In thirty years of counseling in various places and contexts, I never personally experienced the suicide of a client. Until now. Strange that two weeks after seeing my last client and stepping into the new flow of retirement, I learned of the suicide of a client I had been seeing right up to the time of my departure.
As is natural when hearing such tragic news about someone we sincerely care for, I ran through the gamut of questions. Did I do all I could to make sure he would stay connected to his support system when I left? Did I assess him closely enough for suicidal thoughts or plans? Was there anything I could have done differently that may have prevented this terrible loss of hope and will to live?
My lovely former supervisor, who phoned me to break the news, graciously allowed me to process these questions with her. She had looked through every record concerning this client and found not a trace of concern about suicidal intentions from any of his providers. She assured me that I had given him excellent care, that I had facilitated a very warm transfer to a new provider, and that I had done nothing wrong.
This is reassuring but doesn’t take away the grief and sadness. It is heartbreaking to have lost this very good-hearted individual. He had been working diligently on his recovery from alcoholism and its serious legal and financial consequences in his life. I ache for his family. I don’t know any details, but it appears that it all just became too much for him, and he gave up.
Since last week when I heard this news, I have been reflecting on suicide, and it occurred to me that I’ve never written about it. So here I am, seeing how Scripture comes to life on this topic of individuals who deliberately end their lives.
First, I want to look at a few cases of suicide in the Bible. Then we’ll look at some examples of souls who chose to continue living, even when pressed to the very limits of their endurance. Then, I want to share some thoughts on what the Bible implies about suicide, and share thoughts about what it does not say about it. That might be even more revealing than the few things it does say.
There are few suicides mentioned in the Bible. King Saul, already grievously wounded in battle by the Philistines, fell on his own sword so the enemy couldn’t come and finish the job (1 Sam. 31:4). When his armor-bearer saw what Saul had done, he also fell on his sword, and they died together on the battlefield.
Another is Ahithophel, a trusted advisor of King David until he aligned himself with David’s son Absalom. He advised Absalom to sleep with David’s concubines and then to kill David. David was notified of the threat, and the plot was thwarted. Knowing that he was as good as dead, Ahithophel “put his house in order and then hanged himself” (2 Sam. 23).
And then we are familiar with Judas, the betrayer of Jesus. When he came to his senses and understood the enormity of what he had done, betraying the “innocent blood” (Mt. 27:4) of his Savior and friend, he promptly hanged himself.
In none of these biblical accounts does the Holy Spirit-led author offer an opinion or value judgment about the suicides themselves. About the events leading to them, yes. But God’s word is silent about their choice to end their lives. It is simply reported as a fact.
Though these suicide stories are included in the biblical narratives, there are many more stories in the Bible about individuals who encountered incredibly painful trials and suffering but did not end their lives.
What of Job, or David, who wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, about their longing for the relief that death might bring?
After 7 days of overwhelming, silent grief over the loss of everything that mattered to him, Job began to speak, and the first thing he spoke was a curse against the day of his birth. He cried out,
“Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?…For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest” (Job 3:11, 13).
Job’s wife challenged him, “Are you still holding onto your integrity? Curse God and die!” (2:9). But Job did not curse God and die. He challenged her back, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (2:10).
No, Job did not kill himself or “sin in what he said” (2:10). He wrestled with his pain. He listened to the arrogant, misguided theological arguments of his friends about the calamities that had befallen him. He waited. He brought his case directly to the Lord, and the Lord responded to him. As the story plays out, we see that Job was restored; he re-engaged with life, had more children, and received God’s blessing.
King David, if he were alive now in our psychologized secular environment, would probably be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on medications. I base this on some of his writings, especially in the Psalms, when he felt threatened, lonely, and misunderstood, and seems suicidally depressed. But then, after describing how close he came to giving up on living, David proclaims, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done” (Ps. 118:17). He understood that his life, whatever he might suffer, was designed to bring glory to God.
When I assess new clients at the beginning of the therapy relationship, we always have a conversation about any current or past thoughts of wanting to die or do harm to themselves or others. This is a duty of every responsible clinician, especially during a time when suicides (and homicides in some places) have become epidemic. Part of the conversation is about what we call “protective factors.”
I validate the reality that most people, even children, think at some point that it would be much easier to check out rather than continue to suffer. Life feels so difficult sometimes, and we can feel we are trapped in circumstances with no apparent hope of relief or rescue.
Most people deny any current impulses to harm themselves, though it’s hard to tell sometimes if they are being honest about it. As I continue to engage, I push a little bit: in light of that very normal, human feeling of wanting to be gone, what is it that keeps them going? What protects them from acting on that impulse, whether it is just fleeting or a more serious and chronic urge to die?
