A Time to Speak

Being in ministry means that you have been in the room—ER, family room, or church—where loved ones grieve tragedy. I have never met the guy in that room who feels the urge to speak right away. We want to be there as pastors to hug, hold, and weep with our people just as Christ did with Mary and Martha when Lazarus died (John 11:35).

However, if you are in the room long enough, something needs to be said. Eventually, the grieving want to hear something, if only a few words, from their leaders. So especially young pastors need to learn what to say when the right time comes along. How do we glorify Jesus and comfort the brokenhearted? If you do not know the answer to this question, you are not alone, but let me warn you that day is coming for you if it has not already.

I will never forget 2012 when both my dad and also my sister were going through cancer. My dad went to be with Jesus in August, and my sister is doing well today in 2013. What my family needed most from our pastors was silent presence and respect. But there was a time where we needed to hear words of love and encouragement along with something from God. The people who helped me the most patiently waited through the silence to speak God’s Word to us in due time.

Here are three things that need to be said at the right moment:

1. “I want you to know the church is here for you and your family.”

Yes, this promise seems obvious as an outsider, but it is what the hurting need to hear and see from their church family. If it is all you say in the time of tragedy, hurting people need to know they have someone to call for help. It is amazing how many details and duties come along with tragedy, such as informing people and providing food for family coming in town. Hurting people need to know that they have somewhere to go with all the extra things that come with hurting.

2. “Can I pray for you?”

It is true that grieving people do not want a sermon, but I have never seen anyone turn down prayer. You are leading them to the place where they really need to go and where they will need to stay in the days to come. Do not be shy about this offer. It is so easy to lose your bearings in time of suffering. We all need help bringing God to the center of our experience.

3. “God’s Word says . . . “

This seems difficult to say for many reasons. You as the pastor may feel overwhelmed by their direct experience of pain, which you do not share. So you think it is awkward to speak up at the right time, but that is not what they are thinking. In my experience, the suffering are desperately looking for solid ground to stand on. Give it to them. You don’t have to open a Bible, but speak a short passage of God’s truth for them to hang on for that day. Trust me, they will.

  • TonyL

    Thank you for this. Very timely here in Oklahoma as the grieving will be long for many parents and families starting this day.

  • Trevor Minyard

    This is one of the most practical/useful articles I’ve seen on TGC. Be encouraged John.

  • Johnny Grimes

    Very wise counsel John. Thank you.

  • Hodge Drake

    From someone who has gone through it, great, insightful encouragement, John! Thanks!

  • Chad

    A great word from a man who has been in both positions in the room. Thanks for using your experience to speak timely truth, John. Appreciate you.

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  • Dalibor Sver

    Nice and thoughtful article, thank you.
    However, can you shed some light on 3rd issue? Can you suggest specific passages? I ask because I’m afraid to quote some words of salvation and similar (as it comes to mind), if the dead person is obviously not saved and/or I’m not in position to judge whether they will be saved.

  • Meg

    Thank you for this post. It is very timely as my husband and I lost his grandmother this morning and will be traveling to her funeral this weekend. Thanks again.

  • John Pond

    Meg, I am so sorry to hear about your husband’s grandmother. I will be praying for y’all!

    Dalibor, I do not know of a more difficult position to be in than the one you just described. Asking for wisdom and strength from the Lord, if I walked into that room, I would focus on comforting the family (living). If you are asking about words to say at a funeral or service for a lost person, I have not been in that situation yet. I would assume the Lord would lead me to talk about the good things that person did and the joy he was to his/her family. Surely, pastors older and more experienced than I would be better to answer that tough question.

    • Dalibor Sver

      Thank you.

  • carl peterson

    As a former chaplain I thought I was going to hate this article. But it was good. I still think it is not that the pastor has to say much at all. Praying to God and letting the Lord speak through His word almost always help (at the right time and not as platitudes). The other suggestion is more about doing than saying. Overall a good article. I would say though that many pastors do seem to have an urge to say something. It is often an awkward situation and one wants to say something because it is uncomfortable. I have been in this situation many times and have heard from many other chaplains and pastors and they all state that they often feel like they should say something even though it is best to say silent.

  • http://thenface2face.wordpress.com Karen Butler

    “The people who helped me the most patiently waited through the silence to speak God’s Word to us in due time.”

    As an expert in grieving — in a short span of years I endured the stillbirth of our son, the prolonged illness and death of my mother, my brother’s sudden death from a stroke at fifty three years of age — I would caution that only the griever can give you permission to turn from the comfort of your silent presence to speaking the comfort of Romans 8:28.

    Until then, sit in silence. Bring your casseroles,offer a backrub. Because, “A soul folded into the fetal position does not respond well to lots of talking… The Son of Man wept with the sisters who said to him, ‘where were you, O God, when I needed you?’ Those of us who observe deep grief can feel great anxiety in the face of these seeming unanswerable questions, and so we stupidly seek to fill silences, and have a fatal temptation to fix complex problems with platitudes. We need to trust in the sovereignty of God ourselves, and really believe that love never fails, and then speak only with fear and trembling. Grief is a holy ground we walk upon.” http://thenface2face.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/lessons-from-head-lice-part-2-grief-and-the-provisions-of-presence-and-compassionate-family/

    • Beth

      There are times, though, when in a fiery trial, one does need the encouragement from brethren and the time for silence passes. There’s a time to speak and a time to be silent Ecclesiastes 3:7 says. One needs to be sensitive to the Lord’s leading and the need of the hurting one. Sometimes the hurting one gets to the point where wonder where are the brethren in this, why doesn’t the phone ring, and a horrible lonely feeling takes hold in the midst of the pain as if you’re being shunned to bear it alone.

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