Did Paul contemplate suicide?

Did Paul contemplate suicide while imprisoned? Listen again to Philippians 1:22-24: If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” It does, in fact, sound like Paul is contemplating an option: “Yet what shall I choose?” Life or death?

Several scholars have noted the striking resemblance between Paul’s own speech and ancient writings, which also describe death as a “gain.” These ancient writings consider death a gain because it sets the person free from worldly troubles. Moreover, other scholars have noted that Paul was not, in this imprisonment, facing “imminent execution.” In other words, death was an ultimatum Paul seems to have given himself. These two considerations combined suggest, according to some, that Paul must have been contemplating death by his own hand.

Up to this point, I’ve been following N. Clayton Croy’s summary of scholarship on this potentially unsettling topic. Croy ultimately rejects the conclusion that Paul was contemplating suicide. He does so for four reasons. One, Paul could have “chosen” to behave in certain ways during his trial that would have almost guaranteed his death. (Hunsinger also makes this point. Paul could, Hunsinger writes, “profess his faith with such boldness and even defiance that his martyrdom would be virtually assured.”) Two, semantically the word αἱρήσομαι does not have to mean “choose.” It could mean “prefer,” though the few uses in the NT do not suggest this. Three, and quite compellingly, Paul’s tone elsewhere in the letter does not at all convey an interest in a suicidal escape. While Croy emphasizes joy, one must also wrestle with Paul’s self-described contentment in all situations (4:10-13). 

The fourth reason is rhetorical. This is Croy’s own unique contribution and the peg on which he hangs his argument. He suggests that Paul’s deliberation fits squarely with the ancient technique of “feigned perplexity.” Listen to this quote from Isocrates:

I am at a loss as to what I should do—whether I should speak the truth as on other occasions or be silent, fearing enmity with you. For while it seems better to me to talk about [your errors], I see that you are more harshly disposed toward those who offer reproof than toward those who are responsible for your misfortune. Nevertheless, I would be ashamed if I appeared to be more concerned for my own reputation than for the common safety. It is, therefore, my duty and the duty of others who are concerned about the state to choose, not those words which are most pleasant, but those which are most beneficial.

This is an astonishing parallel, and strong evidence that Paul is using a similar rhetorical device as he writes to the Philippians. The rest of Paul’s letter indicates he’d already chosen to live on despite his troubles because it was beneficial for the Philippians, just as Isocrates chose to speak words that would potentially lead to conflict because it was beneficial for his audience. The feigned perplexity of Isocrates, as Croy says, “shows that what he intends to do is unquestionably the more noble and civic-minded choice.” Likewise, Paul’s feigned perplexity rhetorically “demonstrates [Paul’s] commitment to [the Philippians.]” Croy also suggests that Paul’s feigned perplexity is a way to make explicit the kind of discipleship that runs through the letter, and is especially prevalent in the Christ hymn in Philippians 2. We’ll return to this in a moment.

While I agree that Paul may not have been explicitly considering suicide, Croy makes a move that I cannot follow. He says that Paul’s dilemma, his struggle between choosing life and death, is “chiefly to be located in his rhetoric.” What Croy means is that Paul, in the letter, is not actively struggling between living and seeking death. The dilemma is literary not autobiographical. Paul’s purpose in saying, “What should I choose?” is “chiefly” to persuade the Philippians to listen to his argument or to see him as virtuous. Croy admits that Paul’s conditions were variously extreme, and so we can’t rule out serious psychological and emotional conditions, such as thoughts of death or suicide. But by shifting the focus to what Paul’s circumstances at the moment of writing the letter—not in mortal jeopardy, not mentally despondent—Croy strips Paul’s words of their connection to Paul’s actual life, making them entirely focused on persuading the reader.

This strikes me as too narrow an interpretation, too cerebral. Paul certainly knew and employed rhetorical conventions but he also wore his emotions honestly on his sleeve. He exposes his anger—“Shall I come to you with a rod?” His regret—“Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it! Though, I did regret it—I see that my letter only hurt you for a little while!” And, later in this letter, he describes his own sadness. He uses “sorrow upon sorrow” to describe what he would have had if Epaphroditus had died. This is an interesting phrase because it implies Paul was already experiencing a sorrow which would’ve had the sorrow of his friend’s death heaped upon it. (If “sorrow upon sorrow” is an idiom meaning “great sorrow,” Paul never uses it elsewhere, though he uses the term often, at times appending a superlative to it, like in Romans 9:2.) What other sorrow might Paul be alluding to?

