When I was a teenager one of my favourite television shows was MASH, and Angela and I have just started from the beginning and are watching it all over again. And if you are familiar with the TV show or the movie than you are familiar with the theme song, which is called Suicide is Painless.
If you’ve only seen the TV show, then you might not have known what the song was called or what the lyrics were. The song opens with these words:
Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please
So just a couple of facts about the song. Robert Altman, the director of the movie, wanted a song for a specific part of the movie, and said he wanted it to be the stupidest song every.
Johnny Mandel was going to write the music, and Altman was going to write the lyrics. It just didn’t work. In an interview, Mandel told how Altman had been struggling with the lyrics and what the turning point was, “Bob said, ‘Ah, but all is not lost. I’ve got a 15-year-old kid who’s a gibbering idiot. He’s got a guitar. He’ll run through this thing like a dose of salts,’ So, Michael Altman, at age 15, wrote the lyrics, and then I wrote the music to them,”
Altman would later comment that he made $70,000.00 for directing the film and his son, the gibbering idiot with the guitar, made well over $1,000,000.00 in royalties for the song. That figure is well over the $2,000,000.00 mark now.
But regardless of what the song may say, suicide is not painless. Not for the person who chooses to take their own life and certainly not for those they leave behind.
Author, Jeannette Walls, writes “When people kill themselves, they think they’re ending the pain, but all they’re doing is passing it on to those they leave behind.”
This is week eight of our Mental Health Series at Cornerstone. Back in February the preaching team, that would be myself, Pastor Rob, Pastor Deborah and Pastor Stefan, decided that with all that has been going on with the Pandemic and the turmoil it’s been causing in people’s lives, that mental health would be an appropriate post Easter Topic.
Over the past seven weeks we’ve dealt with depression, narcissism, renewing our minds, fear, anxiety, worry and OCD. I’m finishing up the series this week by looking at the topic of suicide. And we are going to look at suicide from both sides of the coin, so to speak. We are going to look at what leads to suicide but also suicide guilt. What happens when you’ve been left behind?
I officiated my first funeral for a victim of suicide when I was 28 years old. The gentleman had been brought up in the church, had drifted from the church through his adult life and had just recently started attending again.
His family was very adamant that there be no hint of suicide at the funeral. As a matter of fact, they wanted me to imply that he died of a heart attack and not of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I said I couldn’t lie, and that was the last funeral they asked me to perform for their family.
Now, I didn’t tell people he committed suicide, but I didn’t say he had a heart attack. I spoke about God’s grace and suggested that we would need to show grace when thinking of the dearly departed.
Seven years later, the first funeral that I conducted at Cornerstone in 1995 was for someone who had taken their own life. I had never met the lady, but her father had attended our first few services. And unfortunately that wasn’t the last funeral service I’ve performed for someone who made that decision.
I’m sure that most of us have known someone, either in your family or in your circle of friends, who has made the decision to end their life.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health is a psychiatric teaching hospital in Toronto, and they say this about suicide: Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one’s own death, and is often related to complex stressors and health issues. Suicide occurs across all ages, incomes, ethnicities and social factors.
It goes on to say, “Most often, people experience suicidal thoughts when they have lost hope and feel helpless. They want their pain to end, and they may see no other way out. Suicide can also be an impulsive act that follows the use of substances. In some cases, people with psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia may hear voices that tell them to harm themselves.”
And they list a number of signs and symptoms. We are told people who are at risk for suicide may:
- show a sudden change in mood or behaviour
- show a sense of hopelessness and helplessness
- express the wish to die or end their life
- increase substance use
- withdraw from people and activities that they previously enjoyed
- experience changes in sleeping patterns
- have a decreased appetite
- give away prized possessions or make preparations for their death (for example, creating a will).
The CAMH site goes on to tell us, “Suicide can be prevented. The vast majority of people who have suicidal thoughts, or who have attempted suicide, do not die by suicide. Many people can recover from these experiences and live full and meaningful lives.”
Actress, Marilyn Monroe said, “When you’re young and healthy you can plan on Monday to commit suicide, and by Wednesday you’re laughing again.”
If you’re wondering, Monroe committed suicide on August 4, 1962, which was a Saturday. Unless, of course, JFK really ordered her murder.
And it is interesting to note that a year ago mental health professionals feared the prospect of lockdowns and social isolation would result in an increase in suicide. Some even speculated that the lives saved due to the lockdowns would be fewer than the lives lost to the increase in suicide.
