I have two purposes for this post. (1) I want to answer the question in the title: What happens to a Christian who commits suicide? (2) I want to answer that question in the context of a real life memorial service for my friend, Mr. Bill Pomeroy. We are not dealing here with a mere hypothetical situation.
Mr. Bill (as I called him) died by his own hand on February 15, 2016 at the age of 69. He was a decorated green beret, nicknamed Grit, who served our county with incredible courage during the Vietnam War. He was also a military chaplain and a pastor.
To the best of my ability to understand, Mr. Bill was a genuine believer in Jesus Christ. This made preaching his memorial service one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Out of a desire to say what needed to be said clearly and not to leave out any important details, I typed out everything I wanted to say and basically read the manuscript during the service. That manuscript is copied below (with minor revisions).
The Memorial Service for
Mr. Bill Pomeroy
Matthew 6:33 But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
This passage was chosen for Mr. Bill’s memorial service because it was one of his favorite verses in the Bible. He loved that verse. He was always encouraged by it, and he quoted to me on numerous occasions to encourage me too. If you were around him much, he likely quoted it to you as well.
Mr. Bill was a man who spent his life seeking God’s kingdom. In spite of the many tragedies and difficulties he faced, his life was a kingdom life. Jesus had saved him, and he knew it.
But before we analyze Bill’s faith more closely, lets take a journey through his timeline. And a most interesting timeline it is! In a sense, Mr. Bill lived a number of lives, or better, distinct phases in his life. I’d like to walk you through each one these phases, because in order to truly honor and remember him well, I think it is very important that we take each of these distinct phases of his life into account.
Phase One: Growing Up
As a child and teenager, Bill grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, the son of military parents. That was his first life, if you will. He grew up with his sister Linda and his brother Andy. I am sure there are many stories and experiences from this phase of his life, though I personally know very few of them. It wasn’t long, however, before that phase of his life ended, and Bill began his second phase.
Phase Two: Grit
In his second phase of life, Bill went by a different name. He was called Grit. And he was as tough as Rambo. I found an article on the Project Delta website where one of Bill’s partners, Sergeant Major Donald J (DJ) Taylor, explains how Bill got his nickname:
“My assistant team leader had been SSG Terry Pardee, but he had recently completed his tour, returned to the U.S., and had returned to civilian life. SSG William R. (Grit) Pomeroy Jr. was then assigned to my team… Grit stayed with my recon team until Project Delta closed out the following July, and we worked very well together until the end. Bill Pomeroy got the nickname ‘Grit’ because he was from Alabama and had a very deep Southern accent.”
You’d think the nickname Grit would be given because he was tough, but Bill got it because he had a lot of south in his mouth! As it turns out, though, Grit did prove that he also had a lot of grit! He was tough — no doubt about it.
Bill was on a special forces team called Detachment B-52, Project Delta. The guys who served in this group were some of the toughest and smartest soldiers in the US Army at the time. And because of their various assignments in extremely dangerous territory, they frequently engaged the enemy in deadly firefights.
Serving for many months in Vietnam, Grit and his team members faced the possibility of death on a daily basis. Throughout the entire ordeal, Mr. Bill showed incredible tenacity and bravery. After it was all over, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal of Valor as well as the Purple Heart, having been injured as he defended our freedom.
The injury he received occurred very early in his time in Vietnam. A mortar round had landed near him, causing a piece of metal lodged into his body. This injury, however, did not stop Grit from continuing to serve his country. He did not return home, but kept fighting.
The article I quoted from a moment ago is called Dry Hole. In it Taylor gives detailed accounts of some of the fights and skirmishes that Grit was involved in. In a particularly moving account, towards the end of his article, Taylor describes how Grit (through an incredible act of smarts and bravery) saved Taylor’s life from the approaching guns of three North Vietnamese Army Soldiers. As a civilian reading this account, I was astonished at the courage that Grit and his team displayed in the midst of such horrors. I strongly suggest reading the article in its entirety to get a fuller appreciation of Bill’s service.
