When Comforting Turns Selfish

Blurting out clichés in the face of pain isn’t a uniquely Christian problem

“Have you ever wondered why Christians, who should be the most compassionate people on the planet, can say such unhelpful things when hardship hits? We have a whole Bible full of promises that God will redeem terrible situations, and these sentiments should be comforting; but we can often wield them at the wrong time, out of discomfort or fear.”

 

A family recently lost their young child.

At the funeral, a well-meaning friend says, “Isn’t it comforting to know that God is using her death for good?”

The mother stares, nods stiffly, and resolves not to reach out to that friend for comfort in the future.

Have you ever wondered why Christians, who should be the most compassionate people on the planet, can say such unhelpful things when hardship hits? We have a whole Bible full of promises that God will redeem terrible situations, and these sentiments should be comforting; but we can often wield them at the wrong time, out of discomfort or fear. In the process we further wound the people we’re trying to help.

Instead of trying to paste over evil with biblical platitudes, we must have the courage to acknowledge that evil and suffering are real. We must respect the fact that God’s redemption is often mysterious. Only then can we apply God’s promises to suffering people in a compassionate and loving way.

Cold Comfort

Blurting out clichés in the face of pain isn’t a uniquely Christian problem. Suffering is uncomfortable and awkward for everyone, and comforters say positive things to try and bring relief as fast as possible. For believers, it’s tempting to use biblical promises this way. I have wonderful promises from God, we think. Surely these will help them zip through their agony. And surely they’ll zip even faster if I apply them to their specific situation. So we start speculating exactly how God is using this situation for good:

  • “You can glorify God through your suffering with this cancer!”
  • “Maybe you keep having miscarriages because God is calling you to adopt!”
  • “Your abusive marriage has given you such a platform for ministry to others!”

But do not these statements also arise from a deeper fear? If God let this horrible thing happen to them, without an obvious goodness shining just below the surface, then maybe he isn’t good. The fear can be so strong that we strip the sufferer of her legitimate grievances—lest we accidentally impugn God’s character. We essentially say, “This thing you’re experiencing isn’t really bad, since God is already spinning it into good.”

In the end we call evil “good,” rather than admit God allows truly evil things to happen to his children.

But if you’ve ever received such comfort, you know it isn’t comforting at all. When you’re suffering from evil or tragedy, the last thing you need is people implying it’s not actually evil or tragic. You need people to say, “What happened to you was evil.” There is so much grace in having someone simply acknowledge, “This situation is horrible.” Full stop.

The truth is that real evil and tragedy happen in this world, and God lets them happen. This can be an excruciating truth to endure, but for the sake of the suffering people in our lives, we have to endure it. Minimizing the suffering of others so we can avoid wrestling with the problem of evil is terribly unloving.

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