A friend of mine killed himself yesterday.

He was far from being a close friend.. But I did know him. And since hearing about his death I’ve found myself thinking and feeling my way through a lot.

One thing that has been a help is a brief comment by Martin Luther. He lived of course at a time where to kill yourself marked you as untouchable by the church, certain of damnation, and unable to be buried in consecrated ground. He wrote:

“I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil. They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber.”

How you deal with suicide theologically is a study in microcosm of whether you see the human will as free or bound; and how that leads directly to either cruelty or compassion. If you see the will as free, or mostly free, or kinda free, then the suicide can and must be judged as freely and wickedly choosing to end his life. You (the Church) decide you’ve got to speak the Truth here; and all you have to give those who survive him is Law, Judgment, and the pronouncement that the man for whom they grieve is eternally damned.

If on the other hand you see the will as bound, then the suicide becomes a victim, a man murdered in the woods by a robber; and just as in the case of a murdered man, you have just the opposite to give as the Free Willer does: pity, compassion, and the promise that NOTHING can separate him from Christ Jesus — in brief you have grace, tenderness, and Gospel.

The doctrine of the bound will also, it seems to me, necessarily leads to a view of life as cosmic theater, where we are afflicted not chiefly by flesh and blood, but by principalities, by powers, by the rulers of the darkness of this world, by spiritual wickedness in high places. Free will by way of contrast places us in the driver’s seat, with the Devil at best offering us a menu of options from which we can freely choose. (In practice, though, it seems like Free Will folks gently erase the Devil from their thinking, and end up with a conservative or liberal Ethical Culture society.)

A question that a lot of people ask when someone they know kills himself is “Why did he do it? I heard that a lot yesterday. Given the suffering that life brings, a better question to my mind is “Why don’t they do it more often?” It’s hard for me to know, since all I have is my own life, and I don’t know how representative that is, but when people act like suicide is totally inexplicable, or clearly the mark of someone utterly crazy, I can’t help but feel there’s some measure of denial going on. “You REALLY don’t know why he did it?” I want to ask. Cause he was f***ing lonely and f***ing miserable, you idiot. Why do you think?

There’s a measure in which that’s just the common condition we are all in.

But at the same time, aside from the common stuff we share, I do think that people are in different places as well. And in pastoral care that is worth thinking about.

My friend Larry was lonely. He was in his mid-50s and still single. I think that there’s a special kind of loneliness that is hard to know fully except when you are well past 40 and living in 21st century America. Everyone else you know has paired off into (apparently) happy romantic life. Most of them are raising kids. You get to SEE these warm self-contained worlds of mutual affection, but it is like being a pinched cold hungry child looking through the plate glass window of a restaurant. You SEE people eating and talking, and it looks so warm and happy, but you can’t get in. This is especially true at church… where everyone says hello and is so friendly; and then the couples all go home to their own worlds and you get to go home to an empty apartment and read your Bible. Great.

I mention 21st century America because it seems like we are in a different place than most cultures have been. The worship of the nuclear family, or the childless “couple”, as such has involved dismantling the older structures, like the extended family, that sustained single people and brought them into supporting loving contact with others. It also helped with the aching loneliness of a loveless marriage.

I am uncertain what the solution is to all this. A resurgence of the extended family (as on Walton’s Mountain) is probably not quivering on the horizon. But I feel like the church, properly construed, and if it truly acted in its counter-cultural role (contra the values of “the nuclear family” in this case) might be able to find a way, even in the midst of Manhattan, to help ease the terrible burden of human loneliness.

At the very least, people in ministry should be thinking about it. Because the Larrys who pull the trigger are just the ones who take the final step. For every one of them, there’s a thousand who don’t and live and die lives of aching loneliness.

PS. One of my favorite collections of short stories is “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson. A revealing story in that collection is one called “Adventure.” (You can read it here.) It has possibly the most poignant closing sentence of any work of fiction in the English language.