Ask me anything: Suicide
Well, y’all did it again. I told you to ask any question you wanted for this sermon series, and I would try to answer it.
I knew you would make my brain think. Yet, here you are again, making my heart hurt.
Here’s today’s question, it’s actually 3:
• What does the United Methodist Church believe concerning suicide?
• Can someone who has committed suicide go to heaven?
• What does Scripture tell us about suicide?
Now, I’m going to answer the three questions that were submitted, but I hear three other questions behind these three, and I’m going to answer those, too. Because behind those questions I hear a very wounded heart asking “Why?”
• Why did someone I love take their own life?
• Why wasn’t my love enough for them?
• And why didn’t God do anything?
We’ll get to those, but let’s start with question one.
Our questioner today did me a favor.
They asked, “What does the United Methodist Church believe concerning suicide?”
I’ve never preached from the United Methodist Book of Discipline before, but I get to today.
Because I don’t know if you know this, but for centuries United Methodists and their predecessors from around the world have gathered every four years and discussed who we are and what we do as Methodists.
And everything they decided is in our Book of Discipline, including what we believe about suicide.
So, here is the official United Methodist belief concerning suicide:
“We believe that suicide is not the way a human life should end. Often suicide is the result of untreated depression, or untreated pain and suffering. The church has an obligation to see that all persons have access to needed pastoral and medical care and therapy in those circumstances that lead to loss of self-worth, suicidal despair, and/or the desire to seek physician-assisted suicide. We encourage the church to provide education to address the biblical, theological, social, and ethical issues related to death and dying, including suicide. United Methodist theological seminary courses should also focus on issues of death and dying, including suicide.
A Christian perspective on suicide begins with an affirmation of faith that nothing, including suicide, separates us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).
“Therefore, we deplore the condemnation of people who complete suicide, and we consider unjust the stigma that so often falls on surviving family and friends. We encourage pastors and faith communities to address this issue through preaching and teaching.
“We urge pastors and faith communities to provide pastoral care to those at risk, survivors, and their families, and to those families who have lost loved ones to suicide, seeking always to remove the oppressive stigma around suicide.
The Church opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia.”
If it helps, here’s a quick summary of what I just read.
Now, you may have already figured out the answer to the second question just based on that, but let me tackle that next: “can someone who commits suicide go to heaven?”
Based on Romans 8, which was your affirmation of faith today you’ll notice, we can say, again, that “nothing, including death, which includes suicide, can separate us from the love of God.”
The webpage on suicide on the United Methodist website makes this even more clear:
Here’s what it says, “Many assume suicide is an unforgivable sin, but that is not the teaching of The United Methodist Church.”
So yes, someone who commits suicide can go to heaven.
Whatever led to that person’s final action- mental illness, hopelessness, the influence of drugs or alcohol, emotional turmoil—none of those things are equated with a rejection of God’s love
Answer #2: yes, those who commit suicide can go to heaven.
As for the final question, what Scripture says about suicide, we start, again, with Romans 8.
Death, any kind of death, including suicide, cannot separate us from the love of God.
God’s love can be rejected, but it takes far more than a whim, far more than a bad day, far more even than long-term pain driven by chronic depression to reject the love of God.
We reject God’s love out of selfishness and pride and self-centeredness, rarely out of pain or grief.
Rather, Scripture assures us that God is close to the broken-hearted- that’s Psalm 34.
People who are hurting may yell at God, curse God, doubt God or blame God, but none of those things is the same as rejecting the love of God.
Answer #3: Scripture affirms that God loves us in and through our pain, including the pain that leads to suicide.
Now, that does lead me to the question behind the questions: why?
Why did someone I love take their own life?
Why wasn’t my love enough for them?
And why didn’t God do anything?
To answer those, let me start with two basic facts of our faith.
Fact 1: All people are created in the image of God, that’s from our reading in Genesis.
What I mean by that is: every single one of us reflects God’s nature and it is good that each of us exists.
The universe is better because you are in it.
Like many of you this week, I marveled at the images from the James Webb space telescope.
Here’s my favorite, an image of the Carina Nebula.
This image is absolutely incredible, its stunning in its beauty and its grandeur.
I catch a glimpse of God when I look at this.
I am so glad this nebula exists and that we have the science and technology to see it in such vivid detail.
Now, close your eyes and pretend it’s your picture on that screen, and let me say all that again.
Here’s my favorite photo of you.
This image is absolutely incredible, you are stunning in your beauty and your grandeur.
I catch a glimpse of God when I look at you.
I am so glad that you exist and that I am able to see you in all your detail
That’s what I mean when I say we are made in God’s image.
Fact #2: God wants abundant life for every one of his children, that’s from our reading in John 10.
Now, what Jesus means by abundant life, simply based on this passage, is this:
1. An abundant life is relatively safe. Not totally free of pain or risk,
but the sheep have a good shepherd watching over them, so they don’t have to live day by day in fear for their own life.
