October 17, 2017

Adam McHugh: When Someone is in a Storm

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Nothing shuts down a person in pain like quoting the Bible at them. As I write that, I can hear the sirens of the Heresy Police surrounding my building. Yes, the Bible contains the words of life, the promises of God-with-us that have comforted saints and resurrected sinners. But the Bible can also be the ultimate conversation killer. It can be used as a tool for silencing people and for short-circuiting grief, hurt, and depression. Sometimes people use the Bible in a way that makes a hurting person feel like God is telling them to shut up.

I don’t like saying this, but it has been my experience that Christians are often worse at dealing with people in pain than others with different beliefs. Truth be told, I have chosen on many occasions to share my painful moments and emotions with non-Christians rather than Christians, because I knew I would be better heard. This saddens me. It seems to me that no one should run into the fire like Christians, because we follow a Savior who descended into hell. But we all know it is far less messy to stand over people in pain than it is to enter their worlds and risk feeling pain ourselves.

I once heard a ministry colleague say: “I’m going to be with a person in the hospital tonight. Time to speak some truth.” This idea prevails in many Christian circles, that preaching is the healing balm for suffering. Whether it’s sickness or divorce or job loss, a crisis calls for some sound Biblical exhortation. I have a number of issues with this. First, it assumes that the hurting person does not believe the right things or believe with enough fervency. They may end up receiving the message that their faith is not strong enough for them to see their situation rightly, or that something is wrong with them because they are struggling. Second, preaching to people in pain preys on the vulnerable. It’s stabbing the sword of truth into their wound, or doing surgery without anesthesia. Unwelcome truth is never healing. Third, “speaking truth” into situations of pain is distancing. You get to stand behind your pulpit, or your intercessory prayer that sounds strangely like a sermon, and the other person is a captive audience, trapped in the pew of your anxious truth. Suffering inevitably makes a person feel small and isolated, and preaching to them only makes them feel smaller and more alone.

Dr. Seuss wrote some classic stories, but he also gave some classically bad advice: “Don’t cry that it’s over. Smile that it happened.” Your role as a listener is, by all means, to let them cry that it’s over. Don’t be the Grinch who stole grief. Be a witness to their tears. Each falling tear carries pain and it’s the only way to get it out.

A hurting person is in a storm. They are cold, wet, shivering, and scared. Preaching, platitudes, and advice will not get them out of the storm. Don’t tell a person in a storm that it’s a sunny day. There will likely come a day when the clouds part, but it is not today. It’s not your job to pull them out of the storm. It’s your job to get wet with them.

• • •

This is an excerpt from Adam’s forthcoming book, The Listening Life (IVP, October 2015)

Note: the link will take you to Adam’s blog, and to a post in which he talks about the book.

Comments

  1. Charlotte says:

    Yes. Too often, Christians I have known, especially in the fundamentalist evangelical world of my childhood, approached every encounter with someone suffering as an evangelistic opportunity of the Four Spiritual Laws variety. Out of arrogance, perhaps, or simply a lack of understanding.

    When I am in pain, even more than escape I want true non-judgmental companionship. The best friends, Christian and not, are those who draw close with no expectations but to stay with me. My Christian friends come knowing that God will meet us, but they only tell me that if I ask. Instead, they just bear witness to what my experience is.

    Adam’s book sounds like one that’s sorely needed. Thanks for excerpting it here.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Yes. Too often, Christians I have known, especially in the fundamentalist evangelical world of my childhood, approached every encounter with someone suffering as an evangelistic opportunity of the Four Spiritual Laws variety. Out of arrogance, perhaps, or simply a lack of understanding.

      The Arrogance of the Righteous.

      Years ago, CM did a posting on this subject, type example Four Spiritual Laws as a funeral eulogy. Another example of “If all you have is a hammer…”

  2. Loved those last two sentences.

    (Although I want to give the ministry colleague some credit: he was willing to make a hospital visit. That’s not as common with those caught up in their exegesis…)

    (We have to wait until October to read the book? 🙁 )

  3. One of the best comments I have ever read in a study Bible was in the NIV Student Bible. It was in one of the early chapters of Job. It simply read, “We shouldn’t debate theology in a cancer ward.”

