Everybody Wants to Kill Somebody: Part 2, Suicide

This link is to the entire document. Everybody Wants to Kill Somebody: An Epistle for Killers Everybody wants to Kill (1)

Suicide: There is a reason we have a word called “theodicy.”

Theodicy is an attempt to show that the suffering and evil in this world does not conflict with the goodness of God. The Book of Job is, in a large sense, a work in theodicy. Job’s wife invites him to end his life with all its undeserved suffering. Job refuses because it would be an affront to God. Before anyone is too judgmental of Job’s wife, remember she suffered everything that Job did and more. If Job lost his wealth and was reduced to poverty, then so did Job’s wife.  If all his children died, then she lost all her children as well. The only thing she did not directly suffer is the painful, incurable, untreatable disease continually tormenting his body without any foreseeable end through death. But if you think that by being spared the disease she was spared from the suffering, then you have never seen a faithful life-long wife and caregiver of the grievously afflicted begging God on her knees to transfer the curse from her lover to herself.

If Job’s wife has been considering suicide as a moral means to end suffering, then she has rejected it for herself. At least, until after she has finished her mission of caring for Job. She will continue to endure for as long as God has need for her to endure. We are more likely, though, to search for loopholes to help those whom we love than we are for ourselves. Job cannot find a loophole either. He remains devoted to the Lord, the Giver of Life. “Shall we accept only what is good from the true God and not accept also what is bad?” Job and his wife have a testimony which has already endured for two millennia longer than their affliction.

Some who are devoted to the sanctity of human life will defend the same exceptions for suicide which they rejected for abortion. We allow for suicide on the premise that God does not want anyone to suffer. Our testimony to the Gospel of Life is diminished because everybody wants to reserve the right to kill somebody…even if it’s only our self.

Not every action which results in a person ending their life is suicide. There are a few notable exceptions in Scripture. When Samson ended his life by bringing down about him the Temple of Dagon, that was not suicide. Samson did not have the liberty or physical means of ending his life. He asked God for permission. God granted the request and provided Samson with what was needed to accomplish the goal. Samson’s death was accomplished with the express permission of God.

Suicide is when one acts without God’s consent or command to end one’s life either positively (doing something that will more likely than not result in death such as a drug overdose) or negatively (by refusing to do something that is necessary to maintain one’s life such as refraining from food and drink). When we refer to suicide it is usually direct (the person intends to end their life), but it can be in some cases indirect (the person realizes their death is a likely but not desired consequence).

To briefly summarize four words that will recur in this section:
Positive means an overt act
Negative means an omitted act
Direct indicates an intended or desired outcome
Indirect indicates an unintended or undesired outcome

Instances of indirect suicide, either positive or negative, are not usually considered in the moral category of suicide. They most often are named by the virtues of heroism or martyrdom. These virtues carry with them the express permission or command of God.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

“Fear not them which kill the body but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.”

Such is the case with the lifeguard who dies while rescuing a drowning swimmer, or the missionary who travels to hostile lands, or the mother who risks her life to bring her child into the world. They each act or omit an act that will likely result in death, but that is not their desired outcome.

Instances of God’s express permission or command to act in a manner that is likely to take one’s own life are as limited as they are clear. We expand them or restrict them at the peril of the soul.  Where God grants permission to place our life in imminent peril then God attaches two conditions: The act must be voluntary and with submission to the will of God. The person must not be compelled or motivated by worldly powers or personal desires. A permissible act, if compelled, can become murder. If motivated by personal desire, it can become suicide.

Consider these examples of how actions that are appear almost identical can be transformed from heroism to murder: from martyrdom to suicide.

A1  An expectant mother has a chronic medical condition that will more likely than not result in her death if she brings the child to term. She does not desire death for herself but voluntarily places her life in jeopardy to welcome a new soul to the world. This may be heroism or martyrdom.

A2  Should the same person choose to undergo treatment that would save her life but likely result in the death of the child, and the state should compel her against her will to do otherwise, then the state actors have committed murder.

A3  Should the same person choose to undergo treatment that would save her life but likely result in the death of the child and the state should allow it, then she and the state actors have committed murder unless there is a self-defense exception (we shall visit this again in the section on self-defense).

There is only one scenario of the three in which a Christian may participate (unless we can find a self-defense exception). This does not preclude the availability of the other two options because there is no shortage of worldly people. Everybody, even Christians, want the right to kill somebody.

B1  Following the shooting by police of an unarmed black youth a riot breaks out in town. A white pastor drives to the area with hopes of bringing a message of comfort, repentance, and reconciliation. As he arrives a group from the crowd drag him from the car and beat him to death. This is martyrdom on his part.

B2  Following the shooting by police of an unarmed black youth a riot breaks out in town. A white man marches into the crowd carrying a Confederate flag and shouting racial insults. A group from the crowd seizes him and beats him to death. This is indirect positive suicide on his part.

Neither person desired death (indirect) but acted in a way that made their death a likely outcome (positive). One act is voluntarily and in submission to the expressed will of God, carrying both Divine consent and Divine command. The other act is contrary to the will of God and born from a personal and sinful passion.

Conversely, direct negative suicide is when one intends to take one’s life (or at least is aware that it is the only possible outcome of a choice) by omitting a necessary act of preservation. A person who dies from a hunger strike has committed direct negative suicide. The Christian is called to employ ordinary means of preservation that are reasonably reliable. The Christian is not expected, however, to employ extraordinary means of preservation that cannot reasonably be argued will change the outcome. We are not expected to cling tooth and nail to every possible moment in this world.  The Christian knows that another world is coming where there will be no more death and dying. The Christian may reject extraordinary efforts when it is voluntary and in submission to the consent and command of God. Such an act is not an affront to God’s sovereignty but a trust in God’s promise:

“Behold I died, and I am alive forever more;
and I hold the keys of Hell and Death.
Because I live, you shall live also.”

