Suicide

August 16, 2004 | 20 comments
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Not long ago, I sat in an emergency room with a friend who had been musing about suicide. My experiences with such matters are limited, but I wasn’t taking any chances. This man had lost his job and was being evicted from his apartment. He was at risk of losing custody of his children to his former wife. And he has a history of depression and bi-polar disorder. He claimed not to be suicidal, but I was worried for him.

This experience has prompted me to ponder the eternal fate of those who commit suicide. If you have not considered this topic before, you might be surprised to learn that the word suicide does not appear in the standard works. Indeed, the concept of suicide seems strangely muted in the scriptures. While there are numerous examples of people taking their own lives (e.g., Saul, Samson, and Judas), discussions of the consequences of such an act are scarce.

Most who write about suicide from a scriptural perspective rely heavily on the sixth commandment: “thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20:13) For some Mormon perspectives, consider the following from (1) George Q. Cannon, (2) Bruce R. McConkie, and (3) M. Russell Ballard (all taken from Elder Ballard’s article, “Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some We Do Not,” Ensign, Oct. 1987):

Cannon: “Man did not create himself. He did not furnish his spirit with a human dwelling place. It is God who created man, both body and spirit. Man has no right, therefore, to destroy that which he had no agency in creating. They who do so are guilty of murder, self-murder it is true; but they are no more justified in killing themselves than they are in killing others. What difference of punishment there is for the two crimes, I do not know; but it is clear that no one can destroy so precious a gift as that of life without incurring a severe penalty.”

McConkie: “Suicide consists in the voluntary and intentional taking of one’s own life, particularly where the person involved is accountable and has a sound mind. … Persons subject to great stresses may lose control of themselves and become mentally clouded to the point that they are no longer accountable for their acts. Such are not to be condemned for taking their own lives. It should also be remembered that judgment is the Lord’s; he knows the thoughts, intents, and abilities of men; and he in his infinite wisdom will make all things right in due course.”

Ballard: “I feel that judgment for sin is not always as cut-and-dried as some of us seem to think. The Lord said, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Does that mean that every person who kills will be condemned, no matter the circumstances? Civil law recognizes that there are gradations in this matter—from accidental manslaughter to self-defense to first-degree murder. I feel that the Lord also recognizes differences in intent and circumstances: Was the person who took his life mentally ill? Was he or she so deeply depressed as to be unbalanced or otherwise emotionally disturbed? Was the suicide a tragic, pitiful call for help that went unheeded too long or progressed faster than the victim intended? Did he or she somehow not understand the seriousness of the act? Was he or she suffering from a chemical imbalance that led to despair and a loss of self-control? Obviously, we do not know the full circumstances surrounding every suicide. Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth. When he does judge us, I feel he will take all things into consideration: our genetic and chemical makeup, our mental state, our intellectual capacity, the teachings we have received, the traditions of our fathers, our health, and so forth.”

All three of these passages connect suicide and punishment, but why is suicide bad? The following passage from John Paul II’s Evangelium vitae offers an interesting perspective on this question:

Suicide is always as morally objectionable as murder. The Church’s tradition has always rejected it as a gravely evil choice. Even though a certain psychological, cultural and social conditioning may induce a person to carry out an action which so radically contradicts the innate inclination to life, thus lessening or removing subjective responsibility, suicide, when viewed objectively, is a gravely immoral act. In fact, it involves the rejection of love of self and the renunciation of the obligation of justice and charity towards one’s neighbour, towards the communities to which one belongs, and towards society as a whole. In its deepest reality, suicide represents a rejection of God’s absolute sovereignty over life and death….

I hear in this passage echoes of the quotation from George Q. Cannon above (“Man has no right, therefore, to destroy that which he had no agency in creating.”). In my view, this is at best an incomplete account of the tragedy of suicide. In my view, the most important consequence of suicide to the individual who commits the act is that he or she has artificially shortened the day of probation. Suicide deprives the person of the opportunity to improve the soul with the aid of a mortal body.

