Too Young To Die: Confronting the Tragedy of Suicide
Genesis 1:26-27; Deuteronomy 30; John 10:10
July 17, 1994
“Sometimes I get so lonely it’s unbelievable. Life has been so good to me. I’ve got a great wife, good kids, money, my own health—and I’m lonely and bored … I often wondered why so many rich people commit suicide. Money sure isn’t a cure-all.”
Those were the words of O. J. Simpson in 1978.
“I often wondered why so many rich people commit suicide.” The words hang in the air, waiting for an answer.
But it’s not just rich people. Listen to the voices of America’s teenagers:
Dear Sir, Hi. My name is Carole. I am seventeen years old and a senior in high school. And I want to die.
My name is Brandy. I’m 13 years old and I’ve tried to kill myself six times. I had some problems with my mom and I felt I couldn’t live anymore.
I don’t know what to do anymore. My life has been a nightmare. I’ve lived all my life without love. I hurt everybody around me. I’ve come to the end of the line. I can’t go on anymore. I’ve ruined enough lives. I don’t have anywhere else to go. I hurt so much. I can’t stand it anymore. “Bobby”
I don’t want to die but it’s like the only thing I feel will work. I have so much pressure at home and school. I have so much pressure with friends. No one expects me to have problems because I am always happy. But I’m also hurting inside. I hate my life. I think about suicide. I just know tomorrow brings more pain. Sometimes there is so much hurt I can’t stand it. Why do I feel like my problems are worthless but worth dying for? Signed, “On the Edge”
Yesterday I spent several hours at the Fiesta de Hemingway in Scoville Park. It was a happy occasion honoring Ernest Hemingway, Oak Park’s most famous son. He was born at 339 N. Oak Park Avenue and spent most of his growing up years at 600 N. Kenilworth. After graduating from Oak Park High School in 1917, he served as an ambulance driver in Italy during the final days of World War I. Later he went to Paris where he came under the influence of Gertrude Stein and became a founding member of the “Lost Generation.” Among the things he lost somewhere along the way was his Christian faith. After his father committed suicide in 1928, he made one of his last visits to Oak Park. In later years he became world famous for his novels—A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea—winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. In his final years he sank into a deep depression mixed with paranoia. His life came to a tragic end in 1961 when he took a double-barreled shotgun, placed the butt-end on the floor and the barrels just above his eyebrows, and early one morning in Montana quite literally blew his brains out.
This was the man we celebrated this weekend. And rightly so, because for all his faults, Ernest Hemingway was arguably the greatest American author of the 20th century. He was an Oak Parker in the beginning, and this village left an imprint that could never be erased.
But in the midst of the celebration, we ought to ponder how his life ended, because the heroes you choose tell much about the values you hold. For better or worse, we tend to become like our heroes. And our hero, the number one son of Oak Park, committed suicide.
As I have talked with several people in the last few days, it occurred to me that no one is immune. All of us have been touched by suicide. Some of you reading this have thought about it, some have tried to commit suicide, some wish you had the nerve. Many others have known someone who tried it. You may know someone who succeeded.To help us think clearly about the difficult issues surrounding suicide, I would like to ask and answer four important questions.
A. What Does the Bible Say About Suicide?
We begin with several simple observations.
First, the Bible never deals with suicide, per se. By that I mean that the Bible doesn’t contain a verse that reads, “Thou shalt not commit suicide.”
Second, the Bible does, however, teach us a great deal about the sanctity of life. It tells us that we as human beings are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). Whatever else that may mean, it certainly establishes that human life is qualitatively different from all other forms of life.
Human life is sacred because God created us to bear his likeness in the world.
That can never be said about any other creature. Dogs aren’t made in God’s image. Neither are goldfish or sea urchins or tarantulas or rabbits.
Third, the Bible informs us that life itself is a gift from God. When Job said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away,” (Job 1:21) he was recognizing the fundamental insight that life itself comes down from God as a gift. He alone gives and he alone takes. No one has the right to interfere in that process.
Fourth, the Sixth Commandment takes on new meaning when seen in this light. As Hebrew scholars have told us for years, the old rendering, “Thou shalt not kill” should actually read, “You shall not murder.” Killing a rabbit and killing a human being are not the same thing because one is made in the image of a rabbit while the other in the image of God. Life is such a precious gift that no one has the right to capriciously or arbitrarily end it. From a Christian point of view, killing another human being is justified only in the most extraordinary circumstances—in time of war, for instance, or in desperate self-defense or in punishment for an especially heinous crime.
