Dale Johnson: I’m joined with Jim Newheiser, associate professor of counseling and practical theology at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jim is a board member for ACBC, and we’re so delighted that he’s here to help us walk through a really difficult subject today. Jim, we’re so thankful that you are here with us.
Jim Newheiser: It’s a privilege to be included, although, you’ve picked a very difficult subject for me.
Dale Johnson: I will say, as we talk about a difficult subject, I have confidence that you will help us to walk through this very difficult situation with much grace and truth from the wisdom of God’s Word. Jim, help us to think through when a suicide and a crisis like this occurs; when you walk into that room where the family is sitting, as a counselor, what are some of the things that you’re evaluating in that room as you’re trying to understand what’s going on?
Jim Newheiser: The first thing that occurs to me, when I hear of a suicide of a dear friend or someone in the church in terms of their family, I’m tempted to be selfish and think, “I’m afraid I’m going to really mess this up.” I’m afraid that if I go, I’m going to say the wrong thing and that they will tell everybody else, “Can you believe what he said?” The main thing I’ve learned is that when someone close to you has experienced a tragedy like this, you have got to trust God and go. You draw near to them and you go be with them.
Sometimes you don’t know what to say, you’re just being there and embracing them. I have a friend who just told me last week about a situation where someone went into a situation like this. He just sat down, and he wept and didn’t say a word. Later, the family said, “That is the best thing anybody could have done for us right then.” Jesus is a Savior who was drawn to those who are suffering.
I tend to be a person who is repulsed by the suffering of others, and I have to remind myself that God has called me, even though it’s hard for me, to be like Christ and to draw near to those who are hurting. Then, pleading with God to help me to say something from His Word that can be comforting and encouraging to these people, realizing that if He doesn’t help me, I’ll make a mess of it. But I’ve been called to do that, so I’m going.
Dale Johnson: There’s often a different situation in the immediate crisis, the moment that something like that happens. You’ve just described a helpful way to think about the ministry of presence, just being with somebody in their time of need, weeping with those who weep at moments of great difficulty when there are still a lot of unanswered questions. We might not know the answer to that, but as time begins to pass and you walk with that family, what are some of the goals that you’re trying to accomplish with that family? What are some of the things that you’re wanting to help them process and work through as they’re dealing with some very difficult and strained emotions?
Jim Newheiser: As you raise the issue of what you do further down the road, you make an important point. A lot of times when a tragedy takes place, there is immediately a great deal of support and attention, and sometimes people in the initial shock manage it pretty well until later months or even years later. One of my dear friends had his adult child take his own life, and the second anniversary of it was very recent. It was evident through social media that he and his family are still deeply affected by this. I was with his wife a few months ago and asked how she was, and she started weeping.
To understand that when this happens, the people who are close will be affected for the rest of their lives; their nods will never again quite be the same, and what may seem to be heroic strength in the early going, months later, they may experience weakness. That sometimes is when we need to be most conscious of our pastoral duty to engage in care and listen and try to give answers from Scripture.
Dale Johnson: When a tragic event occurs, even the strongest families can be shaken from a very sturdy foundation, and their minds start to be curious and question and wander. Jim, talk to us about some of the truths that you bring into that counseling situation to help re-sturdy that family because this event has really shaken their foundation.
Jim Newheiser: I really love Deuteronomy 29:29, which says, “The secret things belong to the Lord, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” Just like you said, people have questions. They’ve questioned, “Why did he do this?” or “Is there something I could have said to her? Is there something I could have done might have prevented this?” Even as we’re talking about this, more and more people are coming to my mind whom I’ve known and I’ve struggled with, “This person reached out to me weeks before.” We don’t know the answers to those questions.
Then there may be many questions people have that in this life will not be answered, but God has revealed many things to us. When Scripture is described to us as profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be equipped for every good work, that includes the good work of bearing up under tragedy.
We must admit, we can’t answer some of those questions, even the harder questions of, “Why didn’t God prevent this?” However, there are so many truths we can turn to in God’s Word that speak to the situation that can offer the help that they need. That’s why in all biblical counseling, the thing to keep in mind is that saying biblical things without reading the Bible isn’t nearly as powerful as trying to find things from the Scriptures that speak to them. That could be the Psalms, which convey the emotion of suffering, but also the wisdom of Scripture in terms of how to understand very difficult things.
