God in the night time

by Charity Hamilton.

“My whole world and future was swept from under my feet and all the walls that I had taken so long to build around me collapsed” wrote Caroline Flack a few weeks before the 40 year old presenter found herself in a ‘night-time place’ and died by suicide.[i] For any who haven’t found themselves in ‘night-time places’ Flack’s description of her world and future being swept from under her feet is an accurate one. In such places we lack the familiarity and security of our known environment, everything is in flux, outside our control. So destructive is that lack of security and control that the very ground on which we stand is swept away; the instability of our selves becomes evident. Norman Sartorius writes, ‘Suicide is a fundamental breakdown of trust between individual and social environment’[ii]; it is exactly as Flack suggests. With no firm ground on which to plant ourselves, with no light we fail to thrive and the best option soon appears to be death.

Christianity has historically condemned suicide as homicide of the self, a willingness to take a life – even one’s own – has been seen as a significant sin. For centuries Christian burial was denied to those who died by suicide, and many were taught that those who die by suicide will be barred from heaven. Suicide in England and Wales was ‘committed’ as a criminal act, based upon the Church’s moral stance that suicide was ‘self-murder’. This view persisted until the 1961 Suicide Act decriminalised suicide. The idea of suicide as a significant sin comes primarily from Augustine who taught that if we do not love our own lives then we cannot love the lives of others, or God. This Christian theological approach to suicide is further developed in the reformation and by Luther, emphasizing our calling: that we each have a calling from God and so to die by suicide is to refuse God’s call to us.

In 1996 Rowan Williams developed an argument that sees all human life as vocation, writing that ‘it is hard to see how the resignation of life because of its intolerable burden can express the nature and activity of God.’[iii] He explores how our lives are intricately bound up in the lives of others and so the decision to end one’s life is also a decision about the lives of others.

When confronted with difficulties, the question I find myself asking is ‘where is God in this?’ I agree with Williams, that all human life is bound up in God’s calling and that on each of our lives there is a specific vocation. However, I believe that in the resignation of life there is much that can be expressed about the nature and activity of God; a story to be told about suffering, night-time, wrestling and being overwhelmed – in which God is an ever present speck of light within the darkest of nights. Suicide is not failure to live up to God’s calling, it is simply a catastrophic severing or disconnection between an individual and their context in which God’s calling becomes obscured by distress, trauma and a seeming never-ending night-time. God is still there though.

Within suicide it isn’t enough for us to ask the question ‘Where is God in this?’ because for those of us who are not feeling our ‘world and future swept from under our feet’ our calling is to be the community which enacts God. In 2018 Middlesbrough was recorded as having the highest suicide rates out of 152 local authorities with twice the number of people dying to suicide than the national average. In a bid to reduce the number of deaths by suicide a Tees wide taskforce has been established to lower suicide rates. We are trying to create hope-filled communities in which suicide becomes less of an option but in which we recognise that for some, suicide will seem their only option. And that makes them no less called by God.

[i] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-51557180

[ii] Sartorius N (2003) Old age and suicide in Eastern Europe International Psychogeriatric Association Biannual Conference: Chicago

[iii]  Rowan Williams, Theological perspectives, British Medical Bulletin, Volume 52, Issue 2, April 1996, Pages 362–368, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.bmb.a011551

7 thoughts on “God in the night time”

  1. After 18 months of serious illness, I became clinically depressed. I could have walked under a bus, but my faith stopped me. To have taken my life would have gone against my belief that God has a purpose for us all and denied him. Faith allows you to endure because we always have hope.

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  2. I have never had a desire to commit suicide but have experienced a period of severe pain. At that time my experience was indeed a total disconnect with everything and everyone around me, as I used all my energy to cope with the pain. I do remember having a sense that I should be able to pray through the pain, but found that totally impossible. God was as lost to me as my nearest and dearest. My faith offered no support for that time – just made me feel even more guilty that I could not cope.

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  3. Years ago I sat in my kitchen and decided my life should end. Over a period of time my mind had split up into separate boxes and each gradually became total darkness until there seemed nothing left. A while after that decision my wife said it was time to go to church – and I went because that was what we did, nothing more. But I suddenly realised I was singing carols [it was just before Christmas] with some feeling and when I sat and thought about what was going on I realised that somewhere there was the tiniest speck of hope still. Before I went to church I could only see – literally- in monochrome; I went home able to see colour again. Truly the ‘light still shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’ I also learned that I must not throw back in God’s face what he had given me -life – and though feeling suicidal sometimes since then it has never been a real option. As far as how one judges those who take their lives is concerned I look for the grace of God for them, which is infinitely wider than the grace of humans.

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  4. Thank you Charity for such a well-thought out piece on a difficult subject, and thanks too to those who have been vulnerable in sharing something of themselves in their responses.

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  5. I think for most of us, when a person takes their live, we’re left trying to figure out what we might have done to change that. How did we not see the depression in our loved one? Why didn’t we insist or drag that person to a place where they could get treatment. God is always present in our darkness. Sometimes, God uses professionals and medication to help us get through the pain that sent us spiraling downward.

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  6. Thank you all for taking the time and courage to comment. For all of us suicide is a sensitive and troubling subject – and so I especially appreciate the willingness of each of you to share your stories and thoughts.
    My prayer is: “That in those night-time, soul-emptying, mind-disturbing, heart-breaking, body-weary places; May even the smallest specks of God’s light illuminate and guide; for those who grieve may they know that in those specks of light is the compassion and love of God whose grace is for all. Amen”

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  7. Thanks for daring to broach this topic Charity. I had a friend who took her own life. After she died I learned things about her circumstances which I’d had no idea of, and my overwhelming feeling was how courageous she must have been to keep going as long as she did and all those times she must have been heroic in resisting her feelings. I think you’re absolutely on the right track with your recognition of the role of community here. I seem to be going through a period of recognising how separation from God is linked to separation from community.

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