Those who lived for any time in Tampa Bay hold former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy in high esteem. I’m sure the same can be said for those who live in Indianapolis where Dungy ended his NFL coaching career.
He is esteemed not only for his success on the football field – he was fired in Tampa, we should note – but for his character, character formed and molded by his Christian convictions. Dungy’s Christianity was not a PR image, but something real and deep impacting the life he lived. And people noticed.
But people also noticed with sadness that this righteous man had a son, a student at the University of South Florida, who in the depths of depression took his own life.
I don’t know much about Pastor Rick Warren, but controversy aside I sense that he, too, is a man who loves God and has sought to live faithfully before him. His son, like Dungy’s, has taken his life.
Pain and tragedy, and yes, the deep darkness of depression, does not spare the faithful in this broken world. My wife and I this morning recounted the names of those we have known who have taken their lives, attempted doing so, or have expressed the desire. It breaks our hearts.
I have often been asked by those trembling with the pain of suicidal loss to weigh in on their loved one’s eternal state. There is a tradition in Christianity suggesting that those who commit suicide go to hell.
When asked, I respond, I must respond, with a question: “What saves us – Jesus’ sinlessness or our own?” Clearly the Christian gospel trumpets “…nothing in my hands I bring / simply to thy cross I cling…”. Self murder is unquestionably a sin, a desperate, horrible, selfish abandonment of faith and hope. But it can no more undo the sufficiency of the work of Christ than any other sin. Jesus saves us, not our sinlessness. Those trusting Jesus are saved by him, even if their final act was a sin.
Some argue that suicide is different, that one cannot repent of the sin of suicide. But without diminishing the value and importance of regular repentance, of particular sins, particularly, nevertheless, our hope of salvation rests in Jesus not in repentance. Jesus, not repentance, saves us.
Do we not, though, by speaking thus encourage the suicidal to hasten a path to peace that seems to otherwise always elude them? I have been asked bluntly, “If I killed myself, would I go to hell?” Warren reports his son saying, “Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?”
A superficial understanding of grace will always make sin seem easier. And yet, in reality, an understanding of the love of God behind grace makes sin ultimately harder. Love, not fear, best keeps us from sin.
And yet, we still sin. We forget his love and we act contrary to it. And some, in such a moment clouded by a deep darkness which others cannot comprehend, flee the pain in the only way they know how. Can we not see, though, that the Man whose cries of despair echoed from the cross probably understands that despair and darkness better than most? Jesus loves even, perhaps especially, the despairing.
Our hearts break. And that is a good thing, for only from broken hearts will flow words of grace, not law. My preaching, and your speaking, is to broken people, whose brokenness we cannot fathom, and often cannot see. We need to speak, and to hear, but one wonderful and comforting truth: the steadfast love of a gracious God.
O, Father, enable us to hear it and hold on to it.
In 2002 friend and fellow pastor Petros Roukas took his own life. Bryan Chapell’s funeral sermon on that occasion stares the demons head on and fills the occasion with grace.