This explanation fits with my understanding of the plan of salvation, but it raises a potentially thorny question: is it possible that, in some instances (e.g., when people experience profound depression), the mortal body has become a liability to spiritual growth?

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20 Responses to Suicide

  1. danithew on August 16, 2004 at 4:45 pm

    I think society reflexively (and rightly) determines that suicide is wrong and must be discouraged. If suicide is tolerated or even encouraged for some, then there’s a real danger. I just imagine the guilt an older person or a chronically ill person could be made to feel because they choose to continue to live when suicide is legally permitted (speaking of a hypothetical legal situation here).

    I work in a clinic where people show up who have suffered severe traumatic injuries — spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, etc. The doctor who specializes in treating patients with spinal cord injuries taught us in a lunch meeting that most spinal cord injury patients (who are suffering severe or fairly severe forms of paralysis) suffer depression and usually want to die during the first year that follows the accident/injury. But after that first year, after becoming more accustomed to their new situation, these patients usually want to live and often enjoy a quality of enjoyment and life that is quite comparable to that of a healthy unparalyzed person. That surprised me but I also found it encouraging as to what it says about human nature and the human capacity for happiness.

  2. LoneWriter on August 16, 2004 at 4:45 pm

    As one who has been personally touched by suicide, I have pondered this question for many years. I don’t have any scriptural backing for my beliefs, but am at peace with them.

    We all sin. We all make mistakes. Suppose a person sins by attempting suicide, but makes a mistake and doesn’t succeed. Can he be forgiven? Of course. I could show you a very close family member who was in this situation, and now has a wonderful testimony of the power of Jesus Christ to atone for us.

    Suppose the person attempts suicide and is successful. Does that mean that he can never be forgiven? I have known people to preach that. But, it is not up to us to judge the person. Only that same Jesus Christ can atone for that sin, and he knows our minds.

    Suicide is a terrible, tragic, mistake that should never be judged by mere mortals.

  3. Gordon Smith on August 16, 2004 at 5:06 pm

    As I waded through various writings on suicide, I wondered whether anyone had anything meaningful to say on the subject. It is pretty clear that generalizations about the fate of those who commit suicide are worthless. As the Apostles quoted above state, accountability for this act varies from case to case, and LoneWriter must be write in asserting that mere mortals cannot judge particular cases. Nevertheless, it seems to me that we might profit — both in understanding the Gospel and in considering issues of assisted suicide — from a better understanding the landscape that surrounds this topic.

  4. danithew on August 16, 2004 at 5:11 pm

    The Bible provides a number of descriptions of people who committed suicide or assisted suicide:

    -Abimelech (a king of Israel who preferred to be killed by his armor-bearer than by a woman)

    - Samson (who took a lot of Philistines with him in his death)

    - Saul — fell on his sword (there might be a differing account where this was assisted suicide)

    - Ahithopel (was upset that his counsel wasn’t chosen over the counsel of another)

    - Zimri (king of Tirzal) — set a fire to a building with himself in it

    - Judas Iscariot

    When I try to think of suicide in the Book of Mormon, I can’t think of a specific individual who did so, though I admit I’ve sometimes felt that Abinadi basically was a “kamikaze prophet” who deliberately put himself into an extremely deadly situation:

    Mosiah 17:9-10
    [9] Now Abinadi said unto him: I say unto you, I will not recall the words which I have spoken unto you concerning this people, for they are true; and that ye may know of their surety I have suffered myself that I have fallen into your hands.
    [10] Yea, and I will suffer even until death, and I will not recall my words, and they shall stand as a testimony against you. And if ye slay me ye will shed innocent blood, and this shall also stand as a testimony against you at the last day.

    Perhaps also one could argue that the Jaredites and Nephites are two civilizations that basically committed mass suicide by their perpetual wars.