While indirect negative, indirect positive, and even direct negative suicide may at times fall outside the category of proper suicide and into an area of virtue where they are called by another name; that is never the case for direct positive suicide. It always a mortal sin.[1] Whatever course the heathen may take, the Christian is bound by the words, “Thou shalt not kill.” To whatever extent some small claim might be made to a right to my own body, my life is body and soul. I do not own any soul, not even my own. I am a creation of God.

Because civil government has increasingly placed life and death decisions in the hands of the individual, every Christian will be asked eventually if they will choose to end their life or participate in taking the life of one who chooses to die. One exception to “Thou shalt not kill” has crept into our folk religion which is alarming. It is frequently preached from pulpits that we are to end a life to end suffering. Though we addressed this in the previous section, the idea is so pervasive that it must be addressed repeatedly. The Christian does not take the life of another to reduce suffering. We may not take our own life to reduce suffering.

To this, the usual reply is that a loving God would never ask us to suffer when it is avoidable. Well, there a lot of things that I wish Jesus did not say. There are many times in my life when I could say, “A loving God would never ask me to do X.” Yet, God is loving, and God did ask me to do X. All he has ever given me in explanation is that you will be better off—in this life and the next—if you do than if you don’t. God is always loving. God is always right. There is a reason we have a word called theodicy.

The truth is we worship a crucified God. When we want to know what “death with dignity” looks like we look to the cross. There we find Jesus, stripped, beaten, mocked, and suffering. This same Jesus calls us toward the Kingdom of Heaven with the words, “Take up your cross and follow me.” That ought to give the Christian a clue that there will be some otherwise avoidable suffering involved in this journey.

When a Christian community can advocate for the killing of a person to reduce suffering that is an indication that we have lost something fundamental to the faith and have strayed into a whole other religion which was unknown to the Apostles. There is a value in something called redemptive suffering. Redemptive suffering deserves more space than what this work allows. If you have a United Methodist pastor, then it is unlikely they are familiar with it beyond some distorted Wikipedia definition. If you search for a text then I urge you to be distrustful of anything less than 100 years old, and I encourage resources over a thousand years old.

I was called to the deathbed of a man seventy miles away. He had lived such a life that he knew someone who knew someone who knew a pastor, and the only pastor that person knew was me. The encounter was rich and worth retelling in full at some time, but I will cut to the part most applicable here. Toward the end of our visit, he was concerned that he had nothing to give to God. He had waited too late in life and now he could not leave his bed to do anything for Jesus. He would gladly give away everything he owned but what little he had was more than consumed by debt. I assured him, “None of us really have anything worthwhile to offer Jesus. You are just more aware of that than most of us. In the days ahead you are likely to be left with even less—nothing but suffering. If you will, you can offer your suffering to Jesus to use as he will. Jesus knows a lot about suffering and how to use it for redemption—both yours and others.” “That,” he says, “I can gladly do.”

Such is a glimpse of a forgotten fundamental of the Christian faith: redemptive suffering. From the agony of Job and his wife, through Christ on the cross, to the crying martyrs of the Revelation; there is a continuous witness that God’s people do not kill people to end suffering.

This is the time to address an another overlooked consequence of those times when a Christian participates in the taking of a life even if it is a cause which is virtuous, heroic, just, and with God’s clear consent or command. The taking of a human life is still tainted by sin. The practitioners of the ancient purity rites knew that anyone who had contact with death was unclean. Even if the death was just. Even if the death was natural. Even if it was the death of an animal. There is need for a ritual cleansing that grieves the breach of shalom and reaffirms the sovereignty of God and the sacredness of life.

When the Christian participates in or benefits from the taking of a human life, even if it is called a martyr’s death or a heroic death, we nonetheless have experienced harm to our soul. Death came into the world through sin. Christ came to conquer sin and death. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. When a human life is taken (even the heroic lifeguard, the martyred missionary, or the mother brining life into the world) sin is manifest in the world. We must ask if this was the necessary and only option and if so, then why.  The proper response must include grieving. We need a cleansing and healing of the soul. We need a reaffirmation of life. We still have use for a ritual that proclaims:

…We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time have committed against thine Divine majesty….the remembrance of them is grievous unto us. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father.


Euthanasia: A murder by any other name…

Euthanasia, or assisted suicide, is a term borrowed from the secular world to give a softer name to murder. It deserves no further treatment than that.

[1] I add this qualifier: I am not aware of nor could I conceive of a case where God has granted either consent or command for one to willfully act for the express purpose of ending  their life. However, my mind cannot contain the entirety of human history nor the infinite ways in which the people of God have encountered the person of God. I hold out the possibility that God, as it seems good to him,  may have acted or will act in a way which I cannot anticipate. Christians almost never say never. Instead we say, “it is inconsistent with the revelation of God,” or “I cannot conceive of such a situation.” Because of the extreme rarity with which God has acted in such an extraordinary and un-anticipatory manner throughout all of salvation history, we are forbidden to use such standards for the formation of doctrine or to depend upon them as a guide to daily life. We do not rely on miraculous healing in lieu of physicians. In the same sense, it is appropriate to say that positive direct suicide is always a mortal sin.

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