Looking at Suicide from a Christian Doctor’s Perspective

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The suicide of American television celebrity, actor, chef and author Anthony Bourdain on June 8, 2018 shock many people when the news hit the social media. Bourdain who was handsome, respected, successful, popular, and at the prime of his career should choose to commit suicide was a shock as we often think that suicide occurs only to ‘other people’. As many years before, the suicide of popular actor comedian Robbin Williams raise similar existential questions which was rapidly displaced by other distractions of our fast paced interconnected world. Kim Jong-Hyun, a popular member of the SHINee, one of Korea’s top boy bands, shocked his young fans worldwide by his suicide in December 2017. In his suicide note, Kim cited loneliness and depression. Suicide is a taboo subject in our culture and is not widely discussed unless in association with the publicity of celebrities. This article will discuss the prevalence and causes of suicide and how we as a church can help these who are contemplating such act as their final solution.

The World Health Organization (WHO) gives the statistics of 800,000 suicide occurrences per year which makes for one suicide in every 40 seconds! The highest suicide rate is in the 15-29 years and in the >70 years old age range. In the last 45 years the rate of suicide has increased by 65% worldwide. There are no reliable statistics for Malaysia as suicide is a crime here and hence not often reported. From anecdotal and accounts from NGOs such as The Befrienders and hospital sources, the prevalent rate of suicide in Malaysia is keeping pace with the rapid increase elsewhere in the world.

To act to commit suicide is an act of desperation. To kill oneself is again our natural instinct for self-preservation. People commit suicide to escape from a situation where they can see that there is no other way out. The pain they experience are so overwhelming and self-consuming that they see death as the only answer. Pastor Rick Warren who lost his son Matthew to suicide in 2013 said, “Suicide is a permanent, irreversible attempt to solve a temporary problem. You don’t have to die to end your pain.” The pain they feel may be physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Some people who suffering from intractable cancers or other chronic disease may be in an unending physical pain state that often anti-pain medication may not help. Depression is an important cause of emotional pain that is often overlooked or missed by others. The pain is the numbness of a cloud of darkness that suffocate the life of those who suffers it. Depression is all consuming. It is often impossible for one to come out of depression by will power alone. Emotional pain of loss and abandonment caused by loss of children, spouses, and of divorce can be crippling. Mental pain may come from financial disasters, addiction, and loss of self-esteem. Suicide as a solution to avoid paying a crippling loan from the ‘Ah Longs’ or moneylenders may not be as rare as we think. Spiritual pain is the existential pain of loss without God that manifest as an emptiness in our lives. It is often confused with depression. The spiritual pain associated with celebrity suicides are only the tip of the iceberg. As we look at suicide, it is important to remember that it is an act of desperation. We should view such people with compassion. Even the best of us may be driven by circumstances to the blink of this abyss.

As Christians, what should our thoughts be about suicide? Surprisingly, the Bible has little to say about suicide. There are seven incidents of suicides in the Scriptures: Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54); Samson (Judges 16: 29-30); Saul and his armor bearer (1Samuel 31: 3-5); Ahithophel (2 Samuel 15:31b); Zimri (1Kings 16:18-20); and Judas Iscariot (Matt 27:3-5)
It is interesting to note that of the seven suicides recorded in the Scriptures, the suicides of Abimelech, Saul and Zimri were recorded as direct judgement of God on their sins, even going so far as to say that God killed Saul. The Scriptures were silent on the other four suicides though the ignoble context in each case speaks for themselves. Therefore the Scriptures thus offer no specific guidelines on suicide, allowing each situation to speak for itself. Theologian Karl Barth noted in his multivolume Church Dogmatics, “a remarkable fact that in the Bible suicide is nowhere explicitly forbidden.”

In certain Christian traditions, suicide is regarded as an ‘unpardonable’ sin and those who commit suicide are not given the rites and burial in the church grounds. They are usually buried outside the church and regarded as being condemned to hell. What is the origin of this belief?

The root of this belief may be traced to Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of the church. In his thesis, On Suicide, Thomas Aquinas argued that to commit suicide is to sin against God, family and community. God is sovereign, and He decides when we are born and when we die. To commit suicide is to usurp the sovereignty of God over our time of death. Suicide deprives children of their parents, and community of the contribution of that person. Thomas Aquinas never said that suicide is an unpardonable sin. Unfortunately Church traditions made it into an unpardonable sin. The unpardonable sin is stated in Mark 3:22–30 and Matthew 12:22–32 as sinning against the Holy Spirit; suicide, is not.

What can we offer to those who are suicidal? To consider suicide is an act of desperation. There are several ways in which we can help.
Firstly, Christians must be educated on suicide so as to be remove the taboo on it. Education gives a clearer perspective on how desperate are those who consider it; they need more help and is not to be shunned or rejected.

Secondly, Christians must be willing to walk alongside those in pain. Suicidal persons then to withdraw from human contact. Often they are loneliness and became entangled inside themselves. They need someone to talk to, and to befriend them. That is why the Befrienders and other such voluntary suicide hot-lines are so effective to talking persons out of suicide. NGOs are just the frontlines and need to be able to refer to churches. At present, unfortunately, not many churches are registered with them to offer help. Help is not just the offering of platitudes but a journeying together for a period of time. It needs commitment

Thirdly, Christians have to learn to recognize the warning signs of a person who is suicidal. Usually such person are talking about ways to kill themselves often in great details, in unbearable pain as described above, withdrawn, increasing use of alcohol or drugs, giving away their favorite things, and experiencing extreme mood swings.

