I was asked to speak today at the funeral of a friend’s daughter, who took her own life. The family asked me to deal directly with the issue of suicide and its effect on a person’s standing before God. I thought it might be of some value to put my thoughts here. Because these really are notes for a talk, I apologize in advance for this not being as tightly organized as perhaps it should be.
This is the fourth funeral I have attended where the departed took his or her own life. In each of the previous funerals, there was no mention whatsoever of what had happened. It was the elephant in the room that no one wanted to mention. But I think that was a mistake. I believe that when we name our monsters, they lose much of their power over us.
So, today I would like to spend a few moments to talk about suicide and the healing powers of the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Nearly all religious traditions condemn suicide to one degree or another. I had always been taught that a person who commits suicide is automatically condemned to whatever place your religion reserves for really bad people. I think I understand why that is. We are taught that life is a sacred gift from God, and to throw it away is a great offense to God.
I have come to learn that such teachings are not only unnecessarily harsh, they are also untrue.
We begin with the need to better understand a few of the characteristics of our Father in Heaven and Jesus Christ, as they are the ones who will be responsible for our final judgment. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches an important principle about the nature of our Father in Heaven. In the seventh chapter of Matthew, versus 9 through 11, He asks:
Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
To me, this conveys the principle that we can trust that our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ, meet and significantly exceed our mortal capacity for mercy and love. If we as parents know how to be kind, we can trust that our Father in Heaven is kinder. If we know how to be compassionate, He knows even better how to be compassionate. If we are forgiving, He is more forgiving.
The Savior’s capacity for compassion is an essential part of His atoning sacrifice. Christ did not suffer merely so that we could be forgiven after this life, but he suffered so that he could understand our sufferings in this life perfectly, be able to comfort us in our trials as one who completely understands our experiences, and finally so that He could be a perfect judge, having walked a million miles in our shoes.
In words very similar to those used by the apostle Paul, the Book of Mormon prophet Alma said this about the infinite and eternal atonement of Christ (Alma 7:11-13):
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless, the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh…
This passage of scripture comes as a great comfort to me, because I am confident that a God who knows me perfectly will judge me with perfect justice.
We can know much in this life, but there are two things we can never know perfectly: Another person’s mind and another person’s heart. Because of those limitations, we are instructed by the Savior to judge no one. Why? Because we do not have sufficient information to make an informed judgment. Our views are clouded by our ignorance. The Savior has no such limitations.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote this about suicide: “Suicide consists in the voluntary and intentional taking of one’s own life, particularly where the person involved is accountable and has a sound mind. … 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. 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.” (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 771; some italics added.)
The Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn teaches that all bad behavior is the result of suffering. It is the pain in our lives that leads to us behaving poorly, and if we could fully understand the suffering of others, we would not condemn their acts. To the extent that is true, we can rest assured that whatever struggles and suffering this sister was experiencing, the Lord Jesus Christ understood them perfectly and He did and does love her.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught: “While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard. … He is a wise Lawgiver, and will judge all men, not according to the narrow, contracted notions of men, but, ‘according to the deeds done in the body whether they be good or evil,’. … We need not doubt the wisdom and intelligence of the Great Jehovah; He will award judgment or mercy to all nations according to their several deserts, their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information, and His inscrutable designs in relation to the human family; and when the designs of God shall be made manifest, and the curtain of futurity be withdrawn, we shall all of us eventually have to confess that the Judge of all the earth has done right.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith, 1938, p. 218.)
I think it is both arrogant and undoctrinal to assume that we can look at a situation like suicide and pass judgment on what has happened. We do not have the capacity to do so. However, we can trust that the Lord is as good as His word, and that the power of an infinite and eternal atonement is just that: infinite and eternal. The atonement is big enough for anything, including this.
Truman G. Madsen has written: “[I]f there are some of you who have been tricked into the conviction that you have gone too far, that you have been weighed down the doubts on which you alone have a monopoly, that you have had the poison of sin which makes it impossible ever again to be what you could have been—then hear me. I bear testimony that you cannot sink farther than the light and sweeping intelligence of Jesus Christ can reach. I bear testimony that as long as there is one spark of the will to repent and to reach, he is there. He did not just descend to your condition; he descended below it, ‘that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth.’ (D&C 88:6)” (Christ and the Inner Life, 1978, p. 14).
Now by way of more personal experience. I did not know this sister and therefore cannot presume to speak for her. But I have traveled down some very dark emotional pathways myself, and at one time seriously contemplated the option that has brought us here today. I am grateful that a series of events took me away from such thinking. However, I understand how blinded a person can become when faced with depression, self-judgment, and a loss of hope. Because of that, I strongly suspect that if this sister could talk to you now, freed from the physiological and psychological limitations she experienced while on Earth, there are a few things she doubtless would say.
One of those would be this:
There was nothing you could do.
In the darkness of depression, every word spoken to you passes judgment against you. Every glimmer of hope is dismissed as a mirage. Every act of kindness becomes an expression of loathing. Everything passes through the same dark filter and adds to your pain rather than reduces it. As Spencer W. Kimball once said, “No one in his ‘right mind,’ and especially if he has an understanding of the gospel, will permit himself to arrive at this ‘point of no return.’” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, 1969, p. 106; italics added.).
Whatever you said, she could not have heard.
Whatever you did, she could not have felt.
The atonement of Christ requires that we neither condemn this sister nor convict ourselves. We forgive both her and ourselves and trust that the Lord will make it right.