“I don’t know what to say.” When we’re confronted with someone who is grieving or in pain, most of us feel inadequate and intimidated. But, grieving, suffering people are all around us, and we need to learn how to appropriately engage with them: ignoring them is not an option. On the first anniversary of the murder of the five Dallas police officers, I thought it would be helpful to briefly offer what I’ve learned about speaking to people in pain.
It’s Not About You
Over a decade ago ago, I was working in youth ministry at a church. One afternoon, the pastor of our church came rushing into my office: “Just got a phone call: so-and-so has killed himself.” A high school boy from our church shot himself at home, and his parents had found him. The pastor drove the two of us to to meet the boy’s family. I’ve rarely been so sick with nerves. I was worried that I would say the wrong thing or somehow make the situation worse. In other words, I was only thinking about myself. What I realized after visiting with the bereaved father was that it wasn’t about me at all, and to worry about saying the wrong thing or otherwise making the situation worse was selfish and foolish.
In this particular example, literally the worst thing that this father could possibly have imagined had just happened; there was nothing I could do that could make the situation worse. But, in any interaction with a grieving or suffering person, your words are not going to fix the situation no matter what you say, and if you worry about what you say or how you’ll be perceived, you’ll be making it about you, when it’s really about the other person anyway. So, remember: it’s not about you.
Which is not to imply that in those situations you should say whatever crosses your mind.
Resist the Urge to Explain
It’s one of those phrases my dad always says that has stuck with me: “Resist the urge to explain.” We humans like neat explanations, but one of the problems with pain and suffering is that they are ultimately inexplicable. You and I do not know why that child has cancer or why that couple can’t conceive or why those cops were killed. Do not speak about that which you do not know. What I mean is that we should not resort to greeting card pablum along the lines of:
“Everything happens for a reason;”
“I guess God just wanted another angel;”
“God knew you could handle it.”
Those sorts of statements are not helpful to people who are grieving or suffering. Resist the urge to explain that person’s suffering to him or her. When you do that what you are really doing is making the interaction about you, exactly what I warned against above. There isn’t a neat, clean explanation for suffering, and since there isn’t, resist the urge to explain.
Don’t Compare Sufferings
In the same way that you should resist the urge to explain, you should also resist the urge to compare sufferings with the other person. You don’t know exactly what the person is going through, and it’s unhelpfully self-centered to think that you do. It’s okay to reference your own experience with suffering, but be sure to refrain from assuming that your situation is comparable to the other person’s (even if it seems to be, from your point of view).
Say “I’m So Sorry”
Rather than trying to compare sufferings, I’ve learned that it’s better to instead share 3 simple words with people who are grieving: “I’m so sorry.” That sentiment is always appropriate and has the virtue of being true and normal.
Normal people smile when they greet each other and when they say goodbye. Normal people talk about things in specifics. I’ve found that many people are worried if they should smile or mention the source of the pain when they interact with someone who is suffering, but remember: it’s not about you, and you’re not going to make it worse. (It’s already terrible.) Treat the grieving person as you would any other normal person. This means it’s important to give the other person the courtesy of a smile (even if it’s a sad smile) and a courteous, friendly look when you greet him or her, and I think it’s important to specifically mention the source of the pain. When parents have just lost a child, it’s okay to say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” It’s okay to say to your co-worker, “I heard about the death of your mother and I wanted you to know I’m really sorry to hear that.” I’ve heard people say that one of the ugly parts of grief is that you feel like such a leper–everyone avoids talking to you about your loss or tries to change the subject. When talking to someone who is grieving, therefore, just be normal.
It’s normal to want to remove someone’s pain and it’s normal to want to pray. However, when someone is hurting, prayer isn’t going to change the source of that person’s pain–what’s happened has already happened. What prayer can do is change that person’s future. When someone loses a loved one, for example, you can’t pray that the loss goes away–it’s a real, permanent loss. Rather, what you can pray is for God is be with that person in the midst of his or her pain. I’ve found that it’s helpful to pray a version of 2 Corinthians 4:8-9:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
When I pray for someone who has lost a loved one, for example, I’ll say:
Lord, this person is hard pressed on every side; let her not be crushed;
This person is perplexed at this inexplicable event; let her not be driven to despair;
This person is feeling persecuted; let her know that she’s not abandoned;
This person is feeling struck down; let this grief not destroy her.
