It's an understatement to say that Americans don't like pain. We're drawn to quick solutions that include prescription drugs, food, TV, beer, shopping and sex. We can't sit in pain. We compartmentalize. We “move on” (deny, avoid). If the people in our lives aren't getting better fast enough, we rush them. On top of this, I find that evangelical Americans further minimize pain by spouting out well-intended but not lived-in theology. We say seemingly comforting things, that at the wrong time are incredibly insensitive and ignorant.
There comes a time in everyone's life (and let's face it, it happens more than once) where our souls are laid bare. When something so gut-wrenching, life-altering, paradigm-shifting happens to us. Recently, one of my friends lost her beloved husband to wasting-away, horrifically violent cancer. I've known 5 separate families who've lost an infant in the last 3 years alone. FIVE babies. I've walked with friends through divorce, depression, job loss, moves, chronic illness, coming out, rejection from their families...all within the last 18 months. During this time, we went through the most difficult time of our own lives with a mental health crisis and a newborn. LIFE. IS. HARD.
Many of us have been trained to “plant seeds” (share our beliefs with conviction) in these times because people are vulnerable. They need something to hold onto. So we say things like "God is in control. God has a plan for you. All things work together for good. There is a reason for everything. They're in a better place." While many people believe these things earnestly, I say, tread lightly, my friends, because you are standing on the holy ground of someone else's soul. Please be careful.
It's not that these things are untrue (though I believe many of them are). But when you put yourself in the shoes of the hearer, they can come off as dismissive. If I could live the rest of my life and not hear another person “lovingly” invalidate the pain of another human being, I would be grateful. I think, as Christians, we're afraid to admit how much pain we're in, that somehow this minimizes our faith. That our humanity may be too much. Or that our faith isn't enough. That somehow, if we're in bottomless pain, we're no different from “the world”, that God is not doing his job, that we're not good Christians. Like we have an obligation to put on a good commercial for Jesus with our lives, and that includes having less pain and more smiles (watch out for the disclaimer at the end). We're afraid of the power of our anger. We don't want it to get out of control. We're impatient with grief. It takes too long. We're weary and we're afraid. We just want the pain to stop.
Here's the reality guys. It won't. Sure, in time the agony eases and we very awkwardly stumble into a new normal. But how does that help us today, when our lives are in shambles? When we tell people it will be better in time, it feels like we're asking them to be patient in agony because it's only a "short" time. It doesn't feel short.
I've come to the conclusion that meaning well is not enough. It does not give us free reign to perpetuate bad theology in efforts to comfort people, or more accurately, to comfort ourselves. Personally, I do not believe that everything happens for a reason. I do not believe everything that happens is God's will. I do not believe that everything that happens is part of God's plan. I do not believe that God takes babies out of their mother's arms because He's lonely in Heaven. That paints him as impatient, greedy, lonely, selfish and heartless. I. Just. Don't.
Rather than believing that God is totally fine with tearing people's lives apart, I believe that God is wonderfully good. So much more good than we can possibly imagine or give him credit for. I believe that God is big enough to cover us in times of huge loss and small enough to whisper to our hearts a word of hope, the faith that things will get better some day. We can trust him with our pain. I believe that at the end of all things, whatever that looks like, we will be whole again. He is so good that even in the dark night of our souls, he is able to bring us comfort. He is able to show us grace. We find God in the friends who hold our hands and sob in our living room. He's in the neighbor who feeds us and the people who hold our crying babies. He is in the bills that are unexpectedly paid. Just because he helps us crawl out of the pit doesn't mean he threw us in there just so He could get accolades for getting us out. We don't have to draw that line. HE MADE THE WORLD. Do you think he has to resort to cheap tricks to get glory? If we don't praise Him, the rocks will cry out. He is worthy of praise. Period. Our personal circumstances do not change that.
I think it's okay to admit that we don't know why terrible things happen. Maybe it's because the world is broken. Maybe it's because we're no different from anyone else and bad things happen to all people. Maybe there isn't a reason. To be honest, I'd rather admit that I honest to goodness DO NOT KNOW than to pretend that I do. Because one day, you wake up and realize that there aren't any reasons that are good enough to share without a postpartum mother with empty arms. There aren't. But we want a cause and an effect. We want to prevent bad things from happening to us and to the people we love. We want it to be true that if we behave well and believe a lot, the really scary stuff will pass us by. We want control. We want to be safe. And when something shatters our illusion of control, we try to contain it with bad theology even if it means hurting people in the process.
To be honest, I don't think we'll ever know why bad things happen to good people. I know God has power. And sometimes, we want him to stop bad things from happening and he doesn't. I don't know what to do with that. I really don't. We don't get to draw the lines we want to draw. And that is so hard. But that doesn't mean we don't have faith, words to comfort, or things we can do to help. If we must speak, how about something like: “You are loved. You matter. Your life matters. You are valuable. You are not alone. Your children matter. Your loss is huge. This is awful. I'm so, so sorry.”
Don't try to tidy the mess. I know it's really uncomfortable to sit in that tension, whether it's our own or that of a dear friend. When you must come up for air, take a break by doing one of the previously stated things Americans do to check out. Because no one can stay present in grief all the time. And let's face it, sometimes those things help. But we're doing a disservice when we try to protect people from their own pain. Pull up a chair at the table and let it come. For it's the only way to live an honest life, to embrace your humanity, and to stop hurting the wounded warriors all around us.