  4. This reminds me of my response to a person I met a few years back after church.

    He told me that he was a foster child that was placed into a Christian home when he was young and taken out of an abusive environment. He found Jesus there and peace. However, for some reason he was again placed back with his abusive parents, & was physically & sexually abused and was devestated that God wouldn’t intervene to help him. He ran away.

    He subsequently lost faith, ended up on the streets & in prostitution (because he was destitute) & somehow made it into church that day. He was still angry at God though.

    I was “torn” by his story as I have had difficult episodes in my life also and have also been angry with God. I tried to encourage him to believe again but I was conscious of not wanting to use “bible verses”. I think I tried to guide him to think on Jesus going through the same suffering he went through. That Jesus was there in his suffering.

    Actually, I still have trouble with it when I think of a child praying to God for deliverance but it doesn’t come…

  5. Chaplain Mike, not long ago I emailed you telling you I did not like all the politically themed posts. (I still don’t.) Its time to say how much I DO like posts like this one! This kind of question is where my journey takes me every day. Thanks.

  6. Christians (who know the job) will remind folks in pain what Jesus has done for them. That is called ‘the consolation of the brethren’. There is authentic life in handing over that Word. Is that not what we truly need, in the end?

    You cannot get that from non-Christians. No matter how caring and nice they might be.

    That’s the simple truth of the matter.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      And thus we see a type example of what Chaplain Mike wrote. (In this specific case, the “Preach LAW then offer GOSPEL”.)

      “Nothing shuts down a person in pain like quoting the Bible at them. … But the Bible can also be the ultimate conversation killer. It can be used as a tool for silencing people and for short-circuiting grief, hurt, and depression. Sometimes people use the Bible in a way that makes a hurting person feel like God is telling them to shut up.”

    • The word of God brings healing in its wings – always and everywhere without exception! Thing is, quoting the Bible is not always that, as Jesus illustrated numerous times. Sometimes the word, which always creates (as in “Let there be light”) is silent. It’s big enough to do that, mysteriously so. Someone who loves Jesus and is available to the spirit can bring the word without quoting a single scripture. I’m not against scripture, only formulaic pronouncements of it tailored to every life circumstance. That excludes the author Himself, so to speak, in some cases. We are joined to Him and are hence the living word. Our being with and for people in honest connection brings Christ. Certainly a quote may do great good but it can do harm as well.

      • ChrisS,

        I had the perfect example of your “silent light” in dear elderly widow named Mary. She was spiritually shining and I will always remember her as one of the rare people who constantly “spoke” the gospel to me, always showed me Jesus without speaking a word. She was funny, gracious, winsome and welcoming. To say that Mary had a servant’s heart is not enough. She went to heaven a number of years ago. I miss her terribly. At her memorial service I was touched as a mother got up and said that when her teenage son was going through a real crisis in his life, when she couldn’t find him she knew he was at Mary’s. Safe and being loved. Without a word.

    • Steve, sometimes I think you do this deliberately to bait HUG. Or bait me, or anyone else.

      There is a time and a place for everything (Ecclesiastes said that, or was it Pete Seeger?). Too soon after a crisis, when someone is in grief and confusion, the gospel may have the opposite effect, and in fact become a weapon for trashing the third commandment. Consider THAT irony.

      And I’m afraid too many Christians will say, “Well, I only meant it in love. If they reject Christ, at least I have done my part.”

      They might not have rejected Christ if you had kept your mouth shut. Sometimes all you have to do is bring flowers or soup, sit down and shut up, and be available at some future date when they may be ready. Grief is for grief. Let’s get that over with first and later give out the Sunday School instruction.

      • David Cornwell says:

        “Let’s get that over with first and later give out the Sunday School instruction.”

        Steve prefers the Book of Concord.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        And I’m afraid too many Christians will say, “Well, I only meant it in love. If they reject Christ, at least I have done my part.”

        Wretched Urgency Translation: “Even if I DON’T get another ‘Soul Saved’ Notch on my Bible, God Won’t Hold Me Accountable(TM) for his going to Hell.”

      • “There is a time and a place for everything (Ecclesiastes said that, or was it Pete Seeger?).”

        I think Sammy Hagar did too, during his Van Halen days.

    • I also disagree with you, Steve. A few weeks back, you said, “Comfort without Jesus isn’t comfort.” (Something to that affect.) I said that I disagreed, that comfort without Christ is still comfort. It may not be a permanent, lasting, Salvation comfort, but it’s still comfort to those who are hurting.