2. An abundant life is secure each sheep comes and goes and finds pasture, they have food and shelter and a communal flock around them it’s not a lavish life, but the sheep sleep comfortably, secure that the shepherd provides for them.
3. An abundant life has purpose. The shepherd leads, and the sheep follow, they’re going somewhere. By growing wool, the sheep contribute to the good of others, their lives have meaning, however humble. That seems basic, but that’s what an abundant life looks like: relatively safe, secure, and having purpose. So, you are not being selfish by wanting an abundant life. You are not being entitled by thinking you deserve safety and security and purpose in your life. God made you for that and God wants that for you. Jesus came that you might have life, and have it abundantly, in this life as well as the next.
Now, when we believe those two facts about ourselves, suicide does not make sense.
If we know we are good and we are given an abundant life, suicide has no appeal.
As the Book of Discipline said: suicide is not how life is meant to end.
Unfortunately, too many of God’s children have been convinced that one or both of those facts are not true.
If you have been told, maybe from a very young age, that you are worthless or unworthy of love, you will naturally have a really hard time believing you are made in God’s image.
It’s also hard to believe you’re made in God’s image if you were told your value was conditional.
Maybe you were told that you are good or worth having around if
• If you did exactly what you were told and never broke the rules
• If you were smart and got a degree
• If you believed all the right things
•If you had kids and raised them “right”
The details do not matter here, all that matters is that big, awful word “if.”
If you’re worth is conditional on something, and if you did not or could not fulfill that big, awful if, then you would naturally wonder if the world would be better off if you weren’t around.
But maybe that’s not it, maybe you know your worth; but can you have an abundant life?
Unfortunately, too many people simply cannot believe that an abundant life is attainable for them.
Maybe they were born into poverty and every day there was the question of whether they would eat that day or not.
Maybe they grew up in a war zone or a country in political turmoil, and they don’t even know what stability feels like.
Maybe it is neurochemical, something in their brain that robs them of feeling safe or secure or purposeful, whatever the circumstance of their life.
Maybe they live in a culture that doesn’t allow them to build an abundant life.
For too many people the presence of racism or sexism or religious persecution makes it harder if not impossible to build an abundant life where they live.
And if your lived experience constantly reinforces the idea that you cannot have a life that is relatively safe, secure, and purposeful, then you would naturally wonder why you should keep living the life you have now.
So, why do people commit suicide?
Either because something—from brain chemistry to their parents to the community around them—convinced them that they were not made in God’s image.
Or because the world they live in convinced them that they cannot have an abundant life.
We often want to be angry at those who commit suicide, after all, they robbed us of someone we love.
But let’s make sure we’re blaming the right thing here to quote a dear mentor of mine, “My brother didn’t kill himself, depression did.” There’s wisdom in that.
So, why was your love not enough?
Well, because you are not the only influence in any one person’s life, even yours the power of culture, media, addiction, mental illness, other people, circumstances in general, all that is greater than your single influence could ever be.
We often feel guilty when a loved one commits suicide, but that guilt is almost never warranted.
Because we are simply not powerful enough to influence anyone that much by ourselves.
That does lead us, though, to the final question, why didn’t God do anything?
Well, for one, remember that you can’t know what God did or didn’t do
I can promise that God fought for that persons’ life in ways you cannot imagine.
But also remember that God honors our free will.
Not simply the free will to take our life, but also the free will to behave toward others in a way that motivates them to take their life, evil as that is.
I’m afraid that why God allows us to use our free will to do such evil things is going to have to wait for another sermon.
But, finally, never forget that we here are children of our Heavenly Father, disciples of Jesus, and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.
So to ask, “Why didn’t God do anything/” is the same as asking “why didn’t the Church do anything?”
Which leads me to my last point.
See, Church, when it comes to every single one of God’s children knowing in their bones that they are made in God’s image and that they are worthy of an abundant life, no one has more skin in the game than the people who call themselves Christians.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m not asking you to blame yourselves for anyone’s suicide, but we need to be aware of what causes suicidal thoughts and take seriously our responsibility to behave toward people in a way that affirms their divine image and concretely make their life abundant.
In that spirit, first, let me put this number up on the screen.
It’s an incredible coincidence that just this week a new suicide and crisis hotline launched.
You can now simply dial 988 and get connected to whatever help you need.
My number is there as well; I can’t offer professional help, but I’m happy to listen and connect you to people who can.
But while few of us can talk someone through a crisis, there is a lot each of us can do.
We can treat people with kindness no matter what.
We can find the good in people that they can’t even see.
We can make sure every person is relatively safe, secure in their needs, and has purpose in their life by providing food and shelter and health care to those who need it and we can advocate in every way we can for the care and treatment of people who suffer from depression or any other mental illness that may result in suicidal thoughts.
Now if that seems like a lot; well, it is.
But when you think about it, it’s really the only job we have.
Jesus said it, “A new command I give you, love others as I have loved you.”
Jesus lived his life affirming God’s image in people and making their life abundant.
And I’ll tell you what, if Jesus’ Church follows his lead and takes that command seriously, I will never have to answer this question again.