Mr. Sugg is a ruling elder in the Protestant Reformed Church of Houston, Texas.
(The following essay was originally prepared at the request of a Bible study society in one of our congregations as a guide for an after-recess discussion. The writer attempted an outline but fell into a kind of provocative meditation. This work was not intended for publication, but with this caution, and some minor editing, it is offered here.)
Suicide, like all sin, is not just a matter of an overt act. It begins in the heart; and although it might not be committed outwardly, it is nevertheless very real within. The child of God is not immune to the ravages of this sin and for some this sin may be the very center of that battlefield within the believer wherein he struggles earnestly to put off the old man, his adversary who deceitfully schemes to wrench the child of God out of the sovereign hands of his Father, were that possible. The burden of these words is to encourage believers to confront radically the sin of suicide, albeit with anguish for some, anxiety for others, and disquiet for us all. It is done in the hope of our spiritual growth whereby we may become better equipped to war against the vicious sin, whether within our own hearts or as manifest in others whom God has placed us near.
This statement, however bold it may seem, is made with great trembling, not only because of the indefinable dread of a thing so appalling and seemingly inexplicable, but also because no sane man stands on a violent battlefield without fear, especially one who justifiably trembles at his own inadequacy for the task. It might be better that we not even talk about it, that we avoid the issue, abandon the field to fight some other battle. Yet, while the Preacher in Ecclesiastes cautions that there is a time to be silent, he also exhorts that there is a time to speak; and this is the time to speak of a sin which is epidemic throughout the world today, and, when radically defined, is causing great harm to the body of Christ. The latter problem is our principal subject here.
Suicide is self murder. But—listen well—it is not the murder of the self but the murder by the self of the person whom God has created. The self is the very seat of the man of sin within us. That man is so seated within ourselves that, except we be born again, his thoughts are our thoughts, his will is our will, his power is our bondage. The terms self and old man of sin are used without distinction in this paper.
Now in the believer, the dominating power of the old man has been broken by Jesus’ death; and the new man, born from above, is the seat of the power of Christ within him. However, in the counsel of God, the old man retains great strength as long as the believer is in this world. This results in a lifelong struggle between the drive of the self to sin and the desire of the new man to obey God. The outcome of this struggle is as certain as the absolute sovereignty of God, but its course is one of a battle to the death. The self, using weapons of flattering strokes, sympathetic pats, and vicious slashes, is futilely but desperately seeking to reestablish the old chains of Satan and to wreck the new bonds of Christ, or to tear the person apart in the process.
This tearing apart is suicide within the heart when the believer, falling into the black depths of depression, listens to the self and not to God, when his ears hungrily feed upon the siren song of sympathy for his suffering of injustice, or when he inconsolably agrees with the destructive accusations of his own hopeless, sinful condition. This renders the believer as good as dead, a doleful and useless servant of the Lord. In his despair he is deceived into believing God has abandoned him, and he may even seek actual death. He turns away in anguish from God’s arresting command, “Thou shalt not kill,” deaf to the law of both mounts, Sinai and Zion. Yet he must bear the responsibility for his personal disintegration, because it is being carried out essentially by words from his own self which he has chosen to listen to.
This is not to ignore that the believer may be under intensive assault from the outside or that he may be experiencing a peculiar physical illness which uniquely produces agonizing depression. When these are present, they must be acknowledged and dealt with. Yet it remains the case that if the self is silenced, these other matters can be handled with only a fraction of the trauma caused when that evil-speaking old man within is allowed to amplify upsetting problems to a deafening roar.
The battle objective of the old man is to keep the believer focused on his own self at all times, and thus frustrating the child of God’s steady concentration upon Christ. The old man is constantly encouraging “self-concern” and dulling the life of the new man within. However futilely, he would thwart the inexorable purposes of God, which are to diminish more and more the strength of self and to fill the believer more and more with Christ.
At its heart, suicide is the sinful manifestation of miserable bitterness with any part or all of one’s life. Like all sin, its essence lies within the person, and one need not commit this sin outwardly to be guilty of it. Suicide is surrendering to self-induced despair or bitterness and remaining deaf to the sovereign commands and uplifting promises of God. It has as its companion that lying deception that unless the self is served and given place, then the vessel can hold nothing. This evil pair run for their lives—and finally to their deaths—from the truthful reality that, as the self is more and more emptied out of the child of God, then that vessel begins to experience being filled with truepersonal life, a life not only enlivened: and enlightened by the presence of God, but finding its highestpersonal fulfillment in the ultimacy of God in every particle of its being and experience.
The word suicide does not appear in Scripture, but the Bible contains at least four instances of its being carried out in the commonly understood meaning, the purposeful taking of one’s physical life by one’s own hand:
. . . Saul took a sword and fell upon it.
