Augustine, Suicide, and the Suffering of the Righteous

So I’m currently two-thirds of the way through City of God, and I’m starting to realise that actually, most of the really fun stuff was way back in the first couple books. Today, we’re going to jump back to page one of this thousand-page-long behemoth, and talk about suicide.

C.S. Lewis was really great for coming up with inventive ways to tell stories. In Prayer: Letters to Malcolm, Lewis writes to his fictional friend Malcolm on the topic of prayer. The two banter back and forwards about prayer in hard times, and then the fictional Malcolm’s son falls dreadfully ill. The tone of Lewis’s letters changes: he notes that the topic which they’d been talking so lightly about before had suddenly taken on a very personal and immediate edge. Of course, it’s all still fiction, but there’s a valid point here – lots of this really serious stuff can be much more immediate and personal and deadly for some folk than it might be for others. I wouldn’t want to do a disservice to those who’re currently struggling with issues around suicide, but at the same time there’s no benefit to not talking about it. Basically I’m just saying that I don’t want to upset anyone, but at the same time, this is what we’re talking about, and I’m going to speak frankly.

So the basic Biblical understanding of suicide, one shared by both Augustine and myself, is that suicide is not a good thing. The idea is that, as Christians, our lives don’t belong to us any more – it’s not our place to decide how or when we die. A Christian might further contend that nobody ought to commit suicide, seeing as how we all really belong to God whether we like the fact or not, but for my part I wouldn’t insist on that, on the grounds that non-Christians haven’t committed themselves to God and shouldn’t be held to the same standards. That’s more about the relationship between Church and state though.

Now, Augustine qualifies that suicide is not necessarily in and of itself always sinful. He draws a comparison to killing other people: Biblically, sometimes God orders folk to kill bad people. That’s a thing that happens sometimes. Augustine applies the same logic to suicide, citing the example of Samson, and contending that obedience to God in the matter of one’s own death is of primary importance (I, 21). That’s probably a good way to formulate it, actually: the Christian believes that suicide is bad insofar as it is disobedience to God’s will. You could apply the same logic to the martyrs: generally, Christian martyrs are praised for being faithful to God even to the point of their own deaths (usually at the hands of some angry Roman ruler). By that reasoning, I imagine there’s probably been some Christians who’ve martyred themselves contrary to God’s will for them. Good luck drawing a functional distinction though.

Augustine goes on to argue that generally, the folk who commit suicide are doing it because they can’t handle the trials that they’re being put through (PS: this is the bit to be really sensitive about in conversation) (I, 22). I’m not necessarily going to support Augustine here, because I don’t know enough about suicide to make that call. I’d agree that for some people that’s probably the case – but I don’t feel like I would really blame those people, because life’s really hard sometimes, and blame seems like the wrong thing to be heaping on someone who’s so unable to cope that they’ve had to take their own life. I think there’s kind of a cultural difference here, because in Augustine’s day there were definitely those who looked on suicide as an honourable and noble thing. Today we mostly just see it as a sign that folk are hurting – we’ve got a far more individualistic culture, so it’s much less likely that somebody’s going to kill themselves for dishonouring their family. I imagine it still happens, to some degree, but it must surely be lesser than in the 4th century.

I think what’s important to take away from this – what’s really indicative of the Christian character – is how trials are perceived by the faith. The key factor here is that what, in common parlance, we might call a really shitty day, to the Christian is merely a test. It is not ‘bad’, as such – it’s a chance to grow in perserverance, or patience, or humility. Imagine a pompous ass who gets publicly humiliated – although nobody enjoys being humiliated, we can see how it might serve in that scenario to teach him humility, which we might all agree is a good thing. I think we’re less comfortable with the idea when someone who seems like basically a good person has really shitty stuff happen to them – because we feel like they don’t really need a corrective, as such, because they really aren’t all that bad. This is the part that non-Christians might find quite hard to stomach – the Christian faith doesn’t necessarily look at things in that way. Look at Job – he was a decent guy, totally inoffensive, and look at what happened to his life – it got shredded!

As a corollary to that statement, and I can’t emphasise this enough, there is a huge difference between thinking about trials in this particular way and telling someone who’s hurting that it’s just a trial so they should toughen up and stop being sad. I suspect some Christians have this arrogant sense of self-righteousness, where they feel entitled to pass judgement on how other people should handle their situations. That arrogance pops up in situations other than suffering, by the way. We can talk more about that another time. So the Christian faith has room for perceiving suffering as an opportunity – Augustine certainly sees it that way – but again, it’s very very contextual. I can imagine that theology being used in different circumstances to oppress indigenous populations – “I know we’re stealing your land, and murdering you all with our foreign bacteria, but perservere! This trial is a gift from God.” Ugh.

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