The Lutheran Church of the Triune God

And She Was a Christian: A Bible Study

by Peter Preus

 

The following study is based on sections of the book by the same title. It is not intended to supplement the book with additional information regarding the Christian who chooses suicide, but it serves as an aid for teaching those who seek understanding and comfort in the aftermath of a suicide. The study suggests Scripture passages to study with each point, but it lets Bible class leaders develop their own discussion questions.

 

I. Introduction: "Why Did She Do It?!"

 

1. What do all suicides have in common?

 

(Read 1 Samuel 31:1-5; Acts 16:27.)

 

The act of suicide can be traced back to many and various motives or causes: bravery, cowardice, patriotism, wisdom, fear, pride, envy, loneliness, and a desire to punish oneself or another. The most useful study of suicide may be confined to four major categories: depression, other mental disorders or psychological factors, accumulative stresses, and a traumatic event. Most authorities on the subject will say there's almost never one reason for which a given suicide takes place. It may be a combination of the above. It is reasonable to assert, in any event, that a lack of hope is the common denominator for all suicides. The suicidal person is fixated on the here and now, as the future from her standpoint provides no hope. Since she cannot fix the problems of the present, this only adds to her sense of hopelessness. Convinced, in the end, that she is powerless to salvage her broken life, she concludes that the only thing she can do is commit suicide.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read "A Sense of Hopelessness - Suicide's Common Denominator" in chapter 7.)

 

2. How is the suicide of a Christian a most troubling paradox?

 

(Read Genesis 22:1-13; Matthew 27:4,5; 1 Timothy 2:4; Galatians 3:10.)

 

A paradox can be defined as a statement that, although true, seems to be self-contradictory. It may be said with regard to the suicide for instance: "A Christian trusts in God and in his many blessings, yet this Christian despaired and gave up on those same blessings." A stigma forms when people are confronted with such a contradiction and the contradiction is not resolved in an adequate way. A person may deduce, for example, that to despair or lose hope that God will again bless him in this life is to give up on God's grace, or that the Christian who despairs and takes his life has surely lost his faith. Suicide's stigma has thrived for a number of centuries, because people's attempts to resolve the seeming contradiction are based on something other than the facts and the truth of Scripture.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read the section "Suicide's Paradox" in part 1.)

 

3. How do we deal with suicide's stigma?

 

(Read Job 4:1-7; 19:13-19; Galatians 6:17; Luke 23:34.)

 

If you are a survivor to a suicide, you are sure to pick up on an assortment of responses to the suicide. Responses may be subtle, nevertheless hurtful. You are convinced it's not your imagination. Friends and neighbors have been avoiding you since your loved one took her life. They should be supporting you in your devastating loss. Instead, they're shunning you.

Stigma may be defined as a "mark or brand of disgrace that is attached to a person with a particular problem or difficulty." The stigma of suicide affects every survivor. It proves defamatory both to the believer who commits suicide and to her family. People speculate: "She was copping out on life and giving up on God." "Those who commit suicide are cowards, thinking only of themselves." "If she had only been more trusting!" Stigmas are based largely on a fear of the unknown. People attempt to understand what is strange and perhaps frightening. Unfortunately, in order to make sense out of things, they fail to look objectively at the facts of the matter. They would rather protect themselves, reasoning "This could never happen to me!" than protect the person who is being criticized. Stigmas occur because of the sinful world in which we live. In order to defend your own name, you will often defame another's name.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read the section "Dealing With the Stigma" in part 1.)

 

II. In Search of Someone to Blame

(Failed Efforts to Resolve the Paradox)

 

Before we attempt to resolve the paradox having to do with a Christian's suicide, we need to consider what happens when people fail to recognize that there is a paradox or when people try to resolve the paradox in an improper way. Despite what our country has come to learn in recent years about mental illness and depression, there is a concerted effort within both our society and churches today to find various scapegoats for a suicide. "It just doesn't make sense!" is the thinking. "Someone has to be held accountable for this tragedy!"