    I’m thinking I could be forgetting something with the Book of Mormon stories but nothing is coming to mind besides the ones I’ve mentioned.

  5. notmyrealname on August 16, 2004 at 5:17 pm

    As someone who has struggled with this problem within the last 3 weeks, I am very torn, but, i am actually repelled by the opinion of Cannon. It is very easy for someone, to act sanctimonious, and selfrighteous, and pass judgement, when they have absolutely no idea what the person who is suicidal is going through

  6. danithew on August 16, 2004 at 6:09 pm

    How could I have forgotten the Anti-Nephi-Lehis? It just occurred to me that the Book of Mormon might, in its own unusual way, sort of demonstrates that “righteous suicides” exist. The two cases I can think of involve righteous people deliberately submitting to certain death or almost certain death at the hands of wicked people…

    I’m sure some people though would object to referring to these deaths as “suicides.” What do you call the willing victim — particularly the victim who had a way out or a way of escape?

  7. Gilgamesh on August 16, 2004 at 6:19 pm

    I often hear people going through some difficult times remind themselves that God will never ask them to do more than they can. Although God will not ask us to run faster than we have strength, but life might.I have always felt that for some, the burden of life is too difficult, and, though God did not cause the burdens to be, he cannot make the burdens go away either, or he would conflict with our free agency. (If God did involve himself, then the whole theodicy issue of why her and not him comes into play.)

    I do not condone suicide, but I feel that it can be forgiven. I think there would be different circumstances that are taken into consideration such as the victim of repeated rape or domestic violence looking for peace, the holocaust victim avoiding torture, those with mental illness, those with intense physical pain that go unnoticed versus the perpetrator of violence avoiding capture, an abusive husband seeking revenge after his wife leaves, the church leader afraid of being exposed for impropriety, etc… though even in these cases I feel there can be forgiveness.

    I have a good friend that committed suicide a few years back after his business collapsed. He chose to do it on his sons birthday while the family was away on an outing (he stayed at home). He seemed happy two days before, but as time wore on, it seemed he may of been having an affair, and was caught. I felt sympathy for him and hope he is forgiven, but I also understand his wife’s anger at his pre planned timing which will haunt his son and her feelings that he took the easy way out. How the Lord will judge such a case, I don’t know.

  8. Jordan Fowles on August 16, 2004 at 6:21 pm

    I think that a narrow definition of “suicide” would be a person taking his life with his own hands, or proximately causing his own death (so as not to exclude jumping in front of a train, for example).

    I would argue that kneeling down in prayer (even if you know that the Lamanites will slaughter you) is not the proximate cause of death, as each killing Lamanite had the opportunity to evaluate what they were about to do before murdering the innocent, praying victims. While death was almost the certain outcome, I don’t think this could be classed as a person proximately causing his/her own death, since there is an intervening circumstance- the ability of the murdering Lamanite to decide not to kill.

  9. Julie in Austin on August 16, 2004 at 6:44 pm

    a note to notmyrealname:

    we’re praying for you.

  10. Gordon Smith on August 16, 2004 at 6:48 pm

    Thank you for posting that Julie. I wholeheartedly join you in this.

  11. danithew on August 16, 2004 at 7:08 pm

    Julie,

    Thanks for posting your note. Somehow that note slipped in between some of my comments and I didn’t even see it.

    Notmyrealname, whoever you are, please find someone who is loving, who you trust, and share with them your struggle. Broaden your support system. There are people who care, who are trained and who can help you if you’ll look for them and reach out to them.

  12. uffo on August 16, 2004 at 7:48 pm

    I think it’s important to think of the reminder that we ‘will not be tested more than we can bear’ as harmonizing with the commands to pray always and to remember God always.

    This *promise* does not impart all power and wisdom to us. We can certainly find ourselves buried in a hole we cannot ourselves escape.

    We will not be tried beyond what we can overcome if we remember to seek the aid and strength of God when our own is insufficient.