Fourthly, Christians should know when to call in help. A suicidal person should not be left alone, and may need to be committed to a psychiatric facilities. Depression and other pain may need the help of professionals such as psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and counsellors.

Finally, all the above action must be saturated with prayers. There are many occasions I have observed the power of prayer penetrating the hard shells that these desperate people had built around them.

Suicide will become increasing common in our high pressured society. Euthanasia or assisted suicide for the terminal ill has been successfully lobbied to become law in many countries recently. There is much Christians can do to help people who are suicidal. Any suicide will have serious ramification to the immediate family, community, and society. In this case, prevention is the only solution.

This article was published in Q3 2018 Berita NECF

Michael of Boys’ Brigade

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Rest in Peace, Michael. You have fought the good fight, you have finished the race.

Michael was instrumental in strengthening and building up our Boys’ Brigade Ministry known as the 1st Johor Bahru Company. He joined BB in 1966 and assumed its captaincy in 1974 at the age of 22! He held this position on and off for many years until he retired in 2009.

In 1995, Michael was honoured by His Majesty Sultan of Johor with the “Heart of Gold” award for his outstanding BB work and service to the youth. He was also a Chairman of the East Asian Regional Fellowship and a National President of the BB Malaysia. We thank God for the privilege of celebrating his 65th birthday with him last September.

In 2002, this is what he shared in the 50 Years of Faithfulness, published in conjunction with Holy Light Church (English), Johor Baru, Golden Jubilee Celebration

I remember the durian trees in the church compound. They were probably the best durians you could find in Johor Baru. So much so that Church Members would ‘book’ the fruits even before they’ve ripened and fallen to the ground.

Church life was so laid back then. We had such great times, just hanging out among the Durian and Rambutan trees.

My association with the church started with the Boys’ Brigade. I was in secondary school at Sek. Dato Jaffar when a classmate introduced me to the BB. This was back in 1966.

I still remember my first time in “Sunday School” (which was held on Saturday). Coming from a strict Hindu background, I was awe struck on seeing the Cross in Church. Something about it shook me deep and strong.

The following two weeks, I absconded from Sunday School. It was not until my classmates persuaded me, that I went back to BB meetings. And, like they say, everything else is history.

BB changed my life. I found Christ through the BB in 1968.

Deacon Christopher Tham Kok Meng counseled me. His love and concern touched me & subsequently won me over. At that time, I just could not fathom why this Chinese man would want to care for a poor Indian boy like me.

That was my turning point. With Christ in my heart, I was ready to smile at any storm. I became active in Church – from the Choir, Youth Fellowship, Sunday School and, of course, BB. I had a burning desire to learn anything and everything about being a good Christian. Filled with youthful zeal and excitement, I even became a Church Deacon while I was still a Bachelor in my Twenties.

By the grace of God, I also moved up the ranks in BB. By 1967, I was promoted to L/Cpl, and then to Cpl and Sgt. I even had the honour to lead the BB band as Drum Major. And to cap it all, I was appointed Company Captain at the age of 22!

It was also in Church that I met my wife, Janet, who was in the Girls’ Brigade (who eventually went on to become the 1st JB Girls’ Brigade Captain). We were married in 1977, and during the last 25 years in marriage, The Lord has blessed us with four children.

I praise God that despite business and family commitments, I still manage to find time to serve in the BB. Today, not only am I the Captain of the 1st JB Company, but I also serve as the Chairman of the East Asian Regional Fellowship (EARF), which overseas BB work in Asia, and I am also the National President of the BB in Malaysia.

It’s only by God’s grace that I’m able to serve in such a capacity while still being actively involved in BB extension work in Thailand.

People often ask me. Why do you sacrifice so much time, effort and money in the BB? My answer is simple. This is what I enjoy doing best. And the greatest pleasure comes from seeing boys plucked from our streets and transformed into upright citizens through the BB; and to see them eventually come to a decision to give their lives to Christ. Just like I did, all those years ago.

I owe it all to God. I was a nobody. I did not particularly excel in school, neither do I posses any special skills or talents. And if I am a somebody today, it is only because God first loved me and gave me the opportunity to excel through the BB Ministry. And the Church, through Christ, has inspired me to do great and wonderful things ever since.

This Church will always hold a special place in my heart.

Source: HLCE FB Page

Pain and Suicide

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The suicide of American television celebrity, actor, chef and author Anthony Bourdain on June 8, 2018, shocked many people when the news hit the social media. It was a shock to us that Bourdain who was handsome, respected, successful, popular, and at the prime of his career would choose to commit suicide.  We often think that suicide occurs only in ‘other people’.  Likewise, it was not long ago that the suicide of popular actor-comedian Robin Williams raised similar existential questions but we were too busy in our fast-paced lives to search for the real hard answers. Kim Jong-Hyun, a popular member of the group SHINee, one of Korea’s top boy bands, shocked his young fans worldwide by his suicide in December 2017. In his suicide note, Kim cited loneliness and depression. Suicide is a taboo subject in our culture and is not discussed much in public except in high profile celebrity suicides. This article will discuss the prevalence and causes of suicide and how we as a church can help those who might view and contemplate suicide as the solution to their problems.

