Author’s Note: On Monday, June 5, 2023, Evan Cheung, a beloved student leader at our church, took his life by suicide. Evan’s parents, Andrew and Julia, are dear friends of mine and of many in our faith community. Andrew, Evan’s father, served as campus pastor for our church’s central Mount Pleasant site from 2014-2018 before accepting a senior pastor position in Washington, DC. Julia, Evan’s mother, served as the communications manager at Tenth during this time. Evan was completing his high school education through a school in DC online from Vancouver and had plans to study psychology or economics at a university in Metro Vancouver in September. He was also a talented rock climber. During his time in Vancouver, he served as a key leader in our children’s ministry. Evan was intelligent and loving. He was loved by many but struggled with anxiety and depression.
It was very challenging to prepare a message for Evan’s memorial service both because of the nature of his death by suicide and his leadership role within our community. I decided to preach on the three passages of Scripture he had highlighted in his Bible with Post-it notes (Romans 8, Revelation 14 and 1 Corinthians 15). I directly addressed the fact that Evan died by suicide and also spoke to the question that some people ask, “Is suicide an unforgivable sin?” In addition to Scripture, I alluded to an experience I had with Evan, his farewell note, and the eulogies that immediately preceded my message.
One of my fondest memories of Evan occurred several years ago when Evan came over to our house to help our son Joey fix a Minecraft problem. Evan was four years older than Joey and so I was moved that he was so kind as to be willing to do that.
I remember Andrew [a pastor who had served as a staff member at our church and Evan’s dad] and I were with someone who had just lost a beloved member of her family and Andrew offered a verse of scripture to her from Psalms 34:18:
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
I want to offer those words back to you Andrew, Julia [the mother], Ashley [Evan’s sister], to the family, to all of us:
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
The Lord is close to us.
Over these past two weeks in the wake of Evan’s death, people have said, “I have no words. Or, I have few words.”
When we are brokenhearted and have no words or few words, Scripture tells us in Romans 8:26 that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. When we do not know how to pray the Spirit prays for us with groans too deep for words. The Holy Spirit prays for us and in us making prayers from our wordless sighs and our aching groans. We are not alone.
After Evan’s death, Andrew and Julia found his Bible, a Bible that was given to him by CREO which is the name of the youth ministry here at the church. They noticed that Evan had Post-it notes marking three Scripture texts. Julia believed Evan wanted us to see the texts that he had highlighted and so I will offer them to you.
One of Post-it notes was beside Romans 8 where the Apostle Paul writes:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? (Rom. 8:35)
And then in verse 38 Paul writes:
… I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38-39)
This Scripture tells us that nothing in all of creation can separate Evan from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. This passage also tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Nothing. Not trouble, not hardship, not anxiety, not depression, not demons, not even death can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
At times, people have asked me the question—“Is taking your own life by suicide an unforgivable sin?” The answer is, “No.”
When I say “No” I am in no way encouraging this choice, this path. If you hear a voice in your head, or in your spirit, saying, “End it, take your life,” that is the voice of the devil, that’s the voice of the darkness. God says, “I have set before you life and death … choose life” (Deut. 30:19).
So, what I’m about to say in no way encourages taking our lives through suicide. As Ashley [in her eulogy] just mentioned, in Evan’s farewell note he said, “What I did was a mistake—don’t do it.”
Also, by that Post-it note in his Bible in Romans 8 we read these words:
. . . If God is for us, who can be against us? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one . . . (Rom. 8:31; 33-34)
God has not condemned Evan. God is for Evan. God is with Evan. Evan is with God.
Some of us have asked the question, “Why did Evan choose to take his life through suicide when he knew the untold, bewildering pain and grief that it would elicit. The heartbreak. The anger. Why did Evan do it?” Of course, no-one has a complete answer to that question. As Ashley just shared, Evan loved people deeply.
After he died eight to ten children, kids, approached Andrew and Julia and they said, “Evan was the one person I could say anything to. He was the one person I could be completely myself with.” Evan loved people deeply and Evan as you know was loved deeply by Andrew, Julia, Ashley, his grandparents, his family, and so many of you.
But as Ashley just suggested, Evan also had a difficult time feeling loved. He could enter into other peoples lives but had a difficult time being himself with others, letting them in. He felt lonely.
In his journal he wrote these words—these are Evan’s words:
Maybe it’s hard for me to feel loved because I’m so sensitive.
Like I have a bigger pool to fill for love, which can only be filled through quality time, but time is limited because of work and school. And even if there was no limit, who have I found that can see me in that way? Who do I like that likes me just as much as I care about them? It just makes me feel a little sad inside. Not a little, a lot.
Though Evan was loved he had difficulty feeling loved. He didn’t feel fully known, he felt alone. As Andrew mentioned [in his eulogy], the anxiety, the depression felt overwhelming, utterly unbearable. So he ended up taking his life through suicide.
Someone last week said, “Some people lose a battle to cancer. Evan lost the battle to anxiety and depression.”
There was another passage of Scripture that Evan highlighted with a Post-it note from the Book of Revelation where John writes in Scripture:
. . . Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord . . . “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labour . . . (Rev. 14:13)
Evan laboured with anxiety and depression and this verse tells us that he now rests from that labour with anxiety and depression. We don’t know exactly what Evan is feeling and experiencing on the other side. We don’t know whether Evan feels regret and sadness, but we do know that Evan is no longer bearing the weight of anxiety and depression.
