Let’s Talk Suicide and the Bible

The death of Samson should be looked at closely so that it is not linked with the kind of suicides that we now see occurring too often in western society. Though in a broader sense, Samson’s death could be viewed as a suicide, it is more likely that it is a death that occurred indirectly in association with an act of war that both avenged his humiliation at the hand of an enemy of Israel and was accomplished with direct permission from God. Samson’s disobedience to God cost him his extraordinary strength and allowed him to be taken captive by the Philistines, blinded, and put into slavery. In an act of sincere repentance and in an attempt to thwart the arrogance of an enemy to which Israel was in bondage (vv. 23-25), Samson requested that God return to him the strength that He had earlier removed so that he could exact heavy damage on the nobility and leadership of the Philistines (vv. 26-30). He also asked that God would permit him to die with his enemy, “Let me die with the Philistines” (v. 30). He was not intending his death or attempting to kill himself directly, but rather, as a warrior, judge and leader of Israel, he was willing to sacrifice his life to cripple a national enemy of Israel and of God. He knew he had wronged the Lord and was willing, therefore, to die or give his life to reassert the authority and power of the one true God, Jehovah.

This selfless and contrite act is not that different from many who, in the face of an enemy, are willing to sacrifice their own lives for a cause that is greater than themselves. We generally call these feats acts of courage, and the individuals involved are often awarded medals of honor. Though we may not always agree with the cause for which one is willing to sacrifice his life, nonetheless, we do not put their loss on par with someone who chooses to take his or her life because of personal loss, sorrow and despair. Though both are technically suicides, the former is morally understandable and accepted while the latter is not, or at least should not be. The first is other-centered (or in Samson’s case, God-centered and permitted) while the latter is self-centered. One exemplifies a person with courage and, therefore, one who is not afraid of death; the other exemplifies a person with fear and, therefore, one who is afraid of life.

The Rationale for Suicide

How can a suicide that reflects a fear of living be understood. Some have described it as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. We, as Christians, should take a second look at such a simplistic way to explain what is a terrible tragedy for both the perpetrator and the survivors (the real victims of suicide) who are left behind. From a Christian perspective, suicide is not permanent and solves nothing; each individual is a human being created in the image of God and is, therefore, an immortal being with responsibilities and accountability beyond the grave (1 Cor. 3:11-15; 2 Cor. 5:6-10; Heb. 9:27; 10:26-27), and from any perspective, suicide can hardly be seen as resulting from one temporary problem. Rather, suicide is a selfish action taken against oneself in order to eliminate, what appears to be, unrelenting and unaltering pain; it is the tragic and lethal culmination of a psychological process that converges unresolved events to create depression and hopelessness. Whether diagnosed with a mental disorder (25% of all suicides) or not, the decision to kill oneself cannot be reduced to a temporary problem. People who end their own lives are generally burdened by a number of unresolved events or problems that are mostly, if not always, resolvable. Without coping skills and the assistance of friends, professional assistance, or loved ones, unresolved burdens grow heavier until the weight becomes unbearable and the individual is weakened to the point of despair. The future looks like their beleaguered past and they don’t believe they can ever regain the strength to continue on. The problem is not that they want to die; it is that they do not know how to live.

Most of us understand the fragility of our human nature; we are basically people who carry within us the tendency to hurt ourselves and others when, in the pursuit of our own interests and happiness, something does not go according to plan. We generally want the right things, but our nature sometimes goes about obtaining these things in ways that are harmful. To make our daily lives safer, meaningful and productive, we need one another, but in an environment that promotes a standard cross-cultural truth, community values, morals, faithful and lasting relationships, and, yes, even a job that provides at least food, clothing, and adequate shelter. And therefore, and most importantly, we need Jehovah-God and his ever-wise oversight and counsel to keep us moving in a direction that promotes life and not death. Our autonomous (self-rule or individualism) and pluralistic society has played down all of these needs, except that of a good job, and replaces God with human wisdom and ingenuity. We have become our own gods and the source of our own values and morals. The result has been the devastation and disintegration of the traditional family and the gradual segregation of the country into ethnic groups. Everybody has his or her own way of doing things and no one god can oversee or countermand another. Everyone sees god from one’s own perspective, which ultimately requires that there be no god but humankind itself. We are adrift in relativism; we are ships at full sail, but we have no rudder to keep us all moving in the same direction; collisions are inevitable internationally, nationally and personally.

