I’ve been thinking a lot about suicide lately. No, not in connection with myself (be not afraid). I’ve been thinking a lot about this pastor who took his life recently, and what this means theologically, emotionally, and for our common life together.
A doctor recently brought to my attention a word and definition that I believe is extremely helpful for the Christian in understanding suicide. The word is penacide. Penacide is the killing of pain. Here’s one definition of it:
Suicide and Suicide Grief: “‘Pena’ is from the Latin ‘poena’ (punishment or torment), the root of the word ‘pain.’ ‘Cide’ is from ‘cedere’ (to strike down). Penacide is ‘the killing of pain.’ It incorporates the reason, wanting to terminate one’s pain. It eliminates the notion that ‘wanting to die’ has anything to do with killing oneself. Penacide is not a kind of suicide. It’s what causes the deaths recorded as suicides. It is the true name of the beast.”
I would contend, and there is an increasing amount of evidence that bears this out, that most of the cases of suicide are really penacide. This is especially true when it comes to cases of clinical depression. Penacide means that you become so desperate to get rid of the pain inside you that you come to the point where you feel you must take your own life. You can’t take the pain any longer.
In most cases involving suicide, this is what is going on if it is connected to clinical depression.
How does this help us? First of all, it helps us to understand that dealing with clinical depression is not the same as sadness or assuaging guilt. Certainly guilt may and probably does come into play, but that is only one piece of the puzzle. But as Christians, we can easily fall into the trap of thinking of absolutely everything in terms of forensic justification. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I don’t think that mindset is helpful when it comes to depression or suicide.
Let me explain.
Because the neurotransmitters are not working properly in the brain of someone suffering from clinical depression, they become curved in upon themselves. It is increasingly difficult to deal with other people. The noise, the din, the problems, everything is magnified and exaggerated. It becomes physically oppressive. I’ve commented here before on the physical effects of clinical depression. It is hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been there. The closest I can come to explaining it is a combination of claustrophobia and suffocation. It is physical. It hurts. It is terribly painful, because you don’t know what is really going on or why.
Tragically for some, the pain becomes too much. They take their own life because they can’t take that pain anymore. I understand that, and I thank God that my pain never got to that point. But I’ve looked over that edge and seen the other side. It isn’t a good place.
So where is hope? Hope lies in the One who endured all for us. Hope lies in the One who came into our fleshed, suffered for us, and went the way of death so that we need not go there ourselves.
Sometimes the pain becomes too much. When we look at brothers and sisters who are suffering, don’t lay them with guilt. Give them Jesus. Get them a doctor. Be a friend. Love them. Suffer with them. Pray for them and with them. Don’t leave them, especially if the pain looks like it is becoming unbearable. God will see them through, and you through.
So what happens when someone does take their own life because the pain becomes too much? Rev. McCain said it very well in his post on the subject, and it bears repeating here:
I remembered Martin Luther’s wise words when asked about the state of those who commit suicide. It is a shame these wise words were not kept in mind during the history of our church. At my first parish, there was a corner of the parish cemetery where suicides were buried, in unmarked graves, the view being quite a legalistic view of the situation, that a person who kills himself has no chance to confess sin and receive absolution and therefore is lost. Luther rather wisely points to the power and influence of Satan and how we must be on our guard and realize that there are those times when Satan will take one of us captive and overcome us on the road of life.
Here is what Luther said:
“I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil. They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber. . . . They are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence he must teach us in this way.” [Vol. 54:29].
Finally, if you know a pastor who is struggling, be sure to reach out to encourage him and support him. Don’t sit around thinking, “Oh, somebody else is going to say something.” No, you say something. Do something. Reach out in Christian love. If a congregation is aware that the pastor is suffering, don’t wait, help.
I don’t this is a little stream of consciousness. I’ll try to put my thoughts in a little more cohesive fashion later.
Rest well, friends. Be at peace.