Thinking about suicide at the General Assembly

This week I was at the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. I have been to several General Assemblies in my time, but this was my first time as a commissioner at the Free Church General Assembly.  It was excellent – easily the best General Assembly I have ever been to, and I found it very encouraging – as, I suspect, did all the others commissioners.

There were, however, two clouds over the Assembly – and they were both suicides.  As suicides go, they were about as different from each other as they could have been – in terms of motivation, effect on others, and the situations that led up them. In one case, a minister of the Free Church died in Glasgow.  That was, in a sense, the big cloud over the Assembly.  In the other case, someone who had no connection with the Free Church died in Manchester.  And because that case cast a cloud over the whole country, we, in the Assembly were also very much under its shadow.  Every suicide is a tragedy, but these were worse than most, for they resulted in much horror (and grief) to many people.

How have people responded to these suicides? Grief, anger, and horror are the probably the most common responses. But oddly enough, as I reflected on them, I must confess that I had another response: gratitude – perhaps mixed with fear.  I thought “There, but for the grace of God go I.” On one level, that may seem like a strange response. In terms of my experience, I have never been in or (as far as I know) near the situations those two men found themselves in that led to their actions. But then that is all part of the grace of God.

When Adolf Eichmann, one of the great organisers of the Holocaust, was arraigned in Israel, in 1961, one of the witnesses was Yehiel Dinur, a concentration camp survivor. When he saw Eichmann in the dock, stripped of SS garb, Dinur’s reaction was fear – but not the fear we might have expected. He later recalled, “I was afraid about myself. I saw that I am capable of doing this….”

Most of us will never be tempted to do what Eichmann did, and probably not what either of those two men who committed suicide did. Not being tempted to something terrible is a great part of the grace of God. Temptation can prove surprisingly strong.

In other words, there is a very good reason why Jesus taught his disciples to pray “lead us not into temptation.”   It’s a pretty important prayer for all of us.

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