By Stuart Briscoe
Hamlet in Shakespeare’s famous drama was distraught and distressed by life. He recites the pains and injustices from which he suffers – he calls them the Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune – and imagines the possibility that death offers release and relief – To die to sleep, To sleep, perchance to Dream. Compared to the life he is experiencing, death has a certain appeal to this bereft young man.
But immediately his conscience reminds him that matters of life and death are not quite so simple. He recognizes that death will relieve him of life by introducing him to what…? This uncertainty fills him with the dread that something after death, that undiscovered Country from whose bourn no Traveler returns, would await him. So he cries out in anguish, To be or not to be, that is the question.
This, of course, is dramatic and fictional but very close to the deeply troubled state of mind of many people today who are torn by life’s unbearable pain and uncertainties lying beyond death. Such is the state of modern-day Hamlets, young and old, rich and poor.
The New York Times reported in May 2013 that more people died from suicide in the United States during 2010 than from automobile accidents. The Centers for Disease Control found in their national survey that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, that one million people admitted making a suicide attempt in 2011 and that more military personnel now die from suicide than from combat. While traditionally suicide has been most prevalent among young people and the elderly, recent trends show a rapidly rising suicide rate among the “Boomer” generation. Today, Suicide is highest among those aged 45 to 54. According to The National Institute of Mental Health “over 90 percent of people who die by suicide have clinical depression or another diagnosable mental disorder.” Psychologist Dr. Daniel R. Green said, “Suicide attempts are often understood as an attempt to solve a problem. Given the impact of mental illness, the problem-solving abilities of the person are significantly impaired. In their dark and distorted thinking, suicide appears to be the best option, sometimes even the only option. Many family and friends of one who has attempted or completed suicide have reported to me they were helped in developing understanding and acceptance as they realized the person was attempting to solve a problem and how the problem looked from their depressed/impaired state.” Experts say that the risk of suicide is increased by more than 50 percent in depressed individuals.
When confronted with suicide it is natural for those bereaved to ask the heart-wrenching question – Why? Sometimes the deceased person leaves a note, but frequently the bereaved are left only with memories and unanswered questions, doubts and deep pain. Many people live in or act out of deep despair. Young men and women go off to war with life stretching ahead of them full of promise, but return home physically and emotionally maimed concluding that life’s not worth living. Middle-aged men, arriving at retirement discover, after job losses in the economic downturn, that their savings are inadequate to support the lifestyle they worked for, their marriages have broken down, their kids are floundering, and their future looks bleak. Young people intimidated by bullies and tormented by self-image problems give up on life unable to compete with successful peers and unrealistic expectations. Many elderly who “have lived full lives and are ready to go” see no point in prolonging their lives artificially and becoming a burden to their families. Because it is impossible to understand the degree of rationality of those suffering from mental illness it is difficult to communicate with sound reasons why what they are contemplating is not only inappropriate, but wrong.
I believe there is one thing we can do to help them in their pain and that is to assure them that there is hope for healing of illnesses for those who put their trust in Christ (see Isa. 53:3-4 ; Ps. 103:3, 147:3) and we can urge them to commit their eternal destiny into His hands. We can and must pray asking for God to be merciful and gracious speaking peace and bringing hope into the recesses of their troubled minds.
We can recognize some reasons that lead people to despair, suicidal thoughts, and actions. They are many, and they have one thing in common – the assumption that death is preferable to life. Returning, briefly, to Hamlet, he was unwilling to make that assumption. He called that which lies beyond the grave, the undiscovered Country from whose bourn (boundary) no Traveler returns. Troubled as he undoubtedly was, Hamlet chose not to act on his suicidal thoughts. He got that right, but he got something else wrong.
With all due respect to Hamlet, it’s not true to say that “no Traveler returns” from beyond the grave for One Traveler most certainly did! The One who described Himself to John the apostle as “the first and the last and the living one,” then added, “I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1: 17-18, ESV). He not only came back from the dead, but He did so in order that we might be enlightened concerning life and death – and be fitted for both. And He was very clear about the fact that “Death and Hades” are domains that come under His authority. If we take Scripture seriously, we have specific information on life and death and the reality of our humanity as living creatures who face death and what lies beyond. It was presented to us by none other than Christ Himself.
