A few months after I became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are sometimes called Mormons, my friend told me she wanted to commit suicide. We were teenagers and she was not Mormon and didn’t want to talk to a school counselor or anyone else. I spent hours trying to talk her out of it, but that night, after promising me she wouldn’t, she went home and killed herself.
For many months, I struggled to understand what had happened and to forgive myself for what I saw as my failure to save her. I had been caught off guard and hadn’t known what to do. Why didn’t I drag her to the counselor’s office? Why didn’t I tell someone older? But most importantly…what was going to happen to her now?
As a new Mormon, I didn’t have the answer to that question and, since the Internet didn’t exist, I didn’t have an easy way to find out. Eventually, I was able to bring myself to talk to someone about it.
I learned to forgive myself, but I also learned a great deal about suicide. I wanted to know what to do next time. I also wanted to understand how God views suicide.
LDS.org, the official website for Mormons, states on a page about suicide:
Although it is wrong to take one’s own life, a person who commits suicide may not be responsible for his or her acts. Only God can judge such a matter.
The page leads readers to a sermon given by a Mormon apostle, Elder M. Russell Ballard. Elder Ballard spoke on suicide at a conference of the Church in 1987. He commented that many Mormons misunderstand the teachings of the Church on this subject.
Some believe anyone who commits suicide is automatically forfeiting any possibility of eternal life with God. Elder Ballard quoted some earlier church sermons that are the basis for this mistaken belief. However, doctrinal teachings must be taken in context with all other principles of the gospel, and complex topics are not easily addressed in brief quotes.
It is a terrible criminal act for a person to go out and shorten his life by suicide,” he said. (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 187.)
President Kimball’s comment refers to a person who knowingly commits suicide and is fully able to make a rational decision to do so. It is not all the late prophet said on that subject, but it is often quoted alone, even though he specifically exempts those who are unable to make a rational choice in his signature book, The Miracle of Forgiveness. A more complete explanation of the complexities of suicide comes from Bruce R. McConkie, who was a Mormon apostle:
Suicide consists in the voluntary and intentional taking of one’s own life, particularly where the person involved is accountable and has a sound mind. … Persons subject to great stresses may lose control of themselves and become mentally clouded to the point that they are no longer accountable for their acts.
Such are not to be condemned for taking their own lives. It should also be remembered that judgment is the Lord’s; He knows the thoughts, intents, and abilities of men; and He in His infinite wisdom will make all things right in due course. (Mormon Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 771.)
In other words, we cannot pass judgment on the final state of anyone who commits suicide because we don’t know the personal details of a person’s mind and heart. Only God knows that and only He can decide. Elder Ballard suggests that the judgment will not be as simple as people think it will be.
God does not have a book that says, “Murder—this type of punishment regardless of the circumstances.” He will perfectly evaluate each person’s heart and mind to understand the true nature, intent, and ability of a person to keep a commandment.
Elder Ballard said:
Suicide is a sin—a very serious one, yet the Lord will not judge the person who commits that sin strictly by the act itself. The Lord will look at that person’s circumstances and the degree of his accountability at the time of the act. Of course, this gives us no reason to excuse ourselves in committing sins, nor will the Lord excuse us, if I understand correctly.
We must constantly strive to do our best in emulating the Savior in every aspect of our lives. At the same time, however, let us remember that spiritual growth comes “line upon line,” that the key—in the spirit world as well as in mortality—is to keep progressing along the right path.
The atonement of Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to hold out hope for ourselves and for others. Jesus came to earth to voluntarily atone for our sins—for each of us individually. Because of this gift, it is possible to overcome sin if we fully repent and pay the price for our mistakes in life and that means that we shouldn’t give up our hope for those who have killed themselves.
There may be a price to pay if they did so voluntarily and knowingly, but we don’t know what that price is. What we do know is that God is perfectly loving and fair. Whatever He does will be exactly right, and so we can trust Him to make the right decisions for us. Final judgment is God’s alone.
Many people facing trials who are still able to think through their options completely find hope through the atonement that allows them to move forward in their lives and to make the changes necessary to resolve their problems.
We should not underestimate or overlook the power of the Lord’s tender mercies. The simpleness, the sweetness, and the constancy of the tender mercies of the Lord will do much to fortify and protect us in the troubled times in which we do now and will yet live.
When words cannot provide the solace we need or express the joy we feel, when it is simply futile to attempt to explain that which is unexplainable, when logic and reason cannot yield adequate understanding about the injustices and inequities of life, when mortal experience and evaluation are insufficient to produce a desired outcome, and when it seems that perhaps we are so totally alone, truly we are blessed by the tender mercies of the Lord and made mighty even unto the power of deliverance (see 1 Nephi 1:20).
Some individuals who hear or read this message erroneously may discount or dismiss in their personal lives the availability of the tender mercies of the Lord. . . We may falsely think that such blessings and gifts are reserved for other people who appear to be more righteous or who serve in visible Church callings.
I testify that the tender mercies of the Lord are available to all of us and that the Redeemer of Israel is eager to bestow such gifts upon us” (in Conference Report, Apr. 2005, 106–7; or Ensign, May 2005, 100–101).
The atonement is not just for perfect people or for those who are fairly righteous. It is for everyone. Even if we’ve turned our backs on God in the past and fallen far, far short of His commandments, He is still there for us. God wants us to come to Him in all our imperfections, to admit that we can’t do it ourselves, and to allow the atonement into our hearts.
When we accept that the atonement is for us, we can move forward, be forgiven, and bring our lives in line with God’s teachings. We can find the peace that lets us live, even under the most difficult of circumstances.
If you are considering suicide, I urge you to talk to someone. The LDS church even has two web sites dedicated to suicide prevention. The first is Suicide Prevention and Ministering and the second is Choosing to Live: Overcoming Suicidal Thoughts. Remember you are stronger than your challenges. And that you are never alone. Your loving Heavenly Father wants to help you. If you need to talk to someone now, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always open. 1-800-273-8255.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.