WHAT TO SAY
Nothing. That is often better than something. Touch trumps talk. When a pastor friend was weeping at the altar over a broken relationship with his father, one of the elders hugged him—for twenty-five minutes. I timed it. If actions speak louder than words, try some! Bringing a pie to a hurting family can hardly be misread. Love tastes good.
Job’s friends did great—for seven days. They kept their mouths shut. They met together to “sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:11-13). Good job, guys! Their silence spoke love. It meant so much to Job that he felt free to risk vulnerability. Unfortunately, when he opened his mouth, so did they. Be careful if you feel a need to correct the doctrine of the depressed. Your theology may not be any improvement, as we discover from Job’s friends. Their orthodoxy turned God into a hard-nosed judge rather than a compassionate Father. They were offended for God when Job cursed the day of his birth, and they went to the Almighty’s defense. Job had stepped over the line, and they needed to set the record straight. Far better to posture yourself as a lowly friend of the mourning than the voice of truth from the Ancient of Days. Be prepared—hurt people may say things that offend you. Don’t react.
Something short. No sermons, please. It is amazing how much we want to provide solutions for people. Give love, not answers. The Lord gives more than answers; He gives His presence. “Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.” Presence means more than proclamation. A team was ministering to a young man who had suffered loss. The first counselor gave him a long message on the nature of God and the sorrows of life. The second person said something short: “This must really hurt.” That gave the young adult freedom to tell his story, which he needed to do in order to release his bitterness and grieve properly. It wasn’t time for a message; it was time for a massage.
Say love. “Love suffers long and is kind.” Ultimately, no rules apply. The guidance of the Holy Spirit, however, does. He is the ultimate Comforter and Counselor. He knows how to touch the depths, and He does it through people like you. He produces the fruit of love in our hearts, and “love never fails.”
The brother of Jesus has counsel worth following, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). How unkind if we get upset with the grieving when we stumble on our attempts to comfort them and they do not receive it. “Love endures all things,” even the apparent rebuff of a grieving friend. Treating people with dignity is a mark of the Spirit’s work in our life.
Good news easily morphs into good advice—which is not. Caring prayer easily degenerates into handing out free counsel. If it is no asked for, it may be rejected. Jesus gave people good news (Isaiah 61), not good ideas. He brought the kingdom of God. The good news of the Gospel can restore hope; it overturns the bad news that takes people down. The good news is that God cares, that God is for us, that Jesus lifts guilt and shame, that He replaces clothes of mourning with a song of rejoicing—in time.
We don’t attempt to remove all pain. Hopefully, our comfort will connect people with the great Comforter. Pain is a part of life and a part of the Christian life. Carl Jung said that “neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” A neurotic wants a quick fix, which solves nothing and creates co-dependency. Suffering is important in times of sorrow, and grief arrives as a gift to those who mourn. When we lost a child at birth, a friend removed our cradle from the room before we returned from the graveside. He was expressing love, but he didn’t understand that we needed to grieve, and the presence of the cradle would help us cry. When we had a public service for our stillborn child, elderly women who were not allowed to grieve thanked us for our public demonstration of sorrow, because it helped them with tears that were never shed. People told them that they had to go on with life. Grief puts life on hold, and for good reason. Those filled with the Spirit will be instruments of God to help those who sorrow to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and into a new place.
A mature pastor once told me, “Be with people at their high points and low points.” Sounds like the apostle, who wrote that we should “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” He just gave us the best counsel we could receive on what to “say.”