The World Health Organization (WHO) gives the statistics of 800,000 suicide occurrences per year which makes for one suicide in every 40 seconds! The highest suicide rate is in the 15-29 years and those above the 70 years old age range. In the last 45 years, the rate of suicide has increased by 65% worldwide. There are no reliable statistics for Malaysia as suicide is a crime here and hence not often reported. From the anecdotal accounts of NGOs such as The Befrienders and hospital sources, the prevalence of Malaysia suicide rates is increasing together with the rising suicide rates in the world.

The act of committing suicide is an act of desperation.

The act of committing suicide is an act of desperation. Ironic as it may seem, it is an act of self-preservation where the natural instinct is to kill oneself to escape from a situation where they cannot see any other way out. The pain they experience is so overwhelming and self-consuming that they see death as the only answer. Pastor Rick Warren who lost his son Matthew to suicide in 2013 noted, “Suicide is a permanent, irreversible attempt to solve a temporary problem. You don’t have to die to end your pain.” The pain they feel may be physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual.

  • Some people who are suffering from intractable cancers or other chronic diseases may be in a constant state of never-ending physical pain where anti-pain medication has ceased to offer any relief from the pain.
  • Depression is also an important cause of emotional pain that is often overlooked and missed by others. The pain is like a cloud of darkness that envelopes and suffocates the lives of those who suffer from it. Depression is all-consuming, leaving a numbing emptiness within. It is often impossible for one to come out of depression by willpower alone. The emotional pain of loss and abandonment caused by loss of children, spouses, and of divorce can also be crippling.
  • Mental pain may come yet from financial disasters, addiction, and loss of self-esteem. People committing suicide to avoid paying a crippling loan from the ‘Ah Longs’ or moneylenders may not be as rare as we think.
  • Spiritual pain is the existential pain of the loss of God’s presence that manifests as an emptiness in our lives. It is often confused with depression. The spiritual pain associated with celebrity suicides is only the tip of the iceberg.

As we look at suicide, it is important to remember that it is an act of desperation. We should view such people with compassion. Even the best of us may be driven by circumstances to the brink of this abyss.

As Christians, what should our thoughts be about suicide? Surprisingly, the Bible has little to say about suicide.  There are seven incidents of suicides in the Scriptures: Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54); Samson (Judges 16: 29-30); Saul and his armor-bearer (1Samuel 31: 3-5); Ahithophel (2 Samuel 15:31b); Zimri (1Kings 16:18-20); and Judas Iscariot (Matt 27:3-5)

It is interesting to note that of the seven suicides recorded in the Scriptures, the suicides of Abimelech, Saul and Zimri were recorded as a direct judgement of God on their sins, even going so far as to say that God killed Saul. The Scriptures were silent on the other four suicides through the ignoble context in each case speaks for themselves. Therefore the Scriptures thus offer no specific guidelines on suicide, allowing each situation to speak for itself.  Theologian Karl Barth noted the following in his multivolume Church Dogmatics : “a remarkable fact that in the Bible suicide is nowhere explicitly forbidden.”

In certain Christian traditions, suicide is regarded as an ‘unpardonable’ sin and those who commit suicide are not given the rites and burial in the church grounds. They are usually buried outside the church and are regarded as being condemned to hell. What is the origin of this belief? The root of this belief may be traced to Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of the church. In his thesis, On Suicide, Thomas Aquinas argued that to commit suicide is to sin against God, family and community. God is sovereign, and He decides when we are born and when we die. To commit suicide is to usurp the sovereignty of God over our time of death. Suicide deprives children of their parents, and community of the contribution of that person. Thomas Aquinas never said that suicide is an unpardonable sin. Unfortunately, Church traditions made it into an unpardonable sin.  The unpardonable sin is stated in Mark 3:22–30 and Matthew 12:22–32 as sinning against the Holy Spirit; suicide, is not.

“Suicide is a permanent, irreversible attempt to solve a temporary problem. You don’t have to die to end your pain.”

Rick Warren who lost his son to suicide

Suicide is an act committed in sheer desperation.  What can we offer to those who are suicidal?  There are several ways in which we can help.

Firstly, Christians must be educated about suicide so as to remove the taboo associated with it. Education gives a clearer perspective and understanding of the utter hopelessness and despair that drive people to suicide; they need our help and are not to be shunned or rejected.

Secondly, Christians must be willing to walk alongside those in pain. Suicidal persons tend to withdraw from human contact. Often they are lonely and are entangled in their loneliness within. They need someone to talk to and to befriend them.  Befrienders and other such voluntary suicide hot-lines have proven effective in tackling and helping to get potential suicidal persons to abort their suicide attempts because they provide that much-needed listening ear.  That being said, the NGOs are mere frontlines who should be able to approach the church to help these broken persons. Help is not just the offering of platitudes but the offer to journey together for a period of time. It needs commitment. Unfortunately, not many churches are registered with them to offer such help at the present moment.

Thirdly, Christians have to learn to recognize the warning signs of a suicidal person. We need to be able to pick up on cues such as excessive talks and obsession with details on ways to kill themselves, the increasing use of alcohol or drugs, the sudden giving away of their favourite things. We should be extra vigilant of those in unbearable pain as described above, those withdrawn, or those who are experiencing extreme mood swings.

