Knowing when to speak words of comfort can be tricky. Knowing just how soon to offer words of hope and reminders of the sovereign plans of God is not always easy to get right.
Sometimes we step too quickly into the offer of comfort. Sometimes, when speaking with others, our own discomfort can nudge us to want to speak of comfort and hope as soon as we can. The pain we see in others may seem so deep, so overwhelming, that we simply cannot bear it. And so, it is for our own sakes and in order to remove our own discomfort, that we try to make the pain go away. Of course, that does not always land well. Sometimes, our words of comfort communicate to others not kindness but an unwillingness to bear with their pain. Faced with the emotional chaos of deep suffering and sorrow, something in us may want to restore a sense of order. We want things back in control. And so, like a sticking plaster over a gaping wound, trite reminders of gospel truth serve to mask the awfulness of sorrow and pain without ever properly engaging with it.
But those gospel truths are true and there are good reasons to want to share them. In sudden and awful tragedy, God is sovereign. In bereavement and death, Jesus is indeed the resurrection and the life. Whatever threat we face, God will bring us home. Such truths seem relevant. Indeed, they are relevant. Do we really have to delay saying them? Surely there is a rightness about speaking them as soon as we can.
So, what should we do?
Perhaps the difficulty here is not so much an issue of speed, but of simplicity. For when we view our emotional responses in simplistic ways, we will think in terms of either/or. Either you are happy or you are sad. Either you despair or you have hope. Either you mourn or you rejoice. But in reality our emotions are complicated. We feel many things simultaneously.
Recalling the experience of watching his son play sport, Wayne Grudem notes that “I can simultaneously feel sad that his team lost, happy that he played well, proud that he was a good sport, thankful to God for giving me a son and giving the me the joy of watching him grow up, joyful because of the song of praise that has been echoing in my mind all afternoon, and anxious because we are going to be late for dinner!”1
Even more striking is the complex experience of emotion described by Paul in 2 Corinthians when he states that he is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10). It sounds paradoxical. We tend to think that it needs to be one or the other. Either you are filled with sorrow or you are filled with joy. It can’t be both. Which can also lead us to imagine that the path out of sorrow is linear. In the face of sorrow what a person needs is to be reminded of gospel truth in order that this truth might bring back to mind spiritual realities that will restore their joy such that sorrow will be taken away.
Paul sees it differently. Things are more complex. Not sorrow or rejoicing, but sorrow and rejoicing. Not sorrow replaced by rejoicing, but sorrow combined with rejoicing. It was his own experience in relation to the church. “I face daily”, he wrote, “the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (1 Cor 11:28). Yet the same churches for whom he felt such anxiety were simultaneously the source of his great joy – “I have spoken to you with great frankness; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds!” (2 Cor 7:4).
Jesus also recognises the complexity of our present experience. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). Both peace and trouble – at the very same time. Not one removing the other, but one co-existing with the other.
This has profound implications for our care of one another. It should radically shape the way we speak into the experience of trouble and struggle. How? By encouraging us to make room for a paradoxical mix of emotions.
Years ago, a friend sent me a message in the face of a recent bereavement. His message conveyed the petition he was making on my behalf: “I pray”, he wrote, “that you would be honest in your grief and joyful in your Saviour.” It was such a helpful message because it made space for both sadness and joy, distress and comfort, the reality of loss and the presence of my Saviour. Emotions of sadness alongside emotions of joy. Not one chasing out the other, but each standing with the other.
The joy a Christian knows in Christ doesn’t eclipse sorrow. It may even, in some sense, give a believer the courage to engage with sorrow and sadness even more deeply and more honestly than they could otherwise.
So, let’s find ways to speak gospel truth into sorrow quickly. Not in order to ease our own discomfort, nor implying that sorrow must instantaneously cease, but with the awareness that sorrow and joy can mingle. With a conviction that Jesus was right: in this world we will have trouble and yet into our trouble he also brings peace.
1 Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. IVP, 2007, p447.