More Thoughts about Suicide

From My Youth Up

Merle Haggard

hard times come early when you’re born with the blues
                 From Born with the Blues by Merle Haggard

Afflicted and close to death from my youth up
               From Psalm 88 by the Sons of Korah

"Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world" (John 16:21). So women who, in the agonies of childbirth, can literally get angry with their husbands for making them pregnant, and who sometimes swear, "I will never go through this again," go on to have more babies - sometimes many. 

It is generally true that it is difficult to talk or write about painful experiences when the pain is not present. It is difficult to write about being severely, deeply depressed when you're not there. That's something of my difficulty at present, though, for me, what Churchill called his "black dog" is never so far away from me as for me to feel he has found another trail to follow. 

1. Responses.  I received a number of responses following my original post (Thoughts about Suicide), and I am grateful for them. Some were simple affirmations of continuing respect and love, which are appreciated whether justified or not. Others were of the "I understand," or "Thank you for understanding," sort, whether based on personal experience, or having walked through the experience with loved ones, or having witnessed a particular problem such as the need for some kind of "reform" of the way the medical establishment responds to persons who have "suicidal thoughts." I am appreciative of two men, one for whose Internet publication I gather materials, and another whose pulpit I fill once in awhile, who, despite my offers to release them from any obligation to me, confirmed their desire for me to continue my service.  I am in debt to three men of the Reformed Episcopal Church who have ministered to me, my Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Dan Morse; my pastoral counselor (or, as I call him, "father confessor"), the Very Rev. Curtis Crenshaw; then my friend, mentor, and former colleague in Roanoke, the Rev. Rich Workowski for their counsel and support. I am particularly appreciative of those who told me I need to continue writing (though I know there are those who did not respond who probably think the contrary), not just on the same or similar topic, but on other subjects I have addressed in previous Blog posts. Some people commented on my "courage" to write transparently. I am not sure whether the virtue of courage was at work or not, but I am thankful for the encouragement. I will note just two of many meaningful comments. One from a friend I have never met face to face:
I wrote a review for 'Night Driving' in the latest edition of Modern Reformation. If you read it, you may pick up on some clues that when I wrote it, I was about where you were. Or have been. I am also Reformed and thoroughly endorse the book. It was a brilliant and cathartic book that I recommend to anyone who feels they have done too much to too many people and deserve the isolation they feel.

So I can assure you that not all Reformed folk disapprove of that book. I read it precisely because I was in a place where I felt abandoned and alone. Those days still come and go but I wanted to recommend the book to anyone to whom darkness has been or does feel to be their only consistent companion.
The other is from a dear friend and member of a church I served:

I am glad you wrote this. You have walked beside me through tough times, tho I was not suicidal, I was depressed. And you were a help and “got me through." I have always found the story of William Cowper to be encouraging to me...I believe your gift of helping is a result of your own struggles.

2. Don't. If you are a person, who struggles with persistent, serious depression and who may have had or be having"suicidal thoughts," the one thing I must say is, "Don't"; or to quote from the old Bob Newhart as psychologist dealing with a neurotic person routine, "Stop it. Just stop it." 

I do know how weak those words may be to you, but the reality is that suicide is wrong. It is a sin against the commandment, "Thou shalt do no murder" which forbids "offing" oneself, not just others.

It was not long ago that there was a consensus that suicide was both a churchly sin and a civil crime. Perhaps you remember the scene in It's a Wonderful Life when the bridge tender says to George Bailey and Angel Second Class Clarence, "Suicide's a crime around here." The Roman Catholic Church has historically taken a very strong stand against suicide, considering it a mortal sin, which, there being no opportunity for repentance, is damning. Roman Catholics who killed themselves were denied Christian funerals and burial in consecrated ground. However, the RCC has "relaxed" its view of suicide. In order for suicide to be a mortal sin, one has to be capable of making the free decision to take one's life. That is, one has to be in his "right mind" for suicide to count as mortal sin. That leads some Roman Catholics ethicists to say that few, if any, suicides are mortal sins, for who in his right mind takes his own life?

I must leave aside any extended comments on the "end of life" issues that come with modern medicine. Surely taking the lives of infants with birth defects or of older persons with a "low" quality of life is wrong, through active or passive measures, and must devalue all human life and contribute to the brutalization of society. But end of life issues can be complicated. Is there virtue in suffering intractable pain? I have known Christian doctors, for instance, who do not have a problem with erring on the side of giving "too much morphine" when a person is near death. But the presumption must stand that one must not take his/her own life or seek the aid of others in doing so.

To my knowledge in the Bible there are seven recorded suicides: In the Old Testament there are the cases of Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54), Samson (Judges 16:28-30), Saul (1 Samuel 31:3,4), Saul's armor bearer (1 Samuel 31:5), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), and Zimri (1 Kings 16:18). The one case of suicide involving one who seems to me to be a believer, for all his moral weaknesses and failings, is that of Samson. The most sobering case of suicide occurs in the New Testament, that of our Lord's own disciple and betrayer, the son of perdition (John 17:12), Judas (Matthew 27:3-5, Acts 1:15-20). 

