I have something hard to say to my fellow Christians. If you don’t identify as a Christian, that’s ok. You’re welcome to keep reading.
Christians. There are some things we’re good at. These things are ideas that most Christians agree on, at least in theory, and get right at least some of the time. For example, caring about those in need, working hard, and treating others as you want to be treated.
There are other things, though, that we tend to run away from in an emotional sense. Sickness, death, extreme poverty, abuse of power, and human suffering of the most extreme kinds. When Christians turn their backs on these things, the church becomes a dishonest, uncompassionate place; a hostile environment for human hearts. When we do this, we, as Christians, fail.
Most prominent among these toxic elements is how many of us choose to handle grief.
I recently watched a brilliant indie film called Metalhead in which a young girl loses her brother in a gruesome accident and her parents barely acknowledge what happens. They seem completely unable to cope with how terrible the situation is. This is obviously extremely hurtful to the girl and she finds every possible outlet to hurt her parents, and release the anger and sadness she feels, because no one has modeled grieving for her (not to mention, forgiveness). There’s much more to the story), but I feel like this is how some Christians behave now.
You may or may not know this, but there are a lot of Christians who put a huge emphasis on being happy and hopeful most of the time. This is why many of us are known for being “nice guys” or “good girls;” people who won’t do anything “wrong” or “edgy.” That, combined with all the things we’re against, is about all we’re known for.
I know this isn’t specific only to Christians. Western society has taken self-preservation to a hedonistic extent, but Christians use biblical “excuses” for that. We’re told that Joy is a “fruit of the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22) gives many Christians easy answers for the deep suffering of others.
Nobody wants to feel bad. . walking alongside a grieving person places us directly in the middle of acute pain for which we do not have an explanation. Flimsy, bumper-sticker spiritual platitudes do little to offer comfort to others, but they may allow us to hide from the honest reality for which we don’t have answers. While we may be compassionate, we avoid empathy — going to a place emotionally that allows us to feel at some level what others are feeling.
Our belief system is rooted in a violent torturous death on a Roman Cross, we learn early that “Jesus wept” and we’re told He was familiar with suffering. We’re commanded to mourn with those who mourn. Yet, we avoid suffering, rush grief and try to hurry others through the process into a place of happiness again. I’ve heard story after story like the one I saw in Metalhead. I recently had a friend tell me this:
“When my mom died from cancer, some people told me she died because my faith wasn’t strong enough or that I didn’t pray hard enough. I also had a couple of people tell me I should be happy because she is in a better place. One person told me that it wasn’t that bad because I was 20 and basically an adult. These were all Christians.”
It’s a sickness of the soul to think that pain and suffering have no value. It’s not Christ-like to run from those who are grieving like it may be contagious — or to hide our own sadness or depression. As Christians, we need to listen to the passages in our Holy Book that encourage us to allow grief to do the good work it’s intended to do in our souls.
I want to help you, us, to enter into suffering in a real, caring way; the way I believe Jesus did. If someone close to you, whether in vicinity or relationship, is dealing with a tragedy, do not tell them that they should be joyful when they endure trials, do not tell them that it’s part of God’s plan, and do not tell them that they just need to pray harder. Not because these things are not true — but because they are not kind to say in the midst of their suffering. Instead, sit with them. Cry with them. Tell them you’re sorry this happened, whatever “this” is. Inhabit their space and turn a listening ear to their suffering. It will be uncomfortable, but our purpose on earth, and the mission you accepted upon choosing to follow Jesus, was not one of guaranteed comfort.
In the words of my hero, William Wilberforce: “If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.”
May you be this kind of fanatic as well.