Suicide | Fr Steve Rice

The following was emailed to the parish community on January 5, 2018.

In our nearly ten years together at St Timothy’s, we’ve faced our share of tragedy, especially death. I’ve celebrated Requiems for a victim of murder, a child, victim of opioid overdose, and this week, suicide. I have written and said little after these events, primarily because one family’s tragedy should not necessarily become an immediate teaching moment.

I am in awe of Jeff and Mary Lee, who lost their son, Sid, last week. After years of depression and pain, Sid took his own life. Jeff and Mary have not only given me permission to speak publicly about Sid and his struggle, they have encouraged me to do so, praying that his life and death might help others and thereby bring some meaning to his struggles. 

As a general rule in society, we don’t talk about suicide. News outlets rarely report suicides out of concern that their coverage might encourage others to do the same. We don’t often hear of it in the church, either. I imagine it’s a combination of not knowing what to say, not wanting to re-open an emotional wound, and uncertainty as to what the act of suicide means theologically. 

Even though I think it’s obvious, I want to make this clear: I am not a mental health professional. I am also not well-versed in the literature surrounding the complexities of depression, mental illness, and suicide. This is a complicated issue and this email is intended to begin a conversation in the parish, in prayer, and between families and friends.

I do want to address some of the theological confusion about suicide. There is an assumption that suicide is the unforgivable sin and that anyone who takes their own life is beyond the hope of salvation. There is also confusion as to whether or not a person who takes their own life can receive a full Christian burial. 

This confusion is understandable. First of all, there are only six places in the entire Bible where suicide is mentioned: Abimelech (Judges 9:54), Saul and his arms-bearer (1 Samuel 31:4ff; 1 Chronicles 10:4ff), Ahithopel (2 Samuel 17:23), Zimri (1 Kings 16:18), and Judas (Matthew 27:3-5). Every scenario is without a biblical commentary on the nature of the act and every scenario involves a person who was wicked or had committed betrayal in some way.

The first real instance of suicide being associated as the unforgivable sin comes from the writings of St Augustine in the early 5th century (City of God). The 1662 Book of Common Prayer (still the official Prayer Book of the Church of England) says at the beginning of the burial rite “Here is to be noted, that the Office ensuing is not to be used for any that die unbaptized, or excommunicate, or have laid violent hands upon themselves.” 

All of the above led to the general position/assumption that a person who takes their own life removes themselves from salvation and therefore cannot be prayed for in official rites of the Church. 

But let us seek precision in this matter. The deliberate taking of one’s own life in full control of their faculties and clarity of mind is directly opposed to the Gospel of Life, the theology of Cross, and the hope we are called to have in Christ, especially in times of suffering. This is why physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia have consistently been rejected as repugnant to the Gospel.

The question, however, is if a person is in full control of their faculties and clarity of mind when they take their own life, the so-called “rational suicide”?

Fr John Breck, an Orthodox theologian and ethicist writes “In light of recent discoveries in the disciplines of human psychology and neuroscience, this judgement (rational suicide) needs to be reconsidered. This does not mean that “rational suicide” does not exist and carry with it the full weight of moral responsibility. It does mean, however, that far more cases of suicide than have heretofore been recognized involve “insanity” or its neurological equivalent” (The Sacred Gift of Life, 270).

He goes on to say that the Church should not condone suicide, whether rational or not, but also “the ambiguities surrounding suicide, the complexities of the issue itself, together with the uncertainties that inevitably remain regarding the psychological (and neurochemical) state of the victim, at the very least justify the principle: when in doubt, grant a church burial and memorial services. Would such a practice, grounded in love for the deceased and for the often guilt-ridden survivors, really offend God?” (Ibid, 273). 

There is agreement in the Roman Catholic Church. The Catechism states:

“2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.
Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.
2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”

The Church of England recently voted to amend church canon (law) to allow the full Christian burial for victims of suicide. This was done not to promote or condone the act, but, in agreement with the above, to proclaim the mercy of God in very dark places.

In other words, we cannot fully know what is in the heart and mind of a person at the moment they take their own life. We know that in cases of depression and mental illness, the moral responsibility is not the same. Therefore we do not condemn these souls as beyond the forgiveness and salvation of God. This is rooted in good theology and not just our deepest desires. As I said in the funeral homily for Sid, “Therefore we can with integrity affirm both the sanctity of human life and the love of the Lord Jesus for Sid Lee.”

