Suicides in September and the Antidote of Hope
恥について 三 On Shame: Part III
September 1st has been noted as the day Japanese teenagers are most likely to kill themselves. Why September 1st? Because that is when Japanese students go back to school, and shame dominates in the school system. As a Japan Today article summarized:
School is a breeze for some, a waking nightmare for others, a nest of bullies and uncomprehending (or willfully blind) teachers, a pit of relentless competition for marks and other tangible results that stimulates some but overwhelms others.
Shame culture creates the weak and then preys on them, and young adulthood is make-or-break time. Depression that leads to suicide can effect people of any age, but young people are especially at risk. There is nothing more sobering in Japan than the train being delayed when the weather is good. There is often a message that accompanies it noting a “human accident” or a note that “a customer fell on the tracks.” These are euphemisms, but everyone on the train knows that means someone just committed suicide. It is an epidemic in Japan. Neither shame nor suicide are unique to Japan, however, and while shame’s virulence is extreme in Japan, suicide can effect us no matter where we live.
Suicide does not come from shame immediately or else no one would be left living, rather shame festers and creates what the English Puritan, William Ames in his Marrow of Theology, calls, “desperation.” Ames describes desperation as the privation of hope and/or the sense of privation of a thing hoped for. “Such was in Cain…and in Judas” (Ames, II.6.26). Desperation is shame swollen to its extreme that far too often leads to death, be it the murder of Cain or the suicide of Judas. But desperation cannot survive with hope.
I spent a couple of summers in college working at a ranch for at-risk teenage boys in the cornfields of Central Illinois. We had young guys who had suffered and/or inflicted every kind of abuse you can imagine. There was a program designed to help them grow in maturity and character that saved the lives of many. I saw amazing life change happen in those young men, but there were always potholes along the way. One of the biggest jobs for those serving the boys was to convince them their potholes, however stupid or severe, were not the same as bottomless pits. As my friend who served as the director would often say, “If they lose hope, it’s over.” The power of hope was on full display, and that is the biggest lesson I learned those summers.
The greatest antidote for shame is hope. Paul the Apostle pits these two against each other in Romans 5:5, “[Hope] does not put us to shame…” Wilhelmus à Brakel, describes hope as a “propensity” to “anticipate future promised benefits” from God (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, III, 317). Shame, infatuated with the past and a sense of its own wickedness, cannot anticipate any benefits and thus stands against hope. The only thing that shame feels for the future is fear. “For as hope is the expectation of good, so fear is the expectation of evil” (Ames, II.6.24). Without hope, it is far too easy for shame’s fears to turn to desperation. But where does hope come from?
Our hope comes solely and squarely from God himself. He is the “God of hope” (Romans 15:13); and hope is a spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 13:13). So this propensity is one “infused by God” (à Brakel, IV, 317). Hope is not something that we can muster without faith and thus it always follows faith. But hope works together with faith as “faith apprehends the promise and hope expects what is promised, the difference between faith and hope is the difference between what is present and what is to come” (Ames, II.6.10). Both faith and hope are given to us by the Spirit through the Word of God.
The power of hope against shame is in its eager expectation for the future. Shame would overwhelm us by a since of our past failures or abuse. But hope looks in faith beyond the past and present to a beatific future, a time and place with no shame — “[It] is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed…” (Philippians 1:20). “Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame…” (Psalm 25:3).
Hope fights shame by confidence in deliverance from future and ultimate shame. There is a greater shame we can fear, that is, the shame of not belonging to Christ in the Day of judgment. And without the Gospel we would find ourselves in grave danger. “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28). Hope imbues us with confidence as we abide in Christ against this fear. In this world we will be shamed for following Christ and for many less virtuous things, but there is a day when our shame will end as we are transformed in glory.
Shame would depress our spirits by our unworthiness, but the “natural fruit of hope is joy and delight in God” (Ames II.6.15). Paul declares to us, “[Since] we have have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). This access to grace causes us to “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). It is not simply that we have been saved from sin’s punishment, but we shall be saved from sins dominance and its very influence (cf. Steve Childers, “The Transforming Power of the Gospel”.
Shame would extinguish our joy by its fearful dread of suffering, but hope would have us rejoice in these very sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance which produces character which produces hope. Our “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5). For those in Christ, suffering cannot hurt us anymore, instead it works to increase our hope as we look less to the present in light of the past and more in light of the future.
Shame would cause us to view every pothole of our sin that flows from our fallen nature as a bottomless pit, every sin is the unpardonable sin, and the cross of Christ propitious for all with faith but me. But hope teaches us “patience towards God whereby we constantly cling to him seeking and expecting blessedness” (Ames, II.6.17). Sanctification takes time and sin remains in this world and in my flesh; while we may not see change in ourselves, God is sure to do it. “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it in patience” (Romans 8:25). God himself is our hope, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul,” who establishes our feet and lightens our burdens (Hebrews 6:19). And hope itself sanctifies us as we see the person we will become in Christ and begin to grow in that direction. “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure (1 John 3:3).
Hope doesn’t look to the future in presumption, but rather in humble anticipation of blessedness. Presumption is also opposed to hope as it claims things for itself “without promise and without faith” (Ames, II.6.32). Hope is altogether different. Augustine explains, “faith believes, hope and charity pray” (Enchiridion, 2, 7). Hope is experienced and expressed through dependent prayer for God’s Kingdom purposes to come to pass. We cannot pray without hope. We cannot hope without prayer.
So what do we do when hope feels far away and shame is isolating and overwhelming us? The only thing we can do — we must repent and believe. If you are not yet following Christ, hope will be difficult to muster in the darkest times, and even for Christians, hope can feel impossible when we are lost in our shame. But you matter. Sin, mistakes, failures, bad marks, KY tendencies, hikikomori inclinations, disappointing your parents, burdening your community, losing your status, whatever brings you shame. You matter.
You are made in the image of God who created the entire universe out of nothing, and who gives life to the dead (Romans 4:17). And that same God calls you to be reconciled through the sacrifice of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20–21). To be a Christian is to embrace that though we are full of shame before God, God will accept us in Christ. Besides our shame, we are guilty as enemies of God for our sins against his law, deserving to die in our shame(Romans 5:10). But while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). We are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:13). But for those who follow Christ, he becomes our great high priest who is able to sympathize without weaknesses and urges us to come with confidence to his throne of grace to find mercy and grace in our time of need (Hebrews 4:14–16). Repent of your sin and believe the good news of Jesus Christ.
The only acceptance that truly matters in this life, is the acceptance we will find or not find in the next life. God offers to us the faith we need to believe, the hope to rejoice, and unconditional love through Christ by the Spirit of God. If you can’t yet hope, and if his love still seems far off, confess your weakness and look to him in faith. By simply asking God to give you the faith, hope and love he requires to enjoy him , you are learning to hope in God.