There are only two correct responses to this question.

  1. “Why do you ask?” and
  2. “It sounds like things are really hard for you. Please tell me what’s happening.”

We are allowed minor variations on these, but do not say this: “Suicide is not the unpardonable sin. If we think that suicide is immune to the cleansing blood of Christ we have misunderstood the extent of redemption.”

This might be theologically correct; it is pastorally abysmal.

Here is the principle: theological questions are often personal questions in disguise; they are about the burdens on a person’s heart. Please do not respond with theological propositions or ethical guidelines. Instead, use these questions as the time to know and shepherd the person.

Hmm. This sounds like prudent advice, especially to those who have asked such questions, but it also sounds a bit suspect. It sounds like an artificial and potentially dangerous distinction between theology and ministry. Shepherding is profoundly theological; I am not trying to make a distinction between the two. My concern is that theology, especially in this type of situation, can be offered the same way most pastors learned it—as a lecture.

As shepherds, we have to assimilate classroom theology into our lives so it is no longer a series of propositions. Then we will be ready to offer it in way that fits the person in front of us. These two pastoral responses: “Why do you ask?” and “It sounds like things are really hard for you…” reflect applied and personal theology. They will quickly take us to places that go beyond the ethics of suicide.

They might take us to this place: “My friend’s brother just committed suicide. And I have no idea what to say to her.” In this situation, pastoral theology might lead us to say: “You obviously love this friend. Tell me a little more about what she is saying and what you think might encourage her.”

As you talk together, you might remember from previous experience that most people who are close to suicide feel guilty. Family and friends feel like they should have known—that they should have done or said something to prevent it. So, you could raise this issue and together consider ways to invite her friend to speak openly about it. If her friend feels guilty, you might help her reframe the guilt as, “You know that we are human and don’t know all things. Maybe you are saying that you wish so much that you could have done something but couldn’t. You feel helpless more than guilty. And you feel such grief that your brother was suffering so much.” You would offer these things tentatively and with the invitation to be corrected.

Too often “theology” means “answers” and most people aren’t looking for answers. Instead, pastoral theology guides us in how to love wisely, and everyone is looking for that.