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.