However, a global study just released has found no apparent increase in suicide rates. Study data demonstrates that around the world, suicides generally stayed the same or even decreased in some countries. As a matter of fact, Nova Scotia recorded its lowest suicide rate since 2014.
Dalhousie University psychology professor and psychologist Simon Sherry put that into perspective when he said, “I don’t think of this as a crisis averted. I think of it as a crisis delayed.”
In 2019, over 4,000 Canadians ended their own lives. Men were three time more likely to die by suicide than women and there were 6 times more suicides in Canada than there were homicides.
The scripture that Funmi read for us tells us about the only suicide recorded in the New Testament, and that was the death of Judas. And through the years I’ve been asked a number of questions about Judas that can apply to most suicides.
1) Why Did Judas Commit Suicide?
If you look up the reasons for suicide, the primary cause is mental illness. But there is no indication that Judas was dealing with any of those issues in his life. He didn’t seem to suffer from depression or schizophrenia, from what we read he didn’t seem to be bipolar. He may have been narcissistic, but that usually isn’t a suicide risk.
However, there were other factors that are often listed that can lead a person to end their own life. Some of those are traumatic stress, a loss or the fear of loss and hopelessness. And when we read what happened just prior to Judas making the decision to end his life, we see how those fit it. Matthew 27:3 When Judas, who had betrayed him, realized that Jesus had been condemned to die, he was filled with remorse. So he took the thirty pieces of silver back to the leading priests and the elders.
There have been a number of reasons given as to why Judas betrayed Christ, and I’ve dealt with those in different messages, but personally I think that Judas was trying to force Jesus’ hand. I think that Judas felt if Jesus was arrested that he would call on his power and the power of his Father and establish the Kingdom that Judas was looking for. And you might not agree with me, and that’s fine. You may find it hard to believe, but I have been disagreed with before.
When I was pastoring in Truro, I preached a message called “What Judas Missed.” And if that sounds familiar it’s because I’ve preached it at Cornerstone. If you missed it, you could go to pennofdenn.com and do a search and read it there.
Well, the Wednesday after I preached it in Truro, a retired missionary lady stood up in prayer meeting and publicly berated me for the message. Told me I was wrong and told me it was the stupidest message that she had ever heard. Angela left the room in tears. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I thanked the lady for her views.
Many of you know that I post my messages on a website called Sermon Central as a resource for other pastors. Of the over 600 sermons that I’ve posted that particular message has been the most popular, and it has been viewed over 107,000 times. So, just goes to prove that different people can view things differently.
So personally, I don’t think that Jesus’ death was what Judas had in mind when he betrayed him. I think he saw things turning out a lot different then they did, and it goes to prove the validity of Yogi Berra’s statement, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future!”
So, not only did the wheels come off the wagon, the wagon careened over a cliff and exploded at the bottom.
Judas’ dreams of Jesus rising up as messiah and overthrowing the Romans were shattered, but more than that Judas realized that he had signed his friend’s death warrant.
The bible tells us that he was filled with remorse, and when he tried to make it right by returning the money he had been paid to betray Jesus, the authorities mocked him.
Let’s go back to those contributing factors in suicide, traumatic stress. Judas had watched Jesus being arrested, beaten, and sentenced to death. A loss or the fear of loss, Judas had thrown the dice and lost. He lost his dreams and now that Jesus had been sentenced to death, he could see that he was going to lose his friend. And then there was a sense of hopelessness. He tried to stop things, and now he could only watch helplessly as things continued to spiral out of control.
Often times, people commit suicide because they feel that they’ve lost control. But suicide doesn’t end the chances of things getting worse, but it does eliminate the chance of things getting better.
Or maybe Judas was simply giving up. It was Bill Maher who said, “Suicide is man’s way of telling God, ‘You can’t fire me – I quit!”
The next question is one that I’ve been asked several times, not just about Judas specifically but about victims of suicide in general.
2) Did Judas Go to Hell Because He Committed Suicide? We’ve been taught through the years that suicide is the unforgivable sin.
But is it?
There is nothing in the bible that would indicate that. The only mention of an unforgivable sin in found in Jesus’ words in Mark 3:28–29 “I tell you the truth, all sin and blasphemy can be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. This is a sin with eternal consequences.” Which of course leads us to the question, what does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit?
If we keep reading, we put the verse in context. Mark 3:30 He told them this because they were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.” And that is a sermon for another day, but suffice to say that Jesus didn’t say, Mark 3:28–29 “I tell you the truth, all sin and blasphemy can be forgiven, but anyone who takes their own life will never be forgiven. This is a sin with eternal consequences.”
