Suicide & Despair

There is an epidemic of despair in modern society. And why not? In an age when babies are slaughtered by the millions, sexual perversions of all kinds are protected by law, the economy is completely out of gas, and the public education system in America is just another form of brainwashing, despair seems like the obvious response.

Not only is the cultural landscape bleak, our personal lives are a wreck. We are unable to accomplish what we set out to do, despite our best efforts we make little progress against suffering and want, and our relationships and dreams of the future are often precarious at best. No one helps his neighbor, not even the government that poses so often as our earthly savior.

There are three possible solutions to these problems. People can ignore the truth (spiritual suicide), attempt to escape it through death (physical suicide), or put their faith in Jesus Christ who alone can save and comfort us. If man is indeed the measure of all things, then one of the first two options is unavoidable.

Most people choose the first. Proverbs 10:23 says, "Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding." How often do we hear evil laughed at, wickedness reduced to a mere joke, and people's minds deliberately reduced to states of ignorance? It's easier to make light of darkness, or ignore it, than to wrestle with it.

But the same man who wrote Proverbs also wrote this in Ecclesiastes 7:3: "Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad." James echoes this sentiment in 4:1-12 of his epistle, especially verses 9-10, where he writes, "Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you."

This seems to fly in the face of other Bible authors' exhortations to be joyful (Philippians 4:4-7, for example). But of course the Bible doesn't contradict itself (it's the Word of God, after all), and this apparent tension is easily resolved when we remember that we are all sinners, and any who are saved are saved by God's grace alone (Romans 8:21-31).

The Preacher and James draw our attention to the first part of that truth—we are all sinners in need of repentance, and our sin should lead us to an attitude of contrition and sorrow. Our sin should always make us grieve, and this allows no place for joy and laughter. Yet our salvation in Jesus Christ makes us truly joyful, euphoric that our sin has been taken away.

Man without God has no way of resolving this tension. Either he embraces joy like a fool (as the one who ignores pain and darkness), or he drowns himself in despair (as the one who attempts escape through suicide). This second response is the result of both honesty and lack of faith.

There's a sense in which the one who contemplates suicide and who has no faith in Christ is among the most honest of the world's citizens. In Ephesians 2:11-12, the apostle Paul characterizes non-Christians as "having no hope and without God in the world." How can the person who realizes they are without hope because they are without God respond in any way other than to escape through self-inflicted death?

Unless, of course, they choose the third way, repenting and asking Jesus Christ for forgiveness. The Bible reveals explicitly that faith in Christ saves us: "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved" (Romans 10:9-10).

To obtain this salvation, one must repent (Luke 13-1-5) and believe. Through repentance,we experience deep sorrow at the depth and magnitude of our sin; through faith, we receive assurance of salvation (Hebrews 10:19-39), and therefore the deepest joy imaginable.

Both must be present to deliver us from despair. If we have only the sorrow, we will suffer from terror, mistrust, a crushing sense of our own impending doom. If we have only the joy, it is mere shallowness, and insufficient to save us, except from the weight of knowing or understanding. Despair stems from both; only in Christ's dual nature and dual promise of repentance and faith for His body can we be free of despair.

What about those who do know Jesus and fight despair? The easy answer is that their faith is weak, but the more honest answer is that everyone faces despair and depression at some point, and many even contemplate suicide. In Psalm 42:3 we read, "My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, 'Where is your God?'"

Believers aren't exempt from depression or feelings and thoughts of despair. Part of this is because we're still sinners; the other part is because we live in a fallen world wracked by evil, unbelief, sin, and pain. Sometimes, believers are more likely to be overcome by despair than non-Christians, because of the lack of faith all around them.

Yet there's no need for despair. In fact, despair is a sign of lack of faith. If we truly believe that God is the Lord of all things, including history, including this fallen world, including our own desperate and wicked hearts, how can we fall into despair at the state of things? To do so is to belie our actual lack of faith in the sovereign God.

"For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).

Those of us who put faith in Jesus Christ, our God and savior, how can we fear and how can we despair? All the wickedness of man is insufficient to daunt our all-powerful Lord, who alone is powerful, who alone is able to save, who alone is able to wipe away every tear of those who mourn, and bind up every hurt of the wounded. It is to Him alone we turn for grace, truth, salvation from sin, and the promise of eternity in His ever-glorious and joyful presence.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Grieving a Suicide
by David Powlison
from New Growth Press
in CCEF Counseling booklets (Location: XCL-CCEF)