A husband and wife were looking forward to the birth of their first child. The birth of the baby was a joyful event, but that joy evaporated quickly. A few days later, the father, mother, a few close relatives, and I were standing in a cemetery, looking at a tiny casket. Their baby had died. All were grief-stricken.
What was I to say to the parents? “Trust God, everything will be all right”? I read Scripture, prayed, and stood with the parents. What would you have said? What would you have done?
And then there was the student from England who came to the United States to pursue graduate studies. During the Christmas break, she came to New York City to spend the school break with some of the youth from our church. One Saturday night, she, along with church youth, was collecting funds for community projects. She started crossing a street and was hit by a car. A few hours later, she died. We knew what happened. In England, vehicles travel on the left side of the road—the opposite of the United States’ system. Tragically, she looked in the wrong direction—an easy-to-make mistake but, in her case, deadly.
Several days later, we had her funeral. This was my first year of ministry and may have been the first funeral I participated in as a pastor. While I was reading a biblical passage, the grief-stricken mother, with tears flowing, came forward and knelt by the casket. I stopped reading and stood next to the mother.
What was I to say to the mother? “Trust God, everything will be all right”? I did not say anything—I stood by her. What would you have done? Would you have said something?
Since that day, whenever I am in London, I stop before I cross the street. I make certain I look in the correct direction. I think of that student; I think of her mother, and I still do not have anything to say. I accept the reality of her death and anticipate the resurrection, but I do not understand why it happened.
Yet, a pastor cannot escape the biblical passage that proclaims, “My God, in You I trust” (Ps. 25:2, NASB). What does it mean to trust in God? How do we trust God when pain overwhelms us? How do we encourage others to trust God when we, ourselves, are struggling to do so?
Realize your limitations
Words are an essential tool for ministers, and we often feel compelled to say something—anything may seem better than silence. How do we minister to those who are experiencing deep pain? What do we say to them? How do we help them to trust God when God seems to be far away? At times, we may feel the urge to speak, even when we should not. We need to avoid saying words that will not help and may even hurt.
Avoid worthless words. The book of Job opens with a list of unbelievable disasters. Job is devasted. He opened “his mouth and cursed the day of his birth” (Job 3:1).1 He ends his lament with, “I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil” (v. 26).
His friends felt the need to say something—anything, they thought, would be better than silence! Eliphaz speaks first and, among other things, tells Job, “ ‘Consider now: Who being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?’ ” (Job 4:7).
Eliphaz felt compelled to speak—he did his part, but what did he accomplish? Did those words bring comfort to Job? Paul T. Gibbs writes, “Eliphaz attempts to build a castle of consolation for Job.”2 Unfortunately, this is a sandcastle that collapses immediately. Or, as Edwin and Margaret Thiele state, “Eliphaz, the prototype of the hospital visitor who means well but says the wrong words, has been waiting impatiently for the chance to tell Job why all this happened.”3 Eliphaz probably felt better because he did something—saying something, he may have reasoned, was better than silence. For Job, however, the words from Eliphaz only brought more pain.
The New Testament also illustrates the influence of words. The transfiguration, as described by the Gospel writers, was an extraordinary event for the three disciples who were with Jesus. Two of the disciples were speechless, but as Tom Wright translates, “Peter just had to say something” (Matt. 17:4, NTE). Or, as Luke writes, “He [Peter] did not know what he was saying” (Luke 9:33). When we are with someone who is going through a painful experience, our well-intentioned words do not always help. When we do not know what to say, it is best to keep silent. If we have to say something, perhaps saying “I am very sorry” is what is needed.
We are tempted to tell the one crying out, It will be all right"-and, eventually, it will be. But at that moment of despair, feeling forsaken is stronger than experiencing trust.
Do not tell them you know what they are experiencing. Pastors want to identify with the person who is suffering or going through a painful experience. It is tempting to tell the individual that we have gone through similar painful experiences, but we need to realize that each experience is unique. The individual may have told us only a part of the story because other details are too painful or they do not know us well enough to tell us everything.
Do not try to explain. We are tempted to try to explain why something happened or why someone has major health issues or other personal disasters. What do you tell the parents of a child born with serious medical conditions? Or say to parents whose child died right after birth? Will you tell them that it is because of evil or sin in the world? While that is true, it does not answer the deep questions, nor does it make the pain go away. Whatever answer we give, other questions are waiting to be asked. Our explanations often bring more questions.
Jesus, our Lord and Savior, our fellow Sufferer, cried out, “ ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ ” (Matt. 24:26). That is how Jesus felt at that moment, and that is why He used the words from David in Psalm 22:1. We are tempted to tell the one crying out, “It will be all right”—and, eventually, it will be. But at that moment of despair, feeling forsaken is stronger than experiencing trust. That is how Jesus felt. That is how others may feel in their despair.
