In the wake of Robin Williams’s suicide, there was an initial and distasteful response to the effect of, “This was not a disease. He made a choice to die.” This was couched in terms of being “supportive” of those still in the struggle, but it certainly seemed to carry the implication that Williams’s was more or less responsible for his decision in the way that any of us are for ordinary moral decisions and that we shouldn’t try to explain it away. As a Calvinist, I already have a bias against treating these problems merely as “choice,” and not just from the standpoint of predestination. No, Calvinists also believe in the comprehensive corruption of the world and the person brought about through Adam’s sin. Additionally, as a pastor and one who has spent time with both “normal” depression and clinical conditions like bipolar disorder, I have also learned from experience that these issues are complicated and often mysterious. Thankfully, other more thoughtful articles have begun to come out.
The Rev. Mr. Bill Smith contributed one of the “early” responses that avoided easy answers and moralizing. Father Bill argued from the example of William Cowper, and John Newton’s commentary on Cowper’s life, that true believers can be afflicted with deep depression and even suicidal thoughts. It is difficult to understand, but there are some honest Christians who struggle deeply in this way.
Secondly, Mike Khandjian posted a reflection which included a quote from Fed Harrell of City Church in San Francisco. As it turns out, Robin Williams had actually attended church there semi-regularly, participating in the liturgy and receiving communion. While this is no sure proof of the state of Mr. Williams’s soul, it does contextualize him in an important way. He was a man wrestling with God and himself.
Finally, Sammy Rhodes has written an essay on depression which interacts with important Christian thinkers from the past, including Charles Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He argues that sometimes depression comes upon a person without any clear cause, and that this must be understood as a part of the cosmic fall.
This is all very important. While the Christian tradition is nearly unanimous in considering suicide a grave sin (John Donne is the significant and curious exception), it has not said, or not said universally at least, that suicide is always an eternally-damning sin, nor has it said that suicide is but a choice made by an otherwise free agent. There are many good characters in the Bible who seem to have suicidal desires: Job (Job 3), Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), and perhaps Paul (Philippians 1:23). Others actually carry through with the act: Samson, Saul, and Judas. Judas’ suicide is obviously characterized by shame and guilt, a seeming judgment upon him. Samson’s is more complicated. It seems ignoble, even though we tend to celebrate it. Saul’s would seem indefensible, but interestingly enough, David does not take occasion to condemn him for it. Instead he writes, “Your glory, O Israel, is slain on your high places! How the mighty have fallen! …Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!” (2 Sam. 1:19, 23). David, of course, knew the power of dark thoughts (Ps. 88), and so he was not quick to pronounce judgment on such a matter.
But, as we have said, the issue is large and fearsome. A Christian ought never to defend or countenance suicide, but at the same time, he ought to caution against pronouncing judgment on the person’s eschatalogical state. It’s just plain hard to know what’s going on in the mind, and it is impossible to actually peer into another’s soul. As an example of how difficult it is to address this question, I will quote from Lutheran pastor Otto E. Sohn who writes about this in his pastoral manual What’s the Answer?:
We understand suicide to mean a deliberate act by which a person, well aware of what he is doing, destroys himself. We are not speaking of a delirious or mentally deranged person who has lost the use of his reason and is not responsible for his act; nor of one who walks in his sleep and plunges to his death; nor of Christian soldiers or police officers, firemen, sailors, or other persons who plunge into danger to rescue others from certain death and lose their own lives in the attempt (John 15:13). We are thinking of those who, when things turn against them, like King Saul or Judas or Ahithophel, reach for the sword, for poison, pistol, or rope to end a miserable existence. These people die in unrepented sin. Before the judgment seat of God they are guilty of an unforgiven crime.
Assuredly we would not wish to judge everyone who resorts to self-destruction. It is impossible for us to plumb the depths of gloom into which even Christian people may sink and irresponsibly lay unholy hands upon themselves. Perhaps the Lord will not hold them responsible, but we do not know. (What’s the Answer? Concordia, 1960, 143-144)
He goes on to suggest ways to preach against suicide, and he certainly implies that it is “unforgivable” in the cases outlined above. But notice all of the qualifications he has already given. The person must be reasonable– already a tall order– and even then there is the “maybe” of divine forgiveness. I am not at all sure what to think about sins that we do not confess being unforgivable. Surely we all have such sins, though they are likely not as grave as murder. Is an unconfessed sin an unforgivable one? I would think that this is only true when the lack of confession is due to defiance and refusal to own up to things. Embracing the darkness can be a sort of passive-aggressive way to defy God, of course, but I am not ready to say that it always is.
And when exactly, we might well ask, does a person pass from having sufficient use of their reason to no longer having such? Can a prolonged battle with depression effect such a transition? It seems best not to answer definitively.
For the Christian, then, it seems we are safest in holding a sort of tension. We ought to always condemn the act of suicide while declining to necessarily condemn the person who commits the act. We could think of similar kinds of sins that are more common– recklessness with one’s life, substance abuse, thrill-seeking, general nihilism, etc. In each of these, we can imagine a proud and haughty variation and a weak and struggling version. The remedy for both is grace in Christ, but the strategic means of confronting and admonishing would differ depending on the person.
Prior to a suicide actually occurring, our duty is to preach hope, command against despair, and offer to share the burden. After a suicide, however, I do not think that the Christian’s first duty is to explain what happened. No, it is instead a time to weep and a time to mourn. Our duty is to console and comfort the living, to try to best honor the dead as possible (without necessarily committing ourselves in one judgment or the other), and to go to God in prayer asking for more grace for ourselves and others.
Most of all, let us not rush in to these matters but rather remember that God gives and takes, He makes low and raises on high, but in all things He is good and wills our good. We believe. Help Thou our unbelief.