People often cite their children and other loved ones, recognizing the pain their suicide would inflict upon them. Maybe they’ve witnessed the suicide of a friend or family member, so they’ve experienced the devastation it creates. I am quick to agree that the agony of losing someone to suicide is different from ordinary grief and is something their loved ones would never be able to “get over.” Especially if a parent leaves his or her children behind.
Others, like King David, say that in spite of a depression that daily brings excruciating pain, they still have hope. They are curious about how their story will turn out. They want to see what life feels like on the other side of the pain and despair. They believe rescue is still possible. They have a dim but still present belief that things will eventually get better, and they are coming to me for help because of that belief.
It is a great honor to walk with someone in these moments, and to let them borrow some of my hope when they need it.
Others give a religious argument. They were taught that suicide is an unforgiveable sin, one that condemns a person to hell, and this is why they have never acted on their suicidal impulses.
Though I don’t believe this even a little bit, I don’t argue with people about it at this point, because at the initial stage of our relationship, my main concern is that they stay alive long enough to get better. At the risk of sounding flippant, if they stay alive because they love vanilla ice cream and if dead, would never be able to taste it again, I’d take even that as a good enough reason in the moment.
But this notion that suicide sends believers to hell is a fallacy of medieval religious doctrine for which I have never found a shred of evidence in the Bible. It is neither stated nor implied. Not in the Law, or the Prophets, or the Wisdom books, or the gospels, or the apostolic writings of the New Testament. I’ve spent a lot of years in the book, and I can say with some confidence this doctrine is not there.
The Bible is God’s story, and he is a God of mercy and compassion, from beginning to end. This God, our Father, knows what we suffer. He knows we are fragile, that we are dust, grass or flowers that quickly perish or fade away, and our time on the earth is brief even in the best of cases.
This God also knows that the enemy has imprisoned some of us in chains of mental illness, addiction, and suicidal depression, and some may not recover. This has gotten baked into the human condition over many generations of satan’s work. Suicide occurs in a moment of lost hope because of the enemy, and not because the person is evil or unworthy in some way.
This is not to say that suicide is not a terrible sin. It is–one of the worst. It is equivalent to murder because it is self-murder. Murdering a human being should bring consequences, and it does, whether it is murder of self or another. It causes great harm, and not just to the person who is dead.
But there are many sins committed by human beings that bring harm and terrible consequences. This is why we all need a Savior! We all need our great High Priest to mediate and intercede for us.
Suicide isn’t in a special category outside of the sin that was covered at the cross with the shed blood of Jesus Christ. If a person has been born again and come into God’s kingdom and care, taking his own life does not remove his identity as a child of God any more than a child who commits suicide becomes less of a son to his grieving parents.
Paul clearly states that there is NOTHING that destroys God’s love for us in Christ.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).
Do we believe this?
Jesus Christ, who lived among finite humans like us, understands that some of his children suffer from mental illnesses or prolonged periods of despair and hardship, and they might succumb to the temptation to end their pain by suicide.
He knew each of us would give our lives to him before we did, and he knows that some of us unfortunately will get inexorably trapped in the snare of the devil and will end our lives without his permission. He loves and forgives us through and through no matter how long we live, or how we die. This is what I will believe until my own dying breath.
But here’s another thing I share with Christian clients a bit later in the conversation. If we are saved by grace, it means that we have come to call Jesus Lord, and that we came believe that he was raised from the dead. These are the stated conditions for salvation in Romans 10:9-10. He died in our place, and was resurrected as the victor over sin and death. This makes him worthy to be called Lord. He becomes our forerunner and our source of hope.
If Jesus is not only Savior, but Lord, that means that we no longer have lordship over our own bodies and souls, but that we belong to him. We may feel that we are in the director seat, but ultimately, the Lord is the only one with the right to determine the beginning, the end, and everything in the middle. Paul says it like this,
“For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom. 14:7-9).
Suicide does not condemn a person to hell if they are already saved. Suicide is, however, a horrible sin against the Lordship of Christ in your life. It is an act of disobedience that has many tragic consequences, especially for those who love the person committing the act. But that doesn’t make it unforgiveable. God’s mercy triumphs over his judgment through the blood of Christ. The Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.
The Father grieves, Jesus weeps, and the Spirit groans over the enemy’s work that causes his people to lose all hope. And when they cross over into the realm where they are in his eternal presence, I believe that he receives and embraces them just as he receives all those who come home to him.