      Same here. Non-Christian care is still care. Care without Christ is still care. “Salvation” may not come with it, but not everything is about salvation, not when actions speak louder than words.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        When “everything is about Salvation”, you get Wretched Urgency and crazy desperation tactics to sell Fire Insurance.

      • How do we know that “comfort without Jesus” or “care without Christ” isn’t from Christ anyway? If he’s the author and finisher of our faith, the source of all good things, the way, the truth and the life, then why can’t we recognize that all comfort comes from him? Do we limit his powers?

        I’m not talkin’ to you, Rick.

        • I agree, Ted, and I know you weren’t talkin’ to me…LOL.

          In fact, when I see “non-Christians” displaying fruits of the Spirit, how can I claim they don’t have something of the Spirit in them!? Jesus shows up in amazing ways.

  7. Speaking of books…

    Is there an update on the Michael Spencer book project?

    • Hi Rick,

      The book project is at a standstill right now, primarily because I have some life issues that I have to deal with.

      I really want to get going on it again, but don’t have an E.T.A.

      Mike Bell

      • Thanks for the update, Mike. If I didn’t have my own writing project (about 1/3 through the 2nd draft of a sci-fi novel), I’d offer to help. I understand how things like this can get impacted by other things.

  8. Christiane says:

    ” It’s not your job to pull them out of the storm. It’s your job to get wet with them.”

    then, we would be truly following Our Lord, of Whom it was said, this:
    “” Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or to remove it. He came to fill it with His Presence.”
    (J. Claude)

    the ‘platitudes’ have become walls behind which self-righteous people shield themselves from suffering people . . . how long before we begin to understand this?

    • +1 to this whole comment!!

    • Who’s this J. Claude? That might be the most hopeful and helpful statement on theodicy that I’ve ever read. Thanks for sharing it.

      • Christiane says:

        Hi SEAN,
        I think I can help.
        I first found the quote attributed to ‘J. Claude’, but when checking after reading your question, I also see it attributed to a ‘Paul Claudel’. That latter may very well be the correct source and I say that because a ‘Paul Claudel’ is reputed to have been a very devout Catholic who was during his lifetime recognized for his writings by the pope. Can’t explain the ‘J. Claude’ reference, except that it is seen in various sources also.

        The way I checked was to type into Google the quote by itself. And then to look at how it was attributed to an author among the various sites that came up.

        Pehaps I will read more of this ‘Paul Claudel’ in hopes of seeing proof of his writing the quote. It might take time, but I also think the quote is very meaningful upon reflection, yes, and I would like to know the truth of who wrote it, and read more of his (or her) writings. Hope this helped.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      the ‘platitudes’ have become walls behind which self-righteous people shield themselves from suffering people…

      Because The Righteous might catch their Cooties?

      • Christiane says:

        quoting ‘platitudes’ is something that evangelicals can do who believe in ‘exclusiveness’ . . . and yes, the thought of ‘contamination’ is mentioned by them when they discuss their attempts to prevent ‘wolves’ from entering and influencing their doctrinal purity . . . an observation I picked up when studying the blogs of fundamentalist conservative Christians . . . lots of fear there, HEADLESS, and I felt pity for them . . . it’s as though Pentecost was nothing to them and they are still spiritually up there in the Upper Room hiding before the Advent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost . . .

        we all quote ‘platitudes’ sometimes . . . but I’m beginning to see why, and I don’t like what I see in myself when I do it, no

        • Charlotte says:

          I think sometimes we hide behind platitudes because to believe them is to throw our lot in with Certainty. Facing the seeming randomness of suffering is terrifying. What if, no matter what I believe or do, my world might be upturned in the blink of an eye? And what if there’s no purpose in it?

          My faith tells me that it takes much more courage to willingly enter others’ experiences of pain carrying nothing but openness. Christ meets us there with all that is needed.

          But my life teaches me that often, I bring a deep-seated fear that I might be next.

          Holding both faith and fear is holy work.

          • Christiane says:

            Hi CHARLOTTE,
            at my age, I have come to agree with your perspective . . .

