An Earth Shattering Instant
No one saw Harriet’s suicide coming.
Two nights before her death, she wrote an e-mail to a friend in which she admitted that she was struggling with doubt but believed she was turning the corner. She even had an affirming conversation with her spiritual mentor the night before she took her life. To all who knew Harriet, loved her, and needed her, Harriet’s suicide made little sense. The immediate clinical cause, I believe, was clear. Her death was precipitated by a combination of new medications not providing the needed “base of coverage” (as doctors described it), which meant the old medicines lost their effectiveness before the new ones had developed strength in her system. This imbalance resulted in tremendous highs and lows of both anxiety and depression in her last days. The doctors did the best they could do.
Everyone thought she would make it.
But I searched for deeper answers than these clinical explanations provided. I could not sleep. I kept going over the last days of her life — how the tragedy happened, why it happened, and what could have been different. Harriet could have found a way of escape on that fateful day — there were several possible sources she could have turned to. I was nearby. Some dear friends who nurtured and embraced her with unconditional love had planned to spend the afternoon with us. She could have waited for their support before plunging into fatal despair. In addition, she had time to reconsider the irrevocable act during the twenty-minute drive to the gun shop and the discussion she had with the store clerk. Why didn’t Harriet reach out for these lifelines? It’s a question I have asked myself time and time again.
I am certain that on that day she did not have full mental control. Her mind was saturated with the darkness of her depression, which smothered her capacity to reason. And certainly Satan, the dark enemy of our souls, was taking every advantage of Harriet’s weakness.
I was left with resounding questions:
How do I understand Harriet’s death? Who and what are responsible? Where is God in all this?
Driven by the insatiable desire to understand Harriet’s death, I read widely in the Scriptures and pored over books about Heaven, angels, near-death experiences, and grief. I endured long days and nights of soul searching and coping with pain.
One of my most urgent questions centered on the fact that Harriet took her own life. For many Christians, there is a stigma attached to suicide. Taking one’s own life is considered to be one of the most grievous of sins — unforgivable in the minds of many. I could not let the question rest. I dug into the Bible for answers.
My study of the Bible made it clear that suicide is not an option for anyone — especially a Christian — to use as the way out of a problem. Among the Ten Commandments that God gave Moses was
You shall not murder. — Exodus 20:13
This principle applies to suicide because suicide is self-murder. Murder destroys what God has created. His reason for this command went deeper than simply to provide stability in a civil society. It is much more sacred. God reminded Noah that the life of a person reflects God’s image (Genesis 9:6), which means that taking life destroys God’s highest creation.
Suicide is also an extreme act of dishonoring God with one’s body. Since the Bible tells us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), we are dishonoring the Holy Spirit when we destroy the body.
Further, suicide violates the biblical assertion that there is a way of escape from every temptation. Paul wrote that God
will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape. — 1 Corinthians 10:13
Suicide negatively affects the plans of God in creating a believer for good works.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. — Ephesians 2:10
When issues tempt or cause a person to consider suicide, that person becomes self-focused, with an inward perspective only. The outward perspective of seeking to do good for God’s glory is lost.
Finally, suicide robs the believer of future rewards in Heaven by cutting days on earth shorter than God intended. While our works don’t earn us a place in Heaven, Scripture makes it clear that they do increase our rewards, as Jesus noted in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25). The Gospels mention rewards more than seventy times, and Paul affirmed the concept of heavenly rewards for earthly work:
If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. — 1 Corinthians 3:14
These verses confirm that God sees every struggle, when faced with faith, as valuable. The act of suicide diminishes the opportunities a believer has to do good things for God’s glory. The Bible leaves no doubt that taking one’s own life is a sin. God has ordained our days (Psalm 139:16). He has a plan and reason for every day of our lives.
My study on suicide provided much clarity but little comfort. Big questions remained: Who or what was ultimately responsible for Harriet’s death? And again, Where was God in all this? My struggle for understanding continued. The Bible promises God will provide us a way of escape, so where was Harriet’s escape? Why didn’t she take it?
At that point, the God of light and peace brought two people into my life whose words spoke volumes to me and set me on a course of discovery.
