People in the church often say foolish and hurtful words to those who are grieving. 

“If I were you...”“At least you still have...”
“Just [pray, read your Bible, keep praising the Lord, etc....]”
“What is God trying to teach you?”

Those last two don’t seem too bad. Prayer is good. It is the “just” that makes it difficult. Anytime we say “just,” we are consultants who give simplistic advice. In this case, we also assume that the grieving person doesn’t pray. 

“What is God trying to teach you?” God is, indeed, doing something in us through our suffering, but this question suggests that we must figure out the mysterious and specific purposes of God, as though God is posing a riddle. Or it follows the lead of Job’s comforters and suggests that we must find that particular sin that is causing the entire mess. 

Those who hear these words might overlook the offense yet resolve to never again share their hearts with the perpetrators. Others assume that the comments are representative of the culture of God’s people, in which Christians should always be thankful and never complain. Either way, we isolate those who already feel alone, and we misrepresent the kingdom of God.

How these words appeared among us is impossible to say because our God has taught us a different way. He invites us to speak to him with words Jesus himself used.

Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? (Ps 10:1)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps 22:1)
Why are you sleeping, O Lord? (Ps 44:23)
Why do you cast my soul away? (Ps 88:14)

In response to these questions, the Lord usually says the equivalent of “Please, tell me more.” You will never hear him minimize your suffering or toss out an impersonal bromide as he heads off to advise someone else. Instead, he is the compassionate and gracious God who has a particular attraction to those who need help.

How can we respond? We accent compassion and humility.

Compassion imitates the compassion of Jesus Christ. It is moved by the grief of others. For example, “I am so sorry. My heart is heavy from what you are going through.” Anything on the far side of compassion will probably encourage.

Humility is the Lord’s call to all humanity. We walk before him “with all humility and gentleness” (Eph 4:2). This means that we listen to and partner with the grieving person rather than dispense our expertise. Humility might ask, “Here is a way I have been praying for you. What other ways can I pray?” 

Notice how compassion and humility correct the perennial problem of giving advice to those who are troubled. A friend was going through a very difficult and serious physical struggle that eventually was the cause of his death. He got the word out to his contacts and friends: “Many of you have heard of my recent medical problems. It hasn’t been easy, but my family has been an amazing help and the medical team has been responsive and skillful. Since I have such an expert team, I ask that you refrain from sending your advice on medical treatments.” The message went on to identify other ways that people could help. Within the next week, he was flooded with texts, emails, books, and actual remedies, all imploring him to adopt their medical advice.

Many of these responses were intended to bless, but compassion listens to the person loved. Humility is less confident that it has the simple answer to a complex problem. Together, they would care for this man and his family within the boundaries he suggested. If one’s compassion were even more zealous, you could generate new ideas that could help, and humility would check out those ideas with those who knew the family well. 

Here is a small but important step forward for all of us. First, we acknowledge “We have a problem,” “I have a problem.” We have not cared for others with compassion and humility. We have not been students of our words. Unless we see our need, there is no reason to change. Only then, with humility more firmly established, can wisdom and love catch fire in our care for each other. Its evidence? We might begin by asking friends and family, “What helped you in your grief or pain?” Or “What hurt you?” 

The apostle Paul often writes that he was comforted by the words and deeds of the churches.  There are, indeed, wise comforters in the church today as there were in the early church. Perhaps, even in this generation, we can reach a tipping point in which their numbers grow and the church is known as a place of comfort and refuge.

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