I am continually amazed at the lack of sensitivity and pastoral grace that many Christians have regarding their response to a death by suicide. There was a time when Christians–Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant–generally considered suicide an “unpardonable sin.” For this reason when a person took their own life the family was left with the profound sense that their loved one was eternally condemned through this final act of (self) murder. Both officially, and unofficially, this view has been largely altered over the last fifty-plus years. (I still recall how I felt when I first came across this “historic” view through reading Pilgrim’s Progress, the popular classic written by the English minister John Bunyan.)
The advances we’ve made in understanding mental illness, and especially the issue of suicide, have been nothing short of a major paradigm shift in understanding both human behavior and moral accountability. While it is true that the “moral” issue remains the same in suicide (a person takes a life, which is morally wrong) it seems to me that the way Christians understand this moral issue has changed rather dramatically. This change, I submit, is for the better. This illustrates how science has helped us to better understand the Scriptures and to apply them to complex moral questions. (Again, I do not hear many evangelicals talk about this connection openly but it seems quite obvious to me.)
I thought of this issue a few days ago when I was reading, of all things, the Sports page of USA Today. There I learned that former Cincinnati Reds utility player Ryan Freel suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTS), a disease that seems to have clearly played a major role in causing him to take his own life last year. A report from the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and the Sports Legacy Institute was presented to Ryan Freel’s family and Major League Baseball (MLB) last week. This report said that Freel suffered from CTS. Freel died. last December, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 36. Freel’s mother said this news would help the family and that would bring closure for his three daughters in particular. For this gift and mercy I give thanks to God.
Ryan Freel had suffered from nine or ten concussions in his life. In 2007 he had a major collision with Norris Hopper in the outfield then, two years later, he was put on the disabled list by the Baltimore Orioles after being hit in the head by an errant pickoff throw.
Why does this report about a baseball player matter? Because it explains why some ordinary people, even without the clearest evidence of mental illness or brain damage, might do serious harm to themselves, including taking their own life via suicide. We simply do not know what goes on in anyone’s mind. We surely do not know what a person may have dealt with physically or psychologically before they took their own life. This alone should cause Christians to be more sensitive to this issue. As for the issue of our pronouncing judgment on the soul of another I think it is safe to say that solid Christian (modern) understanding should lead us to make room for God’s judgement to outweigh all personal human opinion.
In the light of recent suicide reports about the sons of two well-known pastors, Rick Warren and Joel Hunter, I am more persuaded than ever that we should temper our opinion and pray for these grieving families. Anything less is both uncharitable and unscientific.