One night while I was working late at the church, a young man knocked on my office window. I recognized him as a member of our church, so I let him in. He introduced himself and said he had felt a strong compulsion, which he believed to be from God, to talk to me about his own struggle with depression. I invited him to sit down and share his story.
“I have battled deep depression all my adult life,” he said. “I’ve even been on suicide watch twice. People who haven’t experienced it can’t possibly imagine the darkness of that horrible place depression puts us in. It’s like being in hell. When a person falls into it, escaping the pain becomes all-consuming. The depressed person wants nothing but to get out. Thoughts of escape dominate the mind, and without help a person will become desperate enough to take any exit that presents itself — even death.” He paused to let that sink in and then added, “I completely understand why Harriet did it.”
The second interaction came by way of professional counselor Ron Rolheiser. His analysis may not apply to every case of suicide, but it is true of suicide deaths linked to depression, Harriet’s included.
A person dying of suicide dies as does a victim of physical illness or accident, against his or her will. People die from physical heart attacks, strokes, cancer, AIDS and accidents. Death by suicide is the same, except that we are dealing with an emotional heart attack, an emotional stroke, emotional AIDS, emotional cancer and an emotional fatality.1
The wisdom shared by these two individuals was helpful and comforting because it helped me better understand the victim of clinical depression. These insights pointed me in the right direction, but peace was yet some distance away. I begged God to grant me further understanding, and in time and through my continued search of the Scriptures, He did.
I was able to come to peace about Harriet’s death through several verses the Lord opened to me. The first, Exodus 4:10-11, occurs just after God commanded Moses to go to Egypt, confront Pharaoh, and lead Israel out of bondage. Moses told God that he was not a good speaker and therefore could not do what God was asking. God replied, in essence, “Who makes the mute? Who makes the deaf? Who makes the blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” Through these words, I realized God takes responsibility for what He gives us. God could have continued by saying, “Who makes the depressed?” Why do some people have clinical depression and others don’t? It is because God creates people with both abilities and disabilities that serve His purposes.
The second Bible verse God opened to me was Job 42:11. After God had confronted Job for his lack of understanding, Job’s family brought gifts to console him “for all the adversities that the Lord had brought on him.” God had allowed the adversities that Job experienced. God is sovereign and never loses control. In putting together these two Bible verses, my questions regarding who was responsible for Harriet’s death were answered.
God takes responsibility. He made Harriet with her particular disability, and for His all-knowing purposes, He allowed Satan to take advantage of her weakened condition.
When I placed what I had learned in context, it felt as if God were saying, Pete, I was with Harriet the whole time. I could have stopped her death, yet I allowed it for My reasons. Trust Me with what you do not understand right now. Harriet is with Me, fulfilling new purposes I have for her.
This can be true of death by cancer, accidents, or even old age. God never leaves us. He doesn’t always explain His ways, but He does explain His care. After I had reached the point of biblically understanding and accepting my wife’s death, I was free of the mental trap of placing blame, agonizing over her future, or running in perpetual circles seeking answers to why.
In the mystery and beauty of God’s grace, suicide is not an unforgivable sin. How could God ordain a deficiency in a person and then condemn him for having it? Scripture makes clear that the only unforgivable sin is rejecting the Holy Spirit by refusing to accept Christ’s sacrifice for your sins (Matthew 12:31). Suicide, like all other sins, receives God’s forgiveness.
It took me about three months of prayer and seeking God to come to this conclusion. During this process, unusual things began happening that I could not explain. I am by nature a logic-driven and rational person, trained to use a biblical framework to explain everything. Soon after Harriet’s death, however, events began to unfold that did not fit my theological worldview, driving me to dig deep to understand their meaning from a biblical outlook. My understanding of Heaven, Harriet’s presence there, and my relationship with her were about to change in a dramatic, eye-opening way.
- Ron Rolheiser, “Losing a Loved One to Suicide,” June 7, 1998, http://ronrolheiser.com/losing-a-loved-one-to-suicide/#.VtZ0XdAk_ww.
Excerpted with permission from Visits from Heaven by Pete Deison, copyright Pete Deison.
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Suicide is such a painful topic especially for those in the Church who wonder what God says about it. Have you lost a loved one or a friend or acquaintance to the desperate act of suicide? Let’s pray for one another today as we remember our loved ones and trust God with them. Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We want to hear from you!