My mom and me: Theological comfort and the suicide crisis

Guest commentary by Chip Hardwick

The news earlier this summer came almost too quickly to digest. Upscale handbag designer Kate Spade, fresh off the 2017 list of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business,” reportedly took her life on Tuesday, June 5. Only three days later on June 8, celebrity chef and former bon vivant Anthony Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room in France after apparently choosing to end his life.

As the news ricocheted around, similar reactions emerged. Spade’s handbags have a “lighthearted, all-American style,” which made it hard to imagine her taking her life. Tributes to Bourdain included statements such as, “If I could choose anyone’s life, I would be him.”  No one seemed capable of wrapping their mind around why these seemingly well-put-together public figures would die by suicide.

My mind didn’t spend any time exploring these celebrities’ motivations; it was far too busy revisiting 1997.  That fall my stepmother, the only mom I had known for the previous 20 years, turned my whole world upside down when she ended her life. I was a 31-year-old middler at Princeton Seminary as bewildered as the many friends telling me at her service, “If you gave me a list of one hundred people, your mom would be the absolute last person I would ever pick to do something like this.”  Like her 21st century celebrity successors, Mom was overcome by what she must have judged to be insurmountable obstacles.

Perhaps unknown to us, she (and so many others) faced some of the issues causing suicides according to a Vital Signs study released in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  According to this report, 42 percent of those who die by suicide have previously reported relationship problems, while 29 percent have had a crisis in the past or upcoming two weeks.  An almost equal number (28 percent) show problematic substance abuse, while a slightly smaller number have some kind of physical health problem (22 percent).  Unfortunately, the CDC numbers do not track how mental health issues interact with the factors listed above.

The increasing prevalence of suicide is one of the great challenges facing society and the church. From 1999 (just two years after my mom’s death) until 2016 (just two years before this summer’s losses), the United States as a whole has seen more than a 25 percent increase in suicide rates, according to a landmark study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death in this country and is one of only three leading causes occurring with increasing frequency.

It’s a crisis. Lives are being lost. Families are being devastated. Thankfully, churches respond helpfully and faithfully — but as in all crises, we have the opportunity to reflect again on how we might move forward in light of the increasing need.

In this article, we’ll look together at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Confessions to see how its statements of faith can help church leaders support those considering suicide, and those left behind. Of course, we don’t review these confessions in order to win theological arguments; instead we remind ourselves of these truths in order to recapture the hope of the gospel that they articulate — the hope that has helped me to find meaning in the years since my mom’s death.

Support for those considering suicide

The fundamental confession that the church has to offer anyone considering suicide is our bedrock conviction that they are beloved by God in Jesus Christ. The incredible reassurance that our Savior cares for each one of us is tenderly proclaimed in the opening lines of the Heidelberg Catechism (4.001):

Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A: That I am not my own, but belong —
body and soul, in life and in death –
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven;
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.

Jesus has not only been faithful to my mom and any others struggling to find hope; Jesus has already died on the cross to provide that hope. In the midst of all the despair surrounding her, Jesus offered the reassurance that painful circumstances can even form part of a plan toward salvation.  The authors of the Catechism even longed, somehow, for Mom to look forward to a life lived wholeheartedly for the sake of the gospel.

This last sentence is important, because of a potentially tragic misreading of the claims of this statement that might give license for someone to take their own life. My mom was a faithful Christian; I wondered at the time of her death if a kind of twisted logic might not have prevailed in her mind which would have led her to pursue heaven as an escape from the trials she must have been facing. If only she had known that in her belonging to her faithful savior, Jesus had blessings for her that would have come had she been able to remain, in the words of the catechism, “wholeheartedly willing and ready … to live for him.”

The Confession of 1967 follows along with this theme: Our lives have a purpose that suicide cuts short.  In a section called “The Love of God,” this statement of faith proclaims, “Life is a gift to be received with gratitude and a task to be pursued with courage” (9.17). When Mom’s circumstances looked bleak, what if she and others like her could have been encouraged to give thanks for even a small list of blessings? Moreover, it is welcome wisdom from the confession to recognize that it is often a courageous task to move forward in life, when everything from brain chemistry to broken relationships may provoke suicidal thoughts.

Another bit of hope from the confessions that Mom might have found helpful when the gales of hopelessness began to blow, making suicide a more and more seductive option to her, is found in the Brief Statement of Faith.  We read:

 “We trust in God the Holy Spirit
everywhere the giver and renewer of life.
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor” (11.4).

God the Holy Spirit was at work renewing Mom’s life, in ways that must have been unseen to her. The Spirit was at work, striving to liberate Mom to see herself with God’s eyes, a self-vision of love and acceptance. She does not ever seem to have joined in this work. I so wish she had invited us family and friends, or church leaders, to have prayed with her, so that this work of the Spirit would have been tangible for her.

