Sunday, November 11, 2012

How do we move on?

A Closing Thought.

For the last three weeks I have been blogging through a series of questions that have been asked since one of my closest friends committed suicide one month ago. As both a pastor and a friend to many of those who have been impacted by this tragic loss, my effort has been to seek God through his Word for answers to the tough questions about suicide. While I believe that has been done, we are still left with what to do with the rest of our lives. 

I know first hand that several have wrestled with taking their own life since the death of my  (our) beloved friend. The death needs to stop. I can’t imagine losing any more of you, so I want to end this series of blogs with a word of hope.

I was encouraged by a passage I read in Mark 2. I want to give you some thoughts I had, and hope that it encourages you too.

And they came, bringing to [Jesus] a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”, he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” [Mark 2:2-12] 

1. Jesus forgives the man’s sins before he heals him.

In this passage four men carry their paralyzed friend to see Jesus. Clearly the desire of the friends is for Jesus to heal the man. Instead, what Jesus does first is forgive the man’s sins. He eventually heals him, but I find it interesting that Jesus first takes care of his sin.

The order is clear to us who are looking on, but probably much less clear to those in the midst of sickness, pain, and struggle. Jesus’ greatest desire was to see people in redeemed and restored relationship to their Creator. His second purpose was this short life we live before entering eternity.

We would do well to remember Jesus’ priorities when trying to understand our own. There will be parts of this life we may never come to terms with. Prioritize our relationship with God, and the eternal will rise above the temporal.

2. The paralyzed man’s friends were incredibly committed 

I, like you, have wrestled with questions after losing loved ones. What could I have done to help? Could I have said or done anything more? Here is what I took away from the passage above.

The four friends do all that they can to help their friend. They live in such a way that the paralyzed man knows their love for him. Most importantly, they do this while he is alive. If I have learned anything from this passage and from the recent deaths of friends, it is this: do what you can, while your friend is with you. Live knowing that life is short, and tomorrow is never guaranteed.

3. A changed life glorifies God.

At the end of the passage it says that the man’s life is so dramatically changed that, “they were all amazed and glorified God.” We need to allow other people into the things that God is doing, or has done, in our own lives to give them hope in theirs. When people see what God has done in my life or your life, they can then begin to pursue God with hope for their own struggle. Hope is the gift we offer that points people to God in their pain and turmoil. 

Closing thoughts:
I began this conversation a few weeks ago by identifying our great need for hope. When we lose hope, we have nothing else (see this blog). The thing that we can do for those who are struggling with thoughts of suicide is to offer them hope. We cannot fix every problem, and we don’t have every answer. However, we can be the hope they need when they cannot see hope for themselves.

I believe that if we had known the thoughts in my friend’s head, and he could have known how many tears would be shed on his behalf, that something could have been done. We cannot alter the past, but we clearly can move forward with eyes opened.

Be people who give hope to others.

Through [Jesus] we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. [Romans 5:2-5]

"Hope itself is like a star, not to be seen in the sunshine of prosperity, and only to be discovered in the night of adversity."
~ Charles Spurgeon

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Is Suicide Forgivable?

As I continue the series on Christianity and Suicide, there is one question that looms heavy over many hearts. It is the often unasked question about forgivability. Can a person commit suicide and still be forgiven. This question clearly has eternal implications.

The Christian understanding is that suicide it is indeed a sin. It is most clearly a violation of the sixth commandment, “you shall not murder” [Exodus 20:13]. I will deal more with the Christian perspective on suicide in the next blog, but for now we seek the question of forgivability. 

There are two common myths that affect our view of suicide as Christians: one we will call the “Roman Catholic” myth, and the other being the “Unpardonable Sin” myth. Lets take these in order.

The Roman Catholic Myth
Roman Catholic theology asserts that suicide is a sin for violating the sixth commandment. However, in the Roman Catholic Church atonement is viewed differently than Protestantism. The inclusion of the sacraments in forgiveness are the difference. In Catholic theology the baptized Catholic has the opportunity of sacramental reconciliation (contrition, confession, absolution, and satisfaction or penance). In the case of a suicide, the guilty party never has the opportunity.  

The myth is that suicide leaves the guilty party without the option of receiving any sacramental atonement. 

However, the Catholic catechism states something very different, “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.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church #2283] The same catechism seeks for those who are left behind to pray for the deceased. Clearly the Roman Catholic view leaves room for hope, even if there is no assurance of pardon. However, to stay on point, the myth that forgiveness is not possible is false.

The Unpardonable Sin Myth
This myth, regarding the “unpardonable sin”, is about a phrase used twice by Jesus himself.  The two passages are Matthew 12 and Mark 3.

The myth is that suicide is the “unpardonable sin” and is therefore not forgivable according to Jesus.

I would guess that this myth is propagated by those who believe the first myth. In both the passages mentioned above, the authors recount a story where the religious leaders accuse Jesus of being possessed because he has power to cast out demons. The unpardonable sin, as quoted by Jesus in both records, is “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” This topic itself deserves its own blog, but suffice to say that a quick reading of both passages eliminates suicide from being the “unpardonable sin” as it is defined by Jesus.  

