Dale Johnson: This week, I’m so excited to have one of my dear friends, Keith Palmer, on the podcast with us. He’s an associate pastor at Grace Bible Church here in Granbury, Texas. He’s also the training center director for the Center for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship in Granbury and a Fellow of the Board of Trustees at ACBC. Keith, we are so excited you’re here, and we’re grateful for the wisdom the Lord has given you and for helping us think through these very difficult issues well.
Keith Palmer: It’s good to be here, and yeah, it is a challenging topic, but it’s one that we really need to be talking about in our churches.
Dale Johnson: That’s right. As we think about this issue of suicide, one of the things that’s critical as we move forward, especially in the church, is us paying attention to what’s really going on in the culture. Now, suicide is seen as the 10th leading cause of death among adults. One of the things that we also need to know is that among adolescents, some people estimate that it’s the first leading cause of death. It’s something that we in the church really need to be paying attention to. What are some of the common characteristics of suicidal ideation, or what are some of those warning signs that we, as ministers of the gospel, ought to be looking for?
Keith Palmer: We can start by thinking about some of the reasons that suicidal people give, and then we can look also at things you could notice more from a distance. Some of the reasons people give for wanting to commit suicide are various issues of rejection: a breakup, loss of a friend, increasing age, illnesses related to the aging process, loneliness (maybe through a divorce or the death of a spouse), loss of a family member, childlessness, some sort of idolatrous desire to be married that is not being fulfilled, or some sort of overwhelming circumstance like unemployment or horrific financial difficulties, pressures from school or work. Then you think about in the Scripture a situation like Job where you have a number of those things going on: he’s lost all of his kids, he’s lost a lot of his livelihood, and then he has this chronic illness that just continues to afflict him. Those are some of the reasons, at least that I’ve heard over the years, that people might want to commit suicide.
If you don’t have the opportunity to talk to somebody but you’re watching from a distance in the context of the local church or within family members or relationships with friends, you’re looking for things like hopelessness, giving away property, the recent loss of a loved one, or making a will. Sometimes, all of a sudden, people will begin to withdraw from relationships. I know that as a pastor, one of the things I’m looking for is when people are not attending worship as frequently as maybe they did in the past, and whatever the reason, you definitely want to try to get to the bottom of that.
Addiction issues are associated with suicide risk, so alcohol, drug abuse, prescription drug abuse. Significant changes in personality, where someone just doesn’t seem like they’re themselves, maybe you’ve had a relationship with them in the local church or in family, and you go, “Man, there’s something just not right. There’s something that’s different about this person.” Then, of course, if they’ve actually communicated a desire to take their own life or they’ve threatened that in some way, those would be all reasons to take notice.
Dale Johnson: I know sometimes that we might be hesitant to get involved in a situation like that. Maybe we feel like we don’t want to exacerbate or to assume and we don’t want them to feel uncomfortable. But with suicide rates growing and growing and growing, and as our job in the church is to learn to care for people, what are some of the ways that we can be proactive and be gentle in the way in which we approach somebody who may have some of these types of warning signs?
Keith Palmer: Maybe at the top of our list ought to be the simple idea that we need to be the church. The church is called by God to be a people that lives for God’s glory, that practices the one another’s in the body of Christ, that invest in one another in terms of getting to know each other and relationships. We think about a text like Ephesians 4:11 and following where the leaders equip believers, believers do the work of the ministry by speaking the truth in love, and all that necessitates really knowing people and being involved in their lives. One of the best things we can do is not settle for superficial relationships. We’ve got to craft ministries, we have to not be content with programs alone, but we need to actually work to build real, significant relationships with people, where we can actually get to know them.
I know in our church, one of the ways we tried to do that is by having small group ministry (we call them home groups) where we can get past the superficiality that can sometimes be Sunday morning at the big worship service and I get to know people in a more one-on-one or a small group level. Just being the church, and along with that, taking that Ephesians 4 mandate seriously, that we’re not just doing things, but we are actually speaking the truth in love, getting to know one another, and that means that our church needs to be educated. They need to take this calling seriously, to invest in other people at a more significant level. When we do that, not only do we help with some of the isolation that creates risk where a person is struggling and beginning to isolate themselves, but also, some of these things that are hidden that we may not see in a more casual relationship, hopefully, will come out.
