Ten Encouragements for Christians Against Suicide from Pilgrim's Progress
In our congregation, I'm in a Sunday School class that is watching and discussing the Ligonier video series on John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Called "Pilgrim's Progress: A Guided Tour", this lecture series by Derek Thomas provides excellent insights into the story and has led to encouraging discussions in our class regarding our Christian pilgrimmage.
In the lecture on "The Castle of Giant Despair," Dr. Thomas recounts the events that led Christian and his companion Hopeful to be beaten, imprisoned, and starved in the dark dungeon of the grotesque figure Giant Despair, who represents discouragement and depression to the believer. Knowing that Bunyan himself wrote this book while he spent twelve years in prison for his faith, certainly there is an autobiographical nature in this portion as he undoubtedly struggled with his own personal darkness. In particular, Thomas highlights from this portion how deep and dark despair can go for the believer.
For while Christian and Hopeful are in the dungeon, they are taunted then urged by Giant Despair "to make an end of themselves." Thomas points out that Bunyan, as a pastor, is recognizing the strong temptation some believers face to commit suicide. The giant repeatedly tells them there is no hope of escaping their despair. When a dark night passes and the next day he finds they did not respond to his temptation to kill themselves, the giant strengthens his punishments and renews his appeal for them to end it all. He had told them to use whatever means necessary, be it "knife, halter (hanging), or poison." Thomas helps you to see how exceedingly black this part of the story is, and how Christian especially is succumbing to the thoughts of this temptation.
Interestingly, in the lecture Thomas mentions that the character Hopeful offers ten reasons to Christian not to give in to these thoughts of suicide. Because of the brevity of his lecture, Thomas did not share what these reasons were. So I looked into this part of the story, and found what I believe are these reasons. They are offered below with references from the book and a few brief comments.
My hope is that these encouragements might further equip the church in being more proactive regarding this issue, whether addressing it from the pulpit, discussing it in youth groups, writing more about it, etc. As I share these encouragements, some of which are admittedly difficult to consider, I do so mindful of the personal impact on me from this issue. I took the call as a teenager the night my grandmother phoned for my father, hysterically crying out that my grandfather whom I loved had shot himself. May the Lord spare others from such an experience.
Acknowledge that suicide can have an appeal to believers and that this temptation is present in the church.
Hopeful says to Christian,
Indeed our present condition is dreadful, and death would be far more welcome to me than thus for ever to abide...
Clearly, the appeal of suicide to a believer going through a time of despair is the escape from pain and woes that it appears to offer. The church should not be surprised that there are people in its pews actually wrestling with this issue. The simple act of acknowledging this temptation's presence in the church can create an environment where people know they can seek understanding and help.
You are commanded not to murder.
Suicide is a violation of the sixth commandment. As Westminister Shorter Catechism Q. 69 answers regarding what is forbidden in this command, "The sixth commandment forbiddeth the taking away of our own life..." Similarly, Christian is told:
Let us consider, the Lord of the country to which we are going hath said, “Thou shalt do no murder.”
As the law is given to restrain sin and guide the believer, the church must teach this truth to its people. Suicide is a sin against God, one's self, and society.
Suicide endangers not only the body but also endangers the soul.
In 17th century Christian thought, the predominant belief was that suicide by a professing believer was viewed as a final act of unfaithfulness akin to the unforgiveable sin. In other words, for someone to take his own life meant he was not truly living by faith and thus casting himself away from God forever. Bunyan reflects this belief when he has Hopeful saying,
Besides, he that kills another, can but commit murder upon his body; but for one to kill himself, is to kill body and soul at once.
We need to reflect on this point more completely.
A number of Reformed theologians of today would not hold to such a stark view. Derek Thomas himself, in a sermon on the unforgiveable sin, says it is wrong to identify suicide with this sin. Regarding suicide itself, he says, "There's forgiveness for that too because the blood of Jesus covers all sin and transgression." Likewise, John MAcArthur says, "Suicide is a grave sin equivalent to murder (Exodus 20:13; 21:23), but it can be forgiven like any other sin." However, I believe there still is a strong encouragement to offer here from Bunyan.