Mr. Bill was truly a war hero and a great American patriot. Today, we honor him for serving each us who love our freedom. After Bill finished his battle days, he started his third phase of life.
Phase Three: Vocational Ministry
In this phase, Mr. Bill finished his college degree at Jacksonville State University and then trained for ministry at Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX, where he earned a Master of Divinity degree.
This was the beginning of his vocational ministry. Bill used his seminary education to again serve in the military, but this time as a chaplain with the 20th Special Forces Army Reserve. In this role, he was well-loved and respected, as evidenced by many of those who signed the funeral home’s online guest book.
Tom Boggs, for example, wrote this:
“Bill was one of two chaplains assigned to the 20th Group when I commanded it. I had nothing but high regard for him as a Chaplain, Soldier and friend. He was truly a good man.”
Bill also had opportunity in this phase to serve as an assistant pastor in Montgomery and eventually as a pastor at Garywood Baptist Church.
On several occasions, Bill showed me his files where he kept his research for sermons. He was a meticulous student of the Bible and put a great deal of care into each sermon he preached. He allowed me to borrow a number of his preaching tapes, which actually allowed me to hear Bill the preacher at work. He communicated the Word of God with clarity and passion each week to his congregation.
Once the vocational ministry phase of his life ended at some point in the early 1990s, Bill set out on the fourth phase of his life.
Phase Four: Social Security
In this phase, Mr. Bill worked for the US Social Security Administration for over ten years. If my understanding is correct, at least part of his job was working in the call center, where he was responsible for fielding calls from people who spoke Vietnamese. He was chosen for this task because he had grown proficient in that language during the war. Perhaps some of you are here today because you are his former co-workers from those years. There are others from SS who have also signed the guest book at the funeral home website, stating how much they thought of Bill.
Much happened during those ten plus years with Social Security, but for the sake of time we move now to the fifth phase of Bill’s life.
Phase Five: RMLBC Fixture
It was during this phase that I (and most of us at RMLBC) knew Brother Bill. To us — who really only knew bits and pieces about him — he was a retiree who lived alone about a mile from where you are sitting. Not alone exactly, because during these latter years of his life he was accompanied at home by a giant, sweet dog named Bubba.
In this phase, Bill was a permanent part of the architecture here at our church. Year in and year out, Bill shook hands with every person who came into those doors and offered each one a smile and a laugh. He served in a variety of capacities through the years, including Sunday School director.
Throughout his years as a faithful member of this congregation, he prayed for others, regularly taught God’s Word, and supported the church financially. I will probably best remember his service as an usher, taking the morning offering. Countless times, Bill led the church in praying over our gifts as we presented them to the Lord, and his prayers were always earnest and sincere. Several people have remarked to me how much they enjoyed hearing Bill pray over the offering, because it was plain that he spoke to God from the heart.
Overall Life: Faith
I’ve listed out the five phases of Bill’s remarkable life. Of course, my brief overview doesn’t do justice to all the complexities and nuances of his experiences, but I do hope that this brief overview helps us to celebrate each of the part of his life.
But now I must point out an important fact. There was one thing that was true about Bill in every phase of his life — he was a man of faith. I’m not sure at what age Bill initially trusted Christ, but by the time he arrived in Vietnam, he had developed a robust faith in the Lord God revealed in the Bible.
How do I know this?
In Sergeant Major Taylor’s article that I quoted from earlier, Taylor wrote a couple of amazing things about Mr. Bill. In the first of these quotes, I want to read the preceding sentences that describe the horrors of what Bill’s team was facing.
“The team knew this was going to be the recon patrol we had always dreaded would one day be assigned to us; a patrol where we were sent into a valley so full of the enemy we stood little chance of coming out alive. This was indeed the ‘Valley of Death’ we had all dreaded but knew would one day come our way. So we planned on taking as much ammunition, grenades and Claymore mines as we could carry, because we intended to take as many of the enemy with us as we could when we departed this world. None of us thought we would be alive long enough to get hungry, so we planned on carrying very little food.”
