I’ve been asked to share my story with a youth group next week. Like many teens, they are facing intense issues. More than just what sport to play, who to ask out on a date, what college to choose. No, much more than this, they are asking life and death questions like: how can I cope with this pain, who can I turn to for help, why live.
When I was in high school, I had much to live for, or so it seemed. I was a top scholar-athlete. I was in theater, student government, publications. One would think I didn’t have a care in the world. But inside I was festering with despair. At high school, I read a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson called, “Richard Cory.” It begins,
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
I read that poem at my high school graduation and said the missing ingredient in Richard Cory’s life was faith. Faith gives us a reason to get up in the morning, a purpose to go about our days, and a hope for better times ahead. Faith is a remedy for crippling doubt, for paralyzing despair. When we have faith in Christ, nothing can ultimately divide us from God’s love, nothing in life or in death, no earthly sin or ungodly suicide.
Some claim that suicide is the one sin mentioned in the Bible that is unforgivable. They reason that since it is a sin with deadly consequences we have no chance to repent of, we forfeit our standing with God and thus can not enter heaven to be with him. Suicide, some would claim, is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the ultimate sin of ingratitude against the God who gives us life to delight in.
When I was growing up, I went to a fire-and-brimstone church who weekly tried to scare the hell out of you. Suicide was never mentioned, to my memory, but in this silence there was a boatload of shameful sin. For instance, someone who died by suicide could not be buried in the church cemetery. I learned from an early age that suicide was the unpardonable sin because it was the unmentionable one.
Later, as I became a teen, I got to know friends who were hurting so much they didn’t want to live. I tried, and hoped I did, listen carefully and respond with compassion, not judging their perspectives, not jumping to God’s defense, but listening prayerfully, inviting God into the conversation.
These conversations increased when I became a pastor. There are so many hurting people in the world and the root of their pain is spiritual. People would come to me looking for answers. I would do my best to help, but often fell short. They needed a Savior and I was not him.
One Saturday night, almost 20 years into my ministry, I went to bed feeling flu-like symptoms. I lay there thinking of many blessings in my life that where threatened with destruction. I was in a loveless marriage, on the brink of collapse. The church was floundering, and I was being blamed. My mental health was in sharp decline; I was losing my ability to function.
As I lay there in bed, staring at the ceiling, I heard a commanding voice say clearly, “It’s okay.” I paused and processed it. A person in their right mine would likely have found great hope in these words. But I was not in my right mind. I heard it as permission from God to kill myself. So I tried. It didn’t work. Praise be to God.
Faith is surely the missing ingredient in our life and death struggle. But it’s not faith in the sense of something I produce within. Faith is a gift from the Holy Spirit planted in our hearts the size of a mustard seed. Faith is not flinching our muscles and achieving some god-like feat. Faith is surrendering to the One who has all strength, who gives us help for today and hope for tomorrow.
Our loving God does not send us to hell for the sole reason that we have died by suicide. The path to hell is much more complex than that simple and destructive formula. No, God is the One who affirms life in the face of death, who helps those loved ones left behind work through their grief and gives them purpose to become wounded healers.
If you are deciding whether to live or die, choose life. If you are wrestling over the death of a loved one, honor the gift of their life. In all things, give glory and honor to the One who lived and died so that we might enjoy new life with him forever.