Fourthly, Christians should know when to call for further help. A suicidal person should not be left alone and may need to be committed to a psychiatric facility. The help of professionals such as psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and counsellors may be required to deal with the person’s depression and other pain issues.

Finally, all the above actions must be saturated with prayers. There are many occasions where I have observed the power of prayer penetrating what often is an impenetrable hard shell that a suicidal person had built around him/her.

Suicide will become increasingly common in our high pressured society. Euthanasia or assisted suicide for the terminally ill has been successfully lobbied to become law in many countries recently. Any suicide, however, will have serious ramification to the immediate family, community, and society. Christians can do much to help people who are suicidal and prevent their suicide attempts.

The Luther Rose

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The Luther Rose is the coat of arms for Martin Luther. Luther explained how the seal represents his theology.

Grace and peace from the Lord. As you desire to know whether my painted seal, which you sent to me, has hit the mark, I shall answer most amiably and tell you my original thoughts and reason about why my seal is a symbol of my theology. The first should be a black cross in a heart, which retains its natural color, so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. “For one who believes from the heart will be justified” (Romans 10:10). Although it is indeed a black cross, which mortifies and which should also cause pain, it leaves the heart in its natural color. It does not corrupt nature, that is, it does not kill but keeps alive. “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17) but by faith in the crucified. Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace. In other words, it places the believer into a white, joyous rose, for this faith does not give peace and joy like the world gives (John 14:27). That is why the rose should be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and the angels (cf. Matthew 28:3John 20:12). Such a rose should stand in a sky-blue field, symbolizing that such joy in spirit and faith is a beginning of the heavenly future joy, which begins already, but is grasped in hope, not yet revealed. And around this field is a golden ring, symbolizing that such blessedness in Heaven lasts forever and has no end. Such blessedness is exquisite, beyond all joy and goods, just as gold is the most valuable, most precious and best metal. This is my compendium theologiae [summary of theology]. I have wanted to show it to you in good friendship, hoping for your appreciation. May Christ, our beloved Lord, be with your spirit until the life hereafter. Amen

source: Wiki

Technology and the Gospel

 

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a printer workshop (Gutenberg Museum, Mainz)

Technology plays an important role in religions. Aside from technologies such as husbandry and farming, the invention of writing, writing materials, printing and digital recordings has an important role in the growth and development of Christianity and the spread of the Gospel.

Oral traditions have a significant place in the formation of concepts and ideas of a monotheist God during the early days of ancient Israel. The limits of oral traditions require practitioners with exception memories and the ability to recall verbatim. Often, this is not possible as additions and omissions affect the narratives. The invention of writing from its initiate scratches on bones or shells to a formalised cuneiform marks the end of the oral tradition. Writing necessitates the invention of a medium to write on. Initial writing materials were bones, which makes way for animal skins where were made into parchment. Pergamum, a city mentioned in Revelation was a centre of parchment production until the introduction of papyrus from Egypt. This technology leads to our modern paper. Paper is a stable medium and writings were bound up into codex (like our modern books) instead of stored as scrolls (parchment). The Bible and its various commentaries are the results of this technology of writing and writing materials. Books became the medium for the use in churches. Unfortunately, the early Bibles were written in Greek and Latin and hence incomprehensible to the common people.

Books were laboriously hand-copied by scribes until the introduction of the movable printing press. Printing was invented in 593 in China using carved wooden blocks. The movable printing press was developed in China in 1040. In the west, Lauren Coster from Denmark was the first to develop a movable printing press using wooden types but German Johannes Gutenberg was more well known for his movable type printing press using metal types in 1447. This date was significant because this was around the time when an unknown Augustinian monk, Martin Luther argued with the Roman Catholic Pope, and to his surprise cause the Reformation. Gutenberg’s press allowed enormous reprints of the tracts of the arguments (some of which were in German) to be printed and distributed widely in the Holy Roman Empire. Later in the Reformation, Luther and his friends translated the whole Bible into German. With printing, many people in Germany were able to read and understand the Bible in their own language.

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facsimile of The Babylonian Captivity of the Church by Martin Luther,              Lutherstadt, Wittenberg

Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (Latin: De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae, praeludium Martini Lutheri, October 1520) was the second of the three major treatises published by Martin Luther in 1520, coming after the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (August 1520) and before On the Freedom of a Christian (November 1520)

The invention of the modern computers in the 1960-70s with its increasingly sophisticated word processing software marked another important milestones in the development of technology and religion. The move from analogy to digital and the interconnectivity provided by the Internet allows production and transmission of an enormous amount of religious knowledge. The number of platforms and devices in which this knowledge may be downloaded have also increased exponentially.

There seem to a close relationship between the introduction of new technologies and the expansion of the Gospel. Hand copied Bibles and books seem to limit the spread of the Gospel around the main European cities. With the Reformation and the printing press, the Gospel spread is wider to the rest of Europe, North America, certain parts of Asia and North Africa. The digital media seems to herald the expansion of the Gospel to the Global South. The smartphone has become the main platform for evangelism. It is now possible to bring the Gospel to the ends of the world. It will be interesting to see what the next technology brings.

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The Luther Bible (German: Lutherbibel) is a German language Bible translation from Hebrew and ancient Greek by Martin Luther. The New Testament was first published in 1522 and the complete Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments and Apocrypha, in 1534

Predigerkirche Erfurt

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Predigerkirche or Preachers Church was the church and monastery where Meister Eckhart was prior in 1294. I had an opportunity to visit this church in Erfurt in Germany recently.

