Updated: Aug 14, 2021
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable to you, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”
Seven years ago my brother-in-law committed suicide. He was 52. He had a wife and two children and an extended family who loved and needed him. He was a brilliant engineer with many patents to his name. He was smart. He was funny. He was incredibly generous. John bought our first living room furniture set for no reason other than that he knew I didn’t like the inherited furniture we had. I loved him. And I miss him. And I am still angry with him. Why did he do this? What in the world was he thinking?
These are the questions that almost always get asked when someone kills him or herself. Many Christians also ask another: “Will this person go to hell”? This was the question that people asked me after John’s death. Did the fact that he killed himself mean that he hadn’t gone to heaven – that he was not “saved”? As a priest I get asked a lot of hard questions, but none is more difficult than this one. It is devastating enough to suffer the loss of a loved one; knowing that the person you are grieving caused that loss himself multiplies that devastation – but the most crushing blow of all is the idea that your beloved is someplace that you will never experience them again – that he or she is outside the presence of God.
Yet that is what Christian churches have historically taught. Traditionally, the explanation for this is that suicide – killing of self – violates the commandment against murder - although that is actually not what the Roman Catholic catechism says. What it says is, “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations.” In other words, although you find the teaching under the heading for the commandment against murder, the church’s reasoning appears to suggest that it is against two other commandments – love of God and love of neighbor. I find this confounding for a variety of reasons. First of all, there are other human behaviors that suggest that many people do not have a “natural” inclination to preserve life. Also, although suicidal thinking is indeed contrary to the love of self, that’s not exactly voluntary - plenty of individuals who are suicidal have tried, even struggled to love themselves but failed. Finally, for many people suicide is driven by a desire to be removed from the pain of this world and be immersed in the love of God. How can it possibly be right to say that these individuals are to be eternally deprived of this love?
I don’t think it can. I think this reasoning misunderstands the nature of sin. I have said it before: sin is separation. It is the willful choice to live out of harmony with God and one another. Suicide is not the result of a rational choice to be separated from others. Suicide is the product of the belief that you are already hopelessly separated from others. Suicide is the result of an illness. People who commit suicide do not choose to die. They are subject to the influence of brain malfunction -just like those who suffer from strokes – and we do not blame people for being ill.
Just as we do not condemn a child for seeking justice against an abusive parent based on the command to “honor your father and mother.” Just as we do not believe that it is okay to refuse to help someone on a Saturday or Sunday because we are bound to honor the Sabbath. This type of thinking misrepresents the nature of the Ten Commandments. It is this type of rigidity that Paul railed against and Jesus fought. Reasoning like this is why Paul told the Corinthians that they needed to stop focusing on who was the smartest and to start trying to live with each other in gratitude and humility. It is why Jesus, according to John’s gospel, took a whip to his local religious establishment.
Today’s is a hard gospel, because, although we would desperately like to believe that we would be right behind Jesus as he confronted the hypocrisy of his religion, we know in our hearts that it is far more likely that we would be on the receiving end of that whip. We know that we are no different from the people in that temple. They were trying to obey the laws of God. They were following the rules. They were doing it right. The problem was that they were so busy making sure the ritual was correct, they forgot the reason for what they were doing.
It’s easy to do. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of our traditions and forget why we do them. It is easy to start “thinking we understand Jesus, when the Jesus we think we understand is a Jesus of our own design.” It is easy to forget that, as Psalm 19 tells us, God’s laws exist not so that we can achieve salvation –remember, we already have the gift of grace through our Lord Jesus Christ- but to help us to see God’s glory, to revive our souls, and to cause our hearts to rejoice. God’s laws, and God’s judgment, are a blessing. What they are not is a tool to use to hurt one another. When we employ God’s commandments to judge one another, we are defeating their purpose, which is to teach people how to “live before God and... how … to live with one another.”
This concept is so simple that even a child can understand it – literally. In Godly Play, we explain that all of the Ten Commandments (or “The Ten Best Ways”) can be placed into one of three categories: Love God, Love your Neighbor, and God loves us. What an amazing exercise! What would happen if we adults looked at every one of our actions and asked ourselves how it fits into “love God, love your neighbor, and remember that God loves us”? I bet it would change our behavior. I think it also helps us to answer hard questions –like whether suicide is a sin.
Because when you look at it that way, the answer is always the same: The bottom line is love. We are all human – all flawed, all frightened, and most often confused. None of us knows what we will do in any situation until we are called upon to do it. We can only hope that we will act rightly, with courage born out of love. That’s why we live in community – to help each other to do the right thing, the loving thing. In fact, that’s how we know we are doing the right thing – by whether or not it demonstrates love. Conversely, if what we are doing separates us from one another and from God – that’s sin.
So, when I was asked if John’s suicide was a sin, that is what I considered, and here’s what I concluded. John’s death did not separate him from those he loved; his illness had already done that. It did not separate him from the love of his family, because we still love him. And it did not separate him from the love of God, because nothing can do that. Sin separates. Love knits together. God asks us to love him even when it’s scary, and to love one another even when it’s hard. That’s the bottom line. We know this because Jesus told us. May God’s will be done. AMEN.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article V, section 2281, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm.
George W. Stroup, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 76.