One of those collisions involves the individual colliding with him of herself. Without sound ethical and moral direction, without a sense of community and without a sense belonging, left to our own wits and wisdom, we too often find ourselves not fitting in, feeling isolated, unsafe, overly burdened, and caught in past experiences that give no hope to having a fulfilling life in the future. With the vast array of gods, cultural lifestyles and philosophies all considered equally plausible and to be tolerated, there are simply too many people to try to please, too many people to disappoint, and not enough people who really care. Consequently, suicide is gradually becoming the shrubbery of choice on the American landscape. Sadly, it too is being touted as a philosophy of choice to which others should not place any moral concern or stigma. It is now the eighth leading cause of death in the United States, and though it spans the population, it is most prevalent among the ages of 35-49 and 65 and over.

Suicides in the Bible

Six instances of suicide are included in the Bible, five in the Old Testament (excluding Samson) and one in the New Testament. In none of the cases is there moral approval of the act. Rather, there is merely a recording of the events. The Bible never denies historical events or belittles human emotions. It faithfully presents the good and bad experiences of life. Murder, adultery, theft, lying, anger, and suicide are all reported in the pages of the Bible. Such reports are part of the reason that Scripture is so meaningful and applicable to us today. Its accounts mirror the events and emotions of our own day.

The first instance of suicide in the Bible is that of Abimelech, the son of Gideon. When wounded in battle, Abimelech commanded his aide to hasten his death by killing him (Judges 9:50-55). In 1 Samuel 31:1-6, we find the suicidal death of Saul, king of Israel. Like Abimelech, Saul was also wounded in battle and asked his armor-bearer to kill him. When the man refused, Saul drew his own sword and fell upon it. But Saul may well not have died from this self-inflicted wound. Scripture records an Amalekite’s claim to have killed Saul. He tells King David that he came upon Saul after Saul had mortally wounded himself with his sword. In his agony, Saul implored the Amalekite to have mercy on him and kill him. Knowing that Saul’s death was imminent, the Amalekite honored Saul’s request and killed him. David’s response is instructive. Reflecting the biblical perspective that human life is precious, he finds the Amalekite’s action not to be compassionate, but offensive and worthy of severe punishment (2 Sam. 1:1-16). When Saul’s armor-bearer sees that his king is dead, he commits suicide in his despair (1 Sam. 31:5).

The fourth instance of suicide is the death of Ahithophel, advisor to David and Absalom. His death is recorded in 2 Samuel 17:23, where we read that when his counsel was not received by Absalom, he “saddled his donkey and arose and went to his home, to his city, and set his house in order, and strangled [hanged] himself.” Old Testament scholar Dr. Eugene Merrill notes of this suicide, Ahithophel’s suicide, triggered by his public humiliation, is no spur-of-the-moment deed. He thinks through his options and concludes that self-destruction is his best (Eugene H.Merrill, “Suicide and the Concept of Death in the Old Testament,” in Suicide: A Christian Response, Crucial Considerations for Choosing Life, eds. Timothy J. Demy and Gary P. Stewart (Kregel: Grand Rapids, 1998) 323).

The final suicide recorded in the Old Testament is that of Zimri, who was king of Israel for seven days and who burned his palace, killing himself (and probably others) rather than being captured by his enemies (1 Kings 16:18). In these five instances, it is important to note that none of the suicides is viewed favorably or as a legitimate option, even in the most difficult of times.

