When A Pastor Commits Suicide
Yet another pastor committed suicide. But this time, he was my close friend. And so I keep asking myself: How do I make sense of this?
After all, this seasoned pastor wasn’t a phony Saul (1 Sam. 31:4). He was a genuine believer whose life bore much fruit. He wasn’t a guilt-ridden Judas (Mt. 27:5). He loved Jesus and understood Christ’s atonement; he had sound theology. Neither does it seem like he was running away from scandal.
So how can I understand this shocking tragedy? Over the last month, I’ve reflected on my friend’s suicide by remembering the following realities—both good and bad. Perhaps they’ll be of help to you, should you ever find yourself in a similar situation.
We cannot overlook the fact that our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). There’s such a thing as spiritual warfare. Scheming, unseen, and evil beings attack us constantly, speaking lies and seeking any lapse in our armor to plant doubts and accusations that might tempt us away from our Lord.
Pastors are prime demonic targets. Was Satan involved in this destructive darkness? No doubt. But to stop here and say that the Devil and the Devil alone made my friend do this? That’s too simplistic.
As you can imagine, some hard circumstances played a role in my pastor-friend taking his own life.
In this case, he worked hard for years doing evangelism and discipling and preaching and administration and hospitality—and his small church shrunk. He took on other jobs to provide for his family. Relational conflict began to engulf his elder team. Eventually, the church dwindled to under ten people and he left—beat down and discouraged, feeling like a mistreated and middle-aged failure.
Upon his departure, selling his house became an unusual hassle. His son broke his arm, and his new role in a new city—an associate pastor serving under someone younger—felt like salt in a wound.
In the words of David, the waters had come up to his neck (Ps. 69:1).
But many people have experienced worse hardships and haven’t succumbed to despair. So my friend’s death cannot be pinned entirely on his sad circumstances.
As you might expect, my dear friend had a history of medical treatment for depression. We still know so little scientifically about the brain, but theologically, we’ve always known that we’re enfleshed souls (Gen. 2:7). God made us with bodies, he took on a body himself, and he has promised one day to raise and glorify our bodies. In other words, who we are is bound up with physical matter—proteins and protons.
In the process of finding a new doctor, my friend began a different dosage of medication. But instead of helping, this messed with his head. He couldn’t think straight. Something simply wasn’t right in his brain chemistry. Have you ever been sleep deprived or heavily drugged or seriously unhealthy or hormonal and not felt in your right mind? That was happening to my friend.
This explanation helps us, yet it doesn’t fully satisfy. It’s not as though he died of cancer or some other medical deficiency. He made the decision to kill himself.
We must account for Satan, circumstances, and sickness. But we must also understand that my friend’s fatal choice was a sin for which he stands culpable. Suicide is self-murder; it’s a violation of the Sixth Commandment. It’s a selfish act that hurts many.
My dear brother-pastor left behind a broken-hearted widow and three confused kids. He abandoned his church. In that final moment of swirling darkness, he failed to trust God and took matters into his own hands. He had a lapse of faith and gave in to bitterness and hopelessness.
Suicide is never an excusable or righteous solution—no matter how great the temptation, how bad the situation, or how serious the condition. My friend not only made a bad choice, he grievously sinned against God and others.
Does the sin of suicide mean this beloved pastor cannot be saved? No. Sin is inconsistent with being a born-again believer. And yet we all are full of inconsistencies, and of sin (i.e. 1 Jn. 2:1). Even great spiritual leaders fail miserably and perpetrate horrible evils. Consider King David who committed murder and adultery.
But David repented (Ps. 51)—and my friend likely didn’t. After all, when someone commits suicide, there’s rarely enough time.
This is where the Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone is so critical. We’re inseparably united to Christ by grace through our often faltering faith—not through our fluctuating works. Upon our conversion, Christ’s work irrevocably becomes ours: his death pays entirely for all of our past, present, and future sins; his unique life of utter faithfulness is completely credited to us and clothes us. In other words, for Christians, God’s end-time verdict has already been irreversibly handed down and declared over us—RIGHTEOUS, he says, even though we remain sinners, even though we don’t ask for forgiveness after every specific sin.
When someone commits suicide, a sole reason rarely explains it. It’s often the result of many complex factors in a fallen world. Biblically and theologically, these aforementioned categories should help us avoid simplistic answers, while also moving us toward some semblance of understanding.
And yet, at the end of the day, it still doesn’t make sense. Why does a defeated foe like Satan still wreak such havoc? Why, if Christ is building his church, were the circumstances of my friend’s life and ministry so difficult? Why couldn’t the doctors treat his sickness? Why didn’t God heal him? And how could someone who otherwise was so sane and selfless do something so stupid and sinful?
We have so many unanswered questions because we are not God, and the secret things belong only to him (Dt. 29:29). We cannot fully comprehend his inscrutable ways (Rom. 11:33). Every one of our days—including the last one—has been written in God’s book since before we were born (Ps. 139:16), which means that ultimately, somehow, this awful thing occurred in accordance with God’s good plan.
I wrestle deeply with all this. I don’t understand so much. It doesn’t make sense to me. And so finally, I can only trust in God.
After all, if he isn’t orchestrating everything according to his mysterious yet wise and good plan, then our world is utterly meaningless and hopeless. But the horrific death of Christ in fulfillment of the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3)—followed by his victorious resurrection and promised return—gives me good reason to rest in his sovereignty even in the midst of this painful and perplexing situation.