. . . Ahithophel saw that his counsel was not followed. . . and hanged himself and died.
. . . and Zimri burned up the palace and himself.
. . . Judas. . . went and hanged himself.
But the heart of the matter lies not in these occasions, but in the command, “Thou shalt do no murder.” And this commandment includes the murder of one’s own person. To know this we need only read Ezekiel 18:4, “Behold all souls are mine . . . .” and Deuteronomy 32:39, “. . . I kill and I make alive . . . .”
This solemn decree of God is specifically explained in the Heidelberg Catechism in part of its answer to question 105:
What does God require in the Sixth Commandment?
. . . that I not harm myself nor willfully run into any danger.
All creatures and the whole of creation belong to the great Creator, who has brought all things into being and brings them to their end Himself, out of the power and purpose of His sovereign counsel. The dear and foundationally true words at the beginning of the catechism are that my only comfort in life and death is that I am not my own but belong unto my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. Man is not his own, the lie of the world notwithstanding.
This sin is one of peculiar Scriptural gravity. It is the unusual case that there is no account in the Bible of a godly person physically taking his own life in suicide. A study of the lives of Saul, Ahithophel, Zimri, and Judas reveals that they were ungodly men whose wickedness preceded, as well as included, their murders at their own hands.
By contrast, there are at least four instances of godly men who, out of their discouragement in their calling, solitary despondency, excruciating pain, or hatred of life, appealed to God for death, and they were, along with all actual suicides, guilty of the sin of hopelessness in life. Yet they did not take their own lives, and Moses, Elijah, Job, and Jonah were spared from death in the time of their testing, although each one sought it most earnestly:
Moses cried, “. . . I am not able to bear all this people alone . . . kill me if I have found favor in thy sight.”
“. . . It is enough now, O Lord, take away my life,” pleaded the lonely and fearful Elijah.
Job muttered in anguish, “. . . My soul chooseth strangling and death rather than life.”
. . . and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished himself to die . . .
Some might suppose that these passages of Scripture, and others which show God’s loving care of His children, tend to support the idea that no godly person can actually take his own life. But nowhere does the Bible present this assumption as incontrovertible truth. It is silent on the specific question.
Also offered in support of this same supposition is the argument that suicide is the unique sin, for following it there is no opportunity to confess, to repent, and, further, to live in the thankfulness of loving obedience to our merciful God. This idea of uniqueness is greatly weakened when we picture at least the possibility of the drunkard dying in the crash of his ill-controlled vehicle, the glutton choking to death while stuffing himself, the fornicator suffering a fatal stroke in the very midst of his fleshly indulgence, or the gossip experiencing heart failure while giving ear to a poisonous morsel. Few of God’s people would be guilty of such gross manifestations of sin, but not one of us is exempt from any of these sins themselves. It would be presumption for a child of God to believe that he would never die with unconfessed sin on his heart. Rather than debate whether taking one’s life is unique in this way, we should fall upon trembling knees, beg forgiveness in repentance for our own sins, whatever they are, and then, in God’s strength, walk as if we meant it. Only in the way of presumptuous sin can we think for a moment that the great, towering wickedness of another somehow will overshadow our own shortcomings from the just judgment of God.
By grace, we receive this earnest admonition, yet we must admit that the dreadful seriousness of the sin of suicide remains undiminished.
Now the tactic of Satan is to deceive us by leading us to belittle the sin, find the justifying side of it, treat it as a kind of illness, or by causing us to follow a thousand other diverting treacheries. So we are not surprised when the ministers of Satan, “transformed as the ministers of righteousness” (II Corinthians 11:15), suggest some “helpful” questions: “But isn’t this a problem that only rarely occurs in the visible church, and most of those affected are bystanders whose emotional wounds will heal in time? And when this quandary does arise, isn’t calling in professional help, before the fact, to remedy the mental or emotional illness, the responsible and practical answer to the problem, much like calling a physician in case of a critical sickness or injury? Why distress the whole church with this problem when they are really not involved?”
Their words are smooth, their reasonableness is persuasive, the alternatives are uncertain. But God sends His light to shine upon our vexation, and we hear the Lord Himself say:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill, and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment . . . [and]. . . that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
In his heart! How could we miss that suicide, like all sin, is foundationally a matter of the heart within:
For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness—all these evil things come from within and defile the man.
Is it possible that even a great multitude of God’s people now living are guilty of real and damnable suicide, a suicide within their own hearts? How many of us are guilty, and how often are we guilty of this insidious destruction of our own living persons? Is suicide not only physical destruction, but also an inward resentment against some aspect, or the whole of one’s own person, whom God made?
(to be continued)