The belief that suicide is the unforgivable sin is founded more in Catholic doctrine than God’s grace. It probably had its beginning in the fifth century, when Augustine condemned suicide based on it breaking the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”.
Then in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas denounced suicide as an act against God and as a sin for which one could not repent. His reasoning was that mortal sins are sins that need to be repented of to get into heaven and that murder was a mortal sin. Therefore, when you murdered yourself, you committed a mortal sin without the chance to repent.
The Catholic has church changed their view of suicide. The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”
The reason the retired missionary got so cranky with me over my sermon on Judas was my suggestion that he could have been forgiven. But as I’ve said before, anytime you suggest that someone can’t be forgiven, you are revealing your view of God.
In her poem The Great Mercy, poet Katharine Tynan wrote, “Betwixt the saddle and the ground Was mercy sought and mercy found.”
We don’t know what went through Judas’ mind in the moments before he died, but if it was a cry for forgiveness, then it was a cry that was heard by God.
3) Could It Have Ended Differently?
Perhaps if Jesus had been the Messiah that Judas was looking for, or maybe if the authorities had listened to Judas when he proclaimed Jesus’ innocence. Or perhaps even if Judas could have heard Jesus’ words from Luke 23:34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
But Jesus wasn’t the Messiah that Judas was looking for. The authorities hadn’t listened to Judas when he proclaimed Jesus’ innocence and when Jesus spoke those words of forgiveness, Judas was already dead.
What the scriptures tell us is this, Matthew 27:5 Then Judas threw the silver coins down in the Temple and went out and hanged himself. The Romans didn’t hang him, the religious leaders didn’t hang him, and Jesus certainly didn’t hang Judas. Judas hanged himself.
The question I have often heard after a suicide is: what could I have done differently? And then people start playing the blame game, if only I had seen the signs. If only I had gotten them help. If only I had been a better parent, a better spouse, a better friend, a better child.
When I was in High School, there was a couple in my circle of friends that had a tumultuous relationship. To say the least. And he would break up with her, and she would threaten to kill herself and he’d go back to her. And this went on for a while until he finally ended their relationship, and she didn’t kill herself. But the reality is that she had killed herself, it wouldn’t have been his fault, it would have been a choice that she made.
Angela and I have friends who lost an adult child to suicide a couple of years ago. In the notice they posted about his death, they wrote that he had chosen to end his life. And that is the reality.
Regardless of all the “what ifs” and “if onlys” that swirl though the minds of those who have been left behind, suicide is a choice.
It may not be a wise choice or a rational choice. But it is a choice.
Could things have been done differently? Possibly. Would that have changed the outcome? Possibly. But the decision to end one’s life is still a personal choice.
Where does it Leave Us?
When I conducted the funeral for the gentleman in Truro who shot himself, I spoke about the need for people to show grace to the memory of their friend and family member. If your life has been shattered by suicide, I would recommend that you do the same.
I’ve often said that nobody should be judged based on their worst decision. And for those who commit suicide, their worst decision is the decision to end their lives. But that isn’t the only decision they made.
Rick Warren is the Pastor of Saddleback Church in California and author of the Purpose Driven Life. In 2013 Warren’s youngest son, Matthew, chose to end his life at the age of 27 after a long struggle with depression and other mental health issues.
Rick said that of all the letter of condolences that he and his wife Kaye received, the ones that meant the most were those who told how Matthew had made a difference in their lives. People who shared how Matthew had counselled them against suicide, or how he had led them into a relationship with Jesus.
And then Warren said, “In God’s garden of grace, even a broken tree can bear fruit.”
Judas Iscariot may be one of the most vilified people in history, but Jesus saw something in him worthy of being called an apostle.
When you remember your loved one, don’t forget to remember the joy they brought you, along with the hurt. It doesn’t do anyone any good to minimize either one of those memories.
And I purposefully haven’t addressed euthanasia, or assisted suicide, or the new term, Medical assistance in dying in this message. That’s another issue for another time. I have views on our attempts to play God, on both sides of the issue, but for now it will cost you a coffee to hear what those views are.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, reach out to someone right now.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, there are all kinds of pithy things that I could tell you.
That you matter to God, and to your family.
That your life doesn’t just belong to you, but to everybody who loves you.
That suicide is often a permanent solution to temporary problems.
That as bad as things seem, there is hope.
And there are reasons why you have held on so long, and you need to remember those reasons.
But, if you are having suicidal thoughts, you don’t need pithy sayings, you need professional help.
Reach out, if you are in Nova Scotia, and you or someone you care about is considering suicide you can call either the Mental Health Crisis Line at 1-888-429-8167 or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868