By Francis Delaplain and Joey Royal
Andrew Stoecklein took his life in August. He was the pastor of Inland Hills Church in California and was, by all appearances, successful — a charismatic and effective communicator and a caring shepherd of his congregation. Nevertheless, he was overwhelmed by dark feelings he felt powerless to overcome. He left behind a wife and young family, who must now pick up the pieces of their broken lives and rebuild them into something resembling normal. Suicide leaves immense collateral damage.
The media response to Stoecklein’s death has mostly focused on his severe depression, as well as the reality of mental health struggles among other pastors, many of whom suffer in silence. Church ministry is a demanding vocation, and stress, depression, and burnout are unfortunate realities for many leaders. The focus in many churches on the personality of the pastor can create unique pressures and anxieties, which are only heightened by the pervasiveness of social media.
We need to continue talking openly about mental health and the damage wrought by sin and human frailty. We also need to more directly challenge idolatrous presentations of the Christian faith that offer false comforts of material prosperity and self-improvement. But above all we need to discipline ourselves to speak of such things in distinctly Christian categories, with the focus squarely on the suffering and death of Christ and not on secular categories that promote the autonomy of the human will.
Our culture doesn’t make this easy. On one hand, we have the language of disease, in which suicide is understood as the terminal point for afflictions that break down emotional and mental health. Many mental health afflictions are diseases in the clinical sense, disorders that make healthy functioning either impossible or very difficult. It is not true, however, that taking one’s life is the inevitable endpoint of these diseases. Suicide is rather willful self-annihilation, a violent act chosen by an agent who feels a strong compulsion from within to commit this act. There is nothing natural or inevitable about choosing to exterminate one’s life. In that sense it is unlike cancer, in which death may be the inevitable outcome of metastasizing cells.
On the other hand, we often hear suicide spoken of in the context of human freedom. In the public debate about euthanasia (at least in Canada), proponents of assisted suicide see a certain heroic self-mastery at work when a sick person decides to die. This reflects an understanding of human freedom that sees unconstrained choice as the highest good so long as others aren’t intentionally hurt or hindered. From a Christian perspective this isn’t human freedom at all; it is, in the language of St. Paul, slavery to the power of sin. In modern parlance, it is nihilism.
We are both priests in the Diocese of the Arctic. The people within our diocese have suffered immensely in the last few generations. Colonialism and residential schools robbed much of their language and culture, and suffering people here seldom have a fraction of the resources available in southern Canada. Suicide rates are extremely high, and government money and programs have done little to alleviate this. What does the Church have to offer in the face of increasing suicide rates and a rising mental health crisis?
We see two ditches that Christians must avoid if we are to keep the conversation about suicide on a straight, gospel-focused path. Historically, many have believed that suicide almost certainly results in everlasting separation from God. The logic in this position makes sense within a particular theological trajectory. If murder — willful, unlawful killing — is the kind of sin that destroys the grace in a person’s soul, and if suicide is then understood to be willful self-murder, then it follows that the one committing such an act dies in a state of mortal sin and is thus separated from God. The Roman Catholic Church provides a considerable degree of nuance to this position, with the focus on what constitutes a willful act. In other words, a person who has suffered such emotional torment cannot be held entirely culpable.
But there are problems with this position: First, it seems to make too much of one decision, even if that decision is to take one’s life. Does God not judge based on the whole of a life and not only on the final moments (Matt. 25:31-36)? Second, it operates with too truncated a view of God’s grace, whereby suicide puts one forever beyond the reach of forgiveness. Can we not infer a more generous scope to the grace of God in Christ? Do we not proclaim at funeral services that “nothing in all creation … can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:39)? There is, after all, only one unforgiveable sin, and it isn’t suicide (Mark 3:28-30).
There is, however, another ditch to be avoided: the idea that the person committing suicide ought to be absolved of any culpability or moral agency. This is what we encounter most often in our culture, and it has seeped into the Church as well. In this case, our only response is sympathy for the person who has died and the family; otherwise there is only silence. But what of the long tradition of Christian teaching that has roundly condemned suicide as a grave sin? Does our current knowledge of mental disorders render those judgements obsolete?
No doubt some good has come from our dialogue on these issues. We have gone a long way toward removing the stigma associated with mental health, so that now people can say, without fear of being ostracized, that they have had suicidal thoughts and may even have planned to commit suicide. The Church needs to be a safe space for these discussions, and insofar as we have moved in this direction it is a good thing. But simply talking about it is not enough.
Christians have — or at least used to have — clear convictions and directives on these matters. It used to be commonplace to say that suicide is a sin; it is wrong and the person committing such an act is culpable. The moral prohibition of suicide is arguably a more effective deterrent than contemporary efforts to absolve people of all blame.
What we need is healing and hope that is uniquely Christian. Sinners must be led to the source of all healing and grace; we must arrive finally at the cross of Christ. This begins with repentance. Not repentance as feeling bad or adding guilt and shame to already bad feelings; no, repentance as cooperating with the power of God to reject sin and embrace Christ, who is the source of everlasting life (John 6:47).
These are not mere academic issues for us. We have both dealt with mental health struggles, and in our pastoral vocations we have both seen firsthand the devastation wrought by mental anguish and suicide. Unless the Church’s leaders can bring the issue of suicide into the light of the gospel then we will fail our people. If we can’t combine pastoral compassion with moral clarity, then we risk drifting along with a culture that increasingly embraces death under the guise of freedom, and confuses struggle with destiny. The truth of the gospel is that we are not powerless, even if we sometimes feel that way. We have hope, and we can learn to see our suffering as a participation in the suffering of our Lord. This is not a resigned passivity but an expression of confident and patient hope in the gospel. The witness of the saints and the martyrs confirms this time and again.
Karl Barth strikes a good balance here:
The man who kills himself in the sense of taking the life which does not belong to him violates the commandment and murders as well as kills. He thus sins. Nor can there be any question of divine forgiveness making this legitimate. On the contrary, we must move on immediately to the even sharper affirmation that suicide in the sense described is actually rebellion against the God who forgives sins, who can forgive every sin including this, who is gracious to man in Jesus Christ. (Church Dogmatics III.4, p. 405)
Pastoral compassion, moral culpability, and immeasurable grace: May we be guided by the Lord who suffered and died for us, and who rose again to bring us hope. And may that hope penetrate even the most disordered psyche; if not in this life, then in the next.
The Rev. Francis Delaplain is an Anglican priest serving as the rector of St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Hay River, Northwest Territories. Francis is married to Kassandra and they have two children Esha and Byron, and a golden retriever Edmund.