We must be diligent with those who struggle with mental illness, depression, or the growing, and demonic, social pressure, especially among adolescents. Don’t assume this isn’t a thought in the minds of those we love. If you need help or help in finding resources, call me. We’ll move heaven and earth to find help.

Please pray for the repose of Sid. And please pray for the Lee family. Their courage and faith have, and will, heal and help others more than they can know.

Faithfully yours,
Fr Steve Rice
January 5, 2018

Post Script
Some have asked for a copy of the homily at Sid's Requiem. I've included it below.

A few months ago, I read the story of the raising of Lazarus in a different light. It was also at a funeral and it was at the funeral of a very young man whose death came too soon and too tragic.

The Church in her wisdom gives us only five readings from John’s Gospel to choose from for funerals. Only five. So we have to wrestle with what we are given to find light and hope in the face of death. When the person is 102 and died in their sleep, that’s one thing. We can read Jesus saying comforting words like, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places.” We get that and we’re fine with it.

But the hope found in the Gospel isn’t limited to elderly grandparents who die after a long life in their sleep. The hope and light of the Gospel shines where we need it most, where the shadows are the longest.

Lazarus was sick. We don’t know what that sickness was, only that he was sick. We also know that Lazarus wasn’t an old man. He was the brother of Mary and Martha, they were close friends and it is reasonable to assume that Lazarus was around the same age as Jesus, somewhere near 30.

Mary and Martha knew that Lazarus was ill. They knew he was sick and they knew it was serious. We get the distinct impression that they did everything they could but it was out of their hands, so they sent for Jesus. And the words they used to call him sound like a prayer, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

There are many places in the Gospels where we are told the illness of the person. We are told if they are blind, deaf, lame, leprous, or bleeding. We are not told with Lazarus. He was ill. And that illness claimed his life.

There are only six places in the entire Bible where a person takes their own life, and only one of those is in the New Testament, and that is Judas.

Human life is a gift from God and we are called to protect and preserve that life at all costs. But over time, and not with a lot of scriptural warrant, there are some in the church who will quickly condemn the act of taking one’s life as unforgivable.

A rational suicide, in which a person takes their life in full possession of their rational faculties, may exist, but it has to be rare. No one can fully understand what is in the mind and heart of another human being. Especially when they are ill.

It is the teaching of the Church that the responsibility of a person who takes their life is greatly diminished when they are under great psychological stress. Therefore we can with integrity affirm both the sanctity of human life and the love of the Lord Jesus for Sid Lee. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

This Gospel also speaks to us who are here. When Jesus finally arrives at Bethany, both Mary and Martha are grieving and angry. The first thing that Martha says to Jesus is “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Martha was already trying to turn back the clock and find ways to alter the reality that was now hers. She, as a rational, logical, and hands on woman, was going back over her own actions and the actions of others trying to make sense of it all, and if she could make sense of it all, then maybe she could control the events around her, and if she could control the events around her, then her brother would be alive and well.

Already, Martha is replaying in her mind all the things that she could have done and all the things she should have done to prevent the death of her brother.

Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again. This is not what she wanted to hear. She didn’t want to hear platitudes about the end of time, she wanted answers about the past week. She wanted to know why Jesus didn’t fix this, why he wasn’t there, and why her brother is not standing next to her instead of being a victim to this illness.

Jesus says to her “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Jesus is talking about two things to Martha and he’s saying two things to us. He is saying what St Paul said to the Romans, that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not illness, not fear, not suicide, nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. Those who trust in me, even though that trust is clouded by illness, will live. And he was talking to her – trust that I am the resurrection and the life, now. Not in the end, but now.

He is saying that the way forward for Martha and Mary, and the way forward to us – is to trust that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.

Trust in him, and the aching part inside of you will not die and the parts in you that you think have died will live once again. Trust in him, and the grief will not forever consume you. Trust in him, and light will shine through the darkness.

And that is a glimpse of the way forward. Do you believe this? Jesus asked Martha.
Do you believe this? he asks us.

Beloved of Sid, today we pray for him and we commend his soul to Almighty God, the Good Shepherd of the Sheep and Lover of Souls.

We trust in the compassion of Jesus, who weeps over the death of those he loves.

We trust in the mercy of Jesus who removes what has bound us and calls us by name to come forth. 

We trust in the love of Jesus, who never leaves us, before, during, or after the grave. We trust in him who reminds us when we say Lord if you had been here, that he was, he is, and forever shall be.

We entrust Sid to Jesus.
And we entrust ourselves.

Do you believe this, he asked.
Yes, Lord. I do.

Fr. Steve Rice