[If you’re new, here’s the introduction to this series.]
When it comes to suffering, I know what it’s like to have someone throw a theological bandaid over a gushing wound. I know what it’s like to feel bitter at people like that. But I also know what it’s like to have Scripture impact me unexpectedly, because someone chose to speak it over me, even when I didn’t think I wanted to hear it. When I look over my past in times of true sorrow, I can see that God used the person who sat and wordlessly mourned with me as well as the person who told me truths I once thought were “trite.”
Here is why I think it can be okay and not okay to use one-liner Scripture passages with fellow believers who are suffering:
1. SCRIPTURE ENDORSES BOTH TYPES OF RESPONSES
There are numerous verses that point to using Scripture as well as words as methods to encourage another person during life, in which seasons of despair happen. God says that his Word is profitable for our instruction. We cannot possibly say that we only need to be instructed when things are light and happy and that we no longer need instruction when things are dark and sad. Surely God’s word is equally as profitable in times of suffering as it is in times of satisfaction. That’s the whole idea behind God’s word being a lamp unto our feet when times are tough—it helps us see in the dark.
Why would I not want to help someone see in the dark using God’s word? Are the Scriptures wrong? Is His word too trite to be used during suffering?
I don’t think so. Why?
2. DURING MOMENTS OF ANGUISH, JESUS USED A ONE-LINER ON HIMSELF
Because one little familiar passage wasn’t trite for Jesus—He quoted Psalm 22:1 on the cross itself. There’s no darker time than that, and Jesus didn’t think a simple verse was trite. He thought it was fitting to use Scripture to express His anguish. Suffice it to say that Jesus was more familiar with Scripture than we are. So Psalm 22:1 was more etched in his mind than Romans 8:28 will ever be in ours. Yet Jesus didn’t think a “too-familiar” passage was trite. He clung to it. Scripture poured out of Him when he was in despair. Granted, he was using Scripture to communicate his frustration, not to make the moment “all-better.” But it’s clear that He found a simple verse to be appropriate in that moment. If one over-familiar verse wasn’t too trite for Jesus during suffering, then surely we cannot say those kinds of verses are no help to us.
3. JESUS EXHIBITS BOTH TYPES OF RESPONSES WITH PEOPLE IN ANGUISH
Many of the Anti-Clichérs use Romans 12:15 or Jesus’ interaction with Mary as she mourns her brother’s death when they explain their position of just being with a person through pain instead of trying to fix a person through pain. They say, “Jesus stopped and wept with people while they suffered, and we should do this instead of just blurting out truth. Throwing random verses at people feels trite and it’s not compassionate.” And I don’t disagree with them. Sometimes we need a wordless interaction between two humans.
However, remember, Jesus interacted differently with Martha than he did Mary in that very same moment. Sometimes He sits and cries with you, and other times he surprisingly jolts you out of your despair. Jesus gave Martha an incredibly theological and conceptual answer. And He didn’t wait on it. He said it right there, awkwardly, in the midst of the darkest part of her mourning. Why? Because He thought she needed to hear it, and Jesus does what people need, not what they want. Jesus knew Martha well, and he knew her wiring: tears weren’t enough to push her through. She needed truth, so he gave her a theological question, not a hug. He makes her come head-to-head with what she really believes about Him. Sometimes we too need an interaction between a human and her beliefs.
4. MY OWN PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
I can remember specific conversations where a certain person didn’t let me sit in my despair. Divorce, affairs, adultery, addiction, and chaos were swirling around in my family. I was on auto-pilot. I was numbed-out. And I was starting to like it that way. After some time of trying to be gentle with me, the blue-eyed woman looked me in the eyes and said something that I’ll never forget:
“Either you believe God is who He says he is, and you use this season to run to Him, or you don’t. Ashley, do you believe God is telling you the truth when He says He is God “with you?” Do you remember when He said not to be surprised that the world would give you trouble sometimes? Do you believe that He can turn this for good? You’re acting like He has never prepared you for hard seasons, when His word is full of promises that the storms will come, but He is right here with us. Do you believe the Word He has given you is actually true, even in this dark place? Then take Him up on it. Live like it. Go to him instead of doing this avoidance dance you’ve learned too well. Jesus wants you to be sad with him, yes, but you know what He wants more? He wants to be believed.” I knew she was right, but I looked away until she finished the blow with one more blow.
“Ashley. Look at me. Who is God to you? Is he on the sidelines, powerless and limp? Because that’s where you’re putting Him. You need to decide what you believe about God in this moment.”