Suffering is All Around Us
Suffering is a part of life and no one is exempt. One of the ugly parts of pain is that it makes you feel alone. But, there can be a solidarity in suffering, as we reach out with kindness and courtesy to others as they suffer, and when they in turn do the same to us. I hope the thoughts above are helpful to you the next time you find yourself confronted with a person in pain.
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Fatherhood is a stewardship. The Lord gives us the blessing of children, but also the responsibility for them: to teach them to love him and his world.
My children are under my care, and my job is to cultivate Christ-like character in them and to help them see the world clearly and learn to investigate it with curiosity—it’s such beautiful world, “charged with the grandeur of God.” It’s easy to become distracted by everything else, so I need to be constantly reminded that nothing I will ever do will be more eternally important than raising my children to love the Lord their God with all their heart and all their soul and all their strength (Deuteronomy 6). And, of course, the surest way for me to do that is to draw near to the Lord myself; I can’t teach what I’m not first receiving.
It says in the scriptures that “we love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). This means that any true love I have for my children will be a sharing in the love I receive from God “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Too many times we earthly fathers try to love out of a sense of emotion or duty, and though emotion and duty are good things, they will not be enough to sustain me as a father over time. To depend as a father on emotion or duty alone would be like trying to exhale and then exhale again, without ever breathing in fresh air. It’s when I am receiving and abiding in the love of God that I am able to share that love with my children. I love my children, because God first loved me.
For me to know what a father is like, I need to look to my Heavenly Father, and there I see a God who so loves the world that he sacrifices for it. This means that fatherhood requires sacrifice: I learn to give my life to the Lord and to die to myself, and then the Lord can use me to love my children in the way they most need. And, in the beautiful mystery of the gospel, it’s in the giving of my life that I gain it back, in ways that exceed what I can ask or imagine. In this way, therefore, fatherhood becomes exceedingly joyful: I think I am serving my kids, but in the serving I find myself blessed beyond measure.
Fatherhood is a stewardship, and I’m accountable. But the Lord who blesses us with children is a good God, and he will also bless us with the love we need to be fathers. God wants us to succeed as fathers and wants to say to us “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
I prayed for my little daughter for more years than I’ve prayed for anything else in my life. What I’m reflecting on tonight is that not only is she an answer to my prayers, but also an answer to the prayers of so many other people. And I’m grateful.
“For This Child I Prayed”
My wife and I have been married for 10 years, and if it had been up to us we’d have had a whole baseball team of kids by now. But, that wasn’t God’s plan for us. Rather, God’s plan for us involved a great crowd of people, praying and interceding for us for years.
The picture above was taken on the day of my daughter’s baptism, last Sunday. My dad baptized her; our family, our staff, and our small group stood up with us. I love the image of all of them praying for us, because I know that’s what they’ve been doing, and I love it that you can’t even see our little girl: she’s literally covered in prayer.
Just tonight, we received a note from someone in our church who said she’d been praying for us for years–I’ve frequently heard that these past 8 weeks, and it makes me so happy. In the Scriptures, Hannah prays for years for a child, and when he comes, she triumphantly tells old Eli, the priest: “for this child I prayed.”
My wife and I could say the same, but we’d have to also add, “And so did countless other people.”
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Exactly four weeks ago my wife coded after the birth of our daughter and was revived. She had a harrowing few days in the ICU, but after a week in the hospital she was discharged. She was weak, but she was well. And I felt guilty about it.
I felt guilty because everything turned out okay for my family, but I know lots of people whose situations are not okay.
Why am I so blessed?
Folks would ask me how my wife was doing and I would truthfully answer, “I think she’s going to be fine.” And I felt badly about that; I was embarrassed by our good fortune.