When an answer does not come immediately, conjecture results. Most relevant to this study is how the immediate survivors will deal with the unanswered questions surrounding a suicide. Frequently, suicide survivors blame the death of their loved one on a family member or friend, speculating that this person at home drove him over the edge. Some assign guilt to their loved one who killed himself. Others lay the blame on the doctor or the psychologist. Many blame God. Or survivors may blame themselves. In the early church it wasn't uncommon to blame Satan. It was believed that Satan had assumed possession of the Christian's soul. Hence, to prevent his evil from spreading, the Christian community should be warned and made more afraid of the devil's luring ways. This led to numerous ways of punishing the corpse. In some cases, the people would dismember the corpse or drive a stake through the body. On other occasions, they might drag the deceased facedown to the burial sight.

 

4. Should I blame my wife?

 

(Read Matthew 18:21,22.)

 

Many survivors following a suicide will attribute selfish motives to the family member who has left them behind. "She wasn't thinking how her death would devastate the whole family!" And so it may seem to you a very reasonable question to ask: "Why didn't she give any thought to how her suicide would affect those around her?" You are trying to understand why your loved one committed this lethal act.

You may also be feeling shame since the only ones you have opportunity to talk to about the suicide are those who understand even less about it than you do. Perhaps you feel that her death is too difficult to discuss with others at this time. So your habit is to say as little as possible. The matter is between you and your diseased loved one, and it will remain so until one day when you hopefully can fill in a few more pieces of the puzzle.

If this is the case, you may give thought in the meantime to what is plain to every Christian. Forgiveness on your part does not require that you understand completely another person's sin. It merely requires that you acknowledge that you are a fellow sinner who receives forgiveness in the same way she does. Forgiveness comes from our Savior who sacrificed his life for us, and his supply of forgiveness is unlimited.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read the section "What Were You Thinking?!" in part 4.)

 

5. Shall I blame someone in my family?

 

(Read James 5:16; Matthew 18:18-20.)

 

There is no such thing as a perfect family, not even in Christ's church. Every last one of us was conceived in sin. We are prone to act in our own interests on many occasions, as we give thought to our own needs before the needs of others. In your family, there may or may not have been serious relational problems. Even if there were, however, these difficulties did not obligate your loved one to end his life. Your family may have played a role in setting up some of the variables that gave this person a reason in his mind to end his life. This does not answer in any sufficient manner, however, why this person actually committed suicide. Thousands of other families may undergo similar pressures and trials every day and manage to pull through them. Their loved one is still with them today.

Bear in mind that there is an alternative to laying blame on others. Guilt and anger can sometimes rage on quietly for long periods of time before the hurting family members realize that a most valuable source of comfort can be received from one another. You can comfort others by telling of Christ's forgiveness, which you are privileged both to receive and to give.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read "His Wife Drove Him to It!" in part 4.)

 

6. Did God give my loved one too much?

 

(Read Isaiah 42:3; 2 Timothy 2:13; Hebrews 12:2,3; 13:5b.)

 

Paul states in 1 Corinthians 10:13: "God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear." But people often misinterpret that passage, understanding it to mean "God will not give us more than we can handle." The correct understanding of 1 Corinthians 10:13 is that the Lord will not give our faith more than that faith can handle. It is the Lord after all who supplies us with our faith in the first place. God may, however, give a particular believer more than he could handle psychologically.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read the section "God Gave Him More Than He Could Handle!" in part four.)

 

7. Was God making the best out of a bad situation?

 

(Read Colossians 1:17; also Job 1:12a; 2:6; Psalm 36:6; Hebrews 1:14.)

 

It's a question many survivors have asked: "As horrible and tragic as suicide is, did God possibly judge in this case that suicide was a better outcome than permitting things to continue as they were?" Perhaps the Lord did not want to let a fragile situation deteriorate into something far worse and from which there would be no means of repairing things. Or perhaps God never takes his eyes off his children in the first place. The truth is, God is never obligated to "backpedal" after becoming aware of an unforeseen yet troubling development in our lives.

 

(Read Deuteronomy 32:39; Acts 17:26; Isaiah 57:1,2; Romans 11:33,34; Deuteronomy 29:29; Romans 8:28.)