Dale Johnson: One of the things that we should keep in mind as we’re working with this family on a continual basis and as they settle back into a routine of some sorts, although it changes a person in some way when they deal with something like this, is that they are always processing this tragedy and they are always dealing with some of these issues. One of the things that we want to do is help to guard them against becoming angry or bitter at God during these situations. What are some of those critical things that you’re trying to guard this person’s heart with so that they don’t use this to respond in a way that’s unhealthy toward God?
Jim Newheiser: In response to what you said, we’re tempted to think untrue thoughts about God. Satan is a murderer and he is a deceiver as it says in John 8:44, and ultimately all such death is something that is in his realm. When he murders, he then wants to produce lies that go along with that and would love to turn people away from the truth, and we need to counteract that with the truth of who God really is. God is merciful and good, and He also cares for us as His children; He is our Father, and His grace will be sufficient to help us through this. He will never leave us nor forsake us.
Some of it is gently replacing the lies of the evil one, who is the murderer, with the truth of God, who gives life and cares as we pray with them, as we read the Scriptures with them, again recalling who He is and reading the way He is described in the Word of God. I would take one step further, when you think in Hebrews 4 and Hebrews 2, how we have a Savior who sympathizes with us in our weakness. Christ knows, He cares, and He helps.
Dale Johnson: There’s one final thought that I want you to help us work through is this process of grief. When we experience especially somebody close who loses their life, and then after a situation like suicide where they take their own life, we are reminded in death that death comes because of sin. As we walk through this process of dealing with the tragedy of death, we are to grieve well. It is a reality that we’re dealing with and it reminds us of our own sinfulness and the result of the fall and the consequences that we all endure. How do you help a family walk through this process of grief properly?
Jim Newheiser: It goes back to where you began, Dale. Every family is going to process this in different ways. Generally, when counseling, you hear what is coming out of people’s hearts, it’s out of the heart the mouth speaks. You try to listen rather than having a formula that these are the five verses or the five points I want to make with every family. There are some families who, given time, may be saying just the right things and relying upon the Word of God. Then later, they struggle with one particular aspect of this.
There are others who may be tempted to anger with God, and you need to reinforce the goodness of God and the fact that, like one of the parables where an enemy has done and this, it’s not from God’s hand. He does not do evil; He does nothing but good. He is the giver of life; every good gift comes from Him. But also, humbling ourselves before God means that there are many things we do not understand, and we have to be silent and trust Him as we draw near to Him.
Dale Johnson: We’ve talked about the way to handle these things Scripturally. Give us some resources that help us to think thoroughly about the Scriptures related to these types of topics and how we care for those who are walking through this very difficult situation.
Jim Newheiser: In the series of booklets by Shepherd’s Press, there is a booklet by Bruce Ray. It’s called Help! Someone I Love Died by Suicide. Bruce, having worked for decades as a police and fire chaplain, is often having to go and inform a family of a suicide, and then try to care for them. As I’ve taught about this and I’ve dealt with situations, I’ve relied a lot on his expertise, so he would be a go-to guy in his material there. He’s excellent and has wisdom from dealing with all these situations. It would be the one I would recommend; it’s published by Shepherd’s Press.
Dale Johnson: Jim, this conversation is so helpful, and we know the longer we counsel and with the increasing rates of suicide that the Lord may just give us an opportunity to minister to a family in a very difficult situation. Our conversation today has been very helpful in that. So, Jim, we are grateful.
Jim Newheiser: It’s been a privilege to get to talk with you. It’s the 10th leading cause of death, perhaps in general, but I think for certain categories of people it’s much, much higher than that for younger people. If you don’t want to have to deal with this, don’t counsel. It’s something that’s going happen to people you counsel. People you know, people you love are going to be touched by this and we want to minister to them in their sadness. They are suffering. Part of the sufficiency of the Word of God is that even in, of all situations I would least want to counsel, I still believe that the Bible, applied by the Spirit, is able to help people to endure. I have seen God do this in the lives of people I dearly love who do not understand, who are in pain, but they still trust the Lord, and I am thankful for that.