One suicide is recorded in the New Testament, that of Judas Iscariot, who hanged himself after betraying Jesus (Matthew 27:3-10; Acts 1:18-19). Some advocates of suicide have contended that Paul’s intense desire to be with the Lord, as recorded in Philippians 1:21-26, was a latent suicide desire. Such an interpretation misses Paul’s main point. Contemplating eternal life with God should lead to a greater desire to serve the Lord in this life (2 Cor. 5:9; Rom. 14:7-8). In Philippians 1:19-26). Paul does acknowledge that death can look very attractive. But Christians should resist that temptation, as he did, and find ways to love others and glorify God. (See Gary P. Stewart, et al., Basic Question on Suicide and Euthanasia, Are They Ever Right? (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1998).

A Biblical Response to Suicide

A quick perusal of the personalities who committed suicide in the Bible reveals that they made decisions that were inconsistent with the will and character of God. Saul, of whom we know the most, gives us clear evidence that suicide comes as a result of multiple poor choices that go unresolved and, therefore, continue to create greater problems in one’s life. Rather than continue to grow in his faith in God, he chose rather to trust more in himself. Whether people believe in a standard of truth or not, it still exists and its source is God. If we choose to live contrary to that standard, consequences are inevitable. These consequences will not always lead to suicide, but bad decisions and inappropriate responses to difficult situations can build up over time and unfortunately lead one to consider suicide as a way of escape or be seen, though incorrectly, as the only alternative.

Too often, in the Church, believers are unresponsive to their brothers and sisters who struggle in their faith, too busy to involve themselves in the lives of their neighbors, and are also too often unaware of the tragic consequences physical and sexual child abuse and absentee parenting has on a child’s psyche. It is the responsibility of mature Christians to be sensitive to the needs of those around them and to encourage and support the less mature believers and their unbelieving neighbors in a spirit of gentleness. In so doing, they assist others in carrying their burdens (unresolved issues) and fulfill the law of Christ, which is to love God and one’s neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40; Gal. 6:1-3). Building good relationships provides a safe place where people can talk about their pasts and the personal issues that are created by them (cf. Jn 13:34-35). Safe communication (honest, not negatively judgmental) allows people to discuss issues, build trust and learn from one another. This environment naturally brings resolve to many personal issues (private or otherwise) and, therefore, prevents such issues from escalating to the point that depression and hopelessness begin to appear and cloud one’s rational judgment. Isolation from one another, whether initiated by someone struggling or by those who are too busy to care, only heightens the possibility that thoughts about and attempts at suicide will occur.

How can I be sure that I would not commit suicide? If suicidal thoughts can become normal reactions to abnormal situations, can I do anything to ensure that I would not act on such thoughts? When difficult times confront us, apparently and quite possibly without end, we as believers have basically two options: 1) we can curse God and die, or 2) we can choose to live by faith.

The “curse God and die” philosophy originated with Job’s wife (Job 2:9). The book of Job tells us of a man whom God said: “There was no one like him on the earth, a blameless and righteous man fearing God and turning away from evil.” Yet this godly man was not immune to serious physical, emotional and spiritual torment. He lost his business, lost all of his children, and his health. It is to this personal crisis that Job’s wife suggests what to Job was impossible, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!” His wife, though understandably distraught over the loss of her security and children, fell prey to her despair and suggested that the answer to her and Job’s crisis was to blame God and give up on life. But Job’s understanding of God and life was much deeper. His response to her is telling: “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” The narrative then discloses Job’s character. “In all this Job did not sin with his lips (Job 2:9-10). Job’s earlier response to his losses is even more telling. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God. Though he did not understand the cause of his torment, he was not about to relinquish his trust and faith in God. In the remainder of the book, Job and his overly opinionated friends pursue an understanding to Job’s personal troubles. Finally, Job arrives at the understanding that he cannot understand or even presume to understand the depth and purposes of God’s mind and will. He is the creature and God the Creator, and in Him, he will trust.

