Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of media attention concerning a young lady named Brittany. She was suffering from an aggressive form of brain cancer and desired to ‘die with dignity’ by utilizing her ability to decide when and how she will die. This past Saturday she followed through with her plan surrounded by loved ones. I will come back to her situation later but first I need to talk about Eric.
Eric is a significant person in the story of my life. Every story has a beginning and when it comes to my faith story it starts with a good friend committing suicide. One moment I’m getting ready to run the final leg of a relay race with my friend Eric sitting on a bench a few feet away and a couple hours later I receive a phone call saying that he took his own life. You can read my previous post where I go through how God revealed himself to an angry and hurting boy in the midst of a horrible situation here: http://growgraceknowledge.blogspot.com/2014/04/good-news-on-good-friday.html
Despite the fact that somehow through that ordeal I found ‘Good News’ there was another troubling side to the coin. What about ‘Good News’ for Eric? Over the course of most of my life I’ve had a mix of sorrow and joy when it came to my story. My understanding of salvation early on made it impossible for me to hope for Eric. He had committed what I believed was, and what many believe still is, the unforgivable sin. Suicide, as I understood it, was a sin that had certain and eternal consequences. Because there was not an opportunity, between the pulling of the trigger and his immediate death, to ask for forgiveness, how is there any room for hope of salvation?
There are a couple of things that I would like to appeal to when it comes to hope in the midst of suicide situations and neither of them have to do with the grace and mercy of God. It’s easy for us to impose our views of grace and mercy onto God and how he should respond. Appeals to God’s grace and mercy are sometimes made with the deep sense that God is going to do exactly as I would do if I were God. That’s not exactly a biblically sound foundation to build on so I’m not going to do it. My first appeal will be to the connection of our salvation to a relationship instead of works and the second appeal to the completeness of God’s work in Christ in regard to our sin.
Not By Our Works
You don’t have to be around church very long before you hear that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. Hopefully that is the case! However, if you’ve been around the church long enough you’ve also probably heard plenty about what Christians do or do not do in regard to personal behavior/works. Despite our head knowledge that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ there is still a consistent infatuation with works as it pertains to our salvation. This infatuation with works has our salvation teetering back and forth between ‘saved’ and ‘damned’ as our lives cycle from sinful acts to holy acts like praying a prayer of repentance. This is what I call ‘seesaw salvation’ or ‘teeter-totter salvation’, depending on your childhood familiarity. I call it seesaw salvation because it’s a visual way to see the cycle of sin and repentance as some understand it. The end result of this ‘works’ logic is that you are saved or damned according to what you’ve done last, which is why suicide is such a huge deal when it comes to determining someone’s salvation. You don’t need to have any insight into a person’s relationship with Christ because it is pretty clear what the final ‘work’ of their life was. Presuming a person’s relationship because of an act is simply not our place. Their salvation is intimately connected to their relationship with Christ and not in any way to their works, good or bad.
The Complete Work of Christ
Here’s an amazing thing about Christ dying for all of our sin. We weren’t even around when he did it! We hadn’t even been born yet, much less sinned yet, when Christ died on the cross. All of our sins were future sins when Christ died for them and he paid for them all in advance. All of my sins are covered by his blood because of my being united with him. Jesus doesn’t take care of our sins incrementally with each and every prayer for forgiveness. He took care of them all once and for all. If, upon my death, the Father sees me as spotless it’s not because I entered the pearly gates spotless but because I’m covered by Jesus who is spotless. “Dressed in his righteousness alone. Faultless to stand before the throne.” as the hymn says. Even if the last action you or I have in this world is sinful there is still room for hope if we are united with him. Our relationship status with Christ, along with our salvation, doesn’t precariously seesaw back and forth with each and every action. And so, for the believer in Christ, we can be assured that all of our sins have already been paid for.
Once again, our salvation is anchored in the work of Christ and not in our works. A works based system of salvation is the root of bold declarations as to the certainty of peoples eternal destinations. That is precisely the kind of thing I see people doing when it comes to suicide, among other things.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t actively confess and repent of our sin as if it doesn’t matter. We definitely should do that, but it must be pointed out that our act of confession is in many ways a response to something that has already happened. Christ isn’t going to die again for the new sin you have just committed because his one death is sufficient. For those already in Christ the debt has already been paid. In many ways you are asking for something he has already done.
“Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.”—1 Corinthians 12:3
We can’t even say “Jesus is Lord” apart from the Holy Spirit already being at work in us. We can’t even open our mouths to confess our sin to the Lord apart from the Lord already doing a work in our lives. Salvation is an immediate reality that is not bound to our confession but is bound to our being united with Christ. Christ died, once for all, and his work is complete. It is finished. Sin and death don’t get the last word.
So what about Eric? Jesus get’s the last word, not Eric’s sin. My hope and prayer is that he was united with Christ. I don’t know what kind of work the Spirit was doing within him so I won’t speculate. It’s not my place, nor is it anybody elses. No matter how selfish or sinful his final actions were, they did not place him outside the reach of Christ.
And what about Brittany? Her situation was different than Eric’s because she had terminal cancer and knew that barring a 11th hour miracle she was going to die and in many ways knew what the dying process was going to look like for her particular disease. But is it different because she knew she was going to die? We all know that we’re going to die. No surprise there, although many times we do live in denial about that fact of life judging by the way we drive our vehicles. It’s not that she knew she was going to die that makes her situation different from suicides like Eric’s but that she knew with more precision than most the likely details of her death and chose a different way to die.
Because I am a violent person in a violent world it is very difficult for me to keep in step with the persistent inner drum beat that calls me to non-violence. Despite my desire to delineate between one killing and another, to justify one and not the other, the drum beat within says that killing is killing. Physical pain and suffering is horrible but should it be avoidable? When it came down to it, even Jesus asked his Father if the path of suffering laid out before him was avoidable. In Jesus’ acceptance of the path of suffering he made himself accessible to us. Later on his followers would rejoice in their suffering.
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”—1 Peter 4:12-13
Jesus had intimately participated in the human experience of suffering and now his followers were sharing in the experience of Christ through suffering.
Two final things before I stop my rambling. First, I want to clarify that this is not about providing any sort of justification for anyone killing themselves. Just because I believe such a thing does not put someone outside the reach of grace does not mean that this is an appropriate way for our lives to end. To quote a friend of mine:
"If we truly love Jesus and have trusted him with all that we are and ever will become, our desire is to please the Lord with our lives, not out of a sense of "works" but because we love Him so much. Therefore, we aren't thinking about whether or not we can "get away with" committing suicide or any other questionable act.”
This is, in large part, for the great number of people I know who have already been impacted by the tragic death of loved ones and struggle to find hope as I did in the case of my friend Eric. In the final equation Jesus gets the last word and not our works. For that I’m not only grateful, but hopeful.
Second, in regard to those who insist on using variations of the word ‘coward’ when talking about people like Brittany or Eric. Stop. Please. My honest assessment is that people who use such words in this context lack understanding and compassion and are ultimately of no earthly comfort to people in pain. This isn’t about cowardice versus heroism. This isn’t about the absence of courage but the presence of unbelievable suffering and there’s nothing more disturbing to me than taking what I consider to be a verbal cheap shot at people considering death with dignity or people who have already committed suicide. There are far greater ways to encourage and comfort the terminally ill and bring joy into their life than by challenging them to not be a coward.