Sermon - God's Promise
I was grateful that the death of Robin Williams a week ago was honestly admitted to be a suicide. We often don’t realize how bad a problem depression is unless someone commits kills themselves or attempts to do so, and usually when suicides happen they are hushed up. I have to admit I’ve done that myself. What are you supposed to say when asked “what happened to so-and-so? You feel like you’ve violated their privacy if you frankly admit that “he killed himself”. As a result at various times I’ve been evasive, or (I’m embarrassed to admit) I have flat-out lied about it. But how can a problem be solved unless it’s honestly addressed?
And suicide is a problem; I’m sure all of us here have known, not just one or two, but many individuals who died that way. I don’t think I’ve ever preached on this topic before - when it has happened to someone in our midst the wound is too raw for me to talk about it. Another reason I’m grateful for the candor in the way Robin Williams’ death was handled is that the death of this celebrity whom none of us knew personally gives me an opportunity to speak about something which at one time or another has affected all of us.
What is the biblical position? Suicide occurs half-a-dozen times in scripture. The most common type in the Bible is when an individual knows they are doomed anyway and so kills themselves - Saul does this when his army has been defeated in battle, so do two obscure figures named Ahithophel and Zimri; I guess the death of Samson, who pulled the walls of the Philistine temple on himself, would be another example. Some suicides are always of this type: Hitler shot himself in a bunker at the end of WWII because he knew he was trapped. In 1991 British press tycoon Robert Maxwell apparently jumped off the back of his yacht and drowned; it turned out that he had been involved in various financial irregularities and faced not just bankruptcy but arrest. I’ve personally known people who killed themselves when they were diagnosed with an incurable disease.
I do not condone suicide in these cases, but such actions are not hard to hard understand and don’t take us by surprise. This type of death is different from that of Judas Iscariot, who kills himself out of a sense of shame and despondency. And it’s the people who commit suicide because they are sad, lonely, frustrated, or feel like failures, who are the suicides you and I are most familiar with.
In these cases, the victim at least on paper often has a lot going for them - is in good physical health, is fed and clothed, and has a decent standard of living - but in this case that doesn’t matter. They’re deeply sad, for one of a variety of reasons. My wife deserted me for another man; I can’t seem to stop drinking; nothing seems to interest or satisfy me anymore; I failed at my profession; I’m lonely and no one needs me anymore; my husband has died and I can’t live without him, I’ve tried and tried but I can’t seem to connect with the people around me - the specific reasons differ but the common denominator here is feeling that our life is a burden and there’s nothing we can do to change that.
If you’ve never once felt this way, count yourself lucky; there’s nothing unusual about depression. Some of us know all too well the feeling of sleeping just an hour or two and then being awake the rest of the night; the queasy stomach; the restless inability to take an interest in anything. It’s the Valley of the Shadow of Death and most of us have to plod through it at some point in our life; some have to do so repeatedly. If we can get through these times that we usually discover that what felt utterly hopeless at the time was just a bad period, which we remember with a shudder, but which was not permanent.
Because this is church some would expect me to say that the cure for suicide is to believe in Jesus Christ. I do think faith can play an important role; I’ll turn to that in a moment, but before I do, I also want to say that there is more to treating deep depression than accepting the Gospel. I have known people who attended church regularly who committed suicide, and I also remember a pastor whom I knew, with a struggling congregation and struggling marriage, who also did so. Christians are not immune from depression, and it is not a sin to have it. In fact some of the very greatest lives I can think of - Martin Luther and Abraham Lincoln come to mind - weathered serious cases. If we needed a by-pass I would think we should pray, but we also should consult a cardiologist. I feel the same about depression, which after all can be a natural corollary of disappointment, grief, or failure, which after all are a natural part of life.
How can we prevent suicide? There have been two very different approaches. The psychological approach traces the problem to the individual’s own thinking, and regards the cure as a matter of talking to each individual and getting them to change the way they look at themselves. Clearly this makes sense, and this is an area where the professionals are not the only one with a role. On our bad days we also need friends who encourage and reassure, and who care about us. After all, if the optimist wears rose-colored glasses, the pessimist wears dark glasses and sees a grayer world than the one that is really out there. If we’re fortunate, we have friends who remind us of that when we’re down.
In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”; an angel comes and tells Jimmy Stewart how much his life mattered and how much worse the world would have been without him. Unfortunately, in real life we aren’t told that before we die. There was an outpouring of praise and affection for Robin Williams after his passing; I likewise have heard nice tributes for the deceased when I have performed their funeral. How much better would it have been to say all this when the person was alive! The fact is that we need encouragement almost as much as we need food and air. If we supply it in a eulogy it is of course too late. One lesson today is that we need to do this for each other now.