However, Jesus says something very relevant to this conversation:

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.” Mark 3:28-30 ESV

If we can agree that suicide is sin, and that the Bible is authority on God’s forgiveness, we can address the issue quite easily. If you read the above passages on the “unpardonable sin”, and came to the conclusion (as I have) that suicide is not it, than you already have your answer. In Jesus own words he tells us, “all sins will be forgiven the children of man” with the one exception that doesn’t relate here. 

Consider some of the people in Scripture who were guilty of murder. Moses murdered an Egyptian man, David had a man killed to cover up his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, and Saul (Paul the Apostle) oversaw the death of at least Stephen, and potentially many more. All of these men were forgiven, and even greatly used by God.

Often those who point to suicide as being not forgivable quote the numerous scriptures about repentance of sin. Though this is a good point, remember that repentance is the call to those who are alive. Each one of us will die guilty of unrepentant sin. Note what John says in his epistle:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. [1 John 1:8-10 ESV]

We are all sinful and forgiven at the same time. Martin Luther, the great German Reformer coined the phrase simul justus et peccator (at the same time righteous and sinful). We will all die with some unconfessed, and unrepentant sin. 

One more thought...
Just because something is potentially forgivable by God, does not make it acceptable with God. To take your own life is to assert your own authority over the life God has given you (this is the topic of the next blog post). 

Clearly any form of murder is sin. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, asks a rhetorical question about continuing to sin because we are forgiven. His answer is, “By no means!” [Romans 6:1-2] 

"He [Christ] died for me. He made His righteousness mine and made my sin His own; and if He made my sin His own, then I do not have it, and I am free." 
~ Martin Luther

Friday, October 26, 2012

Can a person love Jesus, and still commit suicide?

In continuing the blog series “Christianity and Suicide”, one of the most common questions centers around how a person can love Jesus, and still commit suicide. It comes out in statements like, “I thought he was doing so good”, and “but, he seemed like he had such a strong faith.”

Often, suicide becomes a question about one’s faith. Can a person genuinely follow Jesus and still have such deep pain that it can end in death? If so, did Christianity “work”? Was his or her faith real? How can someone be so “changed” in one sense, and still be so “unchanged” to the point of death? 

Possibly the best case study of a character in the Bible would be King David. Here are a few things we know about the famous ruler of Israel.:
  • He was a great kid who loved God - 1 Samuel 17
  • He married the love of his life - 1 Samuel 11
  • He was well loved by others - 1 Samuel 20
  • He loved to dance, sing, and worship God - 2 Samuel 6
Here is what else we know about King David:
  • He had been a murderer and adulterer in his past - 1 Samuel 11
  • He was plagued by fear often - Psalm 3
  • He felt like God wouldn’t answer him - Psalm 4
  • He felt like God was angry at him - Psalm 6

David was so plagued by his emotion, that he often wrote and contemplated death.  David writes, 

O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD—how long? Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise? I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.  [Psalm 6:1-7]

The desperation in David is the same desperation that leads someone to the brink of suicide. The combination of being plagued by the past, and a perception of separation or distance from God can leave a person feeling like there is no other option. Imagine the radical swing from the high emotions of dancing and singing in worship, to the lows of feeling distant from God, and you begin to see how the “energetic” and “happy” can quickly shift to the desperate and empty. These two terms in quotations are the words that were often used to describe my good friend who just took his own life. 

Another man in the Bible named Job writes this, 

“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. Am I the sea, or a sea monster, that you set a guard over me? When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint,’ then you scare me with dreams and terrify me with visions, so that I would choose strangling and death rather than my bones. I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are a breath. [Job 7:11-16]

Job was known to be an amazing man of faith and follower of God, but like David, he struggled with the turmoil in his life. The tumult of pain in his head was too much for him at times. He uses words like anguish and bitterness that he cannot even escape in his sleep.

Others, like Moses and the Sons of Korah, often struggled with times where death seemed like a better answer than life. As Job says above, “I would choose strangling and death rather than my bones.” Even Jesus while in his humility prayed, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.”

To be perfectly clear, I am not advocating for suicide. I believe taking your own life is never the right answer. However, when the question is asked if a person can love Jesus faithfully, and still want to die, the answer is yes. Sadly, and regrettably, the answer is yes.

The question that we are left with is what makes one person who deals with great depression and chooses to live, different from the one who chooses to take their own life? 

Hope. When a person loses hope, they have nothing left. 

It is said that a person can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but not a single minute without hope.

My prayer for you is that you never lose hope. 