We do know that as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 that Evan no longer sees through a glass darkly, but Evan sees his Creator face to face. For the first time Evan knows that he is fully known. For the first time he feels fully loved and fully alive. As Andrew just suggested, there were times when Evan felt like he was sinking into a dark abyss. But Evan finally landed into the embrace of a God of love. Evan is in the hand of God.
Jesus said of his own in John 10:28, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.”
Evan like never before is in the hand of God, in the embrace of the God of love.
1 Corinthians 15:51
The third verse that Evan highlighted in his Bible with a Post-it note is the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 15 where the Apostle Paul writes about resurrection. Paul pens these words:
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable … (1 Cor. 15:51)
And then Paul asks, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). Then he writes, “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 57).
If God raised Jesus from the dead that first Easter after Jesus died on the Cross to pave the way for our sins to be forgiven, and if Jesus was not only raised from the dead but as Scripture promises will raise us who belong to God one day from the dead. If as the Book of Revelation promises (Rev. 21:1) God will one day make a new heaven and a new earth, it means that Evan’s existence is not over—not by a long shot.
In the farewell note to you Andrew, Evan said, “I hated bikes, but some of the best moments of my brief life was riding bikes with you Dad.” In the Book of Isaiah the prophet says that some of the artifacts, some of the things from this current world, will make it into the new heaven and the new earth (Isa. 60:1-11, 19). We don’t know if bikes will be one of those things, but bikes may be in the new world. You may be biking with Evan in the world to come. You may be climbing rocks with him. You will certainly be having adventures with him.
If Christ through his death washed away our sins, if God raised him from the dead, it means that through his death and resurrection Christ has conquered death and therefore we have reason for hope. We will see Evan again.
So, in the passages of Scripture that Evan chose we know that nothing can separate him and us from the love of God, that he is in a place of rest, and peace and that we have the hope of resurrection.
I want to briefly offer three things from Evan’s farewell note that he would want us to hear.
First, don’t feel guilty over my death. According to Julia, who is always so straightforward, he would be fine with our response of anger, but he would not be OK with our feeling guilt over his death.
To his dad, Andrew, he wrote. These are Evan’s words: Thank you for being the best father ever.
To his mom Evan wrote: You’re an amazing parent, regardless of what others say or what you think! You did an impeccable job parenting me. No, this is not your fault. PLEASE do not blame yourself for my death … DO NOT blame yourself. It was not even close to being your fault.
And if any of you feel guilt over his death, he would also say, “It was not even close to being your fault. Do not feel guilt. Do not carry that burden.”
What else might Evan want to say to us?
Second, in his note he asked the question, Why did this happen? Why did I take my life? A bunch of reasons. [But the one he does actually write about is] Stress about overachieving, about perfectionism.
Evan felt this pressure to achieve, to shoot for perfection. I think Evan would say to us, “Don’t live with all that pressure.”
Sometimes I will invite people, and I’ll invite you right now, to imagine the face of someone who has loved you into being. Imagine the face of someone who has loved you into becoming the person you are today. Think of someone who has loved you without condition, hold their face, their countenance in your imagination for a moment.
That person may be a window into God’s love for you. When you think of that person, when you carry that person in your heart, remember you don’t need to do anything great to be loved. You don’t need to do anything spectacular for your life to have significance.
Evan would say, “Don’t live with all that pressure to achieve.” If he were able to speak right now in this context, he would say the “dishonour of not being a tiger mom or dad [which his parents had expressed in their joint eulogy] is actually an honour.” You don’t need to do anything great to be loved, you don’t have anything to prove. Don’t feel guilt. Don’t live with all that pressure.
Finally, I think Evan would say—spend unhurried time with people—especially people you love and who love you. And spend unhurried time with God.
In the note that I read from his journal Evan said the pool of love is filled through quality time. As someone from Washington Community Fellowship [Evan’s home church when he had been living in Washington DC] astutely observed, and we’re so glad you’re joining us today [online], Evan could enter into the “house of someone else’s heart,” he could go there, but he had difficulty allowing people into the house of his own heart.
I think Evan would invite us to let trusted people into the house of our heart, especially if we’re struggling with mental health, perhaps with anxiety, depression, not to walk our path alone but to invite someone onto that path with us. To be vulnerable, to be open, to share the journey.
Evan would also invite us to let God in and to be in God. Last week one of our colleagues here at Tenth Church was sharing how she was in a conversation with Evan, and she said Evan said, “There was one time when I really felt joy. I was worshipping with the youth at camp and God’s presence was there.” This colleague began silently praying that Evan would start experiencing God’s presence in that moment. They kept talking and at the end of that conversation Evan said, “God’s presence has been here.” He knew something of joy.
Ashley said, “There are just three of us now as the family” and Evan is in heaven. Sometimes we think of heaven as a place far away, but Scripture tells us that heaven is present wherever God’s presence is breaking through. So, heaven is closer than you dare imagine.
As Andrew once said to someone who had lost a loved one: “God is close to the brokenhearted. He is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” So, turn toward heaven, turn toward the God who is close to you. The God from whom nothing can separate you from his love. The God who alone can provide your soul with rest and peace, and the God who alone can provide you with the hope of resurrection.
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything