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TIL 234 | Dealing with Suicide in the Church: A Pastoral Perspective

Dale Johnson: There are few people that I get more excited to be around than Pastor Nicolas Ellen. I’m so grateful that he’s here with us. He has two doctorate degrees: a DMin from Southern Seminary and a PhD from Southwestern Seminary in biblical counseling. He’s the first African-American to become a Fellow and a certified member back in 2004 with ACBC. He’s serving as the pastor of Community of Faith Bible Church as well as a professor at the College of Biblical Studies. He teaches everywhere on planet earth and I love it. It’s so good to have you with us on the podcast.

Nicolas Ellen: Thank you for having me. It’s been a privilege to serve with you in the many places we’ve been together.

Dale Johnson: Suicide is a growing epidemic in the world we live in, and there are a thousand ways that we could talk about this. With your background as a pastor, you can help give us some insight when a member or someone associated with our church commits suicide and the impact that has on the church. How do we go about being a pastoral leader in a situation like that? How do we help pastors think through the different categories of suicide and how, as a shepherd, do we handle those categories?

Nicolas Ellen: When someone commits suicide within the family, the first thing that the church needs to do is to be like Job’s friends before they open their mouths. They were very comforting and supporting. It’s not a time to go into a theological discussion about it, it’s a time to show care and compassion. Sometimes family members are left confused and may think it’s their fault. We need to encourage and support them in that time. When the time is right and they’re open, we can begin to give some theological insight, but in the very beginning they need comfort and support.

In the Bible, there are five basic passages about suicide: 1 Samuel 31:3-5, 2 Samuel 17:23, 1 Kings 16:18, Matthew 27:3-5, and Judges 9:53-54. As you study those, you’ll discover that these suicides are put in two basic categories. One type of suicide is where the pressures of life are so great that a person doesn’t want to deal with it. As a result, they’re seeking to take their lives because of the external pressures of life. The other type of suicide seen in those passages and in real life are the internal pains of the heart. This is where a person is suffering from unrepentant sin. There’s a guilty conscience behind something else that’s going on and they have what we would call a noisy soul. Because there’s nothing that seems to quiet that noisy soul, these individuals have decided to take their own lives. You’ve got the external pressures of life and the internal piercings of the heart from unrepentant sin. These two things can be key emphases that can lead someone to want to commit suicide.

Dale Johnson: That’s really helpful from a pastoral perspective, being able to see two ends of the spectrum on what manifests itself into a very difficult and desperate situation. That’s helpful to talk through with the family about some of these different categories and what that individual may have been going through. You are very wise to say that sometimes we don’t need to be Job’s counselors in that we open our mouth—assuming what we think may have happened. There’s a lot of mystery in the world. God has left it that way and we are not Him. We don’t know everything, and often we don’t know all the specific details. We may never be able to answer the question of why, so that’s wise for us not to open our mouths the way that Job’s counselors did. That begs the question, what type of counsel should we give?

Nicolas Ellen: There are three things that I tell people that are very helpful no matter what difficult situation they’re in. For one, try to identify the very nature or characteristic of God that He wants you to embrace. In other words, what is it about God that you think He wants you to trust Him in right now in the midst of this difficulty?

The second thing I try to help people to think about is, in the midst of this difficulty, what is it about you that you think God wants to grow and change? What are the character development issues that can come out of this?

Thirdly, let’s think together how this could be a ministry opportunity in the future as you don’t just go through this but grow through this. How can this be used as a ministry opportunity to serve others? What I’ve discovered in most cases when this has happened to individuals is that there’s something about God that He wants us to embrace, something about ourselves He wants us to grow and change, and this becomes an opportunity for ministry in the future. My goal is to help them work through that as I give them comfort through the pain and encouragement of the hope that God has for them in the midst of it.

Dale Johnson: That’s important because it redirects that person’s attention back to focusing on the light. It really helps to refocus what the Lord may be doing as opposed to becoming internal in their thoughts and shifting blame onto themselves. These give three good categories that help them focus on what a sovereign God may be doing in and with them, despite a very difficult situation. What should we consider about suicide moving forward? How do we consider all these elements of suicide? How do we approach this from that pastoral perspective?

Nicolas Ellen: One of the things that I tell people, and Dr. Jim Berg was very helpful in laying this out, is that people who want to commit suicide have the right understanding of life, they just have come to the wrong solution. Basically, they’ve understood that life without God is meaningless. The solution, though, is not to take their life. The solution is for them to give their lives to the One who can make something of it and transform them. We have to help people understand that when there is a person who wants to commit suicide, they’ve learned something, but they need the guidance to see that the answer is not what they think. There’s a God who wants you to, as He says in Matthew 11, come to Him and He will give them two categories of peace. They get the peace with God in justification, and as they walk with Him, they’ll get the peace of God in sanctification. They’ll get rest and find rest, and that could transform lives. We have to help people who are on the verge of thinking about suicide to consider those realities.

Dale Johnson: When moments of crisis like that happen, life seems to be moving so fast and there seems to be so many emotions and details. A counselor or a pastor in that situation is trying to sort out, “What do I do? How do I how do I manage all this?” You’ve helped to anchor us to some critical points, some ways of discernment, and some points of focus from the Scripture that we can help individuals wade through. Thank you for that.

Nicolas Ellen: Thank you again for having me.

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