Suicide and Praise
I was speaking at a church recently on mental health and how the church can help. The sermon that week was on a seemingly different topic – how we can grow by praising God. So, that led me to ask an obvious question – can you praise God when you are suicidal?
The answer, I think, is yes. But first we need a story.
William Cowper [1731-1800AD] was a poet and songwriter who spent many years living with John Newton [who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’] in the English village of Olney. He was first a student of law, but never took up an active practice. Instead, he succumbed to an insidious depression that would dog him for all his life.
He tried to commit suicide several times, though overdose and hanging, and was committed to asylums on several occasions. But the time I want to focus on was on a dark day of despair when he walked along the river. He filled his pockets with stones and was about to cast himself into the river when he saw, he thought, a ray of sunshine break through the clouds.
He returned home and ‘praised’ God in this hymn. Not one of glossy happiness, or smug triumphalism; but one of realism and pithy theology. The language is old English and hard to understand [see the full lyrics] but some lines are worth drawing out.
God moves in mysterious ways
The saving of Cowper’s life raises all sorts of questions. Why him? Why then? Why not a more permanent recovery and healing? The ways of God are ‘mysterious’ – and if we could understand them would we not be God instead?
The clouds… are big with mercy
Many clouds were in Cowper’s life – his upbringing, his shattered loves and his deep depression. Bu when they ‘break’ upon his head he finds they are big with mercy. Through courage, he finds that there are blessings and silver linings within. It takes the eye of faith to see them, but faith is what Cowper has.
God is his own interpreter
How often are we tempted to interpret God, to put words in his mouth, to accuse Him? But this is the perspective of unbelief. Cowper asserts that ‘God will make it plain’; in time and in his own way. We should not rush to a conclusion.
So how can those who are suicidal praise God? The life and hymns of Cowper give some ideas. It is possible because Cowper himself praised, minutes after trying to kill himself. It is possible because there may be a mysterious path forward, even if we cannot see it. It is possible because there are always silver linings, God can always work things for good [Genesis 50v20]. It is possible because it is God who has the final word – not evil, not man, not chance.
Can we praise – and lay hold of such things?