The world is a large and complex mix of spiritually fallen people, contradicting philosophies and varied experiences, all of which is fully understood only in the mind of God. Each of us plays a small, though vital role in God’s comprehensive plan to redeem the world; a plan that we will never fully understand. As believers, we are the images (reflections) of God’s will and character in a dark and depraved world. The more we understand and trust in the God of Scripture, the better we project faith, love and hope to the world, and this in spite of our spiritual, physical, and emotional growing pains. The greater understanding and application each of us has of God and his will, the less despair each of us will experience in our lives. A biblical understanding of God and life inspires hope while it diminishes despair. Each human being will suffer whether or not he or she is a child of God. A believer’s knowledge and love of God gives hope that such suffering is never without purpose. So rather than curse or blame God for the troubles of life, we choose to live by faith in Him whose love for us cost Him the death of His beloved and only Son, our blessed Savior, and hope! Though suffering is unavoidable, hope need not and should not be absent from it.

A great example of one who chose to live by faith in the midst present calamity and imminent catastrophe was the Old Testament prophet, Habakkuk. Not understanding why God was allowing the Chaldeans (Babylonians) to gloat over their conquests of the Judeans, he complained to the Lord about what appeared to be His tolerance of pride and evil (Hab. 1:1-4, 12-17). The Lord’s response is simple, and sadly still not satisfying to many who call Him Lord. He told Habakkuk that “the righteous will live by faith” and that He alone will deal with the proud in His own time and in His own way. He encouraged Habakkuk to remember that the “earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” His instruction to Habakkuk and all who trust in Him is to never forget that “the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him” (Hab. 2:4, 14, 20). Whether believers know what God is doing in their lives and in the lives of others or how and when He plans to bring good to those who love Him is insignificant in light of one’s faith in a present and difficult circumstance. God is God and reigns supremely in both contentment and confusion. Habakkuk’s present and difficult circumstance was the awareness that the Chaldeans were going to destroy Jerusalem and then deport the children of Judah away from all things familiar to a foreign land. And they would not return to Jerusalem for seventy years. Quite a concern, given the fact that Habakkuk would be involved in that deportation and eventually die away from his beloved homeland. What is critical to the topic at hand is Habakkuk’s amazing response to the news. “I heard in my inward parts and I trembled, at the sound my lips quivered. Decay enters my bones, and in my place, I tremble. Because I must wait quietly for the day of distress, for the people to arrive who will invade us. Though the fig tree should not blossom, and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail, and the fields produce no food, though the flocks should be cut off from the fold, and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength” (emphasis added, Hab. 3:16-19a). Though the prophet is genuinely afraid, aches terribly from the thought of impending judgment, and understands fully the consequences of conflict, rather than despair, he places his trust, not in himself, but in the God of his strength and salvation. the God who holds his and YOUR future in His hands. Even if the beauty of the trees turns to barrenness and the abundance of produce is reduced to ash, still, he knows that God is in control.

An important element of faith is the knowledge or awareness that you have an understanding of God that is lacking. To think otherwise is to set yourself up for false expectations and, therefore, disappointment in yourself and ultimately in God. Though your faith in Christ has brought you salvation, it needs time and God’s wise intervention to mature. If righteous and blameless Job and faithful Habakkuk still had much to learn, how can any of us believe that we are any different? Be patient, but aware of your shortcomings! Knowing God intimately is a lifetime endeavor that includes both lows and highs emotionally and physically. We are spiritually, physically and emotionally broken and wounded people living in a broken and wounded society. God is the mender; no matter what the circumstance, seek Him and you will find Him, trust Him and He will guide you, and live for Him and you can know peace in the midst of tumult. In the end, you and He will be glad you did. The Lord has “set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him” (emphasis added, Deut. 30:19-20).

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I am a published author, co-author and editor of 13 books, written numerous articles, taught online at Liberty University and Grace College (Indiana), and appeared on numerous radio and TV programs. I am a theologian, bioethicist and retired veteran.

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