Beyond that, we can say that the Bible only offers one or two examples of suicide. We are told that after he had betrayed Jesus, Judas “went and hanged himself,” (Matthew 27:5) overcome with grief and guilt. The story of Saul’s death is told in I Samuel 31, where it appears that he committed suicide on Mount Gilboa by falling on his sword rather than be captured by the Philistines. It was the end of a long process of self-destruction. Job contains passages that sound as if he contemplated suicide. You can find some “I wish I were dead” or “I wish I had never been born” statements in the Psalms and also in Ecclesiastes. But suicide itself is quite rare.
G. K. Chesterton put it this way:
Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.
The Christian church has always opposed suicide on the simple grounds that it is a form of self-murder and thus condemned by the Sixth Commandment. No one has the right to take the sacred elixir of life and spill it on the ground. Those who do, break the law of God and thus go out into eternity to face God with their own blood on their hands.
B. Will Suicide Send You to Hell?
That leads us immediately to the second question. What happens to the people who commit suicide? One stream of Christian thought has argued that suicide is a “mortal sin,” that is, a sin which leads to eternal death unless it is confessed and forgiven. By its very nature, suicide ends life before confession can be made and forgiveness obtained. Therefore, according to this view, a person committing suicide goes to hell. He has to, because there wasn’t time to confess and repent.
Let me say plainly that the Bible doesn’t teach that.
In fact, the Bible doesn’t directly address the question of the eternal destiny of the one who takes his own life. Since the Bible doesn’t say anything about it directly, we have to find the answer by reasoning from what we know to what we don’t know.
What we know is this:
All men are sinners. (Romans 3:23)
Sin leads to death. (Romans 6:23)
The blood of Christ cleanses us from every sin. (I John 1:7)
Those who trust Christ are completely forgiven of all their sins. (Ephesians 1:7)
Those who trust Christ for salvation may know that they have eternal life. (I John 5:13)
Nothing can separate the child of God from the love of God. (Romans 8:38-39)
That last text is very significant because in it Paul is listing all the possible things that could separate us from God’s love. He lists a succession of extreme opposites: height or depth, length or breadth, things present or things to come. By listing the extremes, he means to include everything in between, i.e., “Nothing high, nothing low, nothing in the middle.” In that context, he mentions “neither death nor life.”
By life he means all the various experiences of life—no matter how difficult our circumstances, how discouraging our defeats, how frustrating our days may be, how badly we may be mistreated—nothing in this life can separate us from the love of God. If you know Jesus, you are absolutely secure in your position, no matter what happens to you in this life. They may take away your wealth, your health, your happiness, your friends, your influence, your job, and everything you have worked for. But they, whether friends or foes, can never take Jesus away from you.
You are saved and saved forever.
God’s love is secure despite the discouragements of life.
But then he says, “Neither death nor life.” That can only mean one thing. Death itself cannot conquer the child of God. The grave has lost its victory, death has lost its sting. Death separates us from many things—from our loved ones, from our friends, from our conscious life on this earth, from all that we have said and done and accomplished—all of that is taken away from us at death, but death itself cannot win the one battle that matters. It cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Home At Last
Late last night Howard Harvey called with some sad, yet joyful news. His first words were, “Betty beat me home.” After a four year struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, she finally died last night. In the end there wasn’t much left—no consciousness, no communication, no way to eat or drink, no movement. She was just a shell of the vibrant, happy, vivacious, energetic person we had known. Many of us had prayed for a long time for Betty to be released from the ravages of her incurable condition. Howard was crying, yet he was obviously relieved. He said these words: “I beat her to the cross, but she beat me home.” We prayed together, thanking God that after all her suffering, Betty was now set free. She’s whole again; she’s in a place where Alzheimer’s can’t touch her anymore. After so much suffering, Betty Harvey is home at last.
Death can do many things. It can take away everything but one thing. It can’t take away the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. The love of God is stronger than the power of death.
Surely that answers the question of the believer and suicide.
Ask it this way: Can cancer separate us from the love of God? No.
Can Alzheimer’s separate us from the love of God? No.
Can a sudden accident separate us from the love of God? No.
Can a drunken driver separate us from the love of God? No.
Can a drive-by shooting separate us from the love of God? No.
Can a heart attack or a stroke separate us from the love of God? No.
Can a strange infection separate us from the love of God? No.
What about AIDS? No, because no virus can overcome the love of God in Christ Jesus.
But what about suicide?
Surely you don’t believe that suicide is stronger than God’s love.
A man or a woman may, in a desperate, sad moment feel so trapped, so oppressed, so discouraged, so angry, so despondent that they may take their own life. But can that act separate us from the love of God? No.
Is suicide a sin? Yes. Is it wrong? Yes. Does it break the Sixth Commandment? Yes. Will it send you to Hell? No, because not even suicide itself is stronger than the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
Do some people who commit suicide go to hell? Yes, but not because of the death they died, but because of the life they lived. Suicide doesn’t send people to hell. Sin sends people to hell, especially the greatest sin, the sin of saying “No” to Jesus Christ.
