Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pastoral Reflections on Robin Williams' Suicide

On Monday night, August 11th, news broke that legendary comedian and actor Robin Williams had died of an apparent suicide. On Tuesday, August 12th, officials confirmed that Williams had indeed taken his own life by hanging himself with a belt. The response to Williams’ death was immediate and heartfelt from fans and colleagues alike. Everyone was saddened to hear that one who had brought so much joy into the lives of others had taken his own life. Immediately some began to speculate about his ongoing battle with alcohol addiction and depression as the cause of his desperate act. Others began to comfort themselves with the thought that Williams was now at peace from such battles. And a few observed that suicide is the ultimate selfish act.

There is little doubt that suicide is a fierce goodbye. It is a final and ultimate way an individual seeks to end their suffering and struggle. And when something like this happens – whether to a celebrity or a fellow church member – Christians are all too ready to comment. The most prominent reactions I have observed from Christians seems to be either to say the individual is now at peace or to make some comment about the unpardonable sin. Obviously, these two reactions are polar opposites, yet both come from Christians. So, how should Christians respond to news like this?

First, we need to be very cautious about making absolute pronouncements about a specific individual’s eternal destiny. Frankly, we are not in a position to know such a thing with certainty. When we pronounce that someone has committed “the unpardonable sin” by taking their own life, we are speaking of that which we do not know for sure. Jesus mentions this sin in parallel passages found in Mt 12 and Mk 3. In those contexts, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were accusing him of casting out demons by the power of Satan. They were, in fact, attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan. Jesus described their words as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” While scholars may debate exactly what Jesus meant by this, we can be certain that he was not referring to suicide.

Second, it is not consistent with a Christian worldview or biblical truth to suggest that someone who has taken their own life “is no longer suffering.” Frankly, we do not know that. Indeed, the Bible teaches that only those who are in a relationship with Christ are in a place of joy after their death. All others are in a place of torment. But, because we do not know – with certainty – the nature of a specific individual’s relationship with Christ, it is neither helpful nor accurate to make statements about who is or who is not suffering any longer. For the person who dies apart from Christ, the tragic reality is that their suffering has just begun.

Third, I have occasionally seen Christians insinuate that suicide is not possible for a true follower of Christ. Such a view denies the reality of our fallen nature, the power of sin, and the devastating effect of mental illness. Christ is our deliverer, no doubt. But, that deliverance is not complete and total until we are in his presence. The battle with depression and mental illness is not unlike any other battle with sin. The Enemy attacks us at our weakest and most vulnerable spot and like other battles with sin, occasionally the battle with mental illness and depression is lost. Sadly, sometimes that loss is final.

Finally, sometimes Christians point out that suicide is the ultimate selfish act. It may be. But, saying so is not very helpful to the family that is left to grieve the loss of their loved one. In fact, in a sense, when we say suicide is a selfish act, we are acting as if people exist in a spiritual vacuum. In reality, the opposite is true. The person who is struggling with the desire to end their life is in a spiritual battle. Jesus said that the Devil has come to “steal, kill and destroy.” While the individual is responsible for the choices he or she makes, let us not fall into the trap of acting as if we do not have an Enemy that is seeking to destroy as many lives as he can. When a person commits suicide it is the ultimate win for the Enemy. He has successfully duped another person into believing that his way of death and destruction is best.

When Robin Williams took his own life, the Enemy rejoiced and a nation mourned. As Christians, let us be gracious before a watching (and hurting) world. Let us not make bold pronouncements about suffering. Let us not make sweeping generalizations about suicide. Let us be clear that sadness and sorrow at the loss of one made in the image of God is right. Let us be clear that mourning and grieving the loss of a husband and father is right. And let us be clear that, except for the grace of God, there go I.  

12 comments:

Abby said...

Well said!

Anonymous said...

this is what we all need to not only hear, but believe!

Anonymous said...

Very well said!

Anonymous said...

Thank you. This is the most balanced and compassionate Christian response to this that I have read. As someone who has dealt with depression for a very long time, I understand the battle. I understand that for someone to take their own life, they are desperate. It is their own private hell. I have been hurt by judgment from other Christians. That is very sad.

Carol said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

A good article. I have heard such nonsense said by so called Christians about suicide and its mostly rubbish.

Jeff Baker said...

Good Word Bro! Very well stated and very balanced. It is so easy to rush to judgment, but as you have said we need to be gracious to a hurting world around us. By and large, suicide is not a cut and dry issue. I'm glad God is the judge and that responsibility is not mine. Thanks for the good word.

Betsy Powell said...

Pastor Polchek - we posted a link to your blogpost this morning at Focus on the Family's I Am Pro-Life FB page: www.facebook.com/FocusOnLife. Thanks for your insights!

The Girl said...

420Thank you. Perspective is everything, and you have rightly spoken; rightly divided the word of truth in a difficult situation. Your words concerning this are not burdensome and weighty to an already hurting people. Instead, they bring hope and life and a little bit of a safe place. So again, thank you.

Tina Lucas said...

Great explanation of what our approach to this tragedy should be, how to help and not to cause more pain.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of what you wrote but it would have been nice if you would have acknowledged that Clinical Depression is a chemical imbalance and professional guidance from an expert should be sought. There are so many in the Christian community that will not get help because of being told by other Christians to pray about it and have faith for healing. That is insensitive. We as a Christian community are quick to accept other medical conditions and quick to encourage someone to go to the doctor for other medical conditions but when it comes to depression we say "Pray". Yes I believe in prayer and I also believe in doctors. I do not think it is fair to lump everyone that is sad, depressed or clinically depressed together and expect the same healing. Our journeys will all be different. Not everyone that is clinically depressed is in a spiritual battle. It is a medical condition. I truly wish more pastors would not stop before adding, "Go see your doctor" while you seek God and pray.

Pastor Rob Pochek said...

I am truly thankful for the comments and encouragement from all of you.

My goal in the article was not to address every aspect of what may or may not have contributed to Mr. Williams' death nor was it to address how Christians should approach clinical depression (go see your doctor!). Rather, my goal is to encourage Christians to respond in a more Christlike and biblically consistent manner.