The sociological approach to suicide would say that counseling the individual is OK as far as it goes, but point out that suicide is not randomly distributed throughout the population. Some groups are more affected than others, and need more attention. To take an obvious example, young people between the ages of 15 and 25 are particularly at risk. War veterans have a higher rate than others. Genetic factors have a role: if one of your ancestors committed suicide, this may be a tendency in yourself to be aware of. Ethnicity plays a role: when Shakespeare wrote the play “Hamlet”, which is, among other things, about a man contemplating suicide (“to be or not to be”), he set it in Denmark. For some reason, which experts are still scratching their heads about, depression and suicide are more common in Scandinavian and other northern countries than in place like e.g. Italy or Brazil.
Emile Durkheim said the higher the rate of suicide the weaker the ties that were holding a community together. Social cohesion, that feeling of “all for one and one for all”, turns out to be very different from economic health: Africans and Latin Americans are a lot poorer than Japan, but the Japanese commit suicide at a higher rate. Suicide rates are a measure of the number of individuals in our midst who feel isolated, insecure and alone. The way we live now in modern life: moving a lot, working at jobs which are not necessarily physically demanding but which are stressful, with fractured families, in an uncertain economy where there are high expectations and awards for success and yet also countless ways to fail - this turns out to be emotionally hard to do. Most of us cope alright, but some don’t.
This is a very human problem; to my knowledge, no animal commits suicide. I said earlier that having faith in Jesus Christ does not necessarily insulate us from this threat, but neither does seeing a therapist or taking depression medication: actually most of the people I’ve known who have committed suicide have done one or both. And the God who speaks to us through scripture can help us a lot with this very human problem.
First, we who are followers of Jesus Christ know that we are not alone in our suffering. Our Savior died on a cross, at a moment when it certainly looked like everything he’d done in this world had come to nothing. His followers also usually died young; four of Paul’s letters - a third of all the letters he sent - were written inside prison cells. The first followers of Jesus were often those whom life had not smiled on - the sick, the lonely, the rejected. One thing the work of Jesus Christ makes clear is that God has not forgotten such as these. When Isaiah prophesied a coming Messiah, he said that he would be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. His best followers have often been very much the same.
Second, God is not focused on human success. We are, and it matters very much to us, but look at the pages of scripture: once in a while God speaks to a king or a general or the owner of large flocks and herds. But the faithful are more often like Ruth, who is homeless; they’re slaves like Joseph and Esther and Daniel; a reformed traitor to his own people like Matthew or Zacchaeus; the Samaritan woman whom Jesus meets at a well who has a mixed-up personal life. It’s not just the case that God can be found on the wrong side of the tracks, or in the bad moments of our life; in the Beatitudes Jesus said he’s more likely to be found there.
Third, knowing the salvation which comes through Jesus Christ gives us a different perspective on both our successes and our failures. The follower of Jesus knows that “the glory of this world passes away.” Lord Wellington was running for prime minister and a lot of people turned out to hear him speak. One of his aides, said to flatter him, “Look at the size of the crowd that’s come to hear you!” Wellington replied, “An even larger crowd would turn out to watch me hang.” The song “Be Thou My Vision” was sung in church a few weeks back; it includes a line that says “riches I heed not nor man’s empty praise.” So too our sadness and misfortunes are temporary. This life is only a small portion of eternity, and we need to keep our eyes on a greater prize.
The lesson about Adam and Eve is set at the creation of the world, but it’s really about the lives of each one of us: God gives us a task to do, we fail, and God and ourselves end up estranged. Apart from Jesus Christ, that is what human life is. And the nature of the world we live in is that there are certain battles that we don’t fight once; we fight them in each generation. Noah had a drinking problem, and drinking problems are still around today. Samson’s gifts made him proud, randy and stupid and he squandered his gifts, and this gets re-enacted annually in professional sports or in Congress. Israel forgot about the LORD, not when it was condemned to slavery in Babylon, but when it was free and prosperous, and the same is true in modern America. Suicides will occur from time to time in the worlds you and I live in. Sometimes we won’t be very surprised, but sometimes we will. Suicide will probably have more impact on our life than, e.g., an Islamic terrorist or a rampage killer.
Let’s encourage each other - it can be a hard thing to be a human being in the world the way it is - and let’s live inside the perspective of the Gospel, which sees through the sadness of this world to the promise which God has for you and for me.