For as MacArthur goes on warningly to say, "Though it may be possible for a true believer to commit suicide, we believe that is an unusual occurrence. Someone considering suicide should be challenged above all to examine himself to see whether he is in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5)." As we are called in the Scriptures repeatedly to run the race with endurance and to keep our eyes on Christ as the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:1-2), the church does need to warn that suicide, such as in the case of Judas, can indicate the absence of faith in Christ. Such a grave danger should be avoided, as the next strong encouragement would also remind us.
The torments of hell are far worse than those of this life.
Hear Bunyan further warn:
My brother, thou talkest of ease in the grave; but hast thou forgotten the hell whither for certain the murderers go? for “no murderer hath eternal life,” etc.
If someone dies by suicide outside of faith in Christ, the experience he will encounter in hell is far worse than anything he faces in this world. Faithfulness to the gospel requires the church to warn strongly about the judgment of hell as a deterrent against all sin, of which suicide is one.
One can eventually escape from the bondage of great despair.
Hope must be offered to people facing this temptation. Thus, Bunyan's character is appropriately named as he moves from the negative encouragements against suicide to the positive hopes Christian needs to hear. Hopeful states with confidence:
All the law is not in the hand of Giant Despair: others, so far as I can understand, have been taken by him as well as we, and yet have escaped out of his hands. Who knows but that God, who made the world, may cause that Giant Despair may die; or that, at some time or other, he may forget to lock us in; or that he may, in a short time, have another of his fits before us, and may lose the use of his limbs?
As Hopeful indicates, God has a variety of ways He can help one overcome sin, and the Lord promises to provide a way of escape for any sin (1 Cor. 10:13).
Use the relief God brings on occasion from despair to take positive steps to escape.
At different times in this encounter, Bunyan describes Giant Despair as going through fits where he is unable to keep tormenting Christian and Hopeful. This detail in the allegory is Bunyan's way of describing how despair can come upon us in waves, and that there are times when it does ebb. Thinking upon this, Hopeful says,
I am resolved to pluck up the heart of a man, and to try my utmost to get from under his hand. I was a fool that I did not try to do it before.
Hopeful is preaching to himself here, similar to what Lloyd-Jones urges us to do in his book Spiritual Depression, and in so doing encouraging Christian as well. When depression lifts and opportunities present themselves to escape suicidal thoughts, believers should be proactive in taking steps to get far away from this darkness.
Enduring a little longer may prove to bring release.
However, my brother, let us be patient, and endure a while: the time may come that may give us a happy release; but let us not be our own murderers.
Just like a day with dark clouds and storms may soon be followed with clear skies and sunshine, so also weathering storms of the soul can lead us to times of relief from despair. Things will not always be as they seem now.
Reflect on past victories and aid.
God's people are repeatedly told in the Word of God to remember what He has done for them in the past. We are to gather together each Lord's Day to remember the victory of Jesus over sin and death, and we celebrate the Lord's Supper in part for this reason. We should also remember the triumphs God has given us personally, and draw near to discouraged fellow believers and testify to them of how we have seen them overcome in the past. As Hopeful urges on his friend,
Rememberest thou not how valiant thou hast been heretofore? Apollyon could not crush thee, nor could all that thou didst hear, or see, or feel, in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. What hardship, terror, and amazement hast thou already gone through; and art thou now nothing but fears!
A bit later in the dialogue he reminds him of other times of God's strength demonstrated in his life.
Remind and show them that they have fellow brothers walking with them.
Often those who commit suicide have become withdrawn and isolated. How vital it is for the church to draw near to those struggling with despair. We can also testify to them of the strength they have that may surpass others, as we hear in these words,
Thou seest that I am in the dungeon with thee, a far weaker man by nature than thou art.
Identify with those in depression and contemplating suicide.
Also this giant hath wounded me as well as thee, and hath also cut off the bread and water from my mouth, and with thee I mourn without the light.
If the truth be told, every believer has periods in his life of darkness and temptation. Indeed, this truth must be told, for "no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man" (1 Cor. 10:13). Testifying to others of our struggles is one way we can suffer with them and bring comfort to them (1 Cor. 12:26; 2 Cor. 1:3-4).
Following these encouragements, Christian and Hopeful spend a night in prayer. As a new day breaks, Christian suddenly remembers he has a key called Promise in his breastpocket. With it, they are able to open doors and with great effort escape from Doubting Castle. Hopefully, these encouragements from Bunyan based on the promises of God's Word can help others do the same.