Day Five - What Shall We Say? Comforting the Hurting
Previously, on Post Modern:
- A Graduate-Level Class Called “Providence and Suffering”
- Day One: Evil and Theodicy in Modern Thought
- Day Two: Providence
- Day Three: What’s Your Story?
- Day Four: A Time to Lament
Is there anything we can say to comfort the hurting? Maybe not. So don’t say anything—not for a long time. Be humble. Just be there. Be radically present. And for God’s sake, be silent. In the midst of suffering silence is not awkward. It’s part of processing, part of experiencing the hurt. Don’t worry about correcting a sufferer. Don’t try to interpret the suffering for them.
On this last day of an intense week of class, we moved from philosophy and biblical interpretation to praxis. What will guide our state of being as we try to comfort someone who is hurting? In this post I share five good rules of thumb and five “anchors for the ship” in the midst of the storm of questioning. Sandwiched between these rules and anchors is a theology of protest, which I present through the lens of Romans 8. This theology of protest informs our way of viewing the world as we ask oursleves, “what shall we say?”
A Few Rules of Thumb
When with someone who has experienced loss, tragedy, or suffering, here are some good rules to observe. These are from Dr. Hicks’s own experience, both as a sufferer and as a comforter.
- Don’t use “you” statements; only use “I” statements. E.g. “I am really sorry.” “I think that sucks.” “I feel very sad about this.” “I love you.” “I’m here to be with you.” With “you” statements you start to tell the sufferer how they should feel.
- Stay away from all interpretive statements, as well as statements that make promises about how they’re going to feel. Expectations disturb (eventual) peace. There may come a time when they open the door to interpretation. If it’s too early for that, affirm the question but deflect it. Allow lament. Over time and with a relationship, you can start to walk through that door.
- Do an act of love. Presence is itself an act of love, but there are occasions and opportunities when something more is a good thing. So change the oil on their car, or something. Actions of kindness will be remembered.
- Don’t say: “If you need anything, call me.” Dr. Hicks: “I can tell you as a sufferer, I never called anyone.”
- By all means, don’t say “it’ll work out for good,” (mis)quoting “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). That’s an interpretive statement. And it’s not what the sufferer wants to hear right now. See more on Romans 8 below.
Theology of Lament and Protest
Don’t take God off the hook for bad things that happen by blaming it on Satan. The lament psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes model addressing our lament toward God. Our theology of the providence of God allows both for God’s sovereignty and for God’s willingness to hear our lament. It’s a theology of protest. Things have gone terribly wrong. I can’t fix it. It doesn’t look like God is fixing it. But God will. Eventually God will make things right. In the meantime, I will lament evil and pain. I will make a resolute protest against the way things are now, trusting that God will make things right.
This is one of the great chapters of the Bible. Go ahead and read it, paying special attention to 8:15 and what follows.
The creation groans in pain, with a longing and expectation of liberation (8:19-22). We too groan, waiting for the redemption of our bodies (8:23). And finally, the Spirit groans, interceding for us since we can’t even express our lament (8:26). That’s a lot of groaning. That’s a lot of lament. And it happens as we wait. As we hope.
What follows is one of the most misused verses in the Bible, especially in the context of bad things happening. The NIV translates it this way:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.
Something bad happens, and we quote that verse, saying that even though we don’t understand it now, God meant it for good. Or God will use your pain for something good. This statement is often used to interpret a sufferer’s pain (again, see our “rules of thumb” above). Don’t fall into that trap. Let’s be humble about our inability to understand why bad things happen.
A better translation would be something like:
We know that God is working with all things toward good.
God is at work in all things toward the good.
In the midst of the present human condition, the eager expectation for something new, the groaning that it will come about, God’s people know that God is working and will ultimately bring about the good.
How do we know? Jesus. He died and was raised to life (8:34).
This isn’t a petty “God is working behind the scenes to make this suffering a good thing, I just don’t realize it yet.” This is a plea to remember that Jesus came, died, was raised to life, and is now in charge, interceding for us.
