All of us have had experiences with bad timing. Sometimes it can be comical. I remember late on a Saturday afternoon eating a plate of my mom’s fresh turnip greens and rutabagas three hours before I was due to be the key note speaker at a conference. I cannot begin to describe to you; nor will I try; but folks, that was the worst case of really BAD timing I have ever experienced. You can probably also imagine that I spoke very briefly and very loudly that night.
Sometimes bad timing is not about what we do, where we’re at, or even what we eat. Sometimes bad timing is about what we say. Sometimes even a good word at a bad time doesn’t really sound like a good word. Such can be the case when we are trying to be an encouragement to those who are grieving.
As we approach Easter in this season of Lent I can’t help but be reminded that Easter is the most highly celebrated day in the Christian church; the single most important event upon which the entire Christian faith is grounded. This one event is so important that Paul told the Corinthians “if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless…it’s futile, it’s worthless; it’s empty. It’s in vain.” Speaking of timing, Paul said to the Romans, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.” I am also reminded of what Jesus said in John 8:32, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
So to the point….We need to always take great care with the truth, especially the truth of the gospel when helping those who are grieving. Proverbs 15 tells us, “it is wonderful to say the right thing at the right time” and Proverbs 25 tells us that a good word in the right circumstances is like “apples of gold in baskets of silver.” But we are also reminded in Hebrews 4:12 that the truth is “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” The fact is that sometimes our words of encouragement to those who are grieving can feel more like a sharp knife slicing the heart; rather than a golden nugget of comfort and peace. In times of grief the truth that we celebrate in the gospel can feel more like a prison than it does the truth that sets us free.
Recently, Sherry and I were eating lunch with dear friends who lost their son to suicide less than two months ago. They are in deep pain; the questions haunt them every moment of the day. Almost two hours into the visit, the father finally said, “Ken it’s not just the questions of why. I struggle with some people when they tell me God understands. I know that; but the biggest struggle is when they say God lost his son too.” He went on to say, “I hope this doesn’t come across as sacrilegious, but when I hear those words I want to respond, BUT GOD GOT HIS SON BACK AFTER THREE DAYS!” The mother interjected at that point, “I have read books on heaven. If heaven is as great as we believe it is, we should just all want to die right now.”
Some well-meaning Christians may be inclined to rebuttal this brokenhearted mom and dad with “Yes but we must see the bigger picture. God loves us, he doesn’t want us to hasten our own death simply to get to heaven, and besides one day you will see your son again.” In this instance and many like it, telling a grieving parent “God understands, He lost his son too” may likely be bad timing. The fact is, God’s son did return home three days later and is now sitting by his father’s side. In any other circumstances, perhaps an evangelism rally, such truth would be a good word, but in moment of inconceivable despair it’s probably not the most helpful good word one can share.
Rather than making those we are grieving the victims of our bad timing with our good words, we would do well to filter the truth that we share with a grieving person. This side of heaven their loved one will never sit by their side again. It’s little wonder that a grieving person may have thoughts of dying. The reality is, that even in the absence of grief, many people of faith long for heaven as they age; the apostle Paul was one. I am not ashamed to say that I am one too. With each new day I feel more and more like a stranger in this world. This is not my home.
Many people worry about what to say to those in deep grief and therefore they refrain from saying anything at all; some may even avoid the grieving person altogether. This couple, like many others, has felt the alienation that often goes with grief, especially when the loss is from suicide. I certainly don’t want would-be caregivers to be filled with fear that they may say the wrong thing. I am simply suggesting that we need to filter our words and be aware of how our words are perceived.
Filtering the truth of the gospel in no way diminishes the truth. If we understand that truth is one of the attributes of the glory of God; we need to also understand that the glory of God is overwhelming; the Bible says, “All consuming.” In other words, we cannot begin to comprehend the fullness of truth even on our best days; much less those days when we are utterly broken with grief.
Certainly in our grief we can turn to God's Word for comfort, but times of great grief are likely not the best circumstances for in-depth theological exegesis (critical explanations or interpretations of scripture). King David in his loss said, “I am dying from grief; my years are shortened by sadness.” The only thing David could comprehend at that moment was his great loss.
So what can we say or do for those in great grief? Sometimes just being there is all that is needed. There is a ministry that takes place in simply being present. When my dad died I was 26 years old. I was trying desperately to be strong, to be the man of the family. My uncle walked with me out to the barn and wrapped his arms around me and said, “Let it out.” I wept on his shoulders for several minutes. It was an important lesson that I learned years before I earned a doctorate in counseling; and one that I have passed on to others many times. Real men do cry!
Over the years I have heard many incredible stories of pain. There have been many times when I have had to say, “I wish I had the right words to say, but I want you to know I care. I am here for you.” Does that in any way discount the gospel? It may to some, but not in my mind. Solomon (considered the wisest man that ever lived) said, “There is a time for everything.”
I have seen over and over that by filtering the truth in times of grief the day comes when those who grieve are ready for greater revelations of truth. Paul told the Corinthians, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory (the Lord’s truth), are being transformed…” It is never the caregiver’s task to transform or minimize an individual’s grief by the words that we say. Such task is way above my pay-grade and yours. The veil of grief has a purpose. Seeing beyond the veil is a unique experience for every grieving person. Through love, care and respect for the grief of others caregivers demonstrate without words the truth that the brokenhearted are not alone. This is perhaps the first stepping stone in rediscovering hope and a vision for the future.