By Roger Steffy
Tuesday, August 30, 1994
Editor's note: Bill and his wife and young son were active and dedicated church members at the time of Bill's death. He was well-loved and highly respected. This sermon was preached at his funeral. All personal references to Bill's life have been deleted from the text of the sermon to protect the privacy of the family.
Suicide is one of the most difficult losses to process and grieve. It is a horrible tragedy, a devastating trauma that paralyzes us in shock and disbelief. It is always terrible, but the impact seems worse when a Christian commits suicide, when the person is a well-respected leader in the community, and when there were few, if any, warning signs in advance.
Suicide raises all kinds of questions for us. Questions about God, about life and death, about the nature of sin and forgiveness, about the eternal destiny of its victims.
I believe the place to begin is to remind ourselves of some important truths and characteristics of God. Psalm 139:1-6 says:
O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.
You hem me in--behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
God knows us fully! Regarding these verses, Bill, in some notes he wrote on this psalm said it this way, "I am transparent to God."
From Psalm 139:7-12:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,"
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
God is always with us -- no matter where we go or what we experience. Bill said it like this, "There is nowhere to go to flee from God."
God knows us fully and is always with us. This was just as true for Bill in his dark hours of depression as it is for you and me.
Some Christian traditions and churches believe and teach that suicide is a mortal sin, that is, that one cannot enter into eternal life with God in heaven after committing suicide, no matter what your faith or manner of life, and no matter what factors contributed to the suicide. I want to say very clearly that neither I, nor this congregation, hold that position. Such a position, it seems to me, is inconsistent with what the Bible teaches about God's character and with what it teaches about salvation and condemnation.
Now it is true that the Bible doesn't speak directly on the issue of suicide. Like many other issues, we must draw our conclusions about it based on our understanding and interpretation of God and the biblical issues that relate to it. Keeping in mind what we said about God and God's character, let's look at some other relevant issues.
Historically, the Mennonite Church has generally been more Arminian than Calvinist. That simply means, among other things that we tend to believe that it is possible for a Christian to "lose their salvation" and be cut off from eternal life. We, of course, can never judge if or when this happens. There are variations in how we understand this idea, but generally we hold this kind of view in contrast to the view we sometimes call "eternal security," which at its extreme says that once a person accepts Christ, they can never be "lost," no matter what they do or how they live.
Now, while we may accept that it is possible for a person to turn away from God and, eventually, be "lost" at death, if they do not repent and if they continue to resist God's efforts to draw them back, we do not believe that every sin destroys our salvation, which then can only be restored if we consciously know about and repent of the sin. We believe that the grace of God and the forgiveness of our sins through the atonement of Christ apply not only to our past sins, but also to our present and future sin.
If we are trusting in Jesus Christ, making him and his kingdom our highest loyalty and seeking to follow him daily in life, then we are secure in our salvation even when we sin, consciously or unconsciously. And we all sin -- frequently, even constantly.
There is no doubt that destroying a human life is sin. Suicide is sin! But it does not have a more powerful effect on us spiritually or eternally than any other sin. Suicide is not unforgivable! It is true that a person who commits suicide cannot repent of that sin afterward. But for a person who was a Christian, who faithfully sought to follow Christ and honor God, and who was trusting in Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life, suicide does not, in my judgment, nullify one's salvation. God's grace and loving mercy are broad enough to cover that final act of sin for such a person.
Now understand, I'm not saying that everyone who commits suicide is saved. But neither is everyone who commits suicide damned or condemned. The suicide victim's salvation depends on the same thing as everyone else's salvation -- their trust in Jesus Christ and acceptance of God's free gift of salvation in Christ.
The suicide victim's salvation depends on the same thing as everyone else's salvation -- their trust in Jesus Christ and acceptance of God's free gift of salvation in Christ.
We who knew Bill knew, without question, that he was fully committed to the Lord. He loved and trusted in Christ, and he sought to live a life of faithful discipleship with a level of obedience and radical integrity that few other Christians have.
So, how can a man of God like Bill take his own life? I don't know for sure. But even Christians experience depression, even severe depression. This frequently involves chemical imbalances in the brain, which prevent a person from being able to cope in typical fashion. It's similar to an insulin imbalance in the blood, which causes uncontrollable effects on various organs and can be deadly. As we know, the brain is an organ, and when the chemicals become imbalanced, the brain is sometimes not able to function as it normally would. This doesn't mean the depressed person is "crazy," but it seems to diminish the person's usual ability to handle stress, hardship, emotional pain, or ambiguity. One's thinking becomes distorted, and sometimes the sense of despair and darkness becomes overwhelming. The things that are important to the person and their responsibilities in life seem to fade into the darkness of the depression.
Sometimes it seems that there is no way out except through death. This, of course, is never actually true -- that suicide is the only option. And it is never ever a good option. But it sometimes seems that it is to the person wrestling with long-term and severe depression. The psalmist said,
"If I say, 'Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,'
even then the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you." Psalm 139:11-12
God is with us even in the darkness of depression and despair. The darkness we experience is not darkne