Hope for the Wounded

Karen E. Mason, Ph.D.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • Jack made it this far in the recession and just lost his job. He is 53 and knows that it will be hard to get hired elsewhere.
  • George lost his job two years ago. He is almost at the end of his pension plan, his unemployment benefits are about to run out and he was just diagnosed with cancer.
  • Jill and her husband, Sam, have tried repeatedly to become parents and just gave birth to a stillborn child.
  • Sally’s son has been in and out of drug rehabilitation centers and just started using drugs again.

How can we minister God’s hope to these wounded brothers and sisters in Christ?

God gives us an example in the book of Job of what NOT to do. God says to Eliphaz the Temanite, one of Job’s “comforters,” “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Job’s cold-comfort friends gave Job pat answers to his pain. They said that he had lost his family, his livelihood and his health because of sin in his life.

One of the problems with platitudes, pat answers, is that while true in some ways, they tell only one part of the truth, not the whole truth. And they do not acknowledge suffering before inviting hurting people into the discipline of hope. “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.”

Telford Work notes another reason to avoid platitudes: these add to the injustice the sufferer is already suffering. “...theistic accounts of suffering and evil have fared relatively poorly,” he writes. “Indeed, they have become infamous, especially when they take the form of prooftexts that wound rather than heal...Well-meaning pastors and apologists deliver these one-liners like Job’s friends, intending to comfort the afflicted, but instead ratifying injustice in the world and distancing sufferers from the God they thought was compassionate. For the sufferers, these apophatic responses are insults added onto injury. They are white flags raised in the face of theodicy’s epistemological crisis, responding to the problem of evil only by intensifying it...”

We hope in God, but Christians also acknowledge true suffering. We may discount the reality of true suffering when we offer a grieving Christian any one of the following platitudes. Each platitude contains a solid kernel of truth but can also cause pain to those who suffer.

Common Platitudes

She/he is in the Lord’s hands.
We literally are. We are engraved on the palms of God’s hands. However, C.S. Lewis, after his wife’s death, argues that this is no comfort because “she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why? If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God; for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine.” At these times, the comfort of being in God’s hands may not be a comfort. Wolterstorff, whose son died at age 25 in a climbing accident, writes, “A friend said, ‘Remember, he’s in good hands.’ I was deeply moved. But that reality does not put Eric back in my hands now. That’s my grief.”

It must have been God's will. God is in control.
This is true in a sense. Nothing happens without God allowing it. What this statement does not recognize is that God does not desire sin. His response to death is tears. For example, Jesus wept with the mourners even though He knew that He was about to raise Lazarus to life again. God’s response to injustice is anger. He hates evil. God doesn’t will evil.

Don't feel bad. God will work it all out for good.
We know that God is able to make good come out of evil. However, the fact that something good can come out of evil does not minimize pain. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “I am not arguing that pain is not painful. Pain hurts. That is what the word means. I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made ‘perfect through suffering’ is not incredible. To prove it palatable is beyond my design.”

God wanted your stillborn baby more than you did.
It’s true that God loves everyone, but to assign a particular motive to another human is presumption enough; to assign a motive to God is beyond arrogance because no human being knows the mind of God. The surprising end to the book of Job is not an explanation of why people suffer but an affirmation of the impossibility of reducing God to the explicable. Suffering in many ways is inexplicable. Hsu, whose father died of suicide, writes that the wounded “don’t need pat answers to incomprehensible questions.” Ecclesiastes reminds us, “God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.”

I know how you feel.
We are all human, and we know how feelings feel. But suffering is very personal, and we all suffer in different ways. You don’t really know how someone else feels. Wolterstorff writes, “We say, ‘I know how you are feeling.’ But we don’t.”

You have to get over this and get on with your life.
True enough. Suffering is all around us and we need to manage it and get on with the business of life. However, as Biebel and Foster note, “You can’t ‘just get over it,’ no matter how much you try or how much others want you to. You must go through it to get beyond it.”

Be strong. God doesn't give us anything we can't handle.
The part of this platitude that has a biblical basis is being strong in the Lord. The rest is a rewording of God’s not giving us more temptation than we can handle. In 2 Corinthians 1:8, Paul writes that he was overwhelmed beyond his ability to endure. Paul says that God intervened, not that He gave Paul only what he could endure.

