Rev. J.C. Austin

“I don’t know what to say.”  That’s what I often hear from people who have a friend or colleague or loved one who is going through a personal crisis: a cancer diagnosis, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, etc. We are often tempted to think that we need to say something to that person that will help them make sense of why this is happening and feel better as a result.

But it doesn’t work. And when we don’t know what to say, we often end up saying things that sound trite, or offensive, or even damaging to the grieving person. At our best, we really care about the person and want to do something to lessen their pain. But sometimes their pain makes us uncomfortable, and we try to come up with something that will help us contain it safely in a box and put it up on a shelf.

So, if you don’t know what to say to someone, take that as a sign that you probably shouldn’t try. In particular: NEVER try to “Godsplain” someone’s pain away. If you find yourself tempted to say anything that sounds like you’re explaining why God is doing something terrible to someone, then stop. Immediately. God doesn’t do terrible things to people — not as punishment, and certainly not as a life lesson or character-building. God offers love and grace and mercy and comfort; in Jesus Christ, God even suffers death in order to break its power over us and give us abundant and eternal life. God does not cause pain and suffering.

That doesn’t mean that people can’t learn something profound from pain or suffering, or that good can’t come out of it. On the contrary, there is nothing so bad that God cannot bring good out of it. But that is not at all the same thing as saying that God is intentionally doing something awful to them. “Everything happens for a reason” and “God never gives us more than we can handle” are both particularly common and damaging examples of this kind of mistake. And even worse is asking or implying that the person did something to bring it upon themselves. Jesus consistently rebukes people who suggest that personal suffering is the result of personal sin; we should, too. That’s not how God operates; that’s not who God is.

So, what should we say? If you really need to say something, you can try: “You’re not alone; I’m right here with you.” “God loves you and so do I” is simple and to the point if you want something more theological. “I’m so sorry this is happening to you; what can I do to help?” is always good.

But instead of simply asking IF there is something you can do to help, try just offering it. The best kind of help to offer depends some on how close your relationship is. Any of us can prepare a meal, for example. If you have a closer connection, offer to do laundry or go grocery shopping or clean the house or watch the kids. If you’re even closer, offer to accompany them to chemotherapy or drive them to the funeral home or bring them home from the hospital. Ask when you can do such things rather than whether, so they’ll be less likely to politely decline. But above all, keep checking in — in person, with notes, by phone or text, whatever will let them know that they’re on your mind and in your heart.

These sorts of tangible actions are what we often call a “ministry of presence,” and it is far more powerful and faithful than any words you could possibly say. When it comes to words, the likeliest scenario is that you will say something kind and inoffensive that they won’t remember five minutes later. But if you are authentically present to someone, actually embodying God’s love and mercy in their time of great need, they will always, always remember that you were there when the world was crashing down around them. Just as God always is.

Grace & Peace,