Counseling through the Theology of Suicide

  Counseling the Sin of Despair

 How should religious counseling view suicide?  Since the hanging of Judas, suicide has been equated to the ‘sin of Judas’ and the unforgivable sin. This stain for centuries prohibited those  

The Kiss of Judas led to his despair and ultimate suicidal hanging.  if you would like to take courses in Christian Counseling, then please review
The Kiss of Judas led to his despair and ultimate suicidal hanging. if you would like to take courses in Christian Counseling, then please review
victim to self death from the rites of Christian burial. This hard stance was the main view within Christian circles but this view has seemed to decline over time with a stronger emphasis on pastoral care and understanding of the so called “damned”. Escaping from centuries of social stigma and religious condemnation, a new view has emerged due to a better understanding in the fields of psychology and moral theology. We will briefly take a look at the theology behind suicide and then see how a new view has emerged in regards to the moral complications of this action.In addition to this, we will look at how religion plays an important role in preventing suicide from a social and psychological standpoint. These observations will hopefully create a new moral idea on the nature of the “Sin of Judas” and also show how religion, while condemning suicide, is the greatest prevention for it.  We will also look at ways one can counsel through the theology of suicide.

Religion objectively views suicide as a sin; primarily a sin of despair. This despair is the primary element of suicide. The victim of suicide loses hope in God’s mercy and forgiveness and falls victim to his or her own inclinations to escape suffering. Unlike taking hope in the story of the Prodigal Son, the victim of suicide chooses despair and hopelessness and without thought of others, takes his or her own life. This double action of despair and self murder create the sinful nature of suicide. While the objective nature of this action is always sinful, recent psychological studies have shown that not all suicides are directly willed but are due to pathological or mental instabilities. This greatly if not completely reduces the culpability of the action to certain individuals. While the objective element of the action retains its sinful stigma, the subjective element of the agent who commits the action via mental incompetency is freed of guilt. With this is mind, Christianity and especially the Catholic Church has permitted the sacred traditions of Christian burial to suicide victims. This is just and therapeutic. First, it gives peace to the grieving family. Second, it recognizes the subjective element of the agent whose culpability of the action may not be grave. With these concepts in mind, I would like to present a small sample of terminology regarding suicide. This is more of a theological presentation but does set the framework for the pastoral terminology within professional circles.
Positive (Active) and Direct Suicide– This form of suicide is always objectively and subjectively sinful. It does not encompass any form of pathological malady, but is driven by selfishness, despair, and contempt of God who is the author of all life. Euthanasia would fall under this category. 
Positive and Direct Suicide: Picture from the Yorck Project
Positive and Direct Suicide : Picture from the Yorck Project
Positive (Active) and Indirect Suicide – This form of suicide carries a subjective element that determines culpability. One who suffers martyrdom knowingly allows himself to be killed but the death is not willed. This has been analyzed with the martyrs. Martyrdom is seen as a virtue and a sign of Christian excellence and heroism in sacrificing all for Christ. This can also be applied to Christians who heroically enter hostile lands because they are spreading the word of God, or brave Christians who administer to victims of plague and later suffer death. This application however can be sinful if dangerous actions are partook due to pride, wagers, or foolish games. Obviously the culpability is still lower than the first.
Negative (Passive) and Direct Suicide- If not done with the consent of the Lord, passively allowing oneself to deteriorate with full intent can still retain the same level of culpability as active suicide.
Negative (Passive) and Indirect Suicide- In this case, suicide is not actively sought out nor necessarily willed with full intent but it does demand that someone seek all available ordinary means of survival-such as food, drink, or reasonable medication or procedures to sustain life. Obviously this case differs than Passive/Direct in that there is no malice intent to end one’s life, but there is a Christian obligation to sustain life and accept suffering—especially when sick—until all ordinary means exhaust themselves. Hence a Christian accepts his or her suffering and prolongs the gift of life until the end, while those who have betrayed the faith, seek escape well before the fight is over. Extraordinary means hope to preserve life beyond ordinary or natural means. Some of examples of extraordinary methods can include medications that prolong life briefly but do not heal or cure—preventing death with Christian acceptance and dignity. Another example would be new technologies that are not proven but only experimental. In all these cases, it is the choice of the person or the family if such means are to be employed—granted the person has made their peace with the Lord. In any case, extraordinary means are not required and do not fall under the category of Passive/Indirect suicide.
 With these terms and theology explained, we will now turn to more pastoral concerns and look at how religion plays a positive role in suicide prevention.
It is a general psychological belief within the professional community that religion helps people cope better and hence avoid suicide. Communities with strong abhorrence to the ideal of suicide and a strong hope in God provide a solid framework for people to fall back on. This does not only include an inner strength but also the external support structures of the believing community to overcome hardships and grief.
However, when religion and theology is misused, one can see a drop off among believers. It is accepted that those with a sincere faith do better than those with a superficial faith. For example, those who abide by an intrinsic faith overall do better than those who abide by an extrinsic faith that is based upon professional or social stature. Furthermore proper religious framing is extremely important in how a religious person views suicide. Positive religious reframing interprets negative events within a child like belief in divine providence that God is still protecting them and will bring good out of evil. Negative reframing views negative events as punishments from God. Obviously these polar opposite views result in polar opposite reactions to negative events. It is important for spiritual formation of an individual to see a loving God instead of a vengeful and punishing God. One final negative use of religion in coping involves negotiating with God via rituals and prayers. This attempted manipulation of God results in un-“answered prayers”. These unanswered prayers then pose questions within the mind of believer. Why did not God answer my prayers? Are not my prayers good enough? I must not be worthy of God’s blessings? These negative queries can lead to suicide and all because one is misusing religious prayer and ritual. One should, like Christ, accept God’s will within any prayer to the Father. With this proper understanding of prayer, a stronger relationship of faith can be built that does not create negative reactions by the believer.  A Christian counselor, should be able to guide a religious believer to the proper reactions with time and love.
With these ideas in mind on theology and the pastoral application of “good” religion upon the faithful, one can have a better understanding of the nature of suicide within its objective and subjective natures. In the end, faith, hope and love, the three theological virtues, are the necessary cures for all negative thoughts and they can only be cultivated with a healthy outlook on oneself and God.
If you are interested in Christian Counseling Courses, please review the program. The courses in Christian Counseling entail various pastoral, theological and moral principles any Christian Counselor should know.
By Mark Moran, MA, GC-C, SCC-C