Our Words Matter
Most of us don’t know how to respond to difficult news.
We struggle with what to say when someone shares devastating news of a terminal diagnosis or the death of a loved one. But we also don’t like silence. So we reach down to fill the void with something; something that sounds good and Christian.
Over my years in pastoral ministry, I worked with my congregations and preached sermons to help deal with these difficult situations. Sometimes, no matter how well intentioned, filling the void actually causes more harm.
I was reminded of this when a fellow pastor posted on his Facebook page that he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
This 40-something clergyman has served in significant leadership roles at the larger church level, trained congregations on evangelism and successfully pastored several churches over the years. In his post, he was vulnerable enough to not put on his “Christian happy face” but rather expressed his shock and grief with the situation. Then came the responses.
“Keep a positive attitude!”…“Show cancer that the Lord is boss!”…”God’s got this, don’t worry!”…and (my favorite) “God must want some face-to-face time with you early because the Lord loves you so much.”
I know that all of these people were incredibly well intentioned, but how would they feel if someone responded to them in the same manner?
Of course, there’s truth in some of their statements. God is sovereign and God does have the final word over sickness and death, but those statements at this time are not helpful. Sometimes people just need space to voice their hurt and frustration and have their feelings acknowledged and validated.
God does not expect us nor does the Bible illustrate that we’re supposed to face all situations with a Pollyanna attitude. One only needs to spend a few moments in the Psalms to see examples of fear, anger and, at times, hopelessness.
It’s the final statement, though, that really concerns me. When people say things like, “It must have been God’s will,” or “God needed another angel in heaven” or “God must want some face-to-face time with you early,” do they really believe that?
Does God give people cancer or cause children to die because it teaches them a lesson? Is God some distant monster that wills people to suffer? Or is God our loving parent who desires the best for God’s children?
I often receive requests from congregations for help with faith sharing. Their primary intent usually is to help members invite others to church or give people tools to share Jesus with others.
Seldom do they think about training people to give thoughtful, compassionate, faithful responses when families, friends and co-workers are dealing with life-altering events. Yet, these are the moments when the Good News needs to be shared and embodied.
Our words do matter.
Who do we know God to be through the scriptures, through the life of Jesus Christ and through our own personal experiences?
What we say in these situations expresses what we understand the character of God to be. Sometimes, though, the greatest gift we can offer isn’t to fill the silence with words but the gift of our presence.
In my first semester of seminary, I was profoundly impacted by a little book called Lament for a Son. In this book, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff writes about the responses he received when his son died in a mountain climbing accident.
If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
— Lament for a Son (Eerdmans, 1987), p. 34.
Words of God’s providence and the eternal hope offered through Jesus Christ are so important for people to hear.
But there are certain moments where these words are not what’s needed. In those moments, the greatest gift can be to offer no words at all but to simply take a seat on the bench and embody God’s presence.