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Meister Eckhart commemorative door at the church

“Truly, it is in the darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us.”

Meister or Master (today’s equivalent is a professor) Eckhart was a teacher of theology in the Order of Preachers or Dominicans. Meister Eckhart was also one of the Rhineland Mystics because of his teachings in mystical or sacred theology that deals with the Mystery who is God and the Mystery’s relationship with our souls.

“Some people prefer solitude. They say their peace of mind depends on this.
Others say they would be better off in church.
If you do well, you do well wherever you are. If you fail, you fail wherever you are.
Your surroundings don’t matter. God is with you everywhere — in the market place as well as in seclusion or in the church.
If you look for nothing but God, nothing or no one can disturb you.
God is not distracted by a multitude of things.
Nor can we be.”

Meister Eckhart was ahead of his time in his thinking and teachings. He used many imageries to explain this complication concept- the ground of our being, the desert, birth of the Word in the heart like an egg, and the Abyss that he came to the attention of the Inquisition. He was examined and was almost declared a heretic. Ironically, it was the Pope who wanted to declare him a heretic ended up being declared a heretic himself.

“One must not always think so much about what one should do, but rather what one should be. Our works do not ennoble us; but we must ennoble our works.”

It is only in recent years that Meister Eckhart’s writings were rediscovered and examined critically by modern scholars. Much of his writings and sermons are still in German. Bernard McGinn’s book, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart: The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing is of special note.

For a short biography of Meister Eckhart from the Eckhart Society see here. Read my reflections on the man here and here.

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inside the church

 

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main altar

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stained glass windows behind altar

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Meister Eckhart’s pew in church, middle seat -original wood

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former library area

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chapter room

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cloister garden

Thoughts on Suicide

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As Christians, what should our thoughts be about suicide? We will first look to the Bible for guidance. Surprisingly, the Bible has little to say about suicide.  There are seven incidents of suicides in the Scriptures.

  1. Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54)
  2. Samson (Judges 16: 29-30)
  3. Saul and his armor bearer (1Samuel 31: 3-5)
  4. Ahithophel (2 Samuel 15:31b)
  5. Zimri (1Kings 16:18-20)
  6. Judas Iscariot (Matt 27:3-5)

Chronologically, the first mention of suicide in the Bible is Abimelech. After capturing the city of Thebez, he attacked a fortified tower in the center of the city. The Old Testament noted, “ Abimelech went to the tower and stormed it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull. Hurriedly he called to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him’.” So his servant ran him through, and he died.” (Judges 9:52-54). Scripture neither approves nor disapproves of this act of assisted suicide. It was noted as a fitting end to an evil man. “Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech has done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers.” (Judges 9:56).

The next suicide, though it is arguable as such for there was a good cause and had divine sanction, was that of Samson. Samson pulled down the temple, killing himself and the Philistines (Judges 16: 29-30). Scripture regarded his act of suicide as a heroic act.

The suicide of Saul and his armor bearer elicit more comments. “The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically. Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me”. But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his own sword and died with him.”(1Samuel 31: 3-5). Even though Saul killed himself by his own sword, the chronicler noted that God himself killed Saul for his unfaithfulness (1Chronicles 10:13-14). His armor-bearer chooses to die with his king, an example of suicide by identification. There was no comment on the suicide of Saul’s armor-bearer in the Scriptures.

Ahithophel was King David’s counselor. He became Absalom’s when Absalom rebelled against his father. David prayed that God would turn Ahithophel‘s counsel into foolishness (2 Samuel 15:31b). When Ahithophel found that his advice was ignored by Absalom, he hanged himself (2 Sam 17:23). There was no comment in the Scriptures about this action.

Zimri came to the throne of Israel by assassination. The Israelites rebelled and besieged the city of Tirzah. “When Zimri saw that the city was taken, he went into the citadel of the royal palace and set the palace on fire around him. So he died, because of the sins he had committed, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord and walking in the ways of Jeroboam and in the sin he has committed and had caused Israel to commit.” (1Kings 16:18-20). Here it was noted that his death was judgement for his sins.

Judas Iscariot was the only suicide mentioned in the New Testament. When Judas saw that Jesus was condemned, he was filled with remorse and tried to return the money. Then he went and hanged himself (Matt 27:3-5).

It is interesting to note that in this brief survey of the seven suicides recorded in the Scriptures, the suicides of Abimelech, Saul and Zimri were recorded as the direct judgement of God on their sins, even going so far as to say that God killed Saul. The Scriptures were silent on the other four suicides though the ignoble context in each case speaks for themselves.

Therefore the Scriptures offer no specific guidelines on suicide, allowing each situation to speak for itself. Theologian Karl Barth noted in his multivolume Church Dogmatics that “a remarkable fact that in the Bible suicide is nowhere explicitly forbidden”.

In certain Christian traditions, suicide is regarded as an ‘unpardonable’ sin and those who commit suicide are not given the rites and burial in the church grounds. They are usually buried outside the church and regarded as being condemned to hell. What is the origin of this belief? The root of this belief may be traced to Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of the church. In his thesis, On Suicide, Thomas Aquinas argued that to commit suicide is to sin against God, family and community. God is sovereign, and He decides when we are born and when we die. To commit suicide is to usurp the sovereignty of God over our time of death. Suicide deprives children of their parents, and community of the contribution of that person. Thomas Aquinas never said that suicide is an unpardonable sin. Unfortunately, Church traditions made it into an unpardonable sin.  The unpardonable sin is stated in Mark 3:22–30 and Matthew 12:22–32 as sinning against the Holy Spirit. Suicide is not.

