Counseling the Sin of Despair
How should religious counseling view suicide? Since the hanging of Judas, suicide has been equated to the ‘sin of Judas’ and the unforgivable sin. This stain for centuries prohibited those
victim to self death from the rites of Christian burial. This hard stance was the main view within Christian circles but this view has seemed to decline over time with a stronger emphasis on pastoral care and understanding of the so called “damned”. Escaping from centuries of social stigma and religious condemnation, a new view has emerged due to a better understanding in the fields of psychology and moral theology. We will briefly take a look at the theology behind suicide and then see how a new view has emerged in regards to the moral complications of this action.In addition to this, we will look at how religion plays an important role in preventing suicide from a social and psychological standpoint. These observations will hopefully create a new moral idea on the nature of the “Sin of Judas” and also show how religion, while condemning suicide, is the greatest prevention for it. We will also look at ways one can counsel through the theology of suicide.
Religion objectively views suicide as a sin; primarily a sin of despair. This despair is the primary element of suicide. The victim of suicide loses hope in God’s mercy and forgiveness and falls victim to his or her own inclinations to escape suffering. Unlike taking hope in the story of the Prodigal Son, the victim of suicide chooses despair and hopelessness and without thought of others, takes his or her own life. This double action of despair and self murder create the sinful nature of suicide. While the objective nature of this action is always sinful, recent psychological studies have shown that not all suicides are directly willed but are due to pathological or mental instabilities. This greatly if not completely reduces the culpability of the action to certain individuals. While the objective element of the action retains its sinful stigma, the subjective element of the agent who commits the action via mental incompetency is freed of guilt. With this is mind, Christianity and especially the Catholic Church has permitted the sacred traditions of Christian burial to suicide victims. This is just and therapeutic. First, it gives peace to the grieving family. Second, it recognizes the subjective element of the agent whose culpability of the action may not be grave. With these concepts in mind, I would like to present a small sample of terminology regarding suicide. This is more of a theological presentation but does set the framework for the pastoral terminology within professional circles.
Positive (Active) and Direct Suicide- This form of suicide is always objectively and subjectively sinful. It does not encompass any form of pathological malady, but is driven by selfishness, despair, and contempt of God who is the author of all life. Euthanasia would fall under this category.
Positive (Active) and Indirect Suicide – This form of suicide carries a subjective element that determines culpability. One who suffers martyrdom knowingly allows himself to be killed but the death is not willed. This has been analyzed with the martyrs. Martyrdom is seen as a virtue and a sign of Christian excellence and heroism in sacrificing all for Christ. This can also be applied to Christians who heroically enter hostile lands because they are spreading the word of God, or brave Christians who administer to victims of plague and later suffer death. This application however can be sinful if dangerous actions are partook due to pride, wagers, or foolish games. Obviously the culpability is still lower than the first.
Negative (Passive) and Direct Suicide- If not done with the consent of the Lord, passively allowing oneself to deteriorate with full intent can still retain the same level of culpability as active suicide.
Negative (Passive) and Indirect Suicide- In this case, suicide is not actively sought out nor necessarily willed with full intent but it does demand that someone seek all available ordinary means of survival-such as food, drink, or reasonable medication or procedures to sustain life. Obviously this case differs than Passive/Direct in that there is no malice intent to end one’s life, but there is a Christian obligation to sustain life and accept suffering—especially when sick—until all ordinary means exhaust themselves. Hence a Christian accepts his or her suffering and prolongs the gift of life until the end, while those who have betrayed the faith, seek escape well before the fight is over. Extraordinary means hope to preserve life beyond ordinary or natural means. Some of examples of extraordinary methods can include medications that prolong life briefly but do not heal or cure—preventing death with Christian acceptance and dignity. Another example would be new technologies that are not proven but only experimental. In all these cases, it is the choice of the person or the family if such means are to be employed—granted the person has made their peace with the Lord. In any case, extraordinary means are not required and do not fall under the category of Passive/Indirect suicide.
With these ideas in mind on theology and the pastoral application of “good” religion upon the faithful, one can have a better understanding of the nature of suicide within its objective and subjective natures. In the end, faith, hope and love, the three theological virtues, are the necessary cures for all negative thoughts and they can only be cultivated with a healthy outlook on oneself and God.
If you are interested in Christian Counseling Courses, please review the program. The courses in Christian Counseling entail various pastoral, theological and moral principles any Christian Counselor should know.
By Mark Moran, MA, GC-C, SCC-C