll go to hell if they commit suicide. Tell them, you stand by them. Whatever decision they make in their longing for relief, you are there for them.”
A place for hope?
How did our culture get to this point? It has to do with today’s secular message that ties hope to independence. You have hope so long as you enjoy independence. And you have independence so long as you enjoy your rights as a human being and become the person of your choosing. You obtain a sense of purpose when you believe in your ability to choose and navigate your own path.
But secular hope is a doomed hope. It seems to work for a while as individuals find their niche in life. They develop a skill, win friends and influence people. Eventually they become ill or frail. And with diminishing independence comes diminishing hope. Instead of boasting of their human rights and liberties, they must concede their dependence on others. They need people.
If hope in today’s culture hangs on enjoying personal independence, then loss of independence unravels that hope. What if, in your opinion, you no longer have any hope of exercising your rights in life? By the failure to answer this question, the death culture has led today’s youth to ambivalence and arrogance. They see the path of their choosing disintegrating before them, and they conclude: “If things don’t work out as I wish, I can always die.”
Therefore, today’s death culture is confronted with an obvious challenge: how to support the depressed and suicidal. The death culture shares a message of empathy; it says, “I won’t condemn you if, in your opinion, your life is no longer worth living. Regardless of how you see yourself or others see you, I will celebrate who you are by celebrating your rights and choices.” In other words, despite your loss of independence, you needn’t give up hope. If life’s purpose and pleasures are lost, you may declare your personal independence in one last act. If you cannot assert your independence and find purpose in life, exert your independence and find purpose in death.
As the objective is to offer hope, we are led to believe the sentiment is noble. Instead of telling the despairing they’re wrong for thinking a certain way, we tell them it’s their right, and our apparent compassion may relieve them of their sense of hopelessness. Remember the 24-year-old Belgian girl, Emily. In November 2015, she had received approval for assisted suicide, but at the last minute, she decided to keep on living. Assisted suicide advocates argued that the anticipation of death brought Emily a renewed sense of hope and relieved her sense of despair.
A beautiful death?
Today’s death culture believes the end justifies the means. As long as it offers him relief, you may agree with his prescription for ending his pain. Therefore, compassion is good, even if it means opening the door to suicide. And, of course, it does. By defending the suffering’s so-called “right to die,” today’s death culture has cleared the way for them to do so. The death culture message lacks hope and encourages the despairing to give up on life.
Imagine a prize fighter after going several rounds in the ring. He’s starting to totter. He’s received far too much punishment. Finally, he reads the expression on his coach’s face: “It’s alright to concede defeat. Take a fall. Remain on the mat for the count of ten.” This is a key talking point within today’s death culture also: “Standing by your side, I will not encourage you to get back up and fight. I will inform you, rather, that the choice is yours.” It may sound like compassion, but it’s only an attempt to sanitize death. Suicide needn’t be considered ugly and selfish. With society’s understanding and support, suicide may be deemed dignified, peaceful, good, even beautiful.
Today’s death culture traces the loss of hope to the loss of independence. The Christian traces hopelessness to living in a fallen world. Inasmuch as everyone is a sinner, we understand that everyone sooner or later confronts the wages of sin in this life. And Christians are no different than unbelievers in this regard. It is natural to lose hope as our life declines. Our condition is uncurable. Death is closing in.
What is not normal or natural is to seek release from life prematurely. This desire may occur when a person suffers from major depression or suddenly feels that life is being stripped of its purpose. He develops thoughts and desires about dying. He’s convinced he’s repulsive, that he’s let everyone down, that his misery will never end. Or she concludes she’s a burden, unworthy of God’s love, that she’d be better off dead.
A place for hope
So, what do you do? How do you instill in someone the desire to live? You probably cannot offer him medical help or professional counseling, but you can offer his life purpose and encouragement that stems from Christian hope.
To start, you need to understand what deprives Christians of hope. Talk about the wages, the cost, of being a sinner. Having been brought forth in iniquity (Psalm 51:5), sin is exhibited in our lives by the many and various conditions or illnesses we inherit from our parents. Depression is one such illness, and it consists of more than hopelessness, self-hatred and shame. Depression turns you inward to yourself in the extreme. Instead of looking for relief outside yourself, you dig deeper inside and conclude there is no help. It is important that Christians afflicted with depression understand this.