Now just imagine being in that type of scenario, knowing not only that your life was on the line, but that that chances of survival were slim to none. What would you do in that situation? Well, next Taylor describes what Bill did:
“SSG William R. (Grit) Pomeroy Jr., my assistant team leader, said a much-needed prayer for our souls and we went to bed early. We knew we were going to need all of our strength for what lay ahead of us.”
Bill’s team had basically been sent on a death mission. They purposely rationed their food because they didn’t think they would be coming back. But before they left to faithfully fulfill their mission to the “Valley of Death,” Bill Pomeroy turned the thoughts of his fellow soldiers towards heaven. He fed his and their souls with prayer. This is the action of a man of faith, trusting himself and his comrades into the hands of God.
The second quote is more extensively focused on Bill’s faith. As I mentioned earlier, Taylor tells the story of how Grit saved his life, an amazing story of courage and bravery. When Taylor contemplated on this event, he came to the conclusion that God had preserved Bill’s life in that situation, and that his (Taylor’s) life was preserved too, by virtue of having been near Bill.
Listen to what Taylor wrote, and you’ll see what I mean:
“Still yet, there is another explanation for the outcome of this brief engagement if I tell you SSG William R. (Grit) Pomeroy, Jr. was, and still is, a deeply religious man and a devout Christian. At the end of his tour in Vietnam, Grit left the Army, attended Divinity School, received a Degree in Theology, and returned to the U.S. Army as a Protestant Chaplain. Grit served as a Chaplain with Special Forces units and ministered to countless Special Forces soldiers during their time of spiritual need for the next thirty years. Lieutenant Colonel William R. Pomeroy, Jr. retired from the Army a few years ago at his last assignment as the 20th Special Forces Group Chaplain. To me, there is little doubt but that God made one of His infrequent appearances in that streambed that day to save one of His favorite servants and just happened to inadvertently save my life in the time of it.”
I’m not sure if it’s true that Bill was one of God’s “favorite servants.” But what I do know for sure is that Taylor’s words are a testimony to the fact that Bill’s faith was alive and well in Vietnam and beyond.
After Vietnam, Bill lived out his faith as a chaplain and as a pastor, preaching God’s Word and counseling others with it. In more recent years, I personally saw Mr. Bill’s faith as a member of our church.
Never, not one time, even when he was telling me about his pain and hurts both physically and emotionally, did he deny God or reject Christ. Bill never expressed anger or discontent with God, at least not to me. I have never doubted, nor will I ever doubt, Bill’s faith in the saving blood of Jesus Christ to redeem his soul.
So his faith in Christ to save him from his sins was a part of every phase of his life.
The Difficult Question
But that fact, of course, leads to a very difficult question that we all need to wrestle with today. If he loved the Lord and was seeking first God’s kingdom, then why did he take his own life?
The full answer to that question is highly complicated, and we will likely never know the extent of it this side of glory. But for the sake of promoting the gospel of grace and for the sake of bringing comfort to Bill’s family and friends, I do want to offer a brief answer. And I hope this answer helps you not only deal with Bill’s death, but also to deeply consider where you stand with the Lord.
First, as I’ve said, Bill was a Christian — a genuine believer in Jesus Christ. Again, he never doubted this (at least not publicly), and his was a robust faith.
But in spite of his strong faith and in spite of his heroism at war which we celebrate today, Mr. Bill lived what can only be described as a tragic life. He had lifelong struggles and pain that most of really knew very little about.
For example, during the war, Bill experienced horrors that doubtless haunted him for the rest of his life. To my knowledge he was never diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but I do believe when he returned from Vietnam, he brought those experiences back with him. Nobody who goes through such terrors can simply pack all of those terrifying memories up and pretend they never happened. Plus, at the time of his return, little or no help was offered to our veterans to help them cope with what they had been through.