But there is nothing in Holy Scripture to indicate that  the sin of suicide is the sin without forgiveness. I believe there are many cases of believers, whose professions of faith are not to be doubted, who have taken their own lives. For instance, when I lived in Pittsburgh, there was the case of a faithful minister of a conservative Presbyterian church, who, suffering pain with incurable cancer, took his own life while his wife was away from the house attending a Bible study. This was a case of a believer, who (wrongly I believe, though I have not been where he was) concluded, "I cannot go on like this." 

One thing that ought to be noted is that, while it is worthwhile to make the arguments, statements such as, "Look at how God has used your life," or, "Think of the friends, relatives, and loved ones who will be bereaved by your loss," may be completely ineffectual. George Bailey, who was suicidal because he thought that his business had failed beyond recovery and that he and his family would be subjected to scandal (he even to prison), was given the "gift" of "a chance to see what the world would be like without you." "Strange isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" The "message" of the movie is a quote from Mark Twain inscribed by Clarence in a copy of Tom Sawyer, "Remember, no man is a failure who has friends."* The problem for the suicidal person is that none of that rings true to him/her. While he/she may be sufficiently rational to see that such a selfish act will cause havoc and pain in the lives of loved ones, he/she does not believe it is because they prefer him alive as he is now. 

On the other hand, it may be something apparently mundane that will save a life. I read of a man near to committing suicide who got a call from a friend, inviting him to do something with him, that interrupted his plan and saved his life. That is a life saved by something very ordinary: "I think I'll go get something to eat with John rather than kill myself." You never know what God may use. It cannot be your fault if someone takes his/her own life, hence there is no reason for guilt if it happens. But the greatest human deterrence and the greatest gift you can give to the deeply depressed person is presence, availability, interest, acceptance.

To conclude this section: If you are deeply depressed, fight it however you can. If you have suicidal thoughts: Don't do it. It's a sin against God, others, and yourself.

3. Somebody's Got to Do It. My wife and I could hardly be more different. She is an intensely practical person who doesn't spend (she would probably say "waste") a lot of time reflecting on life. She asks, "What needs to be done next? Wash the dishes? OK, then I'll wash the dishes." I ask, "Why are there dishes? Why must they be washed?" 

Forgive me for giving in to ethnic stereotypes, but, like her father before her, my wife is German. She is about responsibility, work, order. I am about angst, rumination, feeling. She has spent (perhaps I should say "wasted") nearly 50 years trying to put me in good order. She also is, as I have said before, the only woman I have ever known who could have lived with me this long and not killed me. As Ray Price sang, "She's got to be a saint, 'cause, Lord knows, that I ain't." She is, beyond any doubt, God's great grace communicated to me through a fellow embodied soul or ensouled body.

She wonders why anyone would choose to be like me (if one can be said to choose it). And, why, being as I am, do I do things - read a little poetry, read a few novels, and listen to country music - that seem to minister to and intensify the misery to which I am prone? The simple answer is because those things give expression to my experience, make me feel that others have walked my path, and, whether a sign  good, bad, or indifferent, cause my soul to say, "Amen."  

Moreover, it seems to me, somebody's got to do it. What if everyone were like my wife? Who would do the philosophy? For that matter, who would know there are any philosophical questions? Who would write the country songs? Who would sing them? Who would write the novels and poetry? Who would have written the darker Psalms (Calvin described the Psalms as "an anatomy of the whole soul")? Who would have asked, "How long, O Lord? Where are you, O Lord? Why, O Lord?" Who could have written a Psalm 88 that ends on a more bereft note than it begins? I love the title of Carl Trueman's chapter, "What Shall Miserable Christians sing?". If you attend a church where everyone stands for 15-20 minutes singing praise songs led by a rock band, the answer is, "Nothing." Even as it took someone who knew the joys of erotic love to write Song of Solomon, so it took someone who knew disillusionment with life to write Ecclesiastes, and someone who deeply felt the heavy hand of God to write Lamentations.

The truth, it seems to me, is that just as there must be people who do things; so there must be people who think things. Just as there must be people who look outward; so there must be those who look inward. Just as there must be people who see the glass as half full; so there must be those who see it as half empty (and those, too, who see it as neither - but as just a half glass of water). Just as some people are upbeat; others are downbeat. (Something I found freeing recently was when I said to a secular counselor, "I can't remember ever not being depressed," and he replied, "Perhaps that's just the way you are. Maybe we can learn some ways to live with it.") Just as some spend much time on the Mount of Transfiguration beholding our Lord's glory; so some must go to dark Gethsemane and spend much time understanding our Lord's agony. 

Not for a moment would I excuse the self-sensitivity, self-pity, self-absorption, and the other besetting sins of us depressives, but I take some comfort in believing that God can use and work through depressives in all their weakness and failings, too. 