Depression would have people believe all is hopeless. But Christ’s Gospel tells them otherwise. Relate to them what it means to have Christian hope. Christian hope is traced to the redeeming death of our Savior. It is the believer’s day-by-day confidence in God’s promise and ability to care for us in time and in eternity. Unlike secular hope that seeks independence for purpose and a reason to live, Christian hope gives the despairing purpose and a reason for living.
Envision yourself listening to a fellow Christian who is suffering from hopelessness. His illness has affected his ability to function, to interact, to live independently. He just wants out.
“I’m having such terrible thoughts,” he tells you. “I’m therefore a terrible person.”
Answer him: “You needn’t judge your faith based on whether you can beat your depression and what you are feeling. Judge your faith on the basis of Christ’s promise and what you are hearing.”
Tell him what it means to be Jesus’ little lamb. On our own we are completely dependent. We have nothing to offer God but our sinful broken lives. However, in Christ we possess everything we need: forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. And there is nothing on earth, not even the most brutalizing despair, that can deprive us of that. In our Savior’s own words, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them … I give them eternal life … and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28).
Each day, he may live with the assurance that, despite his depression, his symptoms do not dictate whether he has purpose; Jesus does. Jesus died our death, so we wouldn’t need to.
Consequently, it isn’t the message from within that saves. It is a message from without that saves: the Gospel. In the words of Paul, God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5), not those who demonstrate their capability and independence, but those who are conceived in sin and are by nature spiritually dead and loathsome to God. Such sinners God declares to be righteous before Him through the death of His Son. Such sinners Jesus has brought into His fold.
A beautiful death … a beautiful life
Today’s death culture speaks of a beautiful death as one in which people retain their dignity and right to be without pain. Christians define it quite differently.
Our Baptism constitutes a beautiful death, since what dies is our sin. What dies is everything in our life that God sees as offensive or detestable. “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul declares, “he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). In the words of Luther: “The Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all its sin and evil desires, and … a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (SC, Baptism).
Daily we receive the forgiveness and salvation given us in Baptism, and we get to spend our whole life reflecting this. So, we die to sin, and by God’s grace we arise in righteousness and purity. We’re thinking: “Jesus has paid for my sin. By His suffering and death, He’s caused me to appear without sin before the Father. And by Baptism, He’s made it official, rescuing me from death and the devil and thus saving me. That means I can please God my whole life.” And we do. Connected to Christ’s death by our Baptism, we have a beautiful life, one that is pleasing to God. Each and every day we stand before God with absolute righteousness and purity.
This means that we needn’t be shamed by fantasies of dying. For in our Baptism we get to die, and we do die. We die with all our sin and evil desires. Everything we perceive that makes us useless to others and undesirable to God dies. But then, by the power of Jesus’ Word, we arise and live. For this reason, we don’t need someone to help us exit this world. We don’t have to die that death until God is ready for us. In our Baptism, we do all the dying and rising that we’ll ever need in this life. No matter how old we get, how wretched or worthless we become, no matter how much suffering we undergo, in our Baptism God makes us something new. In the precious water combined with His Word, God gives us dignity, and hence purpose, both in our living and in our dying.
Today’s death culture prides itself in senseless words of “a beautiful death.” But we know what is truly beautiful. What is beautiful are the words of Isaiah: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). If someone is hurting or suffering spiritually, the Lord doesn’t reject them or put them out of their misery. Depression will not have the last word; God will. It is also beautiful having our rights as God’s children restored, as Jesus has transferred the shame of our sin upon Himself. We celebrate, therefore, not a right to end life but to receive life. Even if one’s battle continues for some time, the outcome is sure. Instead of questioning, “how long can I last?” the Christian may confess, “my Savior has come to me that I ‘may have life and have it abundantly’” (John 10:10).
[i] Peter Preus, I Will Grieve for the Suicide, Office of National Mission, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, TBD.
[ii] Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, Augustin: City of God, Christian Doctrine, First Series (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 17–18.
[iii] Beverly Yahnke, Doxology: The Encore, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minn., July 2009.