Healthy Comfort for the Grieving

Editor’s Note: When someone is hurting, it’s hard to know what to say. How can we help? In times of hardship, loss, and pain, Scripture beckons us to look up and out. We pray you are blessed by this excerpt from The Book of Comforts. 

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Meaning to be friendly, I asked, “How was Christmas?” If I had been thinking, I would have realized what a weighty question I was asking. Michael had lost his wife about 8 months before. His answer was honest: “It just didn’t feel like Christmas.” And I was at a loss for words. Of course it didn’t feel like Christmas, and it probably felt to him that the joy of Christmas would never come easily again.

I had blundered into a stinging reminder that his beloved was gone. And I didn’t know how to make it right. Faced with my fellow man, in a circumstance I couldn’t begin to imagine, I didn’t know how to offer comfort. All I could muster was, “I’m really sorry,” but I wanted to say more, or rather, to have more worth saying. I wanted to have answers. If I’m honest, I wanted to be the answer to his problem. I wanted to be able to say the magical words that would suddenly make everything better. I wanted to be the perfect comforter.

Of course this is ridiculous. I am not the perfect friend, much less the perfect comforter. We live in a fallen world, and the shocks of grief and loss often overwhelm us beyond our capabilities. When I have been undone by sorrow, I often don’t even know what I need. How could someone else know?

How can comfort be given to the comfortless, or answers to the unanswerable?

We all walk through times of grief, trial and suffering. I’ve watched my Dad lose a brother. I’ve seen my grandparents pass away. I’ve seen dear friends spent countless hours in the hospital with children on the brink of death. I’ve endured heartache with my own children. I’ve been the source of heartache for those I love.

When I’ve faced seasons of struggle I have often thought of Job. I reckon many of us think of him. Apart from Christ, the Man of Sorrows, Job stands out as one of the foremost Biblical figures acquainted with deep pain.

I also have often thought of Job’s three friends: Eliphaz, Zophar and Bildad. While they certainly fell short in their friendship with Job, and in their theology, they really started off well! How many of us have friends who would sit silent with us for seven days, weeping with us as we weep? That is real kindness.

In some of my darkest days, I’ve needed just that: friends who stand by in quiet support, who don’t pretend to have answers, or aspire to be mini-messiahs to the grieving. I’ve needed brothers who recognize their own insufficiency, and even the insufficiency of temporal answers.

Grief is grievous and hardship is hard. Pain is painful. Sometimes we need a friend to just be there and hold our hand instead of playing at being the surgeon who will mend our wounds.

There is a Great Physician, but it is not me; it is not you.

I think this is one of the reasons why grief and struggle can be so isolating, particularly for men. When men grieve, it often takes a very silent form. I think women tend to talk things out, even cry things out in a way that men don’t. Men struggle to be there for each other without trying to solve problems, and we tend to struggle to receive comfort, in part because we like to be our own problem solvers. In my own seasons of sorrow, I’ve found that silent and listening companionship is often the greatest comfort: to know that I have support when I need it, a brother in adversity, who will grieve with me, pray with me, and pray for me, without trying to foist unseasonable solutions on seasons of difficulty, or give easy answers to difficult questions. That kind of comforting takes real humility.

In fact, humility is a central component both of giving and receiving healthy comfort. When we show up to comfort those who are grieving and struggling, we first need to be willing to protect and accept them in their weakness. The grieving don’t need to hear “Man up!” They need to hear, “I love you.”

Second, we need to be willing to not know the answers, to not have the right words, to not understand everything. “I totally understand,” simply isn’t true. And we don’t need to understand everything. We need to show up, knowing that our role isn’t to be their messiah.

Third, we need to gently help them see the hope and love of Christ. “Here’s what you ought to do” is a phrase that typically precedes our own feeble solutions to a problem we can’t solve, and to questions we can’t answer. Christ, however, does provide real answers. The answer that changed Job’s perspective on his tremendous suffering wasn’t humanly conceived. He saw the hope and love of God when he came face-to-Face with the presence of God. The grieving and struggling need to fix their eyes upon Christ. This means we must lift up the suffering in prayer to the one who heals, not blunder about in our own strength and wisdom.

Of course, receiving healthy comfort also requires humility. Often we simply want our problems to go away. We want to not suffer, to not struggle. I am struck by something Elihu observes:

He delivers the afflicted by their affliction and opens their ear by adversity. — Job 36:15

God doesn’t arbitrarily cause us to suffer, and He doesn’t only send pain to punish wickedness. Instead, God uses affliction and suffering to open the ears of the afflicted, even the righteous afflicted.

God has something to say to us in pain and struggle that can’t be said in ease and luxury.

He sends suffering to us for our good. Though our circumstances may seem cruel and unbearable, yet even in this God is acting in love towards us. God is doing something for us in our affliction. Are our ears open to hear? Are our eyes open to see?

To walk through hardship with this perspective takes real faith. We have to humble ourselves to the point of entrusting our weakness to God, and often entrusting it to the friends He sends to minister to us in time of struggle, even though they are imperfect. We also have to accept that we don’t have all the answers, and even that we may never get all the answers this side of Heaven. The real answer, for us as it was for Job, is found in the presence of our God and Redeemer. This means that we need to raise our eyes beyond our own suffering, and look to Christ. That can be really hard to do, especially when grief strikes us to the core, and sorrow infects our bones.

Something that strikes me about the story of Job is that God never directly answers Job’s questions, at least not the way Job asked them. He doesn’t say: “Here’s why you had to suffer,” or “This is what it all means.” God simply shows up, and Job witnesses the mighty works of God, and hears the voice of God. And Job falls silent. I think, in the end, that is what God is doing for us in our suffering: He is showing up, and He is helping us to see Him. And when we see Him, we are made like Him (1 John 3:2).

The Scottish writer George MacDonald once said: “The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.” Remember that Christ humbled “Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). In the giving and receiving of comfort, we catch a glimpse of the humility of Christ, who condescended to endure unbearable suffering which He didn’t deserve.

In the giving and receiving of comfort, we are being shown something about Christ.

When we approach a suffering friend, our job is simply to point to Christ, who suffered all for our sake. When we walk through the shadow of death, we are to fix our eyes upon Christ who took on Himself the full stroke of death on our behalf. This doesn’t make pain unpainful, or sorrow unsorrowful, but it means that we still have real hope and real comfort in the darkest of days. We do not sorrow alone, and our grief is not without purpose. Like Job, we are offered something entirely unfathomable: the restoration of all good things. Even as “the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning,” so also Christ promises that He will wipe away every tear, and He declares,

Behold, I am making all things new! — Job 42:12; Revelation 21:4-5

The end of the story is not sorrow and pain, but the comfort that is found only in Christ.

May Christ who comforts us work in us greater humility,

so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. — 2 Corinthians 1:4

Written for Devotionals Daily by Caleb Faires, co-author with Kaitlin Wernet, Rebecca Faires, and Cymone Wilder of The Book of Comforts.

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Your Turn

Is someone you know in a season of suffering? How can you minister to that friend today? Let’s reach out to the bereaved, the lonely, the ill, and those in pain and offer our presence, our grieving with them, and even our silence. And, above all, let’s fix our eyes on Jesus who is making all things new. Come share your thoughts on healthy comfort on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full

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