4. Childhood and Religion

'Til He gives me my call, the hardest of all
Will be learning to live with myself 
From Learning to Live with Myself by Merle Haggard

I must reflect a little on my childhood and religious experiences. As I do that, you are right to ask, "Do you think your life has been unique? Do you think that either your home or religious upbringing were worse or harder than that of others?" Absolutely not! I know of, respect, and am convicted by others who, going through far worse things than I can imagine, not only have endured but triumphed. Their hardships made them strong, even grateful. The best I can do at explaining the differences is something that was said to me long ago. "Different people process different things in different ways." 

I have wondered many times if my being a depressive is the cause of the way I have processed my family and religious experiences, or if the way I processed my family and religious experiences is the cause of my being a depressive. I have come to believe the relationship is not either/or but symbiotic.

I am deliberately going to avoid talking about my home life. I do that for two reasons: a) concern not to violate the 5th Commandment and b) awareness of my own parental failings. I will, rather, say one specific positive thing which requires alluding to one negative: I grew up in a time when parents still believed in "beating the hell" out of their kids, but I have always felt that my father was the one human being who would never - no matter what - give up on me. 

What I will say more about is my religious upbringing. The conservative Southern Presbyterianism in which I grew up consisted of several disparate elements: Calvinism, revivalism, fundamentalism, dispensationalism, legalism, and higher life-ism. (This same "coalition" brought the Presbyterian Church in America into existence.) Justification by faith alone was clearly taught and preached, but so was legalism and guilt. There were rules that "consecrated" Christians observed, including prohibitions of such worldly practices as dancing, card playing, going to movies, smoking, drinking, etc. The legalistic aspect of this might be summed up by two Garrison Keillor sayings I recall: "We didn't do anything; we just thought about sex all the time," and "Guilt is good; it's the only thing that keeps some people in line." Now in my case all this was exacerbated by my attending from second through ninth grades, Pensacola Christian Reformatory, supported by fundamentalists involved in Child Evangelism and/or the Gideons, founded by two Bob Jones graduates who were Child Evangelism workers, and staffed mainly by teachers trained at Bob Jones. I will say that Pensacola Christian School did a number on me.

In my experience the underlying emphasis was on experience. Had you really asked Jesus into your heart? If you died tonight were you really sure you would awake in heaven? Did you have just head knowledge or also heart knowledge? Now many of my childhood friends have nothing but fond memories of this environment. But, not I. How many times did I ask Jesus to come into my heart or wrestle with whether I ought go down the aisle at this or that meeting? The issue was on whether what had happened in your life was the authentic experience.

Then I went to seminary where I became acquainted with experimental Calvinism. There were still the old fundamentalist revivalists, the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship men who preached in chapel, but now there was something new - exposure to a real Calvinistic emphasis on experience. I think of the Presbyterian, John Gerstner, and his emphasis on preparation to receive grace. But primarily Baptists such as Al Martin. I remember Ernie Reisinger, a saintly man, who applied his message with, "Have you closed with Christ" - terminology I did not know the meaning of because I had never heard it before. Al Martin truly "disturbed" me - a good thing in experimental Calvinism. The emphasis was still on reality and authenticity, but with new terminology - primarily regeneration and conversion. Had you been truly regenerated? Were you really converted? This has led me - I am tempted to say millions of times in the last 50 years - to despair over my spiritual condition and sins, and to pray, "If I am not a Christian, make me a Christian. If I am not regenerated, regenerate me. If I am not converted, convert me." But always the underlying doubt - the fear that I, having preached to others, should be a castaway, or that like Judas, who preached and did miracles, I might not know the Lord. Countless times I have thought of myself, "He saved (or at least preached the gospel to) others; himself he cannot save." It is hard to live with oneself; it is hard to live - period - with such torturing doubts. 

Here is the question it has come down for me lately. How much is God the Father like the father of the prodigal? Is he really straining for a glimpse of his returning son? Does he really interrupt the son's confession and contrition, immediately give gifts that can never be earned, and start the party that comes from his present, unreserved joy? How much is Christ like the true elder Brother, sharing the Father's celebration and, if necessary, heading down the road to bring the Prodigal back again and again because it gives the Father joy? Or to put it in more earthy terms, "Does God love and accept the ones he has 'fixed' or does he love and accept screw-ups, not just one time screw-ups, but repeat screw-ups? 

That is the answer to "learning to live with myself" - living with the screw-up you are and others accurately tell you you are.

I identify with these lines by Brennan Manning:

It is for the younger and older prodigals
who’ve come to their senses
   again, and again, and again, and again.

With that, I think I am through with this - at least for now.

I must tell a story. Bill Peterson was the football coach who began Florida State's emergence from the shadow of the University of Florida. An alumnus invited him to my church to speak to a Men and Boys breakfast. Bill did not know what kind of church he was in, so he told a joke about a policeman who encountered a man about to jump off a bridge. Cop: "Don't do it, man. Think about your family." Man: "I haven't got any family." Cop: "Well, think about your friends." Man: "I haven't got any friends." Cop: "Then think about Robert E. Lee." Man: "Who's Robert E. Lee?" Cop: "Well then, jump, you damn Yankee."

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