I love the body of Christ. I grew up in it. I have been loved by it. I am thankful for it. It is a beautiful family.
But like all families, it is imperfect, being made up as it is of imperfect people. As a result, we’re going to get some things wrong.
And one of the things I think we’re getting wrong too often and too much is how we respond to each other when we’re hurting.
Like pretty much everyone else in the world, I don’t have to look very far in my circle of friends, family, and acquaintances to find people who are struggling. They’ve lost jobs or loved ones. They are carrying heavy loads. They are worried. They are tired.
Sometimes, they will post a prayer request or a general mention of these struggles online or mention it during greeting time at church, and inevitably, the “justs”—whether actual or implied—start dotting the comment thread or filling the conversational space.
(Just) give it to God.
(Just) let it go.
(Just) have faith.
(Just) be thankful.
(Just) look on the bright side.
(Just) hang in there.
(Just) be glad that . . .
I know the intent here is to encourage and comfort and help.
But what these kinds of pat responses convey to me—and I don’t think I’m alone in this—is a desire to rush hurting people through their pain so they are easier to be around. Sharing about pain is OK as long as our initial update—“I’m really struggling with . . .”—is immediately followed by the optimistic turn, as in, “But I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The trouble is, there are a great many people in the world—inside and outside the body of believers—who cannot see that light. They are the grieving and sick and poor and depressed who are in the middle of the middle of the tunnel, and they can see neither where they came in nor where they might get out.
Most of the time, when these burdened brothers and sisters share about their sorrow, they are not looking for pat answers or quick fixes.
They are looking for someone willing to hang out with them in their questioning and their brokenness for a while.
Of course, we all know people (or have been them ourselves . . . and here, I am raising my hand) who just want to complain about ongoing problems without doing anything about them. But these are not the folks I’m talking about. I’m talking about people who are doing what they can to make their way along but are nonetheless moving very slowly or are at a standstill through no fault of their own.
This is uncomfortable space in each other’s lives, but if, as members of an eternal family, we are ever going to get beyond surface-level (Hi, how are you? I’m fine, how are you?) fly-by exchanges on our way to and from the coffee bar at church or when we see each other at the grocery store, we’re going to have to be willing to spend some time in tunnels with each other. And we’re going to need some new vocabulary while we’re there.
In actuality, though, we don’t need much vocabulary. True compassion does not require very many words. It more often requires a willingness to be discomforted by what is making someone else uncomfortable and about which there isn’t much to say, at least not by us. The sweetest comfort anyone ever gave me at a painful time in my life was when my comforter could not speak for all her tears.
They were tears for me, for my pain, and they washed over me over the phone like healing rain. I was not alone in that tunnel.
When we are willing to sit in the dark with someone who is grieving or depressed or impoverished (in any of a variety of ways someone can be) and NOT fall back on the comfort of platitudes and familiar words, we speak a very loud and important truth: What you are going through is not so awful that it has scared me away. It is not so terrible that I can’t bear to be here with you for a little while in it. It is not so ugly I can’t stand to look at it.
When we enter into this uncomfortable space with anyone, even if we’re just coming and going online, only a few words are needed or useful.
I’m so sorry.
This must be so hard.
I can’t imagine what you’re going through.
I don’t know how you feel, but I wish you did not have to feel it.
You matter to me.
How can I specifically be praying for you about this?
This breaks my heart for you.
I’m here to listen if you just need to unload.
Is there any practical need you have right now I can somehow help meet?
Would it be OK if I shared some favorite Bible verses that might be relevant?
That last idea is in deliberate contrast to glib comments like, God’s got this, and God has a plan, and God is in control. Indeed He does and is.
But where does tossing around what amount to Christian slogans leave the person we’re tossing them at?
Where do they go from there? What are they supposed to say, other than, “Yes, He does,” or “Yes, He is”? (Which they may or may not feel at the moment.) Better to offer them, with their permission, full loaves of bread rather than just a few moldy crumbs.
I believe in the body of Christ. I believe we can get better at this. I believe we can learn to be uncomfortable with not knowing what to say and so with saying less. Here, less truly will be more. More compassion. More patience for the long haul. More presence. More allowing ourselves to be distressed by others’ distress and, in that allowance, more lifting each other up with saving strength.
“In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy He redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (Isaiah 63:9).