“We should ask God to increase our hope when it is small, awaken it when it is dormant, confirm it when it is wavering, strengthen it when it is weak, and raise it up when it is overthrown.” 
~ John Calvin

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Christianity and Suicide

I recently lost one of my closest friends to suicide. He was a committed part of a church, belonged to a small group, served as an usher, loved to worship on Sundays, and was a fan of long Bible-based sermons. I know this, in part because he was my friend, but also because for several years I was his pastor. His life ended with written notes of apology, and an empty bottle of pills. Many questions have been asked.

My life tends to play a dual role: I am both friend and pastor to many who are grieving over this specific loss. My role as pastor has me in the unique place of hearing so many of these questions, particularly those related to faith. The one question being asked more than anything else, is why? Why did the guy who was always so “happy” and “energetic” take his own life? Sadly, this is the one question for which we have no real answer. To be frank, nothing will ever really answer why he did what he did, at least not on this side of Eternity.

There are, however, many questions that do have answers; most importantly, biblical answers. Here are three questions that seem to come up frequently:
  • Can a person love Jesus, and still commit suicide?
  • Is suicide the unpardonable sin?
  • What is the Christian position on suicide?
Over the next few days I will post answers to the above questions, and if you desire I will answer other questions on this topic. I have wanted to do this sooner, but I needed to grieve too. I am very grateful to the pastors who have loved me through this, and given me support and friendship. I am indebted to them. It is time now for us to begin the healing process by looking to God’s Word and seeking Jesus, the Living Word, for answers to our questions. 

I pray that this series of posts blesses you, and that my life-long friend’s death will in some way bring glory to Jesus. 

Pastor Jeff Ludington

"Crying is all right in its own way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do." 
~ C.S. Lewis

Monday, October 8, 2012

Living Between the Highs and Lows of Ministry

In his commentary on Mark 4:21-34 RC Sproul writes, 

“Every year in the United States, thousands of pastors leave the ministry.  Some leave for moral reasons, but most leave because they feel unappreciated by their congregations. They feel like they are spinning their wheels, that they’re preaching their hearts out but nothing is happening.”

As a pastor I have had the privilege of leading in multiple congregations over the past decade. I have experienced times of feeling appreciated, and times of feeling unappreciated. Admittedly, I have struggled with wanting to quit ministry more times than I can count. There are days, weeks, months, sometimes even long seasons, where the weight of ministry feels overwhelming and the temptation is to do something else - anything else.  

The opposite side of the coin are times of excitement and rejuvenation in ministry. There are times when I can see what God is doing in the church, and I can see lives being impacted.  A recent example would when as a church we baptized a whole bunch of people in one day. Some made decisions of faith on the spot, and could not wait to get into the water of baptism. There was joy and excitement, and people’s lives were being forever changed. Those days are great, and I never consider quitting ministry in those times.  

The issue is how to live in between the lows and the highs, and not wanting to quit during the lows.  

When I first read the words in the commentary quoted above it made me consider why I have had such polar swings in ministry. Could this just be normal? Here is the problem that I see: in both examples above, both good and bad, the basis of my emotional standing is based solely on what I can see.  

In the above quote, Dr. Sproul is commenting on a parable in Mark where Jesus says,

And [Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29 ESV)

Jesus shares a parable about a man who scatters seed and how it grows. He has done his job, but there is no growth; not yet. It takes time, but it eventually happens. The parable is a great reminder from Jesus that we are called to do as pastors. Here are some thoughts I pulled out of this passage for you to consider:
  • Jesus teaches us that we are talking about the “Kingdom of God”. We are not just raising crops of some kind, like the man in the parable.  I know this is simple, but we need an occasional reminder of the goal we are laboring towards. We anticipate the realizing of the Kingdom of God: Christ physically reigning in glory on earth! Is there any heartache, any “lack of appreciation”, that is not worth living to see that day come? Perspective helps.

  • Jesus tells us that the job of the man in the parable is to “scatter seed”, and then “when the grain is ripe” he is to harvest it.  My tendency is to think that I am also in charge of the growth.  I love what the parable says the man does after scattering, “He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows”. The man sleeps because his job is done. The lord causes the growth, not the man. My time is often spent working on the growing part, and that is when I fail to see what is my role, and what is God’s alone. This can lead to me feeling inadequate (because I am!), and wondering why I am not appreciated. The parable continues, “The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” I love the words “by itself”. It reminds me of who is in charge.

  • At last the man, “when the grain is ripe”, is invited into the “harvest”. God allows me to participate in the joy of seeing the Harvest. He doesn’t, however, put me in charge of it. I  often tend to slip into the mode of measuring my ministry (for better or worse) by the size of the harvest. It is no wonder my view of my ministry is like a roller-coaster of emotions. I am measuring my value by something I cannot control.

How different it would be if I lived like the man in the parable. I scatter the seed I am given (a beautiful gospel message), and then I rest in the security of knowing God alone causes the growth. I am invited into the privilege of seeing the harvest, and I can take joy in that, but I am not allowed to take value in it. My value comes from  what Christ has done in me alone. There will be days, weeks, or longer, that people won’t appreciate me the way I like, but at the end of the day, God still provides a harvest.