Ok, so everyone and their brother seems to have written a post about the suicide of Robin Williams. Many of them are eloquent and raw, and beautiful – and I am grateful and richer for reading them.
1) Some, however, have been written that Williams was a selfish coward, and his act a sin.
2) There are also those who firmly believe that if a Christian prays hard enough, or believes strongly enough in the power of Jesus, that their depression can be healed. These statements and beliefs need to be addressed, because the ramifications of such statements/beliefs can be dangerous to those who are suffering, as well as their families and friends.
PART ONE –
In and of itself, suicide CAN be viewed as sin, in that it is the taking of a life – in the same way that murder is sin. But the catch is that we CANNOT look at suicide in and of itself. Except in the cases of those who plan to lose their lives in the process of murdering others (ex. suicide bombers), suicide is the end result of serious and dangerous diseases – depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia to name a few. I won’t go through the many diagnoses that can lead to the black hole of suicidal ideation and action, but suicide does NOT happen all by itself.
Because I’m Lutheran I look to my tradition first. The Lutheran Confessions and catechisms say nothing of suicide. In the treatment of the commandment “thou shall not kill” they say A LOT about how we are to treat our neighbors, but make no mention of self-harm. Some writers who have condemned Williams have mentioned the Roman Catholic Church’s view. But even that is NOT so simple.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church DOES say, “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.” (paragraph 2280) HOWEVER there is more: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. 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.” (paragraph 2282-2283)
Nowhere have I been able to find a decent definition of “salutary repentance” but from the context I understand that the Roman Church recognizes that while suicide IS the taking of a life, psychiatric diseases sufficiently impact responsibility so that a) we shouldn’t despair over the victim’s salvation, and b) God can do whatever God wants, and if God wants that person in heaven, then that’s where they’ll be. I’m glad for these clarifications, and I wish those claiming to share Catholic dogma would check their facts.
One who has never been sucked into the dark isolating black hole of suicidal ideation may view it as selfish and cowardly – but the one who has been fighting against the vacuum that is sucking them in, against the thoughts in their brain that tell them their family would be better off, that they’re worthless nothings, may see the act as brave and sacrificial. That’s the twisted thinking that diminishes responsibility. I have also known people in such tremendous psychological PAIN – REAL pain, pain that can manifest itself physically all over the body – that suicide “seems” to be the only way to find relief from constant suffering. I put “seems” in quotations because again, when we’re thinking in a healthy rational manner, we might find there are other ways to cope or wait out our period of desperation if we receive treatment. Again, this is the disease of mental illness creating “diminished responsibility.”
Is it a sin? Some say “yes,” many others say no. But even if it is a sin, it is sin that is covered by God’s GRACE and MERCY and the power of Holy Baptism. I have never doubted for a moment the salvation of a person who has died from suicide, just as I have never doubted the salvation of a person who has died from cancer or any other illness.
PART TWO –
As for those who think if a person only prays enough or believes strongly enough mental illness will go away I can only ask that they get over it in the same way they expect those with mental illness to get over it. The last time I checked, the only group that doesn’t believe in medical treatment for illnesses were Christian Scientists. Of course it’s perfectly fine to pray for someone with mental illness. It’s perfectly fine for someone with mental illness to pray. But to suggest that prayer not be accompanied by medical treatment (therapy and/or medication) is the same as suggesting that someone with cancer should just “pray it away” without seeing a doctor. It’s the same as telling someone with high blood pressure not to take their medication because Jesus will cure them. It’s the same as telling someone who is blind that if they just believe hard enough they’ll be able to see. And this is all ridiculous (to put it nicely).
GOD WORKS THROUGH MEDICAL SCIENCE AND MEDICATION. God has given us the curiosity and wisdom to learn many things about how our bodies work. As a result we know much about diseases that attack us and the ways we can fight back and find healing through that God-given learning. Talk therapy is a real treatment for many types of mental illness. Medication is a real treatment for many types of mental illness. Talk therapy and medication together are a real treatment for many types of mental illness. God works through them, because God is the source of ALL healing and life.
The idea of believing enough is damaging because it puts blame on the victim if a miraculous healing doesn’t occur. So your spinal chord was severed. Pray hard enough and you’ll walk. Believe enough and you’ll dance. What? You’re still in the wheelchair? Too bad for you. This belief in enough is hurtful and downright unbiblical. Sure, Jesus healed folks and said things like “great is your faith” but Jesus never taught that life would be easy or without suffering. Even Lazarus who he raised from the dead eventually died.
This unbiblical belief in enough can also be dangerous because a person suffering from mental illness may be praying their hearts out, but if they’re still despondent they can feel GUILT on top of it all because obviously their faith ISN’T enough, or they’d feel better. So now in addition to mental illness they feel guilt and perhaps even that God doesn’t LOVE them or they’d be healed. THAT my friends, is a recipe for real disaster for the mentally ill, and for their families, because that leads to HOPELESSNESS. If I felt God didn’t love me, it would rob me of my hope in a second. And if I believe God doesn’t love me, then what does my suicide matter in the heavenly scheme of things if I’m unloved anyway… you see how this thinking can create a dangerous slippery slope?
***Plus, our salvation isn’t about US having enough anyway, it’s about GOD HAVING ENOUGH – because in the end we never have enough (indeed, we have NOTHING), that’s why we need Jesus!***
I am grieved whenever I hear of someone taking their own life. But my grief isn’t over their salvation, or any unforgiven sin. My grief is sadness over the pain that must have driven them to such a desperate act. My grief is over them not getting the treatment they needed (whether it was a total lack of treatment, or not finding the right kind of treatment in time). My grief is for their families who I know from experience will deal with obvious deep sorrow, but also anger at their loved one (that’s ok) and guilt over what they feel the “could’ve” done to save them.
Nowhere, I repeat nowhere, does judgment enter into the picture. Amen.
***addendum: Just when I think no one reads these ramblings of mine I hear from my BISHOP!! (cue fear and trembling!) She reminded me that the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) DID put out a statement on suicide back in 1999, but that my words were “enough” (I’m not sure if she intended the play on that word!). I was relieved. But for those interested, here is my denomination’s statement on suicide prevention (16 pages worth).