So when Paul asks:
What will separate us from Christ’s love? Will it be trouble? Hardship? Persecution? Famine? Nakedness? Danger? Sword?
Paul is assuming that these things will happen. It’s part of the state of reality. These things occasion doubt. Which is why Paul aptly quotes Psalm 44:
For your sake we face death. All. Day. Long. We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered (44:22).
In quoting one verse of the psalm, Paul evokes all of it. Just as when Jesus shouts the first verse of Psalm 22 from the cross, “My God, why have your forsaken me?” he also evokes the conclusion of it: “For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” On the cross, God does not abandon Jesus. God is all the more present in that moment, suffering with Jesus. As Jesus is abandoned to death, God does not abandon Jesus in death. As Jesus is abandoned to the grave, God does not abandon Jesus in the grave. God vindicates Jesus. God defeats death.
Psalm 44, which Paul quotes, ends with a plea:
Redeem us because of your unfailing love.
Paul, together with the psalmist, claims that God’s love is still there. Through all of the suffering, God’s steadfast love in Jesus is right there. Nothing will separate us from that love.
Anchoring the Ship
As a comforter, whether as a minister, counselor, or as someone in relationship with a sufferer, there will come a moment where you are called to speak. Dr. Hicks gave us five anchors for the ship in the storm. These are ways of reminding people of the narrative in which we live. Ideally, they will have heard this before they experience suffering, so that when you speak you’re not “preaching” or “teaching,” but reminding them of what they already know.
The Unrelenting Love of God: God Loves!
In midst of suffering it’s hard to hear, “God loves!” But through Christ, God is weeping. We try to find our footing in the love of God in Jesus. That’s part of the narrative. And with that footing we’re able to affirm other parts of the narrative too.
The Inviting Presence of God: God Listens!
This is where lament and prayer come in. God listens! God will hear your lament. And God will respond, not in anger or judgment, but in presence. God is willing to let me sit in his lap and feel his embrace even while I am spitting out anger, frustration, and desperation. We are lamenting within God’s presence. God is willing to struggle with us and be present in midst of our worst feelings. God invites us to speak how we feel.
The Empathy of God: God understands!
God empathizes with us through Jesus. God cares and understands. The experience is shared. Jesus suffered because he entered into the reality of the human condition. He participated in the travails of creation. God suffers with us, because God enters into the human condition. And in our suffering, we join the suffering of Jesus. Having a Jesus-shaped lens through which to interpret our suffering opens the door to viewing it as meaningful.
The Sovereignty of God: God reigns!
This is by far the hardest and most difficult. It’s a terrifying thought without the first three anchors. And it might need to wait a long time before it is affirmed.
The point is that in God is the ability to invest meaning in everything. Even when we ask “Why?” “What was the point?” God has a purpose, an end. God is active, doing something. When we say “God reigns!” we are making a statement of faith because we can’t demonstrate the meaning. But we know there is meaning, because the Christ event gives it meaning.
The Ultimate Victory of God: God wins!
The resurrection of Jesus is the sign of the coming resurrection. Death is defeated. God will put all things right, and has begun to do so in Jesus.
We started this series acknowledging that there comes a time when we will ask questions in the face of evil. Doing this is called theodicy:
Theodicy in the broad sense is any way of giving meaning to evil that helps us face despair.
I question God in light of evil. I’ve lamented the death of a friend.
I know you have too.
I don’t know where you are in this journey of theodicy, whether it’s in the middle of despair or closer to identifying meaning in life. It may be in a place of passive numbness, surviving somewhere between the two extremes. Wherever you are, my hope is that you’ll find a way to face despair—and really live.
As for me, I choose to protest the state of things as they are. I choose to believe I’m part of a bigger story, one in which God suffers alongside us, listens to our shouting in the midst of it, and—in the end—redeems.
Thanks for reading.