It’s embarrassing how blessed I am:
- other pastors have congregations who hate them; our people dote on us;
- other husbands struggle in their marriages; my wife is the kindest, sweetest woman I know;
- other people’s kids have chronic illnesses; my kids are healthy;
- I am a rich, white, American man born in the 2nd half of the 20th century. I wasn’t born black in the 18th century or a Russian serf in the 19th century or a Samaritan woman in the 1st century;
- My parents will have been married for 40 years this year and taught me to love Jesus;
- I’m even a great whistler….
I could go on, but it’s embarrassing: I don’t deserve my good fortune. As a pastor, I have the privilege of walking alongside people in every aspect of their lives, cradle to grave, and I know how much people suffer. I’ve lived in Africa and I’ve traveled and read widely, and I know how difficult life is for so many people. I know how often it seems prayers are not answered.
And so, after my wife got out of the hospital the first time, I felt guilty at our good fortune.
And then Wednesday night happened.
My wife had to be rushed to the Emergency Room on Wednesday evening, and ultimately had to have emergency and life-saving surgery, surgery that lasted all night. All night I sat in the empty waiting room, and I didn’t know if she was going to survive. When I learned she would survive, I also learned that she was intubated and on a ventilator, and then I saw her.
Pray to God you never see a loved one on a ventilator, going in and out of consciousness, pulling at her tube with her bandaged hands.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in hospitals, but when it’s your wife there in the ICU, it’s almost unendurable.
The next night we had another scare and I was woken up on the pull-out couch with bright lights and saw a crowd of doctors in our room. It was then that I decided that I will never, ever again feel survivor’s guilt.
Survivor’s guilt is a selfish indulgence–a luxury–that I want to forgo forever.
When you are at a point of desperation, when a leaden dread comes upon you, when that of which you are most afraid is threatening to happen, you become painfully aware how foolish and selfish is survivor’s guilt. You think back to the times when you weren’t afraid and everything was well, and you’re ashamed that you were ever ashamed of your good fortune. And in those moments, you would do anything to get back to the times when things were good.
I don’t know why God seems to answer some prayers and not others. I don’t know why some of us receive the blessings we do. But I also know that I don’t deserve my blessings and didn’t earn them–they just came on me, like the rain. My blessings don’t mean anything about me: all they do is point to their Source and Giver.
Rather than feeling guilty, I want to be grateful.
I am grateful for God’s goodness toward me. I am grateful that I did not have to come home in the dark on Thursday morning and wake up my little son and tell him his mother died. I am grateful that my wife survived. And I’m grateful that I brought her home not one hour ago.
I want gratitude to pour out of me. I just went to CVS to pick up a prescription and when the cashier asked me how I was doing, I looked her in the eyes and said, “I am so blessed: my wife just got discharged from the hospital.” And I gave her a big smile.
I don’t deserve my blessings–and I have SO MANY–but I can use them to bless others.
I want to be grateful, and because I’m grateful, I want to be a giver.
Survivor’s guilt? Never again.
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Today is my tenth wedding anniversary. It’s also been 10 days since my wife coded and was revived in the hospital shortly after the birth of our 2nd child. So, I’ve been thinking a bit about marriage today.
Some years ago, Dr. Paul Brand wrote a book about what he called “The Gift Nobody Wants.” The book was about pain. Dr. Brand was a medical missionary for years and he treated patients with leprosy. Without pain, lepers are unable to know something is wrong. No one wants pain, but it has a purpose.
If ever there were a culture totally unsuited for enduring pain it is ours. For most of us, the highest good to be achieved is the avoidance of pain. We spend our days amusing ourselves to death, popping pills and seeking diagnoses, jumping in and out of bed and in and out of marriages, all with the end of minimizing pain and maximizing comfort.
Pain cannot ultimately be avoided, however. You can numb yourself with opiates, but the pain in your soul will only increase. The brief physical pain that comes from dental surgery can be palliated, but soul pain must be endured. Which brings me to marriage.
On my wedding day I said:
Everyone likes those words; those words are why we want to be married in the first place.
But the vows I said on my wedding day also include the antitheses of those words:
“For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health….”