Perhaps the sorrow and pain Paul experienced as a result of his imprisonment and the shaming of his fellow preachers, which may have included intense emotional sorrow that caused him to think of how death would gain him freedom from life’s troubles? It seems fair to assume Paul’s dilemma between life and death is not chiefly in the rhetoric but in Paul’s own experience, which gives the rhetoric its true force. Paul was not being disingenuous or, worse, manipulative. I think he was conveying an honest internal conflict through a common rhetorical device.

Suggesting that Paul’s internal dilemma is chiefly rhetorical rather than genuine autobiography risks obscuring a moment of pastoral vulnerability. How important for the laity to know their spiritual leaders struggle with the burdens and disappointments of ministry! How healing for the congregant who battles depression to discover her pastor is not immune to such states! And how meaningful for a congregation to see their pastor reasoning through a difficult decision. Finally, Paul sharing his agonizing internal conflict and his decision to live on for the Philippians’ sake is relational to the core. By giving them insight to his own struggle, he is able to strongly affirm his love for them. He loved them enough to put their well-being above his preferred course. (To get at the same point: Imagine how relationally destructive it would be if the Philippians discovered later that Paul was using rhetoric simply to manipulate them into listening to him?) That Paul is using a rhetorical device is almost certain. But that rhetorical device, I suggest, gets its power because Paul is giving a sincere account of his own internal struggle, and the rationale that resolved that struggle. 

But what are we to do with the possibility that Paul, who tells us again and again to rejoice, got to such a low point he thought death would be better than his situation? I am reminded of a letter by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, like Paul, wrote from prison. “I have repeatedly observed here,” Bonhoeffer writes, “how few there are who can make room for conflicting emotions at the same time. When the bombers come, they are all fear…When they are successful, they can think of nothing else.” Paul seemed capable of holding together the joy and tension of life. Deep and painful sorrow does not outstrip the possibility of joy; rejoicing does not mean pain is absent from the heart. Bonhoeffer continues, “They miss the fulness of life and the wholeness of an independent existence…By contrast, Christianity plunges us into many different dimensions of life simultaneously. We can make room in our hearts, to some extent at least, for God and for the whole world. We weep with them that weep, and rejoice with them that rejoice.” Bonhoeffer goes on to use a word Paul used earlier in Philippians, “What a deliverance it is to be able to think, and in thinking to preserve this multi-dimensionality.” Bonhoeffer shifts his focus in the letter to acknowledge another book he’d been reading, but his reflections in the second half draw in those from the first. “We must not wait until we are at the end of our tether: [Christ] must be found at the center of our life: in life, and not only in death; in health and vigor, and not only in suffering; in activity, and not only in sin. The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Christ. Christ is the center of life, and in no sense did he come to answer our unsolved problems. From the center of life certain questions are seen to be wholly irrelevant, and so are answers commonly given to them…In Christ there are no Christian problems.” And, after another bombing alarm goes off, “Enough of this; I have just been disturbed again.”

I draw attention to this letter because it seems to me that Bonhoeffer is right about the need to live multidimensionally, and to accept this multi-dimensionality as inherent to human experience. And I think Paul embodies a seemingly healthy form of multi-dimensionality. He holds together pain and joy, hope and sorrow, life and death. This is an example that must be followed. There is a stereotype of the “smiling pastor.” Nothing ever bothers this pastor; there is only sunshine and rainbows. No life is all sunshine and rainbows. And to put up a front is a disservice to the congregation. Professor Amy Laura Hall used to have us sing a hymn before class that said, “Spirit open my heart, to the joy and pain of living.” Pastors must model this openness.

Ultimately, Paul decides to live. And in this life, living is Christ. With this phrase, I take Paul to be foreshadowing the Christ hymn in Philippians 2. To live is Christ means to live not to indulge our own interests but having the same attitude of Christ…

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

For Paul, it seems that living is Christ in so far as it is a life lived for others. And, it seems, death is gain because death leads to the exaltation of resurrection. I suppose, you might say, in Christ we see a salvific multi-dimensionality. Christ is, after all, the Crucified Messiah, whose suffering and glory hold together for the sake of the world. 

For Paul, as for Bonhoeffer, Christ is the center of life, whose own suffering and glory is ours. And in our suffering and glory, Christ is with us.

2 thoughts on “Did Paul contemplate suicide?

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