I always pause before I write sympathy cards.
If the deceased is a believer, there is a lot I could say that is true. I could say, “They are with Jesus now.” I could say, “I’m sure God has a reason.” I could say, “What they have there is better than what we can dream of down here.” I could say, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
I don’t say those things. Instead, I say, “I’m sorry.” I say, “I know you must be hurting right now.” I say, “I’m here for you whenever you need someone to call.” I say, “I am praying for you, and I love you, and God loves you.”
Why do I say one set of things and not the other, if both are true?
Compassion, mostly. I’ve lost loved ones who are believers. Even though I knew in my heart that they were with Jesus and God had a reason and heaven is wonderful, I still hurt. I was sad. To know those things did not take my sadness away immediately or ease the sting of absence. What I needed at the time more than a set of truths recited to me were people who cared that I was hurt. Who understood that loss, even the loss of the faithful, is something that can make us sad even as we understand it and accept it.
I don’t think we often realize it, but sometimes Christian confidence expressed in the wrong way can look a lot like Christian callousness – even when it’s well-meaning. And compassion is the only way to leaven it.
A friend of mine once came to my college dorm room in dire straits. Her car was on its last legs. Her family was feuding and her beloved sister had been kicked out of the house. Her student loans were piling up and her job situation was precarious. She was stressed and overwhelmed. As she sat on my bed weeping, I thought about Scripture and what I knew about God, and offered up this little gem: “Look, I don’t know that I can offer any practical help. But God tells us not to be anxious about anything – because He’ll provide whatever we need. And He will. We need to pray and think with that in mind.”
I told her that because I believed it with all my heart. I knew with absolute certainty that God would get her through her hour of need. I knew His word was true and His promises would not return void. I’d seen evidence of it in my own life, after all, and the thought was a comfort to me. So I felt good sharing it.
I was surprised when she glared at me. What? I’m just sharing what God says in His word. What believer wouldn’t find comfort in that?
It wasn’t until years later that my mistake really hit home. Struggling with severe flight anxiety that had manifested as an uncontrollable panic, I prayed desperately for God to give me peace through the fear. I memorized verses of Scripture. I “let go, let God”-ed until I almost passed out. Nothing made the slightest difference. And one night, when I opened yet another devotional book to a chirpy font encouraging me to to “not be anxious about anything but…[to] present your requests to God” I felt the sudden, visceral urge to set the entire devotional on fire.
Because what I needed at that time was not just Christian confidence, but Christian compassion. I needed someone to write in a devotional, I know you’re scared. God knows you’re scared and He loves you, a lot. I needed someone to recognize this awful feeling and my own frustrated feelings of failure over not being able to conquer it – someone to sit with me and just listen. I needed comfort and care, not just soulless words telling me why it would all be fine. When I received that from both my husband and my mother, it made a world of difference.
That’s what my friend needed, too. Of course God would provide for her. Of course He’d take care of her. But what she needed wasn’t just that knowledge. She needed someone to sit with her and say, “This really stinks.” She needed a hug and a Diet Coke and a long drive. She needed a friend.
And that’s why I pause when I write those sympathy cards. Yes, bereaved believers need the truth of the Word. But they need compassion with that truth. They need someone to say, “I know you are hurting and your hurt matters.” They want to know that someone wishes they didn’t have to hurt. They want someone who understands how sad this is even when, in the end, God’s truth makes it bearable.
When Job lost everything he had, Scripture tells us that his friends came and grieved with him. They tore their robes and sprinkled dust over their heads before they sat with him in absolute silence for seven days. Seven days! When Elijah fled in desperation and terror to Mt. Horeb, the angel of the Lord comes to nourish him and, eventually, God Himself appears to hear him out and offer the consolation that he is not alone. Compassion and care is fundamental to sharing truth.
1 Corinthians 31 begins with this verse: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal.” It’s all well and good to speak the truth of God: what you know and understand of Him and His nature and how He works. But if you have that Christian confidence to speak the truth and it is unleavened with compassion and genuine care, you are going to sound callous and empty.
Take care not to be a clanging cymbal.