During this year’s midweek Lenten services, we’re going to tackle some tough questions. They’ll include:
- How can we know that the Bible is God’s Word?
- How can a loving God let people go to hell?
- Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
- Is the Biblical view of homosexuality unloving?
But without doubt, the question which, in one form or another, Christians ask more than any other is the one we’re addressing tonight: How do I help a grieving friend? Sometimes, the question is posed in this way: What do I say to a friend who has just experienced loss?
As Christians, we know that God commands all people to love God totally and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
We also know that Jesus gives His followers a new commandment: To love fellow believers with the same life-giving love He gives to us.
And we’re familiar with Biblical injunctions like those of Paul in Galatians 6:2: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
But how do we show or give expression to the love Christ has given to you and me when dealing with our grieving friends?
Many of you could be standing here and offering the wisdom you’ve gained on this subject both through God’s Word and through living out your Christian discipleship. But tonight, I’d like to share what God has taught me about helping our grieving friends.
First, and most importantly, listen to your friend. Frequently, whether it's because of our own discomfort or a penchant for wanting to "fix things," we can go to our grieving friends and shower them with torrents of consoling words. But what grieving people most need is to be listened to. Their unique pain and grief need to be acknowledged.
In the Old Testament book of Job, a man is aggrieved when he loses first, all his sources of wealth and then, all of his children in a natural disaster. Three friends come to visit Job. As we’ve pointed out before, the friends do something very wise at first. They let Job "vent," allowing him to give full expression to his agony, his questions, his anger, even his anger with God. They listen to Job. For seven days.
But then, the friends make a mistake: They open their mouths. My biggest mistakes in life and in trying to help hurting people, have never come from listening. They've always come from talking.
Second, don't try to talk people out of their grief. Grief is something which, over time, follows a more or less natural course. While nobody ever “gets over” their loss, they can reach a point of acceptance. Getting there, sometimes take more time for some people and sometimes less time is required for other people. It depends on the person, their level of faith, and their particular grief. You can't truncate grief with words.
When my grandfather died, a pastor came to the visitation. My grandmother, who had gone into the hospital CCU at the same time as my grandfather was admitted to the ICU, had just been released from the hospital and was at the funeral home in a wheelchair. The pastor, who had never met my grandmother, put his hands on her shoulders and told her, "You're going to be all right. Go home and watch the Bengals game. I predict they're going to win."
Some people think that they need to give the aggrieved person a "pep talk." But such talks are really designed more to make the talker feel they've done a good turn than to do any real good for anyone else. Let your friend grieve no matter how uncomfortable it may make you feel.
Third, don't try to explain what you don't understand. When people grieve over their losses, they wonder, as all of us do, why their loss has happened. Anyone who wants to help the friend who is asking this question must resist the temptation to answer it. In all honesty, your friend doesn't want to have a rational explanation anyway. They simply want to be able to say, "This isn't fair!"
And it isn't fair. Life often isn't fair. At the end of Job's forty-two chapters, we're left with this answer to the question of why grief befalls us: We live in a world where bad things happen. In the New Testament, Jesus tells us that bad things rain on the good and the evil alike. Why that is so, no one living on this planet is wise enough to say. Only God knows the answer to the question of why and you and I don't need to play God by pretending to have that answer.
Fourth, let your friend be angry with God. A deeply faithful Christian man whose grandchild had recently died told me, "Sometimes I get angry with God. I know it's horrible; but it's true." I assured him that what he was feeling wasn't horrible. I reminded him of such people in the Bible as David and Job, who always believed in God, but also got angry with God when dealing with grief or the threat of death. And I told the grieving grandfather, "The fact that you're angry with God proves your faith in God. You would never be angry with someone you didn't think was there."
Maybe you’ve noticed this: Most of the time, when we respond to people's anger with condemnation, it only makes them dig in their heels. Trying to prove to an angry person that their anger is unwarranted is a fool's mission. God says in Proverbs 15:1, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." Letting your friend get angry with God will prevent their anger from becoming an ongoing feature in their life.
Fifth, don't avoid talking about your grieving friend's loss. Often, friends fear that if they speak of the loss or the one for whom their friends grieve, they'll make their friends feel sadder. But a grieving friend already is sad and if it seems natural to mention a friend's deceased loved one, for example, or if your friend mentions that person, you should be willing to talk about them as well.
A woman once told me, "My friends avoid speaking of my late husband like a plague. What they don't seem to understand is that when they do that, it makes me feel as though they think he was unimportant or that they want to pretend he was never there." Through the years, I have heard that grieving woman's words echoed by other grieving people. You honor your friend when you're willing to discuss with them the people or circumstances they grieve.
Sixth, pray for your friend. You should pray that God will bring them comfort, for sure. But you also should pray that God will use you as a conduit for the blessings you want your friend to receive. Whenever I visit people who are dealing with grief, I always ask God to fill me with His Holy Spirit, allowing God's love for my friend to flow through me. In John 15:5, Jesus says: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus also says that the world will know Him when His love is visible in us. Pray that God will love your friend through you.
Seventh and finally, share your faith in Christ. If God has allowed you to be helpful to your friend in their grief, they may wonder, whether they’re non-Christians or Christians, what allows you to be that helpful friend. You can honestly say that it isn't you who have been helpful, that you have prayed over every step you took with them and that God has guided you. You can tell them that you belong to an eternal God Who has destroyed the power of death and that anyone who trustingly follows Jesus Christ has hope beyond the grave. At the right time, after you've lovingly taken the journey of grief with your friend, that will come as very good news.
I love what Proverbs 17:17 tells us: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” Call upon God in Jesus’ name to help you be that friend who loves at all times and so be a sister or brother to those who go through adversity. In this way, we will love God and love our neighbor. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This is the first installment of the church's midweek Lenten series, Tough Questions.]