How wise of our ancestors to include in the wedding service the words that nobody wants.
Nobody wants worse or poorer or sickness, and yet marriage includes those words, too. Marriage, like all of life, includes pain. It’s the gift nobody wants.
Last week in the middle of the night, I leaned over my wife’s bed in her ICU room and used a straw to drip drops of water on her parched tongue as she looked at me with eyes wild with pain and fear. Drop. Pause. Drop. Pause. At that moment I was afraid she was going to die, but at that moment I also felt that I was closer to being her husband than any previous moment in our 10 years of married life together.
Pain is the gift nobody wants, and I’m wondering if pain is not also the primary gift of marriage.
Don’t misunderstand: my wife and I rarely fight and our first 10 years of marriage have been exceedingly happy. What I mean is that marriage has a way of confronting you with pain. One day of course, there will be the pain of death and the loneliness of being left behind, alone. There will be the pain of seeing the other suffer throughout your married life together, in small and great ways. And, most importantly, there is the pain of being confronted with your own selfishness. This last pain, I believe, is the primary gift of marriage.
Tim Keller says somewhere that selfishness is the cause of all marital problems. I believe, though, that selfishness is why God calls a man and a woman together into a marriage–to use the husband to confront his wife’s selfishness, and vice versa. When you are married, you are constantly discovering that your heart is much more selfish than you’d previously understood. Men and women are different, and the effect of bringing a man and a woman together into marriage is friction. It’s pain.
That pain is the gift nobody wants.
And yet it’s the pain we need if we are going to become the creatures God created us to be. If there were another way for us to become holy apart from pain, we’d have discovered it centuries ago. But there isn’t.
No one chooses pain. Some people are physically courageous and will endure physical pain, but the deepest pain is spiritual pain, and spiritual pain breaks everyone. A boxer might step into the ring year after year; he can stand the pain of getting his nose broken over and over again, but not the pain that comes when two sinful people are joined together in marriage.
The pain that comes from marriage is a searing pain: it hurts to know that you are not as good as you want to believe, that you yourself caused your wife pain with a petulant remark or hard heart that chooses not to forgive. Sin burns.
It’s not surprising that a culture that sees avoidance of pain as the highest good will struggle with marriage. This is why the Christian story of marriage is so countercultural. Marriage, the church has always taught, is not a contract to terminate as either party desires, but a covenantal promise that includes better and worse, richer and poorer, in sickness and in health. And it’s when we endure the worse, the poorer, and the sickness that we can become wise and good.
I don’t want pain. I don’t want the pain of watching my wife’s vital signs taper off, and I don’t want the pain of being confronted with my own selfishness and sin in the daily work of marriage. And yet I know that pain is a gift, even if it’s the gift nobody wants, and I’m grateful.
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Tomorrow, a new president will take the oath of office. Whether you voted for President Trump or not, there are lots of people who are telling you what you should be doing for your country, either in support of his policies or in opposition to them: folks are telling you to register voters or call congress or attend a protest or donate to a cause or pray for a candidate. All of those actions might be important, but they are not most important. In fact, I believe the most important thing you can do for your country is not to do anything. Let me explain.
Character is Destiny
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that character is destiny. What he meant is that who you are will inevitably determine what you do. A brave man will act bravely, a dishonest man will act dishonestly, etc.
Jesus said the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:16-18).
The English word character has roots in the Greek word for engraving. You might say that character is etched into a person; it is something foundational to who the person is.
Formation vs. Education
In our culture, we tend to overlook the slow importance of character formation and instead prefer the quicker and easier work of intellectual education. Our leaders talk about improving education and argue about how best to do that, but I cannot recall a public figure who has recently been talking about the best way to form character in our children. Education is important, but education without character will be useless at best and dangerous at worst. Character matters.
One of the major themes of the New Testament is about how a follower of Jesus can become Christlike in character. The reason the New Testament is so concerned with character change is because the early Christians knew that you can’t actually live like Jesus unless you are being changed like Jesus from the inside out. Only then—with a “mind transformed and renewed” (Romans 12:1-2)—is Christlike living possible. It is not possible to love your enemies, e.g., without first becoming the kind of person who loves her enemies.
