I once had a project to interview people who had experienced great suffering. I had a whole list of the awful yet all to common issues people face in the course of being a human. I posted it in several places in our church and asked people to cross off their topics and contact me so I could sit and just let them tell their story.
It was tragic and heartbreaking and beautiful. And it changed me forever.
I learned so much from sitting with these extremely gracious people but one theme that came up over and over again was this:
The horrible, un-helpful, hurtful things well-meaning Christians would say in times of grief.
This was perhaps the most common thread of all my interviews.
Because of this I have been acutely aware of the language we use surrounding pain and suffering and grief. Not only because of the harm it does to people who are hurting, but because of the horrible pictures of God it gets us.
I know another family who lost their youngest daughter. Each year, the day of her death is memorialized and grieved and recognized by this family. But over the course of time, the family has done some pretty amazing things. They were inspired to live better, hold closer to their family, help other families who were hurting, set up memorial funds in her name. After an unspeakable tragedy there have been so many redemptive and good things which have occurred.
But each year, they take the time to hurt and grieve.
Now, this is a beautiful and candid story because God has done amazing things out of a tragic situation. But I once had someone tell me they believed God caused this to happen. Because of some greater goal, God essential murdered a child so good things would happen.
But what about that child? What about that family? Are the greater goods and goals worth an actual human life? How can we reconcile such hurt and pain with a good and loving God?
How we speak about tragedy makes claims about what we think about God. And the litany of unhelpful things people told me in those interviews all revolved around God making tragedy happen to us
God just needed another angel.
God took him home.
It is all a part of God’s plan.
God is in charge, I am not.
These are well-intentioned. But terrible.
What we are essentially saying is God has little regard for human life. God can easily snuff a life out or send a natural disaster or cause a disease so that something else good can come and we will then be impressed with God.
But if we take this thinking all the way out, what this essentially means is God has a master plan which will be executed no matter who God hurts along the way. Your pain, suffering, and loss was strategically planned by God.
Which raises big questions: Can God overlook the humanity of a person as long as God gets what he wants? Is God some sort of tyrannical ruler willing to kill someone’s precious son or daughter so the parent will love him more?
When my loved one is the one God took or the angel God needed, how am I supposed to react towards God?
These are questions I have wrestled with for a long time. Questions that haunt me. Because that view of God haunts me.
And it shows up everywhere. I honestly do not doubt the good intentions of people when these sentiments are passed on. People are trying to be helpful, want to say the right thing to someone grieving, want to be faithful to whatever image of God they have been handed.
But I also don’t think anyone really believes God is as horrible as these sentiments actually make God out to be.
Which is why Sarah’s chapter is so helpful. Sarah encourages us to stop blaming God for bad things. To be more careful with our language in times of great pain.
As Sarah reminds us, Jesus comes to show us God in all of God’s fullness. Jesus fights against evil. Which includes illness, suffering, and death. If Jesus really is the fullness of God, this means we need to assume God fights against evil, illness, suffering, and death. Which means God can’t cause them. God is not the source of our suffering and tragedy. God is fighting against it.
Which still leaves lots of questions: Why do bad things happen? Does that means God loses? Is God not really in control? Why does God seem to intervene sometimes and not others? Why did this happen to me when I have followed God so closely?
I have few answers to these questions. And even the ones I hold on to are impotent in the face of actual tragedy.
Sarah’s response to the inevitability of suffering and pain, the goodness of God, and the unanswerable questions is to obey the sadness.
We don’t avoid our pain. We don’t blame our pain. We enter into it. We confess it. We grieve it. We lament it. We feel it.
Because our pain is true and real. Even when we don’t want it to be.
And the only way forward is through it.
The other theme I didn’t mention in my interviews was how healing it was for people to tell their stories. So many people said they had never shared their hurt and pain in quite such depth or detail. Mainly because no one had asked. Simply confessing their hurt and telling their story – even if it was decades later – brought healing and redemption. Because they often had no place to do that in Church.
It is why the family mourns the anniversary of their daughter’s death. While so many good things have come since, they would give it all back for their daughter. The pain doesn’t go away, even when good things happen. So they intentionally grieve and confess.
And we grieve and confess along with them.
People who are hurting do not need platitudes, clichés, or bad theology. People need presence. People need us to grieve and mourn with them.
This is Holy Week. The last week before Easter. Lent is a time where we are reminded the only way to Resurrection is through the cross. In Lent, we go through the darkness. We confess it and enter into it. We learn to sit with it. Lent reminds us sometimes there are no good answers. We learn that we don’t always have to have something to say.
So we sit and we mourn.
And what we find is a God who sits and mourns with us. And as we discover this God, we give up our need for easy answers and we learn to sit and mourn with others.