The real issue of life and death is this: What have you done with Jesus Christ? Have you been born again? Are you saved? Have you ever trusted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? That’s the one decision that determines where you go when you die.
The issue isn’t suicide. The issue is Jesus. What have you done with him?
C. What Are the Warning Signs?
According to the experts, most people who commit suicide leave some trail that can be followed. Suicide rarely happens in a vacuum. Certain warning signs usually pop up along the way. If others are paying attention, those warning signs can usually be seen in advance.
The most obvious one is this: Talking about suicide. Very often, people will begin to discuss it in a hypothetical way, as if they themselves are just getting used to the idea.
If a friend begins talking about suicide, always take it seriously.
Sometimes such talk is a cry for help.
Other warning signs might be sudden mood swings, growing bouts of depression, lack of concentration, withdrawal, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, negative thinking, self-criticism, overwhelming feelings of guilt or shame, extreme anger, growing paranoia, increased use of alcohol or drugs, self-destructive behavior, problems at school or on the job, a feeling of helplessness, a sudden change of behavior.
You could take any one of those factors and still not be dealing with a suicidal person. But in combination and recurring over a period of time, these signs must not be ignored.
D. How Can We Help?
That leads to the final, all-important question. How can we help? It’s not enough to simply know the biblical teaching and the warning signs. We need to know what we can do to help save our friends from making a tragic choice.
1. Teenagers in Trouble
The statistics are chilling, numbing, mind-boggling. The rate of teenage suicide has tripled since 1960. Each year nearly 15,000 teenagers take their own lives. That many more attempt suicide every day. According to Edward Zigler of Yale University, for every successful suicide there are 50 to 100 adolescent suicide attempts. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death among adolescents—behind motor vehicle accidents and all accidents.
I think most of us don’t understand the pressure our teenagers are under these days. This week a friend loaned me some tapes from the dark side of adolescent life. When I read the lyrics, I was shocked. So much of the music speaks of despair, anger, and brokenness. If you want to know why our children are dying, listen to their music.
These are the lyrics to “Settle For Nothing” from the group Rage Against the Machine:
A jail cell is freedom from the pain in my home
Hatred passed on, passed on and passed on
A world of violent rage
But it’s one that I can recognize
Having never seen the color of my father’s eyes.
Yes, I dwell in hell but it’s a hell that I can grip.
I tried to grip my family
But I slipped
To escape from the pain and an existence mundane
I gotta 9, a sign, a set and now I gotta name.
Read my writing on the wall
No one’s here to catch me when I fall
But death is on my side
These are the words from “The Downward Spiral” by Nine Inch Nails:
He couldn’t believe how easy it was.
He put the gun into his face
(So much blood for such a tiny hole.)
Problems have solutions.
A lifetime of messing things up fixed in one determined flash.
In this world
The deepest shade of mushroom blue
Spilling out of my head.
No wonder our children are in trouble. No wonder teenagers struggle so much. With music like that, who can be surprised when suicide looks like an easy way out.
Here’s one more example, only it’s not really about suicide but about sniffing glue with a friend.
My heart is broke
But I have some glue.
Help me inhale
And mend it with you.
We’ll float around
And hang out on clouds.
Then we’ll come down
And have a hangover … have a hangover.
Skin the sin
The soul is cheap
Wish me luck
Sooth the burn
Wake me up.
I’m not like them
But I can pretend.
The sun is gone
But I have a light.
The day is gone
But I’m having fun.
I think I’m dumb.
The song is “Dumb” by Kurt Cobain of the group Nirvana. Mr. Cobain proved the truth of his own words when he took his own life several months ago.
There is no magic answer for the problem of teenage suicide. But this much is sure: Don’t think your children are immune to pressure just because they go to church. Sometimes church kids feel the most pressure because they are torn between two worlds.
How can you help your children? Keep the lines of communication open. Pay attention to the music they listen to. Don’t be afraid to dialogue about the things they care about. Ask for their opinion sometimes. Do all you can to encourage your children to be involved in the youth group. Pay attention to the friends your children hang out with. If you sense a problem, get some help. Talk to Craig Steiner or Bob Boerman or Bill Miller. Talk to a friend or another parent or a counselor. You’re not in this alone. There are lots of resources, but you have to take advantage of them.
Two things stand out:
1. Pray earnestly for your children. Ask God to protect them from Satan’s attacks. Claim the armor of God for your children before they go off to school in the morning.
2. Assure your children of your love and of their great value to you. So many problems could be solved if parents invested the time and energy in loving their children instead of ignoring them or screaming at them.