            I wonder if Christians will ever begin to look at the shadows of our decisions . . . for example, the ‘dilemmas’ that require decisions that test ‘resolves’ we state comfortably when we are not being tested? . . . take for example a wife, already the mother of children, who becomes pregnant with an ectopic pregnancy . . .

            I think when Christian people can face discussing the more difficult dilemmas many people find themselves in, where either way you go, there are serious consequences . . . when that discussion begins to happen compassionately, then we will have taken a giant step towards presenting the Christian faith in the best possible light to those who observe because we are at our most Christian when we are humble before the Lord and compassionate with those who suffer in those situations where there are no easy answers or room for the fixed platitudes some feel must be laid on the backs of the ones facing crisis

  9. A man has joy by the answer of his mouth: and a word spoken in due season, how good is it! Proverbs 15:23. Wisdom is knowing the season and what is called for. If you’re paying attention at all you mostly know when things are falling flat and your not speaking ‘in season’. Then it’s usually time to just hush up.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Back when I was in-country and around Pentecostals, everyone else when asked “What Gift of the Spirit do you want?” always answered “Speaking in TONGUES!” Tongues, Tongues, Tongues.

      As far as I knew, I was the only one who held out for Wisdom. Because Wisdom is the command control over all the others — when to use them and (more important) when NOT to.

  10. Hi! I love the title of this book. I would love to read it and then hand out as gifts! Lol
    First, my experience. I have a disease called lupus. It is manageable but not curable. I live near a famous church known for its “healings”. I get inundated with Christians telling me I should go there to be healed. It is tiresome. I tell them that I know God hears me and that he can heal me based upon my own pleas for healing.
    Second, I have a friend who was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkins lymphoma. The “healing church people” will come make big giant prayer times for her in the hospital but they will do nothing practical to help this dear woman with zero help or resources. She is always needing rides to doctors appointments and such plus other small practical things like food. No one is around to help with the mundane tasks of living. It makes me mad and frustrated!

    If there’s some big magical show where I can show the world my powers and how holy I am ill be there but if their is no audience, well then, forget about it. So sad!

  11. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

    It doesn’t say, “…the fruit of the Spirit is quoting Bible verses and having answers.”

    Adam McHugh’s themes seem to fit with scripture. Sounds like a good book!

  12. Yes, we need to visit those in the hospital (or the prison or the alley) and “speak some truth.” But maybe the only truth that needs speaking in most of those situations is “You are loved, you are loved, you are loved.”

  13. I agree wholeheartedly with what Adam says in the extract. I especially like the last paragraph. I’m going to bookmark this for future reference.

    When our baby was stillborn years ago, it was my work colleagues that turned up at our door with flowers and sympathy – other Christians generally either sent us cards (kindly meant) with texts and platitudes, or crossed the street when they saw my wife coming. because they didn’t know what to say.

    It was a hard lesson, but well learnt. “Weep with those who weep” is sound advice and is often all we can usefully do.

  14. The link in the original post takes you to Adam’s blog where I spent well over an hour this morning reading past postings and the comments. I found them even more interesting and useful than Adam’s previous book on Introverts in the Church. There is a link there to sign up for updates on an upcoming website for introverts initiated by Susan Cain. Together and with others they are performing a great service for us introverts, which in turn is a great service for the world at large. Adams’s story is an interesting one and well worth checking out He left professional ministry for a place in the world of California wine.

  15. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I once heard a ministry colleague say: “I’m going to be with a person in the hospital tonight. Time to speak some truth.” This idea prevails in many Christian circles, that preaching is the healing balm for suffering. Whether it’s sickness or divorce or job loss, a crisis calls for some sound Biblical exhortation.

    Which is going to come across as Comrade Political Commissar reciting the Party Line in that first scene of Enemy at the Gates.

    Or worse, if he’s Wretched Urgencied to look on anything as A Witnessing Opportunity — I think there’s a Goya woodcut of an Inquisitor high-pressure preaching (crucifix shoved in face and all) at an Inquisiton prisoner he’s trying to get a confession from.

  16. The Dr. Seuss quote is really depressing. Thanks Dr. Suess. CM thank you for highlighting these books today. Looking forward to reading them.

  17. Further to the comment I made above, I’m also reminded of Pope Francis in the Philippines, when that young girl asked him about God’s absence in reference to child prostitution. He said it is almost an unanswerable question. He then hugged the girl. No great moments of theology here !