 

God, in his eternal providence, works all things together according to his will and for our good. Your loved one's suicide did not force God to change his plans for this child of his. It merely marked the end of God's unfailing care for her in this life. When God delivers loved ones from this world, it is not because this is the only way he knows how to provide essential love and support. He takes loved ones home to rescue them from the sorrow and evil promised by the world and to give in their place the everlasting joys and glories promised by our God and Savior. Death does not always make sense to believers. However, the Lord's Word will prove reassuring for you in your grief in every case. God always gets his way when it comes to the timing of one's death, and what's in God's interest is without question in the interest of God's children.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read the subsection "Was God making the best of a bad situation?" in part 4.)

 

8. Is it my fault he died?

 

(Read 1 John 3:19,20; 1 John 1:9.)

 

As a mourner, it may seem you have a choice. Blame the departed, blame another member of the family, or blame God. This is a common part of the grieving process for survivors of a suicide. You determine that someone must be blamed for the tragedy. In time, however, you may no longer wish to level blame at others. So you blame everything on yourself. You feel that you are responsible for the death of your loved one because you were too caught up in your own stresses and obligations. In brief, you simply were not there for him.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read the subsection "Why such extreme guilt?" in part 4.)

 

9. How do I get past the nagging "if I had only . . ."?

 

(Read 2 Samuel 12:7-10,13; Matthew 11:28-30; Psalm 130:3,4; Romans 8:33,34.)

 

It is extremely common for surviving family members of a suicide to point to some former sin and lament, "If only I had done this or that, this horrible tragedy would not have occurred!" It is true you could have offered your loved one support in ways you regret you did not. You could have been more loving and encouraging, more helpful with the many duties that fell upon your loved one. You could have been more observant and educated about your loved one's condition. Perhaps had you done all these things and God still took her home, you would be feeling a little more forgiven right now, or maybe not. Remember, forgiveness comes not by fulfilling various duties or by demonstrating our competence as Christ's servants. God's forgiveness is a gift. It was secured for us by Christ's redeeming sacrifice. It is given and made ours through his Word and sacraments. And it is received by faith alone.

If you cannot overcome the view that you are in some way responsible for the death of your loved one, you may find that you have become stuck in your grieving process. If so, remember that whatever role, great or small, which you believe you may have played and which somehow may have contributed to her untimely death, you are forgiven.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read the subsections "Our Savior's cure for a guilty conscience" and "How do I get past . . . ?" in part 4.)

 

 

III. The Church's Case Against the Suicide

(Resolving the Paradox)

 

Suicide and Faith

 

Can a Christian choose suicide? This question gives voice to a very troubling observation: that someone with faith in his only Savior could turn his back on God's promises to uphold him in every trouble or trial. Is this really possible? For those who lack a scriptural understanding of faith, a knowledge of our Savior's forgiveness may not resolve in a satisfactory way the paradoxes associated with suicide. Nagging questions may still consume their thoughts: "What if it is not a question about forgiveness but a question about faith? Why would a believer give in to such a grave sin? Can faith coexist with the decision to commit suicide?"

 

10. What is faith, what is its source, and how does it save?

 

(Read Acts 16:31; John 3:16.)

 

What faith is

Christian faith is nothing more, nothing less, than trust; trust in Christ as our Savior and the forgiveness he earned for every sinner. Such faith should not be equated with positive feelings, cognitive thinking, reasonable opinions, or an understanding of truth. Such faith consists neither purely nor partially of human emotions or intellect. The nature of faith is that it receives. It receives the benefits of the cross. Faith does not look to itself or have faith as its object. Faith looks only to Christ, having Christ alone as its object.

 

(Read Romans 10:17; 1 Corinthians 12:3.)

 

Faith's source

Faith is not generated by an exercise of the will. It is not initiated by some human activity. It is from the Holy Spirit, who enables us to trust in Christ and his work of redeeming sinners. Coming to such faith and remaining in such faith is brought about not by one's ability or strength but entirely by the working of the Holy Spirit, who grants faith through the words of the gospel.

 

(Read Romans 3:28.)