Listen and share
While it is important to not do or say certain things, we must minister to people. Situations and persons are different, and each pastor is different—nevertheless, we need to minister to individuals experiencing pain. Here are some suggestions:
Develop a relationship of trust. There was a man who was a radio personality, and his face was on advertising billboards around New York City. Several years previously, he successfully completed the stop-smoking program at our church. He often came back to encourage new groups in the program. He and I regularly spoke about issues. He imagined God to be an impersonal “perfect mathematical equation.” I understood God to be Someone who, among other characteristics, cared for us. One evening, this man told me that his wife was facing major surgery and that his image of an impersonal God was not sufficient for the crisis. By now, our relationship had developed so that I felt comfortable suggesting that we pray—and we did. After the prayer, he said that he wanted to ask me to pray but just did not know how to say it. It was only because of the relationship we had developed that I was able to suggest prayer.
Our ministry is more effective when we take the time to develop relationships with those to whom we minister. That is why visitation and other contacts are important. Because of those contacts, members and visitors develop trust in us. Through that relationship, we can help them trust God.
Listen. Listening is crucial, and that involves more than just listening to words. Be aware of their stance, facial expressions, eye movements, actions, and reactions as well.
I was asked to return to a church I had pastored some years before and conduct the funeral for the head elder. When I arrived at the funeral home, I saw the elder’s wife seated near the casket. What should I say to her? I sat next to her, and neither of us said anything. After a prolonged period, she said, “What will I do without him?” Silence can be a powerful communicator, and then she was ready to talk.
Acknowledge the reality of the pain. Telling a person going through a marriage crisis, “I’m very sorry you are going through this,” is more effective than telling that individual, “I know what you are going through.” Whether it is divorce, the death of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal crisis, the pastor cannot experience the pain as the person experiences it. Pain is a personal experience.
Share Scripture. The Bible acknowledges the reality of the struggles we face and gives us hope. Individuals going through a struggle will find comfort in the Bible, and we should share with them biblical words of encouragement. What the Bible does not do, however, is answer all the questions we have. What answer does it give to a parent whose newborn baby just died? Yes, we can point to biblical passages that tell us it is because of evil in the world. But why the evil? We can point to other passages, but each answer only brings another “Why?” Understandably, we focus on “why.” The Bible focuses on “how”—how God rescues us.
The Bible does not answer every question we have. It is more like a rescue or survival manual. In other words, it accepts the existence of evil and pain. It tells us to recognize that reality and that, at the same time, God provides a rescue plan. Once the universe is restored to its original state, God will answer our questions, and then, and only then, will we understand. Until then, we trust God’s plan. That is the message we need to share.
Pray with and for them. Take the time to ask grieving people whether you can pray with them and let them know that they will be in your prayers. Hopefully, this will bring comfort to them and give the Lord an opportunity in your prayers to let you know if there is anything He wants you to do for them.
Disturbed but not destroyed
William Miller, who early in his life did not believe in a personal God, became a student of the Bible and follower of Jesus. He preached many sermons inviting people to accept Jesus Christ. His appeal was to “fly, fly for succor [help] to the ark of God, to Jesus Christ, the Lamb that once was slain.”4
Because of his preaching and the preaching of other colleagues, large numbers of people also believed in the literal return of Jesus Christ. But Jesus did not come when they expected. Many people, including Miller, were devastated. Some abandoned their faith and no longer trusted God. Miller’s faith, however, was not destroyed. He still trusted God and expressed that deep trust by building a chapel next to his house—a chapel still standing today—where he, his family, and some friends worshiped. On the wall behind the pulpit of that chapel are these words: “For at the time appointed, the end shall be.” Miller’s trust in God was tested, but it was not destroyed. He still believed in God’s promise.
When we have such a relationship with God, we can minister to others and encourage them to trust God. It is then that those to whom we minister will “trust God as a child trusts a loving parent.”5 Trust is stronger than the calamities we experience. Trust does not provide all the answers, but it enables us to move forward and be there for those who need us.
- Unless otherwise noted, Scripture is from the New International Version.
- Paul T. Gibbs, Job and the Mysteries of Wisdom (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1967), 79.
- Edwin and Margaret Thiele, Job and the Devil (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1988), 43.
- William Miller, Evidence From Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ: About The Year 1843; Exhibited in a Course of Lectures (Boston, MA: Joshua V. Himes, 1842), 174. Miller is usually credited with preaching the literal return of Christ, while others preached about an earthly millennium of peace starting about the same time. Foundational to Miller’s preaching is an appeal to accept Jesus Christ as Savior, a theme that is often ignored.
- Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), 101.