A second thing we can do is to train our people. We pastors, the elders pastors of the church, have a call to equip the saints for the work of service, going back to Ephesians. We think of a text like 1 Peter 5 where the elders are called to shepherd the flock of God among them, or a text like Hebrews 13:17 where the leaders are called to give an account to God for how they care for the souls of the people there. We need to be educating our people to know some of these risks and to know how to build relationships and to know if they see something, if something doesn’t seem right, to not just sit back and say, “Hey, well, that’s someone else’s job,” or, “It’s probably nothing,” but to actually go to that person and ask them, “What’s going on?” and try to get others involved in their situation. Those are two things we could do to try to prevent these sorts of things from happening.
Dale Johnson: Those things are so important, that sometimes we act as though we wake up one day and as a part of the church, we just naturally have great relationships. You don’t have good relationships at this level without intentionality, and that’s what God calls us to. When we have those types of relationships, it’s a lot easier to see changing patterns of behavior, changing attitudes and emotions of people, so those are some great points. Now, we get to a place where the church may have to care for someone who has tried to go through with suicide. They’ve attempted and failed. How do we approach someone in that situation?
Keith Palmer: First, we just thank the Lord that they were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, for every situation like that, you may have others where the person unfortunately was successful in taking their own life. So that’s really a gift of God, and I think that’s part of how we approach it. We come alongside that person who obviously is under some sort of distress or hopelessness that would cause them to do that, and we want to help them to see that God has really given them another chance and that’s a grace of His kind hand to do that.
If that’s a situation someone has attempted suicide, the first thing we want to think about is their safety. We don’t want to leave them in a situation where they could potentially try to take their life again, and this is definitely a time, if there are weapons in the home, depending on how they attempted the first time, it may be very prudent to remove weapons or get somebody involved who can do that. Of course, if it’s a live situation where a person is still actively threatening or talking about that, it may be an opportunity, but we want to get law enforcement involved. But the point is, we want to use both the jurisdiction of the church and the jurisdiction of the state to try to help the person to be in a safe position—where they are living, who’s around them, we want to remove any possible means where they might be able to attempt suicide again and ensure that they’re in a safe place.
A second thing we’d want to do is really to try to begin to minister to the heart of the person. This is a person who has gotten to the place where they think this is the only answer for their problem, and so in biblical counseling of course, we want to ask a lot of questions. We want to listen well. What is this person going through? What is the background? There’s always a story and a context. We don’t want to give pat, flippant answers, just kind of dispensing Bible passages. We want to care for the person well, first by listening to them and seeking to understand something of their situation, and then of course, the most wonderful thing we get to do as Christians is to open the Word of God and point them to the hope of the gospel and the person and work of Jesus to demonstrate that things can be different and there is hope.
This place that they’ve gotten to, where they believe there is no hope for their situation or it just can’t possibly ever be better, to show them that that is actually deception, and the truth of God would say otherwise. We can give them that initial hope in the gospel, if they’re professing faith in the Lord Jesus, we want to reaffirm that and help them to strengthen their faith in Christ. If they’re not a Christian, man, that’s the first place we go to. A text like Matthew 11 where Jesus says, “Come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” and to be able to unfold gospel promises for that person.
A couple of things we might want to do as preliminary would be to create the right team. This is not a ministry for one person in the church alone. This is a church effort, and multiple people need to be involved. For example, having a lead counselor, having a same-gender mentor, a Titus 2 sort of disciple or mentor. So, if it’s a man, I want to pair them with another godly man. If it’s a woman I want to pair them with another godly woman. Make sure that they have some connection to the church in a home group. We’d want to look at their family situation. The point is, we want to create a team of people to come alongside and care. Those would be some preliminary things we want to do in that situation.
Dale Johnson: I’m so appreciative that you described not just the ministry of counseling, which certainly we are all about here at ACBC, but also the ministry of the church and how beautiful God’s method is to utilize the fellowship of the body of Christ to minister to this person on multiple levels, and to do it intentionally. I think that’s critical.
