Editor’s note: In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week, we’re running several posts related to suicide prevention and how nothing can separate us from the love of God.
When I was a child, my mother’s friend Diana gave me unicorns. In my young mind, they were magical, kind and spiritual beings. Diana and I understood this.
I saw Diana, a psychologist like my mom, only at their shared office, where she would sometimes hand me another small figurine or a necklace or a book. But once, my mom took me to Diana’s apartment. It was filled with unicorns, and she asked me to pick out my favorite. I still have that small pewter unicorn, gentle and tiny but loved by those, such as Diana and me, who could see the magic. Imagine my sadness when, at 10 years old, my mother sat me down and, through tears, told me of Diana’s suicide. It was unthinkable.
Many years later, I am a pastor, still dealing with issues of the spirit. Recently, I heard three times in one day about people dying of suicide. Such deaths seem to come in cycles. When this happens, people ask their pastors about our theological beliefs on the subject—specifically, “What happens to the soul of a person who has died of suicide? Is that person with God or forever separated from God?” I do have ideas that make sense to me.
Lutheran theology—a theology I have chosen because I agree with it—states that God has loved us from the beginning, and that from the cross, God in Christ healed all that needed spiritual healing. This means that we have been saved by grace alone. Our own “good works” do not save or heal us on a spiritual level, but we don’t need to be afraid because we are not broken or without help or love from God.
As a mediocre-at-best analogy (because God’s love is infinitely greater), I think of how I am with my children. I don’t love them based on what they do or don’t do; I have always loved them because of who I am, because of the mother’s heart God has put in me. So, of course, I hope they want a relationship with me, but regardless, I am devoted to loving them forever. I cannot help it. In fact, I would give my life for them if needed. I would not say this of anyone, but in my parent’s heart, my children warrant that kind of love.
If I can look upon my children this way, how much more does God (who is love itself, according to Scripture) love each of us? How much more would God travel to the ends of the universe to find us and love us? How much would God give—not because of us, really, but because of God’s parenting heart? There is no danger of ever being unloved or abandoned.
If I can look upon my children this way, how much more does God (who is love itself, according to Scripture) love each of us?
We do not save ourselves by our works, our theology, our church membership, our decision to follow Christ or anything else. That would make me my own savior and you your own savior—at least in part. Instead, salvation is a done deal. It happened on the cross. Healing was a gift. God says, in essence, “You’re welcome. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Suicide is a secondary effect of something going on inside a person—mental illness, depression, trying to atone for one’s sins, or something else. To the question “Would someone who died of suicide be punished with eternal separation from God?” I respond, “Would God abandon his own, for brain chemical imbalance, depression, a sense of hopelessness, despair, grief or, really, anything else?”
I wouldn’t do that to my children. Jesus does not seem like that kind of God. Would the God who is love separate from his beloved for eternity? There is no proof of any of this, of course, only speculation. But with our understanding of who God is and what God has claimed, we can make better, more reasonable pronouncements than we have in the past.
Religion has caused far too much pain over this issue. Some people have been traumatized by their loved one’s suicide only to be further rejected and abandoned by their church community at their time of greatest need. Some believe God saves us by grace alone, except when we end our own life. But if God loves us unconditionally, doesn’t that mean God loves us beyond all conditions, including this one? And wouldn’t love save us, even when we are our own worst enemy or cannot save ourselves? Isn’t this the very definition of grace?
My mother didn’t say one condemning word to me about Diana on the day of her death or since then. She knew Diana was dealing with depression and despair we could not understand, and that our job was to empathize—with her in her pain, with the loved ones left behind to miss her and with all those who may appear stable on the outside but suffer silently on the inside. My mother encouraged me to remember that Diana was no longer suffering but in the arms of a God who loves her beyond measure. I believed that then, and I believe that still.
Unicorns—an ancient symbol of the resurrected Christ—now have a deeper meaning for me. Christ came to do not the easy things but the impossible things: to walk into the most desolate places of darkness, death and despair with us, and bring new life out of what seems, to all the world, to be lost. There is no place this love of God will not go.