Around eleven years ago a very close friend tragically killed himself outside of a hospital emergency room where he was working. He was a relentless working Christian that spent his entire life for the sake of others in his callings as a doctor, husband, friend and father. I remember my mom calling me that weekend utterly distraught and in tears. Upon hearing the news I was beyond stunned. It was like being hit in the head from behind. “Doc” was our family physician, a beloved friend, and a deacon at our church. He was part of my conversion in 1997 and a Christian mentor in the years that followed. When he committed suicide, the devastation was vast. How were we—his family and the church—to think of such an event? Can the Gospel apply to suicides and the weight of that sin that affects everyone, not the least of whom being those who are left behind?
Recently on an episode of the “Thinking Fellows Podcast," #17 - Confession and Absolution, Dr. Scott Keith was recalling a story about a family member of his who had tragically committed suicide. Anyone who has experienced this knows what it is to still carry the burden of the weight of the other’s sin and the despair that comes with it. We don’t often think about it, but it is not just our own sins that weigh us down with doubt and despair, but the sins of others. As the Scriptures say, “the entire creation is groaning under the burden of the fallen world’s original sin, hoping for and expecting the revelation of the Sons of God in the new heaven and earth”. (Romans 8:19-22)
What is this sin weight of others that we bear? It is original sin, but a particular flavor of it that Martin Luther said is worse than any actual sin we can commit. Original sin is the sin against the first commandment when we do not fear, love and trust in God alone. The burden of this sin by others weighs infinitely heavily on one, well beyond the actual sin we or they commit. It’s the sin that caused David to confess, “Against you and you alone I have sinned, O’Lord”. (Psalm 51:4)
The weight of original sin we bear, especially in regard to suicide, is manifest in our tormenting questions regarding the eternal estate of the beloved such as:
“I can forgive him for my part but was it final for him concerning his eternity?”
“Is there any hope at all after such a final event, with no time for repentance for him?”
“Can I hope to see him in the eternal kingdom?”
Reviewing their life for so called “fruits” in the face of the fact that they committed suicide only drives one into deeper despair. Such a final act of sin only serves to wipe away an entire life of anything anyone did, good or bad. Unable to penetrate the flow of time, the folly of “fruit production” sees its foolish end as a way of certitude and assurance, and shows itself as the unfruitful vanity it always has been!
Can the Gospel speak to something like that? Can it penetrate time and space? Can it answer for the sin of another? Can Christ lighten the burden and remove this eternal weight? (Matt. 11:30)
On the “Thinking Fellows Podcast” episode, Dr. Keith recalled contacting his former teacher, pastor and father theologian, Dr. James (Jim) Nestingen, after this happened to him. “Dr. Nestingen’s response,” said Dr. Keith, “was epic.” Listening to this on my way to work, I will never forget what Dr. Nestingen said:
“...if anybody in this world is the poor in spirit it’s somebody who thinks there is not enough hope left to keep going with their life and so blessed are they. Blessed are they that are the poor in spirit. If you want to know what they look like that’s what they look like and that’s who God blesses.” (Matt. 5:3)
Epic... yes, that’s the right word! I’ll never forget that as long as I live.
That wonderful Gospel hit home personally for me even hearing it second-hand on the podcast. When I heard what Dr. Nestingen said, it was like relief and release indescribable. Driving, I could hardly keep my eyes clear. Here, the Gospel penetrated all of creation, time, space. A weight that had been there so long I had become use to it, was lifted instantly.
Yes, the Gospel DOES have an answer for that. It is that deep, bottomless, wonderful, unconditional, forgiveness of sin. That is what it will be like in the eternal kingdom that Luther calls “nothing but the kingdom of the forgiveness of sins”. The Gospel will lift the weight of our own sin and the sin of others that have weighed us down for so long we’ve gotten use to the burden piled upon us. The heavy burdens are there, but we get use to them so much that we don’t realize their presence any longer nor that they are slowly crushing us.
Jesus takes that burden away in the “I forgive you and them” and gives us His “light” burden. The light burden of, “Don’t move a muscle. Just hear and receive the forgiveness and righteousness that is beyond all understanding.” The Gospel does penetrate time and space! This is why Paul loves to say, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38, 39) Amen and amen!