All we can truly offer the person struggling through this time is encouragement to endure. However, let’s look at some typical responses we have. We – and by “we” I mean us the church and us as friends – like to talk people out of pain when we can’t offer answers. We get pre-occupied with wanting to provide an answer. Too often, that’s to make us feel better, to justify our theology. Our pat answers have become reflex, like we have to or are supposed to say something … Christian. We repeat the expected vocabulary, the Christian cliches, those over-used verses and phrases that convey little meaning after hearing them so often. To the point where they don’t have any power left, despite their inherent truth. What are some of these Christian cliches?

“All things work for good” or some other rough rendering of Romans 8:28. Look, when I’m in pain, don’t throw verses at me. I’ll take the nearest Bible and beat you with it.
Don’t worry (Matthew 6:33-34). I recently heard this sermon titled “Don’t Worry. Be Biblical.” I thought great, tell me how to do this. This brother went through his list of what we shouldn’t worry about, all the time I’m thinking okay, but what should we do? I mean, this is easy to say, but how does it manifest in our lives? Maybe I was guilty of wanting an answer. What I didn’t need was him repeating the phrase “Don’t Worry. Be Biblical.” He was so in love with his phrase that he kept repeating it as his application point. I guess that I get his point, but I really wasn’t feeling it.
God won’t give you anything you can’t handle. And interesting Christianized version of “that which doesn’t break you makes you stronger”, the only problem is that neither phrase is actually in the Bible.
God’s grace is sufficient.
God always provides/God will make a way.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Sometimes it’s as if we’re blamed or made to feel guilty as if it’s our fault that what ever trouble has hit us entered our lives. We’re made to feel
-that we don’t believe true enough
-that we need to focus on others
-that we aren’t reading the Bible enough
-that we aren’t praying hard enough, sincerely enough, or with the right motives.

I think this is partly because we’re still dealing with this image of God as this cosmic Santa Claus, a failing in how we view God, in what we believe who and what He is. We learn to pray in magic phrases, as if if we get the wording right He’ll answer our prayers. “If it be your will …[petition, beg, and plead] … in Jesus name.”

This points to a fear that is real and even valid. The fear that if we confront our pain, our sorrow, struggle with the questions of “why?” and “what did I do to deserve this?”, that our faith may prove itself empty. Many people have a fair weather faith, the kind of faith that Satan accused Job of having. We’re afraid to not know. It’s like answers have become our idols. We throw out these Christian cliches because we think we have to have an answer for everything, forgetting one very important thing: if we have all the answers, what do we need God for?

This starts when you preach a gospel or sell the Bible as something that will have all the answers for everything. Our faith isn’t validated because it solves all of life’s problems. Our testimonies start to sound a lot like what we hear on Oprah. Think about how the Gospel we present is little different that the main message of her mission/show. She presents life changing systems, people adopt them, and their lives are changed. They tell stories of how their problems are solved and the only difference between their story and “ours” is that they don’t cloak their stories in Christian-ese. We’re afraid to face the fact that sometimes we learn more looking for an answer and NOT finding it than we do from learning the answer.

And that’s a scary place to be.

This can lead to a crisis of faith that blows apart all of our systematized ideas. Look at Job’s friends. At the heart of the book of Job is a theodicy, a justification of God, for the age old “problem of evil” argument. It goes something like this: God is good. God is all powerful. But evil exists and bad things happen to good people. Therefore either God isn’t good, He isn’t all-powerful, or He doesn’t exist. Job’s friends had their systematic theology and it solved the problem by blaming man: if bad things happened, you must have done something to earn His wrath. And we still hold to this kind of thinking today. Too many times I talk to people who blame the things that happen in their lives on God punishing them for something. Like He hides in the bushes waiting for us to screw up so he can zap us.

We end up second guessing ourselves, questioning our sincerity, questioning our belief, and what it means to believe. That’s why my favorite prayer is “Lord I believe, help me with my unbelief.” After a while, the Christian vocabulary no longer connects, the Christian cliches that comforted us in sermons during easy or happy times sound empty, and what’s more troubling, our lives don’t seem different from non-Christians. We have the same crap happening to us and we’re just as miserable, but we’re supposed to have all the answers. We have these theological models, our explanations of God, life, the universe and everything, that times of crisis and pain and real sorrow don’t fit into our theology box.

Don’t get me wrong. These things we spout have become cliches for a reason. These are promises made to us and they’re true. However, they sometimes sound weak because of overuse. Real wondering, real doubt, demands more than these trite responses. It’s a delicate balancing act: balancing what we don’t know vs. what we do. There is an honesty to doubt, to saying “I don’t know” and then coming back to those promises.

-all things work together for good, but that seems like false comfort to a grieving parent
-He may not give us more than we can bear, but that doesn’t mean that what we’ve got doesn’t hurt for real
-God doesn’t always provide when we think He should and sometimes what He provides isn’t what we think we need
-He may prepare a way, but what if the way He has prepared for escape is a path of grief, darkness, pain, sorrow, and betrayal?
-and nothing can separate us from the love of God, but sometimes our unanswered prayers make us feel unloved and very separated.

We have to be sure what we’re using the cliches for. Are we spouting them because we think that’s what the person is struggling with and needs to hear? Or are we spouting them because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to say? Are we saying that because we don’t know what else to say and we don’t want to confront the reality of us not knowing, our own doubts, or our insecurities. That seems to be the problem of Job’s friends. They had a lot of right answers, but they were for the wrong problems. Instead of giving advice to make someone feel better, or even shutting up and just be with them, it’s like our first thought is “what’s the Christian thing to say?”

The best things we have to offer is love and acceptance. When talking to people who have had their lives blown to crap, who feel that God has yanked the rug out from under the feet of their lives, we have to allow them to feel. Let them know that it’s okay to feel sad. We have to be God’s arms of comfort. And we have to realize that there’s a time for reassuring promises and a time to shut up, be human, and weep with them.

[to be continued]