This article is to inform Christians of the biblical and theological teaching about suicide. It does not seek to endorse suicide. It is sad that someone has to resort to suicide as a last resort to solve his/her problem. Suicide make victims out of those left behind. Families and friends  left behind suffer from grief and guilt at not having done more. However, they must realize  that the choice to kill oneself is a choice made by the suicide party  herself/himself alone. Those left behind should never, in addition to their pain, carry the added burden of the fear that God’s forgiveness does not extend to their loved one’s action. God’s forgiveness is wide and deep enough for all of us.

Soli Deo Gloria

Some Thoughts on Creeds

 

Christian Orthodox worshippers hold thei

 

A creed is a collection of shared core beliefs in a religious community which make it distinctive from other communities. A creed is also known as a confession, symbol, or statement of faith.

Major Historic Christian Creeds

  • Apostles’ Creed (120-250 AD)

This is likely to be formulated around A.D.180, as a distinct creed to counter Marcionism. Marcion of Sinope (c. 85 – c. 160) was a controversial figure in early Christian history. His theology only affirmed the Father of Christ as the true God, rejecting the God of the Old Testament. He was denounced and excommunicated. The Church Fathers felt they need a Creed to affirm the main beliefs of Christianity.

 

  • Creed of Nicaea (325 AD)

The first ecumenical council in Nicaea which was called to solve the Arian controversy. The Arian controversy arose between Arius and Athanasius of Alexandria in Egypt. The main issue concerns the deity of Christ or God the Son. Arius maintained that since God the Son was begotten by God the Father, he cannot be co-eternal with the Father. Athanasius maintain that God the Father and God the Son are co-eternal and con-substantial (one in essence). Athanasius won and Arianism was outlawed in the empire. Athanasius’ understanding of God was adopted by the Council.

 

  • Nicene Creed (381 AD)

Also known as the Nicaea-Constantinopolitan Creed. It is mostly a revision of the 325 Creed of Nicaea. Since the last Council in Nicaea, the argument of the nature of Christ, God the Son was never totally defined. The Nicene Creed put to rest the controversies by affirming Athanasius’ viewpoint. It laid the foundation for our present understanding of the Trinitarian God.

 

  • Chalcedonian Creed (451 AD)

Council of Chalcedon. The major contribution of this Council is the belief that Christ is fully human and fully God.

 

  • Athanasian Creed (500 AD)

Mainly used by the Western Christian traditions. The origin of this creed is unknown. This Creed affirms the deity of Christ and the equality of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit in the Godhead.

 

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) is considered one of the most important creed for the Reformed and the Presbyterian denomination. Even then, it was not wholly accepted. In the 18th Century the Presbyterian churches in southern China rejected the Westminster Confession because it was too ‘Western’. This was during the era when China was trying to throw off the yoke of ‘Western Imperialism’.

JESUS RECEIVES THE CROSS

Spiritual Formation on the Run

Stations of the Cross (2)


JESUS RECEIVES THE CROSS

Jesus was scourged. The whips cut His back until it was shredded and bathed in His blood. A crown of thorns was set on His head in mockery. Then they returned His robe to Him, and brought Him to the cross on which He was to die.

Jesus embraced the cross, resting it painfully on the smarting wounds on His back.


Lord, You were scourged and wounded;
You deserved no punishment.
but were punished in our place.
Thank you, Jesus.
Thank you, Jesus.

When You were already hurting,
You embraced the cross.
Thank you, Jesus.
Thank you, Jesus.

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A Christian Doctor’s Perspective on Euthanasia

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We cannot decide the date and time we are born nor the date and time we die. The suicide and euthanasia argument centers around the patient’s decision in determining the time he or she chooses to die. Janet Adkins was fifty-four years old when she was diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. When informed about the course of the disease, she decided she did not want to live out the years in this progressive, deteriorating condition. She decided to kill herself but she wanted her death to be painless and dignified. She sought the help of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a pathologist from Michigan, United States of America and fixed a date to die. On June 4, 1990 Dr. Kevorkian hooked her up to a heart monitor and an intravenous line. Janet Adkins pushed a button that released a lethal dose of medication, which killed her in 5 minutes. A murder charge was filed against Dr. Kevorkian but it was dismissed because the laws of the State of Michigan were vague against assisted suicide. Since then, the “Right-to-die” or euthanasia movement has been steadily gaining momentum.

On Wednesday, April 11, 2001, the Netherlands legalised euthanasia, becoming the first country in the world to allow doctors to end the lives of patients with unbearable, terminal illness. As of November 2017, human euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg and Canada. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, and in the US states of Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, Montana, Washington DC, and California. Euthanasia is often thought of as people who want to commit suicide because of various reasons, usually those suffering from incurable diseases. Euthanasia is actually wider than that. It also involves another party, usually a physician who will assist in the suicide, an act termed Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS). Physicians are healers not killers. Will they be forced to kill or assist in a suicide if their country legislated that euthanasia is legal? This is the dilemma facing the physicians in Canada today.

What is euthanasia?