  13. Jack on August 16, 2004 at 9:52 pm

    I can tell you from personal experience that, while it is our duty (and privilege) to supplicate the Lord for strength, there may be times when our faith will be so sorely tried that we will doubt the very existence of God.

    Such was my experience after meeting my biological father for the first time. I was forty-one years old and had no idea what kind of psychological challenge lay before me. I literally did not know which way was up or down as I tried to re-orient myself to God.
    Finally, there came that inevitable point in my struggle when I lost all desire for life.

    It’s been a slow but steady healing process out of which I’ve gained a much deeper empathy than I ever thought possible (for a selfish twit like me) for those who teeter on the question suicide. Make no mistake – it will always be the wrong choice. But God, who’s empathy is perfect, can judge to what *degree* such an act is wrong on an individual basis.

  14. there and back on August 17, 2004 at 12:39 am

    For several years I wished for death and didn’t attempt suicide only for fear of surviving. I now have a fulfilling life and an optimistic outlook for the future. I’m glad to be alive now, but even so, I have a hard time understanding why we try to stop from committing suicide. Why force someone to continue living in misery against their will?

    I don’t think suicide is a sin in that it takes a life, but I do think it is in that it harms the people who love the deceased.

  15. diogenes on August 17, 2004 at 1:03 am

    I suppose that Cannon’s conclusion might be correct for those who knowingly, with full appreciation of their actions, end their own lives. But Chesterton, much like Elder Ballard, suggested that the act of suicide itself is evidence that the person who took the action was not in that condition. I suspect that Chesterton is right that few, if any, of those who take their own lives are in a condition to be held fully responsible for their actions.

  16. Gordon Smith on August 17, 2004 at 11:50 am

    I agree with that, Diogenes. It is worth remembering that Elder Cannon wrote a long time ago, before Chesterton even. I still notice a lot of modern references to people committing suicide with full understanding of the act, but I think Church leaders have acknowledge the problems with this view.

  17. Kristine on August 17, 2004 at 3:22 pm

    Just a note to all the bishops reading this, from (now hilarious, but at the time rather painful) personal experience: should you happen to be visiting a member of your ward after she has (barely) survived a suicide attempt, do *NOT* bring a photocopy of McConkie’s entry on suicide from _Mormon Doctrine_ with you to the hospital. Trust me on this one :)

  18. annegb on January 17, 2005 at 9:52 pm

    My son shot himself, I can’t beyond that.

    However, I was suicidal prior to that and remain so. I find it an agonizing inner struggle, which has very little to do with religious philosophy.

    So I never felt the need to forgive my son, nor do I feel he did anything for God to forgive; however, I can never underestimate or overstate the pain of losing someone in this way.

  19. marta for annegb on January 17, 2005 at 11:37 pm

    annegb – after laughing at your comment on the current hymns thread, i noticed that you had made other comments and checked them out. your comment to linda kimball also brought a smile. this one, however, breaks my heart. i am in no way qualified to counsel, only to empathise with both morbid depression and suicidal children. please email if you wish. martaintokyo@yahoo.com

  20. annegb on January 18, 2005 at 9:32 am

    oh, I’m sorry, guys, I must sound like I have multiple personality disorder.

    It’s all true, but I apologize for my thoughtlessness in dropping it on you like that.

    I have the gift of being able to be deeply depressed and deeply funny at the same time. It’s a family curse. We laugh and cry pretty much simultaneously, it’s kind of sick.

    I came on this site by accident (looking for visiting teaching ideas), and was just so thrilled to find a site that is thought-provoking without denigrating my faith or being almost sillily positive. I find myself quite starving for this type of intellectual exchange.

    My son died many years ago, I, of course, will never get over it, but I am–well, I was going to say something profound, like at peace, but maybe I’ve just calmed down a small bit. My bishop would agree with “a bit” part. :)