 

How faith saves

Faith does not save on account of its nature or its attributes. It does not save because it is particularly trusting, because it is exceptionally uncompromising, or because faith is so strong or secure. Faith saves solely because of what it possesses, Christ and his forgiveness.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read chapter 2, "Modern Theology and a Thriving Stigma.")

 

Faith's Add-Ons

 

Much of today's stigma associated with suicide among Christians has to do with what we might call faith's add-ons. People have preconceived ideas about how true faith will perform in a given case. Popular opinion would have us believe that we can feel good about our faith, or someone else's faith, as long as certain standards are maintained and other Christians are able to pick up on them. We choose good over evil. We understand and are able to verbalize our appreciation for God's grace. We demonstrate an enthusiasm for serving in our various vocations. We're always optimistic concerning the future.

 

11. Can a Christian choose what he knows to be wicked?

 

(Read Genesis 8:21.)

 

The first add-on has to do with obedience. It is asserted that Christians will not do certain things. Christians will never murder, commit adultery, steal, or be seduced into idolatrous practices. Genuine Christians, moreover, do not commit suicide. A true believer loves God's commandments and makes choices in life in conformity to his commandments. However, faith consists not of trust plus Christian works or an avoidance of particular sins. Christian faith is trust in the Savior who secured forgiveness and salvation for us on the cross, nothing more - nothing less.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read chapter 3, "Faith Plus Obedience.")

 

12. Can a Christian believe as she should if she cannot reason as she should?

 

(Read Proverbs 3:5.)

 

Another add-on to Christian faith relates to the ability to reason in a proper sense. It is asserted that Christians will not draw certain conclusions. A true believer, for example, will not determine: "God is against me. He hates me. I'd be better off dead." While it is true that reason serves as a guide to a Christian's behavior and thoughts, it is not true that Christian faith depends on reason. In many cases, faith must oppose reason, as when reason tells us that God's Word makes no sense or that listening to God's Word will not serve our best interest. Faith is not the same thing as our ability to reason properly. By the grace of God, a sick mind does not represent a sick faith.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read chapter 4, "Faith Plus Reason.")

 

13. Can a Christian believe in Christ if he cannot believe in himself?

 

(Read Proverbs 28:26.)

 

Another add-on to Christian faith is noted when we observe the overemphasis many people place on self-esteem. People believe that an unhealthy regard for oneself is indicative of an unhealthy faith or that unless you share God's opinion of you, your faith is not what it should be. True faith is trust, which is directed not at our abilities or ourselves but takes aim strictly at Christ and his work of redeeming sinners.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read chapter 5, "Faith Plus Self-Esteem.")

 

14. Can a Christian despair?

 

(Read Psalm 34:18.)

 

A final add-on to faith is optimism, which we could define as having a sound hope in one's future. Faith, however, is not the same thing as having hope or maintaining a positive view of life. We can have faith in Christ and at the same time have no hope that that we will regain our once comfortable, tranquil life. Becoming despondent or desperate, a Christian may nevertheless trust in Christ for mercy and rescue from sin.

 

(Read Job 6:8-11; 7:15,16; 1 Kings 19:3,4; Numbers 11:11-15.)

 

Christians on occasion do despair. The individual who has become suicidal, however, is despairing in a vast majority of cases not of God's grace but of his life. It is not that he lacks faith in the gospel. He lacks hope in this life - that his time on earth will ever get better or that God will help him overcome his troubles this side of heaven. The loss of hope does not always indicate a loss of faith.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read chapter 6, "Faith Plus Optimism.")

 

Suicide and Sin

 

15. Did she really wish to die?

 

(Read Romans 7:21-25a; Matthew 26:41.)

 

There is something you do not quite understand. Losing complete hope and the ability to manage or alter your life is one thing. But ending your life? That is an entirely different matter! However, it is not so much a choice between life and death. The person who sets out to end her life is convinced that her escalating sense of hopelessness will never end. This conviction merely aggravates her hopelessness until it reaches a point, in her opinion, where it can no longer be endured. Thus, the suicide is often a cry for help. The person commits suicide not so much because she truly desires to die but because she is seeking an escape from pain. She wants to be rid of the pain of hopelessness. And suicide is the only way she knows how to eliminate the pain.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read the subsection "The Cry for Help . . ." in chapter 7.)

