What do you say when someone close to you enters a season of intense pain and grief? How do serve them well?
Some of the most common choices include the following. First, you can avoid them. It is painful and unsettling to see people hurting; it’s easier to just avoid it. Second, you can minimize it. Try to shrink down the effect of what is happening by contrasting it with something else. Third, you could trivialize it. This is perhaps the most common. Here we say a bunch of stuff that doesn’t make any sense or help. But, it’s ok since it is in a nice voice or because it comes in a card.
I don’t believe any of these are helpful or advisable. Staying away does not help the person who is hurting. Friends, and in particular Christian friends, are to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Rm. 12.15). Minimizing grief is just a smoke screen that doesn’t ever help. After all, Christians have a context for what is happening so providing this is actually more helpful. And finally, the Hallmark platitudes just don’t help. It actually makes the problems we are facing worse because it shows that we don’t really have much in the way of help; we just say stuff that sounds nice.
Instead of Hallmark give hurting people Habakkuk. That doesn’t sound very marketable, does it? But it is helpful. Let me explain.
Habakkuk and his people were getting their tails kicked by neighboring countries. God tells him that it is going to get far worse before it’ll get better. The Babylonians were stretching their hamstrings and about to invade, assault, and capture them. The bad religious people in Israel would be judged by the bad pagan people in Babylon. Habakkuk is grappling with his lot in life. It was hard. And this is what we can learn about suffering and helping those who are hurting. God hears the cries and wades into them. Far from minimizing, sentimentalizing, relativizing, or staying away, God enters in and provides counsel.
As you read Habakkuk in light of the situation in the book you see that God’s dealing with the prophet is instructive for us. Here are a few of the things we can glean from the book in this light.
1) Let them talk.
In chapter 1 of Habakkuk he is fatigued and frustrated; and he just vents. He unburdens his soul before God and he listens. This is so important because I don’t think Habakkuk was in a great spot there. He was having a hard time and things were going to get worse. But God listened to his cries. Many times in these situation we are quick to try to talk and solve everything. We may be dropping Hallmark phrases or we might just ramble; either way we are not letting people talk it out. This is helpful for them.
2) Be honest.
In chapter 1 God lays it out. Even though Habakkuk is in a tough spot he does not avoid the difficult conversation. He lets him know that things will get worse. When we are thinking about pain and suffering it is helpful to not minimize what is going on or cling to some remote hope. Don’t bring in Saviors that are simply going to let people down. Be compassionately and lovingly present. But also, be honest.
3) Give them God.
At the end of the first and throughout the second chapter of Habakkuk he is reminded of who God is. Far from being unaware, disinterested, or even worse–unrighteous, God is holy. He is not only aware of what is going on but he is presently enveloped in praise in his holy temple (Hab. 2:20). Help your hurting friends to fasten their hearts and hope upon God.
4) Remind them what is coming.
In the second chapter Habakkuk is told that the unrighteous will be punished. God is not unjust. He will vindicate his honor and rescue his people. What are we to make of this physical affliction? How do we process it? God is a God who heals the broken, resurrects the dead, and restores the creation. Our suffering fits into a giant stream of God’s redemptive work. Help them to see what is coming in the future is not more pain but actual relief. God makes things right.
5) Bend the hooks into straight lines.
We have a lot of questions when bad things happen. “Why now?” “Why would God let this happen?” These are common questions but they are not helpful questions. One reason is because we usually can’t provide a good answer to them. We simply don’t know “why”. But, we do know who God is. Try to help people see with clarity who God is and what he is doing. In other words, bend the hooks of the question marks into the straight lines of the exclamation point: God is God!
6) Vector their trust.
What people need and want in tough times is to fasten their hope and trust upon something or someone who can deliver. This is not ultimately the medicine, doctors, technology or willpower. Help people to see the trustworthiness of God
7) Dispel the happiness myth.
Most people equate joy with happiness. I don’t think this is helpful or explictaley biblical. Happiness is so often tied to circumstances whereas joy is tied to God’s character. Joy is an abiding trust or confidence in the fact that God is God. He is in control and trustworthy. Even though the mountains give way my God will remain. He cannot be toppled or defeated. We can be joyful even in pain and suffering (2 Cor. 6.10; Jam. 1:2-3).
8) Remind them of salvation.
At the end of Habakkuk we read:
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17-18, ESV)
Even though everything else falls apart the fact remains that God is the God of my salvation. When we think about the context of pain and suffering we have to remember that it is because of sin that it has come. God has come to rescue people from the effects of sin’s curse. He reconciles us to him and he makes a new creation. He loves us and saves us (Gal. 2:20). Put the suffering in context in order to showcase the glorious salvation that God has wrought. He will resurrect us and give us a new body that will not be plagued with sin, suffering and death.
Please don’t settle for Hallmark when people are hurting. Instead, take a look at a book like Habakkuk and see how big God is and how he has worked to secure our abiding joy in him.