The moralistic instruction that we are constantly given—be more civicly engaged, reach out to your neighbor, call your congressman, pray for your senator, start a movement—is all good advice, but it is given out of order. Before you start a movement, you first need to be the kind of person who starts a movement; before you pray for your senator, you first need to become the kind of person who prays for her senator. Character matters. “Good trees produce good fruit.”
This is why I believe the most important thing you can do for America as our new president assumes office is not to do anything. Rather, you should focus on becoming.
So, how is character formed? How can we become the kind of people who do good things, or to use Jesus’ metaphor, the kind of trees that produce good fruit?
Silence and Scripture
I believe the most effective way to become more like Jesus is to spend the first 15 minutes every morning in silence and scripture. Before you reach for your phone or check your Instagram feed or see who won the late game, you need to just sit and be still and read a bit of Scripture. Taken by itself, the principle of the #First15 seems useless: how does sitting in silence result in any new voters registered or any new movements funded or any congresswomen prayed for? But becoming the right type of person will result in your doing the right type of actions, and on a daily basis nothing will be more formative to your character than the #First15.
Character is destiny: good trees produce good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit. Who you are determines what you do. There is a lot that needs doing in America, but doing comes after being. If you become more like Jesus, you’ll inevitably act like him. (In fact, the more you become like Jesus, the more Christlike actions will be second nature to you.) This is what the early Christians meant by discipleship.
It was fifty-six years ago that President Kennedy delivered that thrilling conclusion to his Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” As a new President assumes office, I believe that what’s most important for you to do for your country is to be a certain sort of person: someone who thinks and acts like Jesus.
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As I’ve done for the past three New Year’s Days, today I’m choosing a one word theme to live into for the coming year. I’ve made goals for 2017, too, but there’s something I like about the simplicity of choosing just one word to knit all my goals together.
My One Word for 2017
My one word for 2017 is early.
- wake early
- pray early
- workout early
- arrive early
- get things done early
- finish my sermon early
- get to bed early
What about you? What’s your one word for 2017? Why?
P.S. Fox and Hedgehog
The Philosopher Isaiah Berlin, drawing on a line from the Ancient Greek poet Achilocus, wrote a famous essay in 1953 entitled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” The basic idea is that the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Foxes have a variety of interests; hedgehogs have one stubborn idea.
In this space, I follow my interest wherever it takes me (like a fox) while always writing in the service of The One Big Thing (like a hedgehog).
What’s that One Big Thing? You’ll have to read to find out.
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Can I suggest a New Year’s resolution for you? Make the commitment to read through the Bible with me in 2017. At Munger, 2017 is our Year of the Bible, and we’re launching something called The Bible Project. Here are 3 reasons why I hope you’ll join me in reading through the Bible in 2017.
The Bible is Difficult to Read Alone
Lots of folks struggle to understand the Bible, which shouldn’t be surprising: the Bible is a collection of ancient documents, written by strange people in strange languages–of course it’s difficult to read and understand all by yourself. Through the Bible Project (we’ve taken the name from some folks in Portland with whom we’re partnering), however, we’ll be updating our blog every day with explanatory notes, videos, charts, etc. To give you an example of the kind of resources available, check out this great intro video to the Book of Genesis:
The Bible is difficult to read alone–so don’t. Read along with me.
The Last Time You Tried It, You Quit in February
Many of you have probably tried to read through the Bible in a year, only to abandon your resolution in February when you got to Leviticus (if you made it that far). You’re much more likely to complete marathon training in a group, and in the same way you’re much more likely to read through the Bible along with other people. I’m preaching through the Bible in 2017, we’ll have a weekly Bible study, a daily blog, podcasts, etc. All these resources are to help you persevere. Good things come to those who persevere.
Nothing Has More Potential to Change Your Life
I guarantee you that 2017 holds unexpected challenges for you. How will you prepare? There is nothing you can do that will have greater potential to change your life and prepare you for the future than the daily discipline of spending time in silence and scripture.
