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Church teachings on suicide have changed through the years

By Barbara Christiansen daily Herald - | Sep 20, 2015

The relationship between religion and suicide often has two faces.

Religion can be perceived as a list of expectations that are virtually impossible to meet, which can lead to suicide, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, it can be a factor leading to prevention.

If someone does commit suicide, religion can be a comfort to those left behind.

“You can label religion, parents, schools or other things as putting expectations on people,” said Doran Williams, associate director of Wasatch Mental Health Services in Provo. “What is important is our interpretation of expectations. People may feel ‘I am not meeting the expectations and that everybody else is perfect except for me.’

“For some people religion is a protective factor.”

It provides comfort through trying times and guidance to meet life’s challenges, Williams said. He spoke from a religious perspective, saying he was only aware of one perfect individual.

“Jesus never said he was perfect until afterwards,” Williams said, referring to the resurrection. “There is another process. Perfection is a growth process.”

And there has apparently been a growing process in theology.

“Not that long ago, Christian burial was denied to those who took their own lives,” said Father William J. Byron, in a 2007 article in Catholic Digest. “There may have been another denial at work in those days, too — denial of our inability to understand the pain.

“We assumed that those who chose to take their own lives were acting freely and under no psychological distress or illness. Or worse, there may have been a denial of responsibility to try to understand the pain.”

Elder M. Russell Ballard, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, clarified some of the teachings of the LDS Church regarding suicide in an October 1987 article in The Ensign, “Suicide: Some Things We know, and Some We Do Not.”

He cited some teachings by previous LDS Church leaders about the seriousness of suicide, but said it is possible many of us have misunderstood those teachings. The first statement he mentioned came from President George Q. Cannon of the First Presidency that said there would be a severe penalty for anyone who destroyed so precious a gift as that of life. President Spencer W. Kimball said in 1976 that it was a terrible criminal act for a person to shorten his life by suicide.

“Those statements on their own might seem to leave no room for hope,” Ballard said. “However, although they stress the seriousness of suicide, the statements do not mention the final destination of those who take their own lives.”

In “Mormon Doctrine,” Elder Bruce R. McConkie said suicide is the voluntary and intentional taking of one’s own life.

“Persons subject to great stresses may lose control of themselves and become mentally clouded to the point that they are no longer accountable for their acts,” he wrote. “Such are not to be condemned for taking their own lives. It should also be remembered that judgment is the Lord’s; he knows the thoughts, intents, and abilities of men; and he in his infinite wisdom will make all things right in due course.”

Other religions have similar teachings.

“Pity, not condemnation, is the response of the (Catholic) Church,” Byron wrote. “Prayers are offered for the deceased. Mass is celebrated. Burial with dignity, in consecrated ground, is provided for one who dies this way.

“The Church still teaches that there is a hell, but leaves it to God to decide who should go there. And divine decisions, in this regard, are filtered through divine mercy. Tragedy at the end of this life is no sure sign of an eternal tragedy in the next.”

Often when a friend or family member takes his or her own life, the survivors feel guilt, and may wonder how they might have prevented it. They can also feel angry at the person who left them with additional responsibilities.

“Now, on top of all that, along comes some well-meaning friend like Job’s so-called friends who say, ‘Well, he/she took his/her own life, I guess he/she wanted to spend eternity in hell,'” wrote Bobby G. Bodenhamer, who has pastored a Southern Baptist church, in an article “Does Suicide Guarantee Hell?”

“Now that represents the last thing a grieving person needs to hear following the suicide of a loved one,” he added.

He recounted the suicides of his mother and sister while he was studying for the seminary and in actual ministry. He said he never believed suicide victims necessarily went to hell.

Bodenhamer quoted John 3:16 — “For God so loved, the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“My mother believed in Jesus and thus I believe she is now with Him,” he wrote.

Bodenhamer discussed the issue of accountability.

“Will God hold accountable someone whose state of mind has reached into the depths of despair so deep that the person takes his or her own life?” he wrote. “I don’t think so. … No more than would God hold accountable a small child who should die before confessing Christ, will God hold accountable a person whose depths of despair leads them to such an irresponsible act.

“Nowhere in the Bible does God say that He forgives all sin but the sin of suicide, nowhere.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”

Ballard expressed similar thoughts.

“I feel that judgment for sin is not always as cut-and-dried as some of us seem to think,” he wrote.

“When he does judge us, I feel he will take all things into consideration: our genetic and chemical makeup, our mental state, our intellectual capacity, the teachings we have received, the traditions of our fathers, our health, and so forth.”

None of the churches mentioned discounted the seriousness of suicide, but offered hope instead.

“Suicide is a sin — a very grievous one, yet the Lord will not judge the person who commits that sin strictly by the act itself,” Ballard wrote.

Leaders in churches typically offer help to those who are considering taking their own lives, and to the survivors left behind by a suicide. The LDS Church has provided counsel to priesthood leaders with an LDS Social Services booklet, “Identification and Prevention of Suicidal Behavior.”

“(T)he Church encourages paying attention to the pain that produced the action,” Byron wrote. “Then, look forward, not back, to pain within ourselves and pain in others, especially when we see no signs and hear no calls for help.”

(Available for those who are contemplating suicide and their families)

Veterans 24/7 crisis line                (800) 273-8255, then press 1

Wasatch Mental Health 24/7 crisis line    (801) 373-7393

Utah Statewide Crisis Number   (801) 587-3000

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline        1 (800) 273-TALK (8255)

Provo Canyon Behavioral Hospital            (801) 852-2273

Information available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org

As part of our ongoing coverage of the growing concern about suicide in Utah County, the Daily Herald has planned a number of stories throughout the year.

March 15: Setting the stage — a look at the data and why we are concerned about suicide in Utah Valley.

April 26: High schools are dealing with suicides and suicide attempts at a higher rate than we’ve seen in past years.

May 17: Our two major university campuses are not immune from suicide.

June 21: The biggest demographic, young married people, take their own lives more than any other age group.

July 19: Resources are available for our military veterans, who also deal with depression and suicidal thoughts.

Today: Senior citizens dealing with end-of-life issues commonly face unique mental health issues.

Today: What role does religion, especially the LDS Church, play in suicide?

Oct. 18: Families and individuals tells stories of healing and hope a they work through mental health issues.

Nov. 21: It is often members of the most marginalized groups in society that turn to suicide as a way to deal with their pain.

Get involved: If you would like to participate in any of these stories, contact City Editor Scott Tittrington at (801) 344-2570 or stittrington@heraldextra.com.

More resources: Find more information about this series and ways to help at heraldextra.com/suicide.


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