It's not so bad.
This platitude denies the fact that we live in a world marred by sin. Wolterstoff writes, “But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me.”

Take your troubles to God; he will make it better.
Though God in fact is our ever-present help and comfort in our times of trouble, Hubbard notes that God isn’t in the business of taking away our pain the way that aspirin takes away a headache. “Contrary to [the thinking that ‘He’ll fix it so I won’t have to live through it’], God refuses to play the magician’s role, nor is God in the business of providing free placebos or heavenly strength aspirin. The idea that if we can only get our burdens to God He will make us instantly feel better is bitterly unfair misdirection to people in pain...this ‘fix-it’ approach makes pain a measure of our distance from God. Indirectly, this idea encourages us to think, ‘If I hurt, I’m a long way from God. If I were close to Him, He would make the hurt go away.’ The God of all comfort ...is an identity quite different...from the idea of God as the ‘Great Pain Reliever.’”

In the place of platitudes, here are some concrete ideas for ministry to the wounded.

“Mourn with those who mourn.” Mourning doesn’t mean being cheerful; it means being sorrowful. Just as you have shown up for weddings to rejoice with those who rejoice, show up now to mourn. When God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” He meant that no one can do life alone. This is especially true in times of hurt.

Allow lament. Lament is to deplore the current situation. This means you need to allow emotion. Most Christians have no problem with the “positive” emotions like hope and courage, but some struggle with the “negative” ones like despair. But almost half the psalms are lament. We Christians don’t live in a soap bubble; reality touches us and we have feelings in response to harsh circumstances, feelings that are mirrored for us in the Bible, emotions like anguish and bitterness, longing, distress, sorrow and anxiety, fear, despondency, guilt, shame, indignation and grief. In fact, when we’re told we don’t grieve as those without hope, we are not told we do not grieve.

Help with practical details. Comfort in the form of groceries or watching the children means a lot. Jesus said the Sheep and the Goats will be divided based on the practical service we have rendered to others. Because people get tired of asking for help, offer to help. And, if you offer help, follow through.

Listen to the story—again. Hubbard tells us, “Our need for listeners grows out of the odd human fact that what happens to us is not finished until the story is told.” And retold.

Do not judge, because we are all sinners.

Allow Christians to ask the hard questions about God and faith. Wolterstorff writes, “Faith is a footbridge that you don’t know will hold you up over the chasm until you’re forced to walk out onto it.” Though it is hard to listen to, doubt may be the stepping-stone to a broader picture of who God is. C.S. Lewis notes, “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way to making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

Pray. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Bring your brothers’ and sisters’ pain to God, to Jesus who was “a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering.

Be there for the long term. It’s hard to be there in the middle of the night in the crisis but it’s even harder to be there six months or a year down the road.

Practice the discipline of hope. Hope may not seem like a discipline, but it’s a “long obedience in the same direction.” Just as it’s hard to do sit-ups when you have pneumonia, it’s hard to have hope in the midst of pain. One way we invite the wounded into hope is to maintain it for them.

What is the Christian Hope?

Hsu, upon losing his father to suicide, writes, “Most people use hope as a verb: ‘I hope things will turn out better’ … When hope is a verb, it is usually just wishful thinking on our part. …But the Bible uses hope as a noun. … Hope, in the Christian sense of the word, is … a tangible thing, as real as any object. ‘We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure’ (Hebrews 6:19). Our hope is a noun, as solid as a cast-iron anchor.” As Christians, our hope is based in our faithful certainty of who God is. And sometimes we in the community of faith need to hold onto hope in our God for the person who cannot hold onto hope.

In Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring trilogy, we read that Sam and Frodo held onto hope for each other, repeating the Latin dictum, Dum vita est spes est: While there is life, there is hope. Greene-McCreight writes, “Sometimes you literally cannot make it on your own, and you need to borrow from the faith of those around you.” In the community of faith, we need to stand as hopeful people for the wounded person who no longer believes that anything can ever get better again. We hold onto hope in the midst of difficulty because we realize with the psalmist: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.”