Paul, the apostle, was well aware of the hardness of life. He wrote to the Corinthians, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Cor. 1: 8-9, ESV). Those are the expressions of a desperately burdened man. At least on one occasion he looked longingly in the direction of death as a potential welcome relief. He wrote, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Phil. 1:21-24). Paul backed away not because of uncertainty about the after-life, but because he knew that the decision was not his to make!
I heard one of my favorite preachers, Dr. Paul S. Rees; point out the similarity of Hamlet’s and Paul’s anguish. Then he showed us the dis-similarity. Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” was a dilemma for him because both options were unthinkable. He didn’t want to live and he was afraid to die. Paul’s, ‘For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain’ was a problem for him because both options were full of blessing. If he went on living he knew God had something in mind for him including more suffering – but if he died then the promise of eternal bliss with Christ offered unspeakable joys! Either way the prospects were bright.
Scripture reveals a loving, compassionate God who is well aware of life’s trials and our frailty as we seek to endure. We’ve seen Paul’s situation, but if we need more we can always refer to Job’s series of disasters and his wife’s advice to end it all (Job 1-2)! Or we can read of Elijah’s struggle with overwhelming depression under the broom tree (1 Kings 19:1-8). It must be stressed that Christ is the One who is in charge of death – not man! Therefore if a man, for whatever reason, decides that death is to be preferred to life, God will fully understand the temptation to think like that and will respond in grace and mercy. But He will not surrender to that man the prerogatives of deity – the control of life and death and the life beyond. Those are His domain – not man’s. In short, the modern idea that human beings have the “right to die” when, where, and how they choose finds no place in the purposes of God.
What, then, can we say about those distressed souls who take matters into their own hands and end their lives? Firstly, we should be clear that since God has a plan for all the days of our lives, we should not end them before natural death. Psalm 139:16 says, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” We learn from Scripture that suicide is a sin against God’s sovereignty. The ancient Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13) certainly applies to “self-slaying” (note the English word “suicide” is derived from the Latin “sui” (self) and “cidium” (slaying) and is strictly forbidden by “the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:2), but on the other hand it is not an unforgiveable sin. Those who, through faith, have embraced Christ’s forgiveness have been saved by grace through faith; those who do not embrace God’s grace will die in their sins. Suicide is not the issue that determines people’s eternal destiny – their response to grace is! In short, suicide is wrong but forgivable.
Secondly, death was not part of God’s original plan for us. When death is sudden, everything is exacerbated – shock, questioning, anger, and unresolved issues are all magnified. When a death is self-inflicted by the hand of a loved one, feelings of the relationship being intentionally and permanently terminated are unbearable. One person acts to escape his or her pain and in so doing, inflicts untold pain on those left behind.
The reality of death is inescapable. As a pastor, I have been asked to pray with elderly people taking their last breaths, to comfort broken-hearted parents at the loss of a newborn, to counsel at the bedside of young accident victims being taken off life support, to officiate over the caskets of missionaries murdered in cold blood, a police officer gunned down on duty, and the deaths of decorated veterans of world wars. As difficult and heart-wrenching as each of these situations is there is none quite like the scene of a suicide.
A final word. We have talked about those plagued by suicidal thoughts, who suffer deep despair and whose minds have contracted aberrations that affect their judgment, and those whose loved ones have taken their own lives. But what of those of us who have no personal experience of either? Does the issue of suicide in our society affect our lives? I believe so. A large percentage of us will either be touched by suicide ourselves or know someone else who is, so we need to be aware of the incidences of depression, loneliness, disappointment, and discouragement that prevail in many people’s lives. Many around us hide their pain behind cheerful facades. We need to keep our eyes open for those whose circumstances are such that their lives may well have lost value in their estimation. We need to listen with patience and to befriend with compassion those who bare their souls and express their fears and we must learn to have a “word in season” so that those who are pondering whether “to be or not to be” may hear from us that “to be” is the right choice and Christ, who holds the keys of death and Hades, stands ready to empower them to be what He wants them to be in His allotted span for them. Given the growing body of research into mental illness and its links to suicide, we also need to be more sensitive to those suffering from such afflictions and be ready to assist with family members seeking to minister to their struggling loved ones.
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