Now, these are the situations that absolutely break my heart when I hear about these things, when somebody attempts suicide and they’re successful. We know that the Scriptures make very clear that life is difficult. Life is hard at times. Jesus even tells us that in this world, we would have trouble. I mean, there’s a reason he tells us not to lose heart. In the sin-cursed world that we live in, it’s so easy for us to lose heart if our eyes are not on the eternal hope that we have.
The unfortunate truth of the matter is that there are times that people are despairing, despairing as Elijah did even of life itself, and sometimes they go so far as to think that life is better if they just weren’t here, and sometimes they’re successful. What does the church do in a situation like that, when people are successful at taking their own life?
Keith Palmer: I think that it’s a tragic opportunity for the church. It’s a tragic circumstance, but it’s a wonderful opportunity for the church to be the church. This is an opportunity for everyone involved in the body of Christ to reach out in Christlike compassion and help, and it can be something as simple and practical as making a meal, or it can be something as significant in terms of spiritual care as formal biblical counseling.
It really does require a large effort on the part of the church to come alongside that family, and the Bible tells us the sort of things that we would want to do. The first thing a church can do is to just be present with the person or with the family. Our pastor calls it “the ministry of presence” in our church. We know that Jesus said, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age. I will never leave you or forsake you.” We demonstrate Christlikeness when we are with people in their sorrow and in their grief. We may not even need to say anything for a while, but just to be with them, to hug them, to assure them that we are walking alongside them and we will be there as long as it’s needed.
Another thing we’d want to do is to weep with those who weep. As the body of Christ, we are all connected, as Christ is the head, and yet we are all connected in the body of Christ. The Bible tells us we rejoice with those who rejoice, we weep with those who weep, and we do! We put our arms around people like that and we cry with them and we grieve with them. And yet, as the Bible tells us, we do not grieve as those who have no hope.
We’ll turn to the Scriptures. We think about the encouragement, for example, of the Psalms. Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” or Psalm 56, that God has taken account of our wanderings. He has put our tears in his bottle, the text says, and then the chorus of that Psalm, “And this I know, that God is for me, and God whose word I praise.” To take refuge in the Lord and to lean on Him and to know that He is there, to care and to really minister to that grieving person.
We also care for that family by thinking about so many practical things that have to happen. Maybe it’s helping them to go through paperwork related to insurance policies. Maybe it’s helping them to learn the finances, if the person that passed away was the one in the family that did the finances. I know, recently, in a situation like this in our own church, one of the things that our church was able to do for the person that was grieving the suicide, the family members that were left behind, is just to help them very practically with financial items and paperwork and things involving lawyers and insurance policy. We got a team of people from our church that were experts in those fields and were able to help the family members to work through that in the midst of it just being completely overwhelming.
A final thing we would want to do is just to offer ministry of the Word, care that is formal biblical counseling. It’s “one anothering.” It’s speaking the truth in love. I can think of another situation where a person went through a tragedy years ago, and every now and then, what this individual needs is the body of Christ reassuring her of truths that she already knows. We cannot downplay the importance of simply reminding people of the promises of the gospel, of who are God is and what He’s like and how He cares, even if that person has heard those truths a hundred times. It’s the ministry of just repeating and encouraging the Word of God so that in that moment of struggle they can have confidence in the truth of Scripture.
Dale Johnson: You know Keith, that is so good for us to think about and to talk about this issue.
If you’re listening to the podcast today and you’ve been struggling with this issue of suicide and you’ve been thinking, “Man, maybe it’s better that that I not live anymore,” I want you to know that we’re doing this podcast to train people to think about you today. I want you to also know that there are people around in your circles and churches who care for you and who want to reach out to you, and I pray today that through this podcast, you’ve heard hearts of two men who would want to reach out to you and want to see you through this really difficult time.
For those of you who are listening who are regular listeners and you are a part of a local body, can I encourage you to have the eyes of Jesus? Jesus paid attention to all the people around Him, and in the crowds, He was able to pick out those who were hurting. He was able to take His eyes off of Himself and to pay attention to the people in the crowd who were in despair and who were struggling. I encourage you, throughout this next week and the weeks to come, to pause for a moment and to have eyes of the Lord Jesus as you pay attention to those who are hurting in this world. It’s difficult. It’s hard to live with the curse of sin, and we have the opportunity, with the hope of the Lord Jesus Christ, to minister to those who are hurting.