Who is God to you? The words operated like a spiritual defibrillator that heaved my flat-lining faith back into beating. It wasn’t a pretty feeling. But for the first time, my suffering started to become about God and not me, me, me. That woman cared more about my faith coming back to life than she did about my mood toward her.
Listen, I needed her to say that. I needed that shove into faith. God worked in that really hard conversation and He used tears, sure, but He also used theological ideas and Bible verses in a dark place to propel me out of myself. He showed me that compassion comes by tear-sharing, but faith comes by hearing the Word of God. Faith is stirred up in us by hearing again and again what God has done for us in Christ. And in that moment, I didn’t need compassion anymore. I was starving for fresh faith.
WHY WE REALLY HATE HEARING BIBLE VERSES
But we don’t approach God’s Word this way, do we? The real issue is that even though the Word of God is the most powerful and safe weapon we could wield against any situation, we avoid it due to fear of boredom or (oh-no!) hearing something twice. The honest truth is that we as Christians are “so over” verses like that. We’re kind-of done with them, instead of asking them if they are done with us. We’re bored. If faith comes by hearing the Word of God, our problem isn’t with the Word of God, it’s our ears. We just don’t feel like hearing any of it anymore. And that’s understandable sometimes. Sometimes we’re so stricken with grief, it takes time for our ears to get calibrated to God again.
But that doesn’t mean we should be shooting His messengers, flawed or ill-timed as they may be.
The deeper problem with throwing Bible verses at people while they are suffering has nothing to do with the actual verses—we are told that they always have power to produce good fruit and that they are living and active. They take root in any situation. They do work we could never do in a person. So the problem is not with the Word. The problem is that our vision is blurred in times of suffering. We don’t have the best gauge of when we need truth and when we don’t. Both the giver and the receiver of truth can be wrong a lot of the time, because they are humans. Sometimes the giver gives a poor delivery. Sometimes the receiver has no ears to hear. Our attempts at walking through pain together will never be spot-on. So we as believers rely on this: the use of Scripture is appropriate when God deems it appropriate. And this requires us to draw close to Him and depend on Him in our interactions. Sometimes Bible verses are not needed in moments of suffering, but sometimes they are. Only He knows the difference, so we must go to Him together.
IF YOU’RE THE PERSON IN ANGUISH
If you’re a person, as I am, who has been burned by hollow words or quick-fix-type answers from fellow believers, I’d ask you to give grace. Most people really don’t know how to enter in pain with you, and if you’re honest, you’re not quite sure how you’d even tell them to do so. Try and give the benefit of the doubt—they probably mean well and are trying (amidst their awkward footing) to walk with you the best they know how. I’ve learned this the hard way: I cannot expect you to know exactly what this feels like or what to say. Only God can do that. You’re probably going to unknowingly put your foot in your mouth and that’s okay. If I expect you to give me grace during this season, then I should offer you grace, too. It’s not “those who have been there” versus “those who just don’t get my pain.” Jesus never expected us to understand his agony before we approached him. The body of Christ is an “us” thing, and you’re called to make every effort to maintain unity with other believers at all times, even when you’re hurting.
Even if they say some Scripture to you in the wrong way, don’t devalue the actual words of God just because of poor communication. Those verses are true for you, they just probably got handed to you the wrong way. Give the person who has been trite with you a heads up that their delivery is a little off, but approach God’s word for what it is to us: life when we feel dead. Conviction when we’re apathetic. Breath when we’re suffocating. Help in times of trouble.
IF YOU’RE THE PERSON TRYING TO HELP
Brother, sister, don’t let a list tell how you to interact with a mourner. Engage with God over it. Ask the Spirit direct you in how to do this. Ask for eyes to see what they really need. Ask for compassion, ask for God to bring appropriate passages if He desires to. Does this person need a Mary experience or a Martha experience? Does this person need to be understood or do they need you to help them believe right now? God is the only one who knows what a person truly needs in any given moment. Ask Him. Not a blog post. Sure, you’re going to get it wrong sometimes. Apologize if you do. But keep the lines open with God and with your friend.
Maybe you won’t use the peppy verses. Maybe your words will be paired with tear-stained eyes. But at the end of the day, they may need to know that He understands their pain better than they may assume He does. So there’s no shame in pointing them to Him when it’s appropriate.
Be willing to simply weep alongside a friend who is mourning. But also be willing to spiritually defibrillate your friend’s faith if God asks you to, in love of course. Jesus does both. And so should we.