Within the past week, I lost two friends. One was a Christian, a member of my church. She committed suicide. The other was an atheist, a high-school buddy. I found out that she died of a drug overdose.
Mourning is a struggle for me, primarily because it's difficult to tell others I'm sad. I'm afraid they won't understand or won't care. So I've been walking around with a pleasant expression on my face, telling people "I'm fine" when they ask, "How are you doing?"
I'm not fine. I'm angry with my friends who took their lives. Why did they give up? I'm angry with myself. Was there something more I could have done? I'm angry with God. Why, God, did you allow their pain to become unbearable? Why didn't you send more help? Why didn't you intervene? My Christian friend (I'll call her "Elaine") had an incurable illness that caused chronic pain. My atheist friend (I'll call her "Nora") was, I just found out, being abused by a family member when we were in high school. I wonder why Nora never told me. And I wonder what I might have said if she did.
When friends are hurting, my first response is to try to alleviate that pain. Seems lots of folks do this. You've probably heard many Christians say, "I'll pray for you," and then talk of God's love and pray he'll bring peace and comfort. This is exactly what I did with Elaine. Just a few months ago, I held her hand and prayed, "Father, please heal your daughter Elaine's body. You know she can't handle this constant pain; please take it away. Please hear her cries and comfort her." I told Elaine how much I loved her, how much God loved her, and how her Father wanted to hold her in his arms.
In some cases, God heals and restores. Sometimes, he eases pain immediately. But sometimes, there's no miracle, or even any relief. There's only profound sadness. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote about losing his wife, Joy, to cancer: "Where is God" ? Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence. You may as well turn away."
I don't think C.S. Lewis would have been comforted by the words, "God loves you, and so do I. I'll pray for you." And I now wonder if Elaine was sitting there in pain as I prayed, thinking, God loves me? Then why doesn't he do something? And you—do you have any clue what it's like to be in constant, physical agony?
Sadly, I never contemplated Elaine's pain. And it's not the first time I've made that mistake.
Two years ago, I sent an e-mail to former Los Angeles Times religion reporter Bill Lobdell. Once a devout Christian, Bill became an atheist after concluding that a good God wouldn't allow something as horrific as widespread child abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests. (Bill wrote about his loss of faith in his book, Losing My Religion, released in February.) I'd read about his faith crisis, then typed up some encouraging words and promised to pray for him.
But I didn't reflect on how Bill was feeling. In hindsight, I wonder: Should I also have offered to mourn with him? Should I have read about the sex-scandal victims and allowed myself to feel the despair that Bill was experiencing? You know what they say about hindsight. How I deeply wish I'd told Elaine, "I don't know why God hasn't healed you. It hurts my heart so much to see you continue to suffer. Let's tell God what we're feeling right now."
I wish I'd mourned with Elaine and Bill. Too often in my life, I've expressed an overabundance of "Christian optimism": I encourage others in hopes of counteracting their pain. While it's great to exhort—kind words usually do help—we must consider: Is encouragement what my friend needs most right now?
We should honestly evaluate our words before we speak:
Am I using encouragement as a way to ignore my friend's pain because I don't want to make the time or effort to deal with her hurts?
Do I really mean what I'm saying to my friend, or am I just rattling off polite clichés?
Do I expect my words will fix everything—am I acting like I can do a better job than the Comforter?
If I make promises to my friend, such as praying for her or checking on her later, am I going to keep them?
Years ago, an agnostic friend called with some sad news: Our college classmate had committed suicide. We spent time on the phone verbalizing our sorrow and confusion. He said kind things to me, but didn't try to cheer me up. Later, he called again to ask how I was doing. I felt very close to my friend and grateful we'd shared the burden.
I've noticed that some friends who aren't believers have a better grasp of mourning than I do. Perhaps they're more willing to cry with others because they don't have the option of asking God for comfort. I'm grateful I've got a loving Father to turn to in tough times, but sometimes, I exercise that option a bit too vigorously. I ask God to shelter me from all physical and emotional pain—essentially, to keep me perpetually happy. Additionally, I've suppressed and ignored my pain, telling myself, This, too, shall pass. God will eventually set everything right.
And God will. But God does allow suffering in this life because humans need to experience it. Pain reminds us there's something wrong with the world: It's broken due to sin. Pain calls us to action: We're reminded that the only true hope is found in relationship with God.
Pain can draw us to God and into community. It forces us to admit we're not self-sufficient. And when we mourn with others, we recognize we're not alone. Ever wondered why Jesus wept as he stood outside of Lazarus' tomb? He could have encouraged the mourners—"Everything's OK, folks. God loves you. Peace be with you"—and then raised Lazarus. Instead, he took time to show love for his friends by crying with them.
Right now, I'm going to go cry with my Father. And tomorrow, I need to tell a few good friends how I'm really feeling.
Do you sometimes find it difficult to tell people that you're hurting? What prevents you from mourning with others? When friends are suffering, how do you support them?
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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