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Monday, July 23, 2012

Facts about suicide

by Tom Wacaster

Sometime in the week of March, 1997, in Rancho Santa Fe, California, the 39 members of Heaven's gate cult committed suicide. The suicide of the cult members (21 women and 18 men, ranging in ages from 26 to 72) was seemingly prompted by the belief that a UFO traveling in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet had come for them. They believed it was time for them to shed their earthly bodies and move on. They had orchestrated the worst mass suicide in the United States history.

Reverend James Warren "Jim" Jones was the founder and leader of the Peoples Temple, which is best known for the November 18, 1978 mass suicide of 909 Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana along with the killings of five other people at a nearby airstrip. Over 200 children were murdered at Jonestown, almost all of whom were forcibly made to ingest cyanide by the elite Temple members. The incident in Guyana ranks among the largest mass suicides in history, though most likely it involved forced suicide and/or murder, and was the single greatest loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the events of September 11, 2001.

While these two notable examples of suicide are the tragic consequence of believing and following error, the majority of suicides come as a result of despair and frustration with life and an attempt to escape. Last week we examined euthanasia. The morality of suicide crosses paths with euthanasia when the individual seeks to end his life because of suffering or supposedly noble reasons. Oregon passed a doctor assisted suicide law, allowing doctors to assist in the suicide of a patient who wanted to end his life. This so called "Death With Dignity Act" is just one area in which suicide is being considered an easy way out for individuals facing a sense of hopelessness in life. Michael McDaniel shared these frightening statistics with his readers: "For 15 to 24-year olds, suicide is the third leading cause of death, following accidents and homicide. Every year, an average of 1,890 suicides occur among teens 15-19. More than 1,600 of them are boys. Although girls are mor e likely to attempt suicide, boys are four times more likely to die." Times of hardship often brings a spike in suicide levels. For example, the Great Depression of 1929, which suddenly brought economic ruin to thousands of people accustomed to a decade of prosperity, caused an immediate and dramatic spike in suicides. Suicide rates, which averaged 12.1 per 100,000 people in the decade prior to the Depression, jumped to an alarming 18.9 in the year of Wall Street's crash. The suicide rate remained higher than normal throughout the remainder of the Great Depression, then fell sharply during World War II. Comparing that to suicide rates in our generation, the rate in 2007 was 1 suicide every 15 minutes, for a total of 33,300 in that year. In 2008 the rate increased by 33%, and another 15% in 2009. Suicide is often an attempt to escape the frustrations of life rather than face the hardship that one might have to face as a consequence of various circumstances (many of those! the result of a persons unwise choices). Suicide has been evident in every society and in every generation. My mission travels have taken me to various parts of the world, and it is not uncommon to hear in the news that someone else has taken his life. From Russia, to India, to the United States, no country is exempt from the ravages of sin and the attempt to escape the consequences thereof by the taking of one's own life. More than 100 years ago J.C. McQuiddy wrote these words in the September 1908 issue of the Gospel Advocate (quote provided by Daniel Cates): "Nor does the discordant note end here; for, tired and worn-out with the emptiness of life, thousands are seeking rest in oblivion and slinking out of a hollow sham of life by the back alley of suicide. In the city of Pittsburg, there was a death every day in this way during the first eighteen days of July. This strange mania is constantly gaining ground, and is not confined to lunatics and nerveless, diseased! people, but people apparently sane and healthy often choose this fate . Life is actually getting to be terrifying in its aspects."

All of this is an indication of a growing disrespect for life in general, and a despair toward life in times of distress and/or sickness. Unfortunately an increasing number of people from of all ages are turning to suicide to escape the mental anguish that plagues them. Webster defines suicide as "the act of killing oneself intentionally; in law, the act of self-destruction by a person sound in mind and capable of measuring his moral responsibility." One important element in that definition are the words, "a person sound in mind and capable of measuring his moral responsibility." The late Guy N. Woods conducted the open forum at Freed Hardeman Lectures for more than 30 years. Unfortunately his comments on suicide were not published in either of the two volumes of "Questions and Answers." I recall hearing him address this issue from time to time, and though I cannot quote him exactly, his thoughts were in agreement with Webster's definition of suicide. The key to understanding the right or wrong of suicide centers around whether or not the act was "intentional" and if the person was indeed "sound in mind and capable of measuring his moral responsibility." When a person has lost his ability to reason clearly and logically, and kills himself, that person certainly is innocent before God because of the Almighty's very nature. God's compassion, mercy, and love certainly come into focus here. But when a person, "sound in mind and capable of measuring his moral responsibility," who chooses to intentionally take his life, that is another matter. While there may be exceptions to the case, a Christian "sound in mind and capable of measuring his moral responsibility," who intentionally takes his life is demonstrating a selfish attitude. Solomon concluded that the one who lives a lone and self indulgent life is actually showing contempt for those who have sound judgment (cf. Proverbs 18:1).

One principle that needs to be emphasized here is that suffering may be a providential means God uses to mature a person spiritually. Job is a good example here. This great man of God had done nothing to deserve his suffering. Unknown to Job was the fact that Satan had been allowed by God to inflict Job with pain in order to demonstrate that man's great faith in the face of adversity. Had Job committed suicide Satan would have won the argument. Instead Job was "blameless and upright" (1:1), and he refused to heed the advice of his wife to "curse God and die" (2:9-10). Job's days of suffering humbled the man so that he listened to God's rebuke and repented in dust and ashes (Job 42:6).

Paul is another good example of someone who benefited from suffering. Whatever Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was, God refused to remove that thorn, and instead provided Paul with the grace to handle his situation with faith and confidence in God. Never once did Paul entertain the idea of committing suicide to find relief from the persecution of his enemies.

As our society increasingly turns its back on God, the more frustrating and meaningless life will become, and more people will turn to suicide as an escape. You and I have a great opportunity to demonstrate to others the Christian life that offers hope and joy. Let us be faithful toward this end.

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