Churches are a gathering of a wide range of people from various backgrounds and personalities. Inevitably one or some may go through a season of immense grief, suffering and pain. God’s design is that his church be a healing balm, a soothing community to help ease the burdens we experience during traumatic periods.
We’re called to mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:14), bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the Law of Christ (Gal 6:2), to not only look out for our own personal interests, but also the interest of others (Phil 2:4), and to look for any opportunity to do good to all people, especially those in the church (Gal 6:10).
But we’re not always good at it.
Well-meaning people can often say very hurtful things in an attempt to comfort someone. Sometimes meeting someone who is or has gone through a period of immense grief can leave us awkwardly trying to think of something helpful to say. “This will turn out for your good!”
Those who have been through great pain know that while these are well-meaning comments, they can bring more hurt than relief. It’s not so much the intention that hurts, but the timing – what is needed are not clichés or platitudes, nor some motivational thought to cheer up our thinking (don’t worry… be happy!). We need to show love and care in real and helpful ways. So how do we do that?
In no particular order here are some suggestions:
- Be there
It’s one thing to ‘like’ or ‘react’ to a FB post, it’s another to actually turn up and be there. We often think that we need to have something important or inspiring to say, but sometimes the best thing is your physical presence.
It’s wise to wait for an opening, some people prefer space while others would prefer to have company. Communicate with the hurt person what their desire is.
When visiting, come with no expectations and be flexible. You presence may have been desired, but then the moment has made it unhelpful. If so, be prepared to leave and try again another time.
- Speak – kind words, the truth at the right time, and about other things as well (even things that don’t matter)
A lot of people say that when Job’s three friends arrived on the scene and sat down in silence with him for seven days that was the best thing they did. I think that’s true, relative to what they would say next. But I don’t think sitting there in silence was helpful either – because a conversation was raging even when words were not articulated. The conversation in Job’s head. This makes sense for me as I read the remarkable change that happens between Job 2 and Job 3 – Job wrestled in his mind with what happened to him and how that harmonised with his understanding of God. This led him to voice his anguish and bitterness and how he felt he was being treated. The rest is history.
We should, however, also beware of not jumping straight to Romans 8:28 (“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.”) and speculating on the cause of a person’s grief.
As Whelcher notes:
Is God causing all things to work together for good? Yes. God is absolutely working out all things for good.
Do you know how? No. But why not speculate that God gave the cancer patient this disease so he could be a great witness to the medical staff?
Why is this poor form? Piled on top of a person already in immense physical pain from cancer is the eternal destiny of the entire medical staff: doctor, resident, nutritionist, care coordinator, mid-level, nurse, tech, house keeper, house-keeping survey collector, nurse, trash man, sharps collector.
“No pressure, and, feel better!”
The connotation is, “God’s working it all out, but it all depends on you maintaining a cheery disposition during the most painful days of your life.”
God is working out all things according to his plan, and he will as sure as he lives bring good out of evil situations. I for one can’t wait to look back from the vantage point of eternity and see how our God orchestrated it all. But until that day much theory is idle speculation.
When the time comes, and the person suffering is ready to speak about their suffering, speak the truth lovingly. Point to Jesus, the man of sorrows who is well acquainted with grief. Rejoice together in gospel joy that we have assured to us, and keep encouraging each other to not lose hope since He is our sure refuge and strength.
Speak kindly in the moment.
Avoid blaming the suffering saint for their suffering. There are some connections with personal sin and personal suffering and sickness (cf 1 Cor 11:27-30). Hebrews 12 reminds us that God, our loving heavenly Father, disciplines his children out of love. But even with these verses be very cautious to not rush to any premature conclusions regarding the saints suffering and potentially hidden sin in their lives.
And don’t forget to talk about other relatively mundane things as well. Know the situation and circumstances and whether it is appropriate or not – but talking about something else can be a welcome distraction to the suffering saint. But be cautious as well to not make the entire conversation about your own life.
Whelcher jokes, “Make them laugh (unless they have stitches).”
- Show love through actions
Fox’s advice here is very helpful:
When a person is suffering, even the little things can overwhelm; we can pick up the slack. Make meals, take phone messages, watch their children, run errands, mow the grass. I asked a friend what helped her most as she faced a hard battle with cancer, and she said it was the notes, texts, and even books people sent her in the mail that meant the most to her. Another friend who lost a spouse shared with me that it was helpful when a friend answered all the phone calls and took messages. When we invest our time to do even little things for someone who is hurting, it speaks volumes.
Another piece of advice she gives is to not rush the process. Everyone grieves in different ways, and for some the trial and grief linger for much of their lives. Our service and ministry to each other is for the long haul. Memories, anniversaries and birthdays can trigger painful moments and grief all over again. Be patient and forebearing. Even after some time has passed a person may appear to be fine on the outside but is still festering on the inside. The wounds may shrink, but are still there and they still hurt.
- Pray gospel-fuelled hopeful prayers
With all of the above in mind, pray with the suffering saint. Let the gospel fuel the hope in our prayers.
And do not claim more in your prayers than scripture offers. I’ve heard so many prayers for healing of ill saints which have often claimed more from God than God promises in his word. Can God heal? He certainly could. Does God promise to heal? He certainly does in the life to come, but not necessarily in this life. Can we claim healing on someone’s behalf? There is no passage of scripture which clearly states this.
Instead, pray for comfort, peace, and persevering trust. Pray for Jesus to return soon to wipe away every tear, to right all wrongs, to clear up all that is unknown, and to bring eternal joy to his people’s lives.
These are some thoughts. There are plenty of other ones as well. Let our time with those who are grieving be encouraging.