This is one reason, by the way, why the suicide rates among Vietnam War veterans are higher than any other demographic.
It was also in Vietnam that Bill wounded his back. In another act of tremendous bravery, he was climbing out of a helicopter on a rope ladder into the jungle. Another soldier was also climbing down above him and accidentally stepped on his hands. Bill was loaded down in full combat gear and fell 20 feet to the ground, injuring his back in such a way that it caused chronic pain for the rest of his life. Bill sometimes mentioned this in conversation, as many of you know, and he never found any real relief for the pain.
Also in Vietnam, Bill’s sleep cycles were viciously thrown off kilter. When in the jungle surrounded by enemies seeking your life, sleep is hard to come by. Though he tried, Bill was never able to overcome this. He told me on numerous occasions that, though he could sleep, he could not sleep deeply. His rest was very troubled and light.
So though Bill did not die in Vietnam, in many ways he did. His war experience left a painful and lifelong mark on him that eventually contributed to his decision to end his life.
The trauma of war also left him with the inability to truly enjoy family life. This is probably the most tragic part of his story. During the third phase of his life, his vocational ministry as chaplain and pastor, Bill tried twice to settle down with a wife. Both marriages ended in divorce. Now, I must add that one incredibly bright spot came out of this for Bill — the birth of his son in 1987. And as many of you have pointed out, Bill dearly loved his son and was very proud of him.
But the failed marriages led to a great deal of lonliness for Bill in his latter years. Though many people reached out to him as a friend, and he reached out to others as a friend, when he went home each day, he was alone. Even his good canine friend Bubba could not fill the void he had in his heart for deeper companionship.
To make matters worse, as Bill grew older and his health deteriorated, he had a great deal of difficulty keeping his health matters straight, including keeping his medications straight. Though family, friends, and medical staff helped him a great deal, he still struggled with this mightily, often leading to bouts of mental cloudiness and depression.
Now, why am I telling you these things? Certainly not to speak dishonorably of Bill, but rather to help us make sense of the decision he made two weeks ago.
In what I believe to be a moment of desperation, and most likely a moment of mental cloudiness, and in a moment that does not define who he was, our friend Bill took his own life. The haunting darkness of life’s tragedies won a temporary victory.
Bill Is with the Lord
But in spite of Bill’s tragic decision, I stand before you today as someone who believes he is now with the Lord in heaven, experiencing the fullness of joy. I believe this with all of my heart, and I know that many of you join me in this belief. But why should we believe this? Because of the truth conveyed to us by God in this verse:
Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
You see, Bill Pomeroy’s life is not ultimately defined by tragedy, nor is it ultimately defined by his own goodness or his own badness or his heroism at war. Rather his life is defined by the grace of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. That verse says Mr. Bill was saved by grace apart from any of his own works at all.
Someone may say that suicide is one sin that cannot be forgiven, because you cannot ask for forgiveness. But that would assume that people are saved so long as they do something, namely, ask for forgiveness. However, the verse states explicitly that we are not saved “as a result of works.” It is nothing we do or don’t do. We don’t work to get something right in order to please God so that he will save us. Rather, the verse says plainly, “By grace you have been saved.” Period.
Now, folks, either we believe that God saves by grace like this verse and the rest of the Bible teaches, or we don’t. If the Bible is true, and Bill’s faith in Jesus was genuine (a fact none of us have any reason to doubt), then Bill is in heaven with the Lord right now. And this is why the haunting darkness of Bill’s life — all the tragedy — had only a temporary victory over him.
I feel the need to be clear about this lest I be misunderstood. Suicide is never good. It is a terrible sin. It is the sin of murder — the murder of the self. It is a selfish action, and nobody should ever do it, especially Christians.
Don’t make the mistake of believing that because God forgave Bill by grace that this somehow gives anyone permission to commit suicide. That would be like saying, “Christ forgave a thief, therefore it is okay if I steal.” Christ can forgive suicide, but that doesn’t give anyone permission to do it.