 

16. How did he get this way?

 

(Read Psalm 51:5; John 9:1,2; Exodus 4:11; see also Romans 7:15-20.)

 

No one can fully determine the various factors that lead to a person's suicide. We can, however, challenge misguided explanations by talking some more about depression and why a person may acquire a severe form of depression. Every person on earth has been conceived in sin. This means we all have inherited from our parents a state of total corruption pertaining to our human nature. We sometimes refer to this condition as "original sin." What we must understand in our current discussion is that original sin affects each of us in different ways. We inherit from our parents, we might say, "sin's fingerprint," which distinguishes us from every one around us. This does not mean some people inherit more sin than others or a worse form of sinfulness. This means how sin manifests itself in one's nature will vary from person to person. Some inherit a predisposition for diabetes; others, for Alzheimer's or heart disease; others, for cancer or depression.

Inheriting sin makes each of us vulnerable in various ways, both physically and psychologically. We may not say of those who inherit a predisposition for depression, and eventually become severely depressed, that they are also vulnerable in a spiritual sense, in the sense that their faith becomes less protected against grave temptation. They become vulnerable, rather, to a sense of hopelessness.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read the section "Shall We Blame Genes?" in chapter 8.)

 

17. But wasn't she accountable?

 

(Read Galatians 3:10; 1 Timothy 1:15; Romans 3:22-24; 4:5.)

 

Perhaps it seems to you that others are unable to understand what your loved one was going through. It may not be their intention, but they seem to be implying that someone with true faith in Christ cannot or will not remain in a severe state of depression. They see depression as little more than a mood or an emotion, which may come and go, but can certainly be managed. Some may even contend that had she taken a closer look at the many blessings she had received from her Lord, she would not have ended her life so tragically. You want to know how you get people to understand that she wasn't simply feeling sorry for herself. Clinical depression is not just a case of "the blues." Your loved one was ill!

After we establish a link between hopelessness, often brought on by depression, and suicide, we cannot end our discussion by attempting merely to offer an excuse for the suicide. Where there is sin, there is accountability. And suicide is sin. Having said that, we also call to mind the words of St. Paul: "But where sin increased, grace increased all the more" (Romans 5:20).

 

18. Is suicide the unforgivable sin?

 

(Read Mark 16:16.)

 

In the fourth century, the church declared suicide to be an unforgivable sin. The only exception was if it could be established that the suicide was "out of his mind." If the suicide was unaware of his actions or the consequences resulting from his actions, he was in some instances acknowledged as a believer. The decree was largely a response to a suicide epidemic, which had originated during the early years of the church. Christians had often found it easier to take their own lives than to have their lives taken from them by persecutors of the faith. As the church reacted to the increasing number of suicides, leaders failed to acknowledge the difference between sins that deprive one of faith and sins that are done out of weakness. There is only one sin that is unforgivable in the end - the sin of unbelief.

 

(Read Hebrews 10:26,27; Philippians 1:6; 1 Peter 1:3-5.)

 

Ruling sins

Every sinner is accountable for every sin he commits. Through faith, however, he is also forgiven of every sin. Because of our sinful nature, we constantly are acting against God's will. A particular sin, however, does not injure or destroy our faith unless we embrace the sin or allow it to rule us. Since faith is God's work, it is impossible for our faith to let us down. There is no such thing as defective faith. Only insofar as one permits sin to interfere with one's receiving God's Word will sin assert itself over and against one's faith.

 

(Read Romans 6:12,14; Psalm 103:12-14.)

 

Sins of weakness

Sins of weakness are those committed by every Christian and which do not prevent the person from receiving God's Word. The sin is involuntary - not in the sense that a Christian did not desire or intend to do what she did - but because she did not willfully ignore the accusations of her conscience. Sins of weakness consist of all evil thoughts, desires, feelings, words, and deeds that emerge in our lives, are caused by our sinful nature, and work in opposition to our will. Such sins, in the end, do not destroy faith because they do not drive the Holy Spirit from our hearts.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read the section "Suicide and Accountability" in chapter 8.)