Euthanasia is a Greek word meaning a “good death”. The present meaning of the word, euthanasia has come evolved to mean the intentional act of a person  which causes the death of another that is terminally or seriously ill, often to end the latter’s suffering and pain. Commonly, euthanasia means mercy killing or assisted suicide. It implies that a doctor willingly, injecting or allowing someone to inject, a lethal dose of medication to kill a patient that is terminally or seriously ill to end his or her suffering. It is not euthanasia when doctors discontinue a treatment that is no longer effective and the patient dies.

 

The groundswell of support for euthanasia

Two strong cultural trends have arisen in the West and are currently globalised trends. One is the social construct of absolute autonomy. The other is the fear of pain. The concept of an individualised self is a recent one but has since become a powerful influence through this personal autonomy – ‘This is my body and I decide what I want to do with it and society has no right to interfere’. This movement of individualised autonomy is so powerful that it reforms modern medicine and empowers the issues of abortion, human sexuality, and euthanasia. Autonomy demands that people should have a say in when and how they die. This is closely related to the fear of pain and suffering. Society is full of distractions and other devices (including drugs) that minimise physical and emotional pain. It is this absolutised autonomy and fear of pain that provided the groundswell of support for euthanasia.

Modern medicine has not only prolonged life but it has also prolonged death. Efficient healthcare are enabling us to die by instalments. One of the fears many people have is to be in constant pain, whether from some disease or a cancer. This terrible pain occupies their whole life and there is no relief. Others fear that they may reach a point where they want to die in relative peace, only to find that they are forced to receive intensive and intrusive medical treatments that desperately attempt to prolong their lives. Yet others dread being bedridden for months or years, incapable of responding whatsoever to their families, relatives and friends. With the high cost of medical care, some fear that the medical bill for their terminal illness may put their spouse and children in debt for years.

Therefore, they want an option to be able to decide when they want to end their life. They want a ‘right-to-die’ and they want a doctor to help them to die painlessly. Some want to be allowed to make the decision to opt for euthanasia when they are dying while others want the option to instruct their doctors to end their lives when they, themselves are incapable of making the decision.

All these fears are real. Pain, incapacity, suffering and high cost of medical care are realities that confront us as our society become more developed and we live longer. We are now more likely to die from stroke, heart attacks and cancer than from accidents and infectious diseases. Stroke, heart attacks and cancer are often associated with high disabilities, pain, and suffering and expensive treatment modalities. Would it not make sense to have an opportunity to ‘check out’ if the going gets tough?

Perspective from Scriptures

Surprisingly, the Bible has little to say about euthanasia or mercy killing or assisted suicide. What about suicide? There are seven incidents of suicides in the Scriptures.

  1. Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54)
  2. Samson (Judges 16: 29-30)
  3. Saul and his armor bearer (1Samuel 31: 3-5)
  4. Ahithophel (2 Samuel 15:31b)
  5. Zimri (1Kings 16:18-20)
  6. Judas Iscariot (Matt 27:3-5)

Chronologically, the first mention of suicide in the Bible is Abimelech. After capturing the city of Thebez, he attacked a fortified tower in the center of the city. The Old Testament noted “ Abimelech went to the tower and stormed it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull. Hurriedly he called to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him’.” So his servant ran him through, and he died.” (Judges 9:52-54). Scripture neither approves nor disapproves of this act of assisted suicide. It was noted as a fitting end to an evil man. “Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech has done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers.” (Judges 9:56). The next suicide, though it is arguable as there was a good cause and had divine sanction, was that of Samson. Samson pulled down the temple, killing himself and the Philistines (Judges 16: 29-30) Scripture regarded his act of suicide as a heroic act.

The suicide of Saul and his armor bearer elicit more comments. “The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically. Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me”. But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his own sword and died with him.”(1Samuel 31: 3-5). Even though Saul killed himself by his own sword, the chronicler noted that God himself killed Saul for his unfaithfulness. (1Chronicles 10:13-14). His armor-bearer chooses to die with his king, an example of suicide by identification. There was no comment on the suicide of Saul’s armor-bearer in the Scriptures.

Ahithophel was King David’s counselor. He became Absalom’s when Absalom rebelled against his father. David prayed that God would turn Ahithophel‘s  counsel into foolishness (2 Samuel 15:31b). When Ahithophel found that his advice was ignored by Absalom, he hanged himself. (2 Sam 17:23). There was no comment in the Scriptures about this action.

Zimri came to the throne of Israel by assassination. The Israelites rebelled and besieged his city of Tirzah. “When Zimri saw that the city was taken, he went into the citadel of the royal palace and set the palace on fire around him. So he died, because the sins he had committed, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord and walking in the ways of Jeroboam and in the sin he has committed and had caused Israel to commit.” (1Kings 16:18-20). Here it was noted that his death was judgement for his sins.

Judas Iscariot was the only suicide mentioned in the New Testament. When Judas saw that Jesus was condemned, he was filled with remorse and tried to return the money. Then he went and hanged himself. (Matt 27:3-5)

It is interesting to note that in this brief survey of the seven suicides recorded in the Scriptures; the suicides of Abimelech, Saul and Zimri were recorded as direct judgement of God on their sins, even going as far as to say God killed Saul. The Scriptures were silent on the other four suicides though the ignoble context in each case speaks for themselves.

