I mentioned a few days ago when transitioning my blog to FaithWalkers that one reason I have not posted as frequently of late is that there have been some sobering events in my faith walk.
I think death is about as sobering as it gets. And there have been a few deaths – one a family member completing her time on earth after 94 years, the other a former pastor who left, it would seem, before his time.
We were privileged to serve under his ministry for five years not all that long ago. He was a devout Christian, known for selflessly pouring into countless lives and walked as a shining example of Christ in his decades-long ministry.
Unfortunately, he committed suicide after an extended bout with a variety of illness. There were no warning signs that suicide was even a concern. He had, no doubt, counseled scores of other believers away from committing suicide during his ministry. And yet, there we were at his funeral a few weeks ago.
The recent encounters with death have caused me to think on the topic a bit more than usual. While processing this pastor’s suicide, some friends raised a surprising question to me, privately and in hushed tones, of course. It came in slightly different forms, but the essence was this: can someone who is truly a Christian commit suicide?
I suspect the question is more common than we’d like to admit. Suicide, unfortunately, occurs within Christian circles, though not as much as in secular ones. According to this source, Protestant circles have the highest rate of suicide of all major religious groups. As a school principal, I had to deal with the topic on occasion while helping to thwart suicide attempts.
If you have not yet encountered the question in your faith walk yet, you likely will.
What Is Suicide?
I found it helpful when answering this question to be clear about what suicide is — murder. Self murder, but murder nonetheless. Clarity on that issue helps, I think, when we rephrase the question as this: can a Christian commit murder? When we ask it this way, we see that what we are really asking is can a Christian violate the sixth commandment?
Substitute any of the other ten core commandments and the answer is rather obvious — Yes. Can a Christian commit adultery? Can a Christian covet? Steal? Lie? Idolatry? Love something more than God at times? The answer to all is, of course, they can. And do.
But, some may ask, doesn’t murder have a special place of hatred in God’s heart? Yes, hands that shed innocent blood is one the list in Proverbs of seven things that God really hates. But lying also makes the list twice in different forms. So violating any one of God’s commands, even something so heinous as committing murder, doesn’t disqualify anyone from being a redeemed child of God.
The only unpardonable sin in Scripture, the one for which there can be no remedy is unbelief. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Clearly, if you choose to not believe, there is no Plan B in the Bible. There can be no forgiveness if you reject the only option for salvation.
Imagine that a Christian, in a fit of jealous rage, rams his car into a storefront, killing his wife and her lover. If that man acknowledged his sinful actions and repented of his sin in a press conference, I suspect most of us would be quick to express forgiveness and know that God would, as well. Assuming that the remainder of his life in prison demonstrated evidence of repentance, there would be little doubt that his eternal destiny would not be affected by that one horrific sin.
But What If They Don’t Repent?
The problem with suicide — or self-murder — is that there remains no opportunity for public repentance of any kind. And so we are left to speculate as to the person’s state of mind and the state of their soul. Or are we?
The fact is that our relationship with our Maker is not dependant on any one sin that we did or did not commit. As Scripture reveals, it is the fact that Jesus took our place that reconciles us to God. He who knew no sin took the sins of those who believe so that we would become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor. 5:21) It’s the Divine switch. I’d call it the bait-and-switch except that there is no bait worth messing with in the deal. Just us worthless sinners. So our standing before God has very little to do with us, and much to do with God’s merciful grace to us.
The reality is that even our best behavior falls short of the mark, including our acts of repentance. So there is simply no way anyone of us could ever consciously repent of every sin. Only by dumbing down the definition of sin, can we ever hope to claim that we have asked for forgiveness for every specific sin.
Whether or not a person ever repents in this life of any one particular sin (save the sin of unbelief) is mostly irrelevant to whether or not they have been declared to be pleasing to God in the courts of divine justice. I say mostly, because the Bible does warn about those who persist in a lifestyle of rebellion against God. For those people, there is no comfort that they were ever in right relationship with their Maker in the first place, regardless of any prayer or confession they may have offered at some point.
But for someone who has exhibited a lifetime of faithful obedience to God, a consistent track record of the fruit of the spirit, a lifestyle of obedience to Christ — we have no reason to doubt that person’s right relationship with God based on any one egregious sin — even that of self-murder.
Two Consequences of a Christian Suicide
Does that justify the sin? Certainly not. “Shall we sin that grace may abound?” But there remains therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. That being said, the sin does leave a mark for at least two reasons:
- Suicide permanantly damages a legacy. There’s just no way around this tough truth. As blessed and effective as one’s ministry may have been, when one commits suicide it casts a shadow back upon all the good he or she has done for Christ. It detracts a bit from God’s glory that had been evidenced through effective ministry. Every disciple made, every life that was touched now has new reason to doubt in light of the tragedy. A friend of mine said that suicide doesn’t stop the hurt, it just spreads it to others.
- Suicide mars what should be a precious thing. The death of a saint is precious in God’s eyes. We see death all too often as a reason for grieving — and that element is true and necessary from the point of view of those left behind. But God celebrates when a saint comes home and gives that event special attention. Sin, in the form of murder, mars our perception of what we’d like to think is a joyous homecoming. Maybe it doesn’t change things much, or at all, on God’s end. But I’ve got to think it would be disappointing as well for the one who did not finish the race well as the reason for coming home.
All of this leads me to ponder a few lessons from this tragic event, the suicide of long-time follower of Christ and faithful shepherd of His sheep. I’ll post about those soon. For now, I think we can rest in the truth of Scripture that a Christ-follower’s standing before God cannot be altered by any one sin, even one as egregious as suicide. For those of us left behind, that truth should give us hope.
And it’s at times like these that hope is an especially valuable thing.