With the recent suicide of Robin Williams the issue of suicide once again entered the public consciousness. Along with it came all the usual conversations, many of them helpful, a few of them unhelpful. Sadly, some Christians fired off blogs or tweets that were not only inaccurate (showing a complete lack of knowledge of mental illness, brain chemistry, etc.) but also made believers look bad as if we were all judgmental and heartless.
They may have meant well. I have no interest in naming and shaming them and won’t join in their stoning of suicides or the public’s stoning of them for questioning Robin’s motivations or eternal status.
I want to talk about suicide from the perspective of a former mental health professional (two doctorates, ran a clinic for years, still teach at university at the post-grad and post-doctoral level) and a minister (lead minister at Fourth Avenue Church of Christ in Franklin, TN).
In legal parlance, suicide is self-murder and, therefore, a homicide. Some states actually have laws on the books making suicide a crime punishable by imprisonment and fines. No, of course they don’t put the bodies in a cell for 8-20 years; the point of the laws is to discourage suicidal behavior and to give the state legal reasons to institutionalize those who attempt suicide or threaten to commit suicide. Many Christians reason that 1) murder is sinful and 2) suicide is murder and 3) we have to repent of sins but 4) suicides die because of their sin and therefore 5) they are lost, banned from heaven. Robin Williams even starred in a remarkable movie (“What Dreams May Come”) that dealt with the afterlife for suicides in a stunning, unforgettable, horrific way. And, yes, a few sickos in and out of the Christian family posted pics and clips of that to mock his death. So sad.
Others say that 1) all actions are a choice and 2) suicide requires a series of voluntary muscle movements which are, therefore, choices so 3) suicide is a choice, not a disease. Let’s look at these two sets of assumptions and their conclusions.
For the first group, just because the state calls suicide murder doesn’t mean God does. He might, but remember that God and the state often define things differently. Suicide is certainly unlawful killing…in most instances. But we can’t call all suicides unlawful killing. What about the captain that goes down with his ship? He doesn’t stay on the ship as some poetic justice for getting the ship into trouble and he doesn’t stay on there as a romantic beau geste. He stays on to steer the boat away from the survivors so that they are not sucked down or swamped by the waves. A man who leaps on a grenade to save his comrades is not committing suicide even though he is consciously leaping to his death, on purpose. We understand what is going on in these instances and say that the person who chose death was a hero.
Need more? What about Jesus? He came to earth knowing that we would kill him. He went to Jerusalem knowing that, if he did, he would be taken and killed. He went anyway. We don’t call that suicide even though he took deliberate, planned action knowing it would result in his death.
So not all intentional death is suicide or, at least, not unlawful killing. Therefore, not all suicide is sinful. And…if the suicide WAS sinful, what then?
Let’s tell another story to make our point: imagine that you had the foulest mouth on the planet and were unable to utter a complete sentence without a series of horrible curses, f words, and racial or sexual slurs. Now, let’s pretend that you hear about Jesus and realize your sinful state and want to change. You repent, you are baptized, and you try very hard to live a changed life. That same week you are up on a roof doing some repairs when you slip and slide off. On the way down you utter curses right before you hit the ground and die. Are you lost? I asked a couple of ministers this question once and they said “yes.” That astonished me. I asked them why and they said “He died without repenting of those sins.” My response was “We ALL die with unrepented sins. We aren’t even aware of some of them and some of the things we do with the best of intentions, believing them to be God’s will, may very well be sins. What happens then?” It got very quiet.
It is just not acceptable to assume or teach that all who take their own lives are lost. What saves us is not perfection at death but whose hand we were holding at the time. If we belong to Jesus, we are saved. Period. Can a truly saved person commit suicide? Absolutely. There are certain tragic intersections of pain, weakness, fear, loneliness, and desperation that, when they come together in a terrible nexus point, can throw the strongest among us into a downward spiral that, if not arrested, ends tragically. The last things Christians should do is judge that person and their family (who are often blamed for not stopping it, causing it, etc.). We place suicides into the hands of the One who forgives others sins – our sins – as well as the sins of others.
Some have written that anorexics are committing suicide by their behavior/choices. No, that’s not true. If there is not a deliberate starving of oneself to death it is not suicide. Most anorexics aren’t trying to kill themselves; they are trying to kill a poor self image, a horrific memory that changes the way they view of value themselves, a feeling of rejection, or they are possessed of a terrible fear that they aren’t thin enough to be acceptable. The by-product of their struggles can be death but that is not its goal. Think of it this way: if we label a death “suicide by anorexia” then we should label other deaths as suicides by doughnuts, cigarettes, Old Country Buffet, couch, worry, and more.
What about those who leaped from the World Trade Center as it burned? They saw and heard fire coming. They knew they were going to burn alive. They jumped. Suicide? I would say no. I believe they embraced the inevitable and were willing to step into the void, knowing the end was coming and deciding to face it their way. In much less dramatic ways, advanced directives and Do Not Resuscitate orders do the same thing – they accept the inevitable and decide not to prolong that which will not and cannot be saved.
Those with high IQs and “beautiful minds” like Robin Williams often find themselves feeling isolated and unprepared for the depression and anxiety that comes along with their reality (hence the title of his award winning record “Reality, what a concept”). He had misused drugs and alcohol repeatedly making his mental processes even more confused. He had failed at marriage and family twice and was trying a third time to make it work when he was told that he had Parkinson’s, a debilitating disease that would rob him of all he had: his mind and movements that gave us joy and paid his bills.
Sometimes, what we do is because our mind is broken – literally. The synapses aren’t firing properly (which can be due to our earlier abuse of our bodies and minds but can just as often be due to inherited issues in the brain itself) and thinking can’t get straight. With therapy and medication, many people can survive these canyons of despair and become functional again. Many can’t and many more don’t get the help they need in time or on that one day when everything hits bottom.
One man wrote on my Facebook page that he was just like Robin but he healed himself by thinking of a couple verses and praying. He criticized Robin and others for not doing the same. He failed to realize that he wasn’t anything like Robin, for none of us are copies of another and only God knows the heart. He also failed to realize that his healing – if he was healed – was a gift from God and his genetics, not the results of his great faith and a few verses. When he wouldn’t quite chiding those who wrote in saying they, too, understood depression I blocked him.
Why? The last thing broken, isolated people need is a self righteous person telling them they just don’t believe enough.
Jesus didn’t treat people like that. We shouldn’t either.
I have no idea whether Robin ever believed in Jesus as the Son of God. What I DO know is that God knew how he was formed, that he was made of dust (see Psalm 103 and 139). I trust Robin in God’s hands. And I trust God to deal with all suicides based on His knowledge of their tissues and conditions and His never ending grace, mercy, and love.
If only we were known for the same grave, mercy, and love as He.