Loving through grief

Why do we feel the need to defend God when someone is grieving?

Photo: Getty Images

There are many things about the book of Job with which I wrestle. Job 42:7 is one of those. Job’s story is familiar: A righteous man by God’s testimony, Job experiences horrific tragedies (permitted by God): loss of livelihood, death of his children and painful illness. His friends comfort him for seven days by sitting with him in silence.

On day eight, Job begins to agonizingly reflect on his suffering, wondering where God is in it all. His friends jump to God’s defense and the situation deteriorates into an argument with them accusing Job of sin. Job rightly insists he has not sinned; this is God’s doing and without apparent reason. (Job does not have access to the behind the scenes insight we do).

Finally, God shows up, reminding Job of God’s character by becoming present with Job in his suffering. Then God turns to those friends: “After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has’” (Job 42:7).

I suspect these friends are shocked by God’s rebuke. After all, they defended God; why would God be angry? But notice God’s reason: “You have not spoken the truth about me.” Somehow in defense of God they had misrepresented God’s character.

God never explains Job’s suffering to Job. Instead God’s response is, “I’m here now, Job, and I am who you thought I was and more.”

In my work with grief, I am often confronted by ways well-meaning people misrepresent God while attempting to care for grieving people. Pastors and lay people alike seem to feel the need to say something in defense of God to “fix” or justify the pain of the grieving person. Such attempts usually have the opposite effect. They tend to shut people down from sharing their true feelings—feelings of abandonment, anger, deep sorrow and even despair. Those who most need our comfort instead are further discomforted and left in isolation.

Answering for God

Why do we feel the need to answer for God when, according to Job, God refuses to defend God’s self? God never explains Job’s suffering to Job. Instead God’s response is, “I’m here now, Job, and I am who you thought I was and more.” Why then do we try to answer for God? After working on a recent book to help churches and people of faith to walk with grieving people, here are a few of my conclusions about why we do this.

First, we are empathetic and sympathetic. Most people genuinely want the grieving person to not hurt. We care and don’t want pain for them. The medical model of addressing pain is to eliminate it or its cause. We try finding ways to alleviate pain with our words. The problem is words rarely fix or remove the pain. Grief, by the very nature of living in a broken world, is not abnormal and the pain that comes with it isn’t either. “Fixing” a person’s grief or helping them “move on” seems like helping, but it is not.

Second, death scares us. Often when people “help” someone grieving, they are really managing their own discomfort with loss and its possibility in their own life. When we see death or loss in another person’s experience it triggers our fear: “What if that happened to me?” In the modern world, we live with an illusion of control.

Grieving persons reveal an uncomfortable truth and shatter our illusions. It reminds us we are not in control and there are things we cannot prevent. We subconsciously need the grieving person to smile, laugh and cheer up in part because it makes us feel better; it recreates the illusion. Seeing others grieve reminds us of our own mortality and frailty.

As Christians we understand salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus means death has no ultimate power over us. We affirm an ultimate lack of death’s “sting” (1 Cor. 15:55). But until Christ returns, we do feel a stinging. This is why Paul says we still mourn, just not without hope (1 Thes. 4:13) and why he says we should mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15b).

Third, we are uncomfortable being silent. Hearing Job’s questions provoke his friends’ responses even though they should have remained silent. As a professor teaching young pastoral students, I often remind them to consider which moment they are in. We tend to answer heady theological questions when the moment is an emotional pastoral care moment.

What answer satisfies a parent whose child has been killed or a spouse whose husband or wife has been diagnosed with cancer? Usually when people ask questions in the midst of the crisis of grief or trauma, those questions are best left unanswered. Like Job, the question they verbalize (“Why did this happen?” i.e., Job 3:11-26) is not the question they are truly asking (“God, where are you?!” i.e., Job 13:3, 23:1-17).

To be present without answering the questions offers those who grieve a way of realizing God’s presence through our presence with them.  I am not saying we should not have a theology that accounts for these concerns. But we ought to hold those theological assumptions with humility. God is at work and can handle their anger and sorrow.

Loving those who grieve

So how can we demonstrate love to those who grieve? We need to recognize, admit and manage our own fears. If we can love ourselves enough to be honest about our fears, then we can be healthy enough to care well for others.

We need to recognize our culture tries to ignore death and dying, but God’s Word does not. By acknowledging our fears and the ways they are shaped by culture more than by faith, we can learn to recognize how our responses are more hurtful than helpful.

Additionally, we can avoid platitudes that minimize the pain of grief. Silence is golden. For seven days, Job’s friends were a comfort to Job while they remained silent.

Finally, we can recognize grief as an expression of love. Rather than trying to fix grief or remove it, we can sit with people in their grief and bear it with them as they learn how to mourn the loss of someone they love. They will smile again and laugh and hope. But for the time being they need the presence of someone who will love them like God does—without conditions.

We demonstrate our love for grieving people by being in their sorrow and pain with them. We are sharing their love, even when it hurts. And our presence speaks truthfully to who God is.

Quentin P. Kinnison is chair of the Biblical & Religious Studies Division and associate professor of Christian Ministry at Fresno Pacific University and editor of A Road Too Short for the Long Journey, a book on grief.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here