So, Here’s What to Do
If you are a Mungarian, pick up one of the free One Year Bibles we’re handing out at church; if you don’t live in Dallas, get one of these from Amazon. (We’re using the ESV translation, but they are currently out of print.) You could also use the Bible app on your smart phone and pick the One Year Bible reading plan, but I recommend using the hard copy.
Follow along with our blog: bibleproject.mungerplace.org.
Watch my sermons: http://www.mungerplace.org/sermon-library/.
Start on Sunday morning.
Of all the New Year’s resolutions you could make, reading through the Bible is the most important.
So, are you in?
The fox knows many things;
The hedgehog knows one big thing.
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I went to bed early last night and woke up really early this morning, and even though I like to remind myself that no one knows the future, I was still surprised by the election result. Here are some early thoughts, in no particular order.
Donald Trump’s victory reminds us once again: no one knows the future. I wrote last year about how the experts always want us to believe that they can predict the future, but that they are always wrong. None of the experts predicted Mr. Trump’s victory in the primaries, and none of the experts predicted his victory last night. I’ll say it again: No one knows the future. Though the inherent obscurity of the future could seem terrifying, I tend to find this truth strangely comforting: it means that there is potential in every situation for the grace of God to be at work.
The reason our politics is so bitter is because we don’t believe in the transcendent and the eternal. If naked political power is all there is, then you have to fight tooth and claw to achieve it. Since we’ve killed off God in the West, we have nothing else to live for.
We should pray for Barron Trump. A ten year-old little boy, thrust into the spotlight.
I cannot imagine what Hillary Clinton must be feeling this morning. As with any celebrity, it’s easy to forget that Mrs. Clinton is a real person. She’s been reaching for the presidency for much of her life; the bitterness of her loss this morning must be overwhelming.
This election proves how distant the elites that run our country are from millions of ordinary people. The establishment–including the conservative establishment–was opposed to Donald Trump’s candidacy. And yet he won anyway. It cannot be good for America in the long term for the people with power–in the media, in academia, in business, and in government–to be so different from the people without it.
We have no shared purpose as a people. I think Rod Dreher’s metaphor is helpful:
Here’s the problem, as I see it. Is the American nation (or any nation) more like:
- The diverse crowd that gathers at the shopping mall on Saturday afternoon, or
- The diverse crowd that gathers at the football stadium on Saturday night?
The difference is that the only thing the first crowd shares is little more than a geographical space, but the second crowd shares not only a geographical space, but a purpose.
Our problem is that we want the solidarity and sense of purpose that the football stadium crowd possesses, but without its shared sense of a mission greater than the individuals engaged in it. I don’t think this is a problem that politics can solve, but it is certainly a problem that politics can exacerbate. As the next four years will demonstrate.
Instead of the Stadium as a symbol, I might have used the Cathedral, but of course America, as a foundationally secular nation, is better represented by a stadium. Plus, these days, Cathedrals function more like Malls, in the sense I mean in this post. There’s not much shared sense of purpose there, only a diverse group of people gathered in a particular geographical space to pursue private ends. The Mall really is the symbol of our place in this time.
I suspect the Bradley Effect was in effect yesterday. I wrote about the Bradley effect in yesterday’s post.
Politics exposes our idols. Millions of people would be in despair this morning had Mrs. Clinton won. Millions of people are despairing because Mr. Trump has won. Ravi Zacharias has it right: “The loneliest moment is life is when you have just experienced that which you thought would deliver the ultimate and it has just let you down.”
I’m glad the Church is “of no party or clique.” My job is to be a pastor, a shepherd of people. That responsibility does not depend on the fortunes of any party or clique, and my calling is to people, regardless of how they vote. I’m glad of that, this morning.
As my friend Matt Judkins, a pastor in Oklahoma, puts it:
The church I serve has people who voted for Trump, Hillary, & even Johnson. I'm going to keep pointing them to the One who can save.
— Matt Judkins (@matt_judkins) November 9, 2016
The fox knows many things;
The hedgehog knows one big thing.
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