It’s not easy being a teenager these days. Satan is making a bid for a whole generation. Make sure he doesn’t devour your children in the process.
2. Adults on the Edge
Much of what I have said about teenagers also applies to adults. Make sure you take seriously any talk about suicide. Here are some additional thoughts:
Tell your friend that feelings of depression are normal and can be overcome.
Don’t condemn someone for feeling that suicide is the only way out.
Do remind them that suicide is a permanent solution for a temporary problem.
Offer to go with them to see a pastor or a counselor.
Don’t promise to keep it a secret if they won’t get help on their own.
Call for help if you need it.
Don’t leave a person alone if you think they have made specific plans to commit suicide.
Finally, I speak a word to those who may have thought recently about suicide. Don’t do it! Stop! Don’t take your own life! In Jesus’ name, stop before it is too late.
It’s not a sin to feel overwhelmed or so discouraged that you feel like ending it all. You don’t have to act on your feelings. Before you take the final step, please talk to someone. We won’t condemn you or embarrass you if you want to talk to one of the pastors. We’re here to help you any way we can.
3. Loved Ones Left Behind
We rarely think about the people left behind. They are the ones who have to pick up the pieces and go on with life. If you ever wonder whether suicide is wrong, just look at how it affects the people left behind. Suicide is a fundamentally selfish act that hurts more than just the person pulling the trigger. Ironically, we bury the dead but the survivors live with the pain forever.
Those left behind struggle with two fundamental issues: anger and guilt.
Anger comes as the survivors face the task of putting life back together by themselves. They have to go on … alone. “How could she have done that?” “Why did he leave me to raise the children by myself?” “I hate him for taking the easy way out.”
Many also live with deep guilt. “What if I had been a better husband, father, wife, mother?” “If only I had been there when they needed me.” Sometimes those things are true, and if they are, you need to face them squarely and honestly. Doing that may require sitting down with a Christian friend or a godly counselor who will help you sort things out.
But let’s be clear on one point. You aren’t responsible for another person’s suicide. You didn’t pull the trigger. You didn’t take the pills. You didn’t close the garage door. You didn’t slash their wrist. They did it. God holds them accountable for what they did, not you. Romans 14:12 says, “Each of us will give an account of himself to God.” You answer for yourself and not for anyone else.
How can we help those left behind? By not forgetting them. By being there with Christian love and concern. By calling them, writing them, praying for them. By refusing to condemn them. By putting the bandage of love on the open wound of suicide.
Now Choose Life!
I come now to the end of my message. The words of Jesus seem so appropriate. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10 The devil is a thief. He steals, he kills, he destroys. Everything he touches turns to death. Behind every suicide is the laughing face of Satan, rejoicing that he has found another victim.
But when Jesus comes in, he brings life!
The only life worth living is the life that is found in Jesus Christ. His life is free, eternal and abundant.
If you want to go to heaven, you need Jesus.
The issue isn’t suicide, the issue is Jesus.
If you want a new life, then Jesus is the answer you need.
There is hope! If you have felt this week like giving up, don’t! If ending it all seems like the only way out, think again before you take those pills. There is a better way.
There is love! Someone cares for you. You aren’t alone. Don’t pull that trigger. Don’t take a permanent solution for a temporary problem.
It’s appropriate that on this weekend we should proclaim the good news to Oak Park that someone greater than Ernest Hemingway has come to the world. The greatest news of all is that Jesus Christ is alive today. Because he is alive, we now have a reason to live.
In the end, we are all left with a choice that we have to make every single day.
When Moses stood before the people of Israel as they were poised to enter the Promised Land, he ended his message with these words: “I have set before you life and death. Now choose life.” Deuteronomy 30:19 In the same way, I call heaven and earth to testify that I have set life and death before you. Now choose life!
Our Father, some of us know first-hand that the Devil is a thief who comes only to steal, to kill and to destroy. We confess that he has tempted many of us to take the quick way out of our problems. Forgive us, Lord, for listening to his voice.
Thank you for sending Jesus Christ who is the light of the world. We reaffirm our faith that in him is life!
I pray for those who are standing on the edge peering into the abyss. O God, save them from thinking that death is the only way out of their problems. Show them a better way.
And Lord, we pray that we might have eyes to see beyond comfortable words and frozen smiles to the deep pain all around us. Open our hearts to feel the desperation of those who pass us by every day. Make us a church where it’s okay to say, “I’m hurting and I need some help.”
Most of all, we thank you for Jesus who came to give us life and life more abundantly. Let the word go forth that Jesus is alive! Because he lives, we too shall live.
O Lord Jesus, our hope is in you alone. Therefore, we are not afraid to die and not afraid to live. We bow before you, our living Lord, lost in wonder, love, and praise, for you have conquered death and now live forevermore. Amen.