Therefore the Scriptures offered no specific guidelines on suicide, allowing each situation to speak for itself. Theologian Karl Barth noted in his multivolume Church Dogmatics that “a remarkable fact that in the Bible suicide is nowhere explicitly forbidden”.  In addressing the issue of euthanasia we must look elsewhere in the Scriptures for guidance.

There are two Scriptural principles that can help us when we are confronted with the issue of euthanasia. The first is the sanctity of human life and the second is human autonomy and divine sovereignty.

Firstly, there are 4 inferences about the sanctity of human life that can be derived from the Scriptures. They are namely, human dignity comes from God, all human life has equal dignity, “Thou Shall not Kill” and, love your neighbour.

  1. Human Dignity comes from God. Human life are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), so our dignity and God’s are closely related. “Whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed: for God made man in his own image” (Gen 9:6). Human life is a gift from God. In response, we should approach this life with gratitude, thanksgiving and deep responsibility.
  2. All Human Life has Equal Dignity. In Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Men and women bear the same dignity and this applies to all of mankind of all ages, sex, race and conditions. However incapacitated, mentally retarded, chronically ill, physically dependent or in a persistent vegetative state, they bear that dignity and have equal claims on us.
  3. “Thou Shalt not Kill”. The sixth commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13; Deu 5:17) has its roots in the Creation’s narrative:- “Let us make man in our own image”(Gen 1:26) and in the Noahic Convenant’s “Whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”(Gen 9:6). Man, being made in the image of God, is not to be intentionally killed. Ratsachis the Hebrew word translated as ‘kill’ in the commandment. It is similar to the Greek phoneuo, which means ‘murder’. Hence the sixth commandment forbids murder or ‘unauthorised, intentional or hostile killing of one human being by another’.
  4. Love your Neighbour. Jesus summarised the Commandments as ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. (Mark 12:30-31). Christians are called to love their neighbours. And this includes taking care of each other and looking out for each other. It does not include helping each other to die.

Secondly, there is the human autonomy and divine sovereignty principle. Human autonomy is the main argument for euthanasia. Christians must take the claims of autonomy with great seriousness. We are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27). An essential part of that image is our ability to make free choices. The Scriptural model for human autonomy, self-determination and human responsibility is portrayed in Genesis 2:19. As Hebrew scholars have noted, to ‘name’ something is not simply to label it; it is to give it a meaning and order it in the nature of things, Hence, Adam is called upon to continue the creation by bringing order into being, rather than simply replicating preordained orders. This is stewardship.

The fundamental distinction between the Creator and the created (His creation) sets limits to the freedom and scope of our stewardship. The limitations to human autonomy or self-determination is found earlier in Genesis 2:15-17. The story asserts a fundamental conviction of biblical faith that from the very beginning human freedom over life was limited or proscribed. God alone have sovereignty over life and death. The end of human life is not subject to a person’s free judgement. Our freedom does not extend to absolute dominion. Absolute dominion is an exclusively divine prerogative. The principles of divine sovereignty and human stewardship and responsibility argue against unlimited autonomy.

Therefore the Scriptural principles on the sanctity of human life and divine sovereignty and the limits of human autonomy argue against euthanasia which violates both these principles.

Alternative to Euthanasia

There must be viable alternatives to euthanasia if we are to face the realities of pain and suffering during terminal or serious illnesses. This is where Christians must be in the forefront of offering viable alternatives. Instead of an action to end life, the alternative to euthanasia is death with dignity.

There have been tremendous advances in pain control. Pain clinics are established in all government general hospitals. Advances in pain control medication have allowed better pain reduction with minimal side effects. Precision surgical procedure allows for disconnecting pain pathways. Church visitation groups can help in pain control by visiting and befriending the sick.

Palliative care or care of the dying have also made significant advances in the last few years. One of the changes is that patients are beginning to have more say in their treatment. With improved education and better access to information, patients may discuss with their doctors and spell out what treatments may or may not be given, when to stop when treatment fails and when extraordinary medical measures may not be taken. Extraordinary measures include putting a terminally ill patient on a ventilator when there is no hope for recovery. All these may be written down or spelt out in a ‘living will’ and/or a ‘medical directive’.

Medical costs will continue to escalate. There is need for better financial planning especially in medical insurance coverage. This will help alleviate the financial burden that a major illness imposes on the family.

A remarkable recent development is the modern hospice care.  Hospice care enables helping terminally ill patients to die with dignity. The Hospice organization was founded in London by a devout Christian, Dr. Cicely Saunders at St. Christopher’s Hospice and rapidly expanded worldwide. Its rapid growth is a testimony to the urgent need of helping patients to ease their dying process as opposed to the use of medical technology to keep them alive. In Malaysia, Hospis Malaysia and a few other  non-government organizations have  a few centers around the country but there is a great need for the Church to be involved in setting up and running hospices.

Prayer is a powerful alternative to euthanasia and the Church is the best-equipped organization to offer it. It is one of the great mysteries of the universe that God will listen and act upon the prayers of his people. The Church has a God given role to pray for the sick (Jas 5:14-16) and those facing death. The Church will have failed in its mission if it does not pray for and with the sick and dying.

Death with Dignity

Euthanasia or mercy killing or assisted suicide is laudable because it is an action based on compassion. Unfortunately its basic premises are flawed as it goes against the Scriptural principles of the sanctity of human life and divine sovereignty and human autonomy. The Christian alternative of death with dignity is a better choice.