I believe Christ’s blood has forgiven Bill for what he has done, because the grace of the gospel is strong enough to forgive a person of every sin, past, present, and future. But still it is not good to even think of suicide as a possible option, ever, under any circumstances.
I hate that Mr. Bill’s life ended in this way. I hate that his life had such lingering darkness that this was even an option for him. But in spite of what he has done, the grace of Christ is more powerful — powerful enough to forgive Bill and to bring him victoriously into the Lord’s presence to enjoy his pleasures forevermore.
What I want us all to see here, if nothing else, is that God’s grace is wide, deep, strong, and powerful, and it ultimately overcomes every single darkness in our lives. The way Bill entered into ultimate victory was not a good way, but he entered into ultimate victory nonetheless.
Now, the grace that can forgive even something like suicide is the grace that is offered to each and every one of us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Bill loved the gospel, the good news that Jesus saves sinners. One of our longtime church members mentioned being on a visitation team with Bill a number of years ago. This team went out into the neighborhood sharing the gospel. This member recounted to me how passionate Bill was for the truth of God’s grace. He knew and loved the gospel, and he desperately wanted other people to know God through Jesus too.
Mr. Bill knew he was a sinner. He knew he deserved condemnation and God’s wrath for all eternity. He knew that Romans 3:23 is true: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And he knew that people in their sinful, rebellious condition would justly spend eternity in hell if nothing changed. He knew that Hebrews 9:27 is true: “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.”
Bill also knew that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” (John 3:16). The perfect Son of God, Jesus Christ, lived a holy life, never committing even one sin against his Father. Bill knew that this perfect Lamb of God was crucified as a holy sacrifice — a perfectly innocent man being treated like the worst of criminals. He knew that Jesus did this as a substitute for his own soul, that Christ was taking the punishment that he deserved.
Bill also believed with his whole heart that God raised Jesus from the dead three days later, declaring victory over all the forces of the devil and over the sin of man. He believed that Jesus had ascended into heaven and that Christ is currently alive and well, sitting at the right hand of the Father.
Bill believed what the Bible teaches, that those who trust Jesus to rescue them from sin will be saved. He knew that “Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” and that those who do not depend on their own works or effort, but rather depend fully on Jesus for forgiveness, would enjoy God’s presence forever. Bill had trusted Christ in this way, and he wanted others to trust Christ in this way.
The Bible promises that those who are in Jesus are overcomers and that nothing can ever separate them from the love of God in Christ. And the reason why is because it does not depend upon us in any way, but rather on God’s full grace that he lavishes on us through the sacrifice of Christ.
I believe Bill Pomeroy is in heaven not for being a war hero, not for being a chaplain or pastor, not for his generosity, not for being a good friend to people, and not for getting anything right in life. I believe Bill is in heaven because Jesus’ blood is powerful enough to save him from his sins. And that includes every single sin Bill ever committed, including his last one. The forgiveness of Christ is full, absolute, and complete.
Again, either we believe in grace or we do not. And if God saves by grace, then he saves by grace. I want to encourage you to believe what the Bible says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Now, knowing Bill I am sure he would want me to push this a bit further with a couple of questions to challenge you who have gathered here today. (1) Do you understand how amazing God’s grace is through Christ? (2) Have you personally accepted the grace of God? If you would answer no to one or both of these questions, please see me after the service or contact me later. What you do with Jesus is the most important decision you will ever make in your life. In fact, it might very well be that one of the good things God brings out of Bill’s death is your salvation. As Bill would counsel us all: “Seek first the Kingdom of God.”
Bill Pomeroy lived an amazing life. He lived a tragic life. But neither one of those define who he was and is. Bill lived a life covered by the grace of another — Jesus Christ — and that is primarily what defines his life. Believers are not ultimately defined by their goodness or by their mistakes. They are defined by their union with Christ. And this is amazing grace!
Mr. Bill will be missed, but his life will forever be a trophy of amazing grace.