I have wept for Mom because her faith had been compartmentalized away from her desire to end her pain. If Mom had been open to others’ support, hearing the hope that comes from these and other creedal statements, I wonder if her decision to end her life might have, by the grace of God, been changed or at least delayed.

Support for those losing loved ones to suicide

The key theological question haunting those who have lost someone they love to suicide is often, “Are they now in heaven?” This question hangs in the air, because, after all, suicide is not what God wants for us. It is a rejection of the hopes and expectations articulated in the confessions that we have reviewed. Even though the Apostles’ Creed reminds us that we believe in the “forgiveness of sins,” suicide seems like it could be an exception to that general rule to many Christians.

First, some humility. Any discussion of who might be in heaven must be tempered with the acknowledgment that only God decides and knows who will be welcomed into heaven and who will not. Our confessions offer helpful guidance for interpreting the scriptures, but of course our loving, faithful, grace-filled, just and heartbroken God is the only one with the authority to answer the question about whether or not people who take their own lives will end up in heaven. For the rest of this article, I’m wondering specifically about people like my mom — Christians who end their lives not because of end-of-life medical issues (circumstances which provide their own unique ethical dilemmas) but because of their lack of hope.

So how do the confessions help us explore the question, “Are Christians who commit suicide in heaven?” Behind this question I find two more specific questions regarding salvation.  First, is taking your own life too big of a sin to be forgiven?  Second, since my mom and others like her die before having the chance to ask forgiveness, is it too late for this sin be forgiven?

I had a family member ask me a variation of the first question soon after Mom took her fatal step. Talking explicitly about whether Mom was in heaven, my family member expressed some doubt, saying, “Taking a life is pretty serious.” I remember unsuccessfully trying to put together a coherent thought about how Jesus had died for some pretty serious sins. Thankfully, the Westminster Larger Catechism (in questions 150-153) is much more articulate.

The catechism acknowledges that some sins are worse than others (especially if the person committing the sin should know better, or if the party being sinned against is God or Christ or the Spirit, or any of the saints, for example). It quickly moves on to say, however, that no matter how grievous or small, every sin deserves the wrath of God. We escape God’s wrath by repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ. In this way, suicide is no different from any other sin that derails us from lives that look more and more like Jesus’. Taking a life is serious, indeed, but repentance and faith covers this sin just like any other.

This takes us to the second question, however. What if it’s too late to repent for this specific sin? Will God punish my mom because her death came too quickly to ask forgiveness for this last sin she has committed? It is here that the Scots Confession is helpful in its description of the chutes-and-ladders life of faith that comes once we have put our trust in Christ (3.13 and 3.15). It blessedly reminds us that the process of becoming more and more like Jesus Christ is marked by both progress and retreat. God may see us as if we were as perfect as Jesus, but we are not. Jesus is perfectly obedient to the law, but we are not. We are an up-and-down, two-steps-forward-one-step-back people.

God knows this to be true, and covers us with Christ’s righteous perfection. Of course we confess our sins as often as we can, but the Scots Confession paints a picture of God’s consistently assigning Christ’s perfection to us once we have put our faith in him, regardless of the timing of each of our specific sins. The good news of the gospel is that time did not run out for Mom to ask forgiveness for taking her life. By the grace of God, it was not too late. There was no condemnation simply because committing suicide seemingly prevented her from asking forgiveness for her last act.

It’s important to reiterate again that I have not been reciting the claims of these statements of faith in order to give you ammunition for your next public debate on the theology of suicide. My goal is much more pastoral — to give you hope in the face of the crisis of suicide, one that I pray never hits close to home for you. In my time since Mom left our family far too soon, I have needed the good news of Jesus Christ to be articulated in the richness of the Reformed theological tradition as well as in hugs and prayers.

A final word of hope, one that has been more and more critical to me as I have processed Mom’s death over the last 20 years. I have needed to know that God was bigger than her bad decision. I have needed to know that God could bring something good out of this tragedy. Not in order to make her decision a good decision — it was devastating and it will always be devastating. But I have needed to know that God was not somehow painted into a corner by what she did on the worst day of her life. I have needed to claim that God could redeem her suicide, as he redeemed the cross on which Jesus died. I have needed to hear the good news that God could bring good out of the bad that was Mom’s death.

These words from the Heidelberg Catechism, adapted here for pastoral purposes, have reassured me with that good news.  (4.026)

Q:  What do you believe when you say, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth”?

A: …  I trust God so much that I do not doubt that he will provide
whatever I need for body and soul,
and will turn to my good whatever adversity [comes] upon me
in this sad world.

God is able to do this because he is almighty God
and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.

May it be so, and may God bless you, in this sad world.

CHIP HARDWICK is an interim pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Illinois. He concluded his service as director of Theology, Formation, and Evangelism at the end of 2017.