 

19. Did he have time to repent?

 

(Read 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 1 John 1:7.)

 

God grants faith and repentance even when we choose what proves devastating to those around us. The tragedy of suicide reminds us of how thankful we can be that we are not spiritually on our own. Faith saves not because of what we manage to do with it, namely, to take time to confess our sin through an act of repentance. Faith saves solely because it is God's gift by which we possess the blessings Christ earned for us on the cross.

 

 

Suicide and Grace

 

20. How can a person remain a Christian if her illness is preventing her from hearing God's Word?

 

(Read Romans 5:20,21; Isaiah 42:3; Romans 8:38,39.)

 

We need never speculate that God is bound to some sort of "grace period" when it comes to supporting us in our faith. It is incorrect to suggest that you can be overwhelmed by your struggles for only so long, or you can go for so long without hearing and comprehending God's Word, and then God's grace expires and you are on your own. This brings to mind the Christian suffering from the illness of depression. If no counseling or medication can help her overcome her disease, and therefore she remains in her own despondent world unable to concentrate on the gospel, we may not deduce that her faith is therefore in jeopardy. Christ places us in a state of grace not because we have time for his grace. He positions us in his grace because we are weak and frail sinners who both need and can benefit from his grace.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read the section "Where Sin Increased, Grace Increased All the More" in chapter 9.)

 

21. How can I be sure she's in heaven?

 

(Read Romans 6:1-5;Titus 3:5.)

 

The power of Baptism

The first and primary way to seek encouragement following a suicide is to recall God's acts of grace in the life of the deceased. Your greatest source of comfort and strength will not come from the fact that underneath all the anxiety and pain and perhaps delusional thinking, your loved one was still a good person. You will receive by far the greatest encouragement from the fact that your loved one was baptized. God in his grace accepted the sacrifice of his beloved Son as a sufficient payment for all sins, and in Baptism he pledged himself to deliver to your loved one his grace and every blessing. Remember that Baptism is not primarily man's act but God's act by which he creates and sustains faith in the believer. God's acts are more powerful than any single act of a sinful human being - be it even suicide. Luther states: "But such is the might of our Lord God that he leads and governs the world with a wisp of straw and is able to save and help from sin, death, devil, and hell with a little drop of water" (Luther's Works, American Edition, Vol. 1, p. 486).

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read the subsection "Faith-Sustaining Baptism" in chapter 9.)

 

(Read Psalm 103:12; Ephesians 2:8,9.)

 

Perpetual forgiveness

We may be sure every Christian loved one who precedes us in faith is in heaven. Suicide is one sin of many that may find their way into the lives of believers in the final moments of their lives. Having been conceived in sin, all of us sin perpetually. By God's grace, however, we are also forgiven perpetually through God Word and sacraments. This is most certainly true at the moment of death. As mentioned previously, faith does not save because of what we manage to do with it. It does not save because it empowers us to avoid certain grievous sins. Nor does faith save, in the event that we fail to avoid such sins, because we have expressed sorrow over them and have asked for forgiveness. Faith saves because grace saves; because faith is God's work by which the believer even now is perpetually receiving the forgiveness Christ already earned for every sinner on earth.

 

(Read John 15:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11; Romans 8:28-30,33-36; John 10:27-30.)

 

God's elect

It is not a choice or lack of a choice that saves or condemns a person. We are saved by faith in Christ our Savior. The only choice that may cause a person to forfeit the benefits of God's grace is the choice not to believe. Unbelief, however, is not something that typically coincides with one choice. Unbelief results from the persistent choice to remove oneself from God's Word. No choice of man's, however sinful it may be, is more powerful than the choice of our Lord to save us through the sacrifice of his only Son, who atoned for the sins of the world.

God's choice to save believers is nothing more but nothing less than his commitment to help us in our unbelief. This he promises to do through the words of the gospel, absolution, Baptism, and the Sacrament of the Altar. God made this choice before the creation of the world. He elected us to heaven before time even began. You may be sure your loved one is in heaven because by God's own promise, he or she was one of his elect.

 

(For more discussion points, the study leader should read the section "By Chance or by God's Choice?" in chapter 9.)