being human, part 2: on suicide

Humans are indeed created in the image of God. In us, God has planted the desire for eternity, and for true happiness–in other words, for God. The difficulty is that sin misdirects our desire and fools us into thinking that other things will satisfy us. Most of the stuff we see around us every day reinforces this false belief. Things cannot make us happy, no matter what the advertisements say.

We are also deceived in our self-image. That is, we are mistaken about who we are and what makes us good. The good that we are, and the good that we do comes from the Good itself: God. God created us in his image so that we might reflect it to one another and respect it in one another. This means, however, that we belong not only to ourselves, but to God and to our neighbors. So we are not meant to take our own lives in the same way that we are not meant to take the lives of others: they do not belong to us, to do with what we will.

But there is more. Choosing to live for the sake of bearing God’s image, when I am not sure I bear it clearly enough for anyone to make it out…is just not appealing. That’s when I think I ought to carry on because of the stuff that I do. If I am not around for my kids, for example, who will be? On a better day, I might even think about the theological work that I do. I should stick around; I might eventually do some good, when the dark fog lifts.

Wrong–for two reasons. First, the lifting of the dark fog is only ever temporary. Depression is a little bit like the weather. The sun may shine, but the rain is bound to return eventually. Second, and way more importantly, the good I might do, whether for my kids or for the world, is not what makes me significant. I tend to think that the meaning of my life is somehow bound up with what I can accomplish. (Nothing against accomplishments, here! They’re good.) It’s not true. God hasn’t put us in the world to do stuff, as if there were stuff he couldn’t get done on his own. The essential feature of human life is its relationship to God: to be loved by God, and to learn to love in return. That’s it.

Suicide might seem like the solution to the weary, grey, and lifeless burden of depression. After all, even if it does go away, the fog will return. Whatever happens after suicide, I’m guessing depression (as it’s related to  our way of being in the world in this life) isn’t going to be part of it. It’s hard to endure depression because it hurts, it slows me down, it makes me feel as if nothing I have done or will do justifies my existence on this planet. But what if my existence on this planet is already justified by God? What if I don’t have to do anything? What if God is like that teacher in Florida who compliments his students every day–if only I would come forward and listen?

Here’s what I have learned: self-respect is much, much more difficult than self-hatred. Hating yourself is easy: the whole world displays for us what we ought to be and do. And we fail. (At least I do–maybe some folks don’t.) So the natural response is to think, ‘I really ought to try harder. I could do better, couldn’t I?’ Then, when trying harder doesn’t do it, and I’m exhausted from the effort, I think, ‘Well, maybe I am just not good enough.’ Enter self-loathing. Self-respect, on the other hand, has to refuse the comparison. Self-respect has to be satisfied with what is truly my best effort and not reject it because it doesn’t produce the hoped-for results.

Maybe it’s good news, then, that self-hatred is sin. Not because now we can condemn it in one another–heavens, no! It’s good news because seeing this self-hating orientation as misdirection, as a turning away from God as well as an attack on self (an inward turning!), puts it in the light of grace. That doesn’t make it go away, but it does make fighting it part of the good fight of faith.

Deo gratias.

 

 

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Friday of the second week in Lent

Judah said to his brothers, “What is to be gained by killing our brother and concealing his blood? Rather, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, instead of doing away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother and our own flesh. His brothers agreed. They sold Joseph to the Ishamaelites for twenty pieces of sliver.
                                                                        Genesis 37
 Abba John (the Dwarf) said, “Who sold Joseph?” A brother replied, “It was his brethren.” The old man said to him, “No, it was his humility which sold him, because he could have said, ‘I am their brother’ and have objected, but because he kept silence, he sold himself by his humility. It is also his humility which set him up as chief in Egypt.”
*       *       *
We know that Ruben’s plan to go back and rescue Joseph is foiled by Judah’s suggestion. What we cannot see at this point is how God’s purpose is brought to fulfillment in Joseph by this very action; Israel is saved (again) by a bit of treachery. The question might also be asked (therefore), “How was Israel preserved through the great drought?” By Joseph’s humility, perhaps.
Joseph’s “humility,” as Abba John calls it, flies in the face of contemporary attitudes about the self. We are not taught to allow such things to happen to us. Rather, we tend to learn to stand up for ourselves and, hopefully, for others; we are trained to advocate and agitate, to protest. Protesting is precisely what Joseph did notdo. We don’t hear his thought, either. We know about his dreams; we know how dearly his father loved him. We know what Joseph’s brothers thought about him; we know nothing (at this point) of what Joesph thought about them. Did he expect foul play? Why didn’t he protest? Was he worried they would kill him? The author of Genesis does not let us into Joseph’s inner life at all during these events.

Turns out it is a good thing Joseph didn’t protest. The whole history of Israel would have unfolded differently if he had. Joseph’s story (so far) sets us a question: how willing are we to let go of our plans and even our freedom when that’s what God calls us to do?