By Bob Hiller –
Remember that scene from the Luther movie that came 15 years ago where Martin Luther takes the boy who hanged himself and buries him in the church graveyard? Everyone was standing around in shock, and the gravedigger was telling him he couldn’t do it. After all, it was thought that suicide was a mortal sin. With no chance for repentance or penance, this soul was not going to be given the opportunity for purgatory, let alone rise on the last day in the protective shadow of the church. It was believed that suicide meant damnation. Yet, Luther showed compassion in the shadow of the church. He gave that boy a Christian burial. The meaning of his actions was clear: Christ’s mercy is stronger than suicide.
Last week, suicide became the focal point of the national conversation as two celebrities, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, took their lives too early. The response was appropriate. We were encouraged to share suicide hotline numbers, become more aware of the signs of depression and suicidal thoughts, and grieve together while working for a solution to stop this new epidemic. The statistics being shared are staggering, if not terrifying. In 2016, 123 people committed suicide per day. The number of people dying from suicide has risen by 30% in the past two decades. And it is only getting worse.
I’m not going to use my time today to try to offer some solution to the problem. There are any number of cultural issues we can point to and blame for such developments, and there no easy answers. The efforts I see being made in the culture to change this trend are encouraging, but it is an uphill battle to be sure.
But given the statistics, I do have to wonder: Is the church ready for this? Recently we’ve had to deal with such issues in our area, and it has got me thinking very hard about how we are to minister to those who are facing this sort of darkness. Does the message we preach give hope to the hopeless? Does the church stand out as a place of light for those who are suffocating in the darkness? What’s more, how do we serve those who are suffering after the untimely death of their loved one? Do we still have a word of hope for them? Will we bury their loved one in the church graveyard? Is the sin of despair a sign that there is no faith and all hope is lost? Or is Baptism stronger than suicide?
I remember debating this in college when ideas didn’t seem to have consequences. I remember someone said to me that suicide could be forgiven only if, in that split second before death, the person took the chance to repent. But the more I think about such ideas, it seems like this is both a weak view of repentance and forgiveness. At the same time, to take one’s life is indeed a breaking of the fifth commandment, whether it takes place out of spite or despair. Suicide is a sin, and all sin is a rejection of God. Right? This isn’t easy.
What does a theology of Law and Gospel look like in the face of suicide? There are no easy answers to suicide in the church because we can neither affirm the sin and pretend like it is okay, nor can we proclaim that here death and sadness have taken control back from Christ’s cross and empty tomb. Though we have no right to ever claim we know someone’s heart, for that is God’s territory, we do have the responsibility to preach hope!
What we find in Christ is that people caught in despair and hopelessness are the very people He comes for. Baptism is a promise from Jesus to never leave us nor forsake us. It is the promise of eternal life. To be sure, we can walk away from that promise. But does someone who is suffering from mental health issues or someone who feels as though they have lost all hope qualify as someone who has willingly walked away from Christ? Does someone in that state of mind have to fear that God says, “Well, I was for you when things were good, but now you’ve taken a turn, and until you prove you trust me enough, I’m forsaking you in your depression.”? Of course not! Jesus is very clear: A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out. Not even the Satanic darkness of suicide that shrouds those in such sorrow can separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus!
So, how does the church respond to suicide? Perhaps we can learn something from Luther’s work in that graveyard and graciously leave those who have died in the hands of their Savior. All we can do is leave people to Jesus. And that is truly hopeful! For we have this promise that, one day, Christ’s resurrection work will extend to all who have died, even those who have taken their own lives, and that those who have died in Christ, however that took place, will have all tears wiped from their eyes by the nail-pierced hand of Jesus. And death will be no more. And Jesus will make all things new. This saying is trustworthy and true. No matter how dark things are now, this is the promise Jesus makes for you.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
(Let me just say at this point that if you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Know that you are someone whom God does not look upon with anger or hatred, but one He has sacrifice everything for. He loves you for the sake of His Son who died for you so that you might be His own. I know you feel depressed at this point, but His love is there for you nonetheless. There is hope. Call the number and then get in touch with your local church. Jesus has hope for you.)