I was in the emergency room, standing behind the paper curtain, holding a mother who wasn’t much older than me as she held her dead little boy, who wasn’t much older than my boys.
What do we do in these moments?
She wasn’t crying so much as gasping like you do when you’ve sunk all the way to the bottom of the deep end of the pool and have just come up for air. She was smoothing her boy’s cowlick with her hand. Every so often she would shush him, perhaps believing that if she could just calm him down then she might convince him to come back.
It was Opening Day. That afternoon my boys and I had played hooky to go to see the Nationals beat the Marlins. I still wore my Curly W Nats hat and had popcorn crumbs in my sweater and mustard stains on my pants. I didn’t look like a pastor or a priest.
The mother got up and went into the hallway to try and get hold of her husband. She left me with her boy — and when the chaplain stepped in to the room and saw the hat on my head and the mustard stains on my clothes and the tears in my eyes, she didn’t think I was a pastor or a priest. She just thought I was part of the boy’s family.
She put her hand on my shoulder and, after a few moments, she said to me: “It’s going to be all right.”
“What the hell did you say?” I asked, stunned.
I’ve been a pastor for 16 years.
And in that time I can’t tell you how many ERs and funeral homes I’ve been in, how many hospital bedsides and gravesides I’ve stood at and heard well-meaning Christians say things they thought were comforting but were actually the opposite.
I know people in my congregation who’ve been told — by other people in my congregation — that God must’ve given them cancer as punishment or to bring them closer to God.
I know peoplewho’ve been told by well-intentioned Christians that a spouse’s or child’s death must be part of God’s plan.
I know people who’ve written God off entirely because when their life got sucky some Christian tried to console them with talk of “God’s will.”
Most of us don’t know what to say when there’s nothing to say. We don’t know where God is when life sucks or suffering comes, so we say ignorant things or offer empty platitudes.
There’s a long folk tale in the Old Testament in which a character named Job loses every one of his children. He loses his health, his last dime and maybe even his marriage. Worse, he loses it all at once. His life disintegrates faster than a dream.
For days, Job is mute with disbelief. His friends show up — no small gesture — and sit with him in silence.
Until Job finally does speak. Then, his friends discover, they aren’t ready for the pain he voices. They can’t go there.
Anyone who’s been with someone whose grief is raw and immediate, whose despair seems to open onto an abyss, anyone who’s been in that situation knows the temptation to put a lid on it. And very often our speech about God is the way we put a lid on it.
Questions like “Where is God…?” or “Why is God doing this…?” can become the means by which we silence a vulnerability too harrowing to bear.
Sometimes the vulnerability we wish to quiet with questions is our own.
So we resort to clichés. But just like one-size-fits-all clothes, one-size-fits-all platitudes never fit.
For Job’s friends there’s disconnect between what they think they know about God and how Job describes his experience. So they feel the need to correct Job’s experience, to explain and give answers for it. They offer platitudes.
But if love, as Jesus says, is laying down your life for another, then that also means love is a willingness to lay down your assumptions for a friend — to care more about them than your understanding of how God or the world works.
What do you say when there’s nothing to say?
Instead of saying, “God must be teaching you a lesson,” how about saying, “Tell me what you’re going through. There’s nothing you could say that will frighten or offend me. I’m here. I’m listening.”
We don’t need to protect God from our feelings. From the cross Jesus, the Son of God, screams at God, “Why have you forsaken me!?” And God responds to that cross, which we built, with an empty tomb. God doesn’t need protecting, especially not from our candor or feelings of forsakenness.
As much as anything, faith entails the knowledge that you do not need to protect God. We don’t need to protect God because God is not to blame.
Platitudes and reasons suggest God is behind the suffering and the suck in our lives. They suggest a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will. But that is not the world as scripture sees it. As St. Paul describes it, the world is groaning against God’s good intentions for it (Romans 8:22). In the language of scripture, suffering is a symptom of our world’s rebellion against God; it’s not a sign of God’s plan for our lives.
Maybe we conjure a different world, a world of tight causality, because the opposite is too frightening.
Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel. They are.
Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question “Why?” has no answer. It often does not.
Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us without warning, for no reason, and from which no good will ever come. They can and they do.
It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, a reason behind every pitfall in our lives, but think about it: The logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster. Such a god is certainly in charge kind of god, but such a god is not worthy of our worship.
Truth is, God doesn’t use or deploy suffering. God is present with us in suffering. In fact, in Jesus’ cross we witness that God, too, suffers in the brokenness of the world.
So, what do you say when there’s nothing to say?
For God’s sake, don’t say, “God has a reason.” Try saying, “There’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.”
The chaplain in the ER lifted her hand from my shoulder when I glared at her and said: “What?”
She blushed and apologized. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to say,” she said. But I wasn’t in the mood for sorry. I wiped my eyes and said, “When his mother comes back in here, don’t. Say. Anything.”
At first Job’s friends do the exact right thing. They just sit in silence with their friend and grieve with him. The trouble starts when they open their mouths.
And the scary thing for us?
What’s scary is that at the end of the Book of Job, 38 long chapters later, after Job has cursed the day he was born, cursed God, questioned God’s justice, complained about God’s absence, accused God of abuse and indicted God for being no better than a criminal on trial — at the end of the book, when God finally shows up and speaks, Job isn’t the one God condemns.
It’s Job’s well-meaning, religious friends.
I’ve stood at enough bedsides and gravesides to know that in our attempts to comfort and answer and explain we sometimes make God an anathema, an entity of distrust and spite.
In trying to locate where God is in the midst of the suffering and the suck, we can push people away from him.
For the last two years, I’ve battled my own incurable cancer. I know of what I speak: The only thing worse than suffering with no reason, no explanation, would be to suffer without God, for God is with us in our suffering, just as we are called to be with others in their suffering.
As both pastor and patient, then, my advice: When there’s nothing to say, say nothing. Or, do as the Psalms so often do.
If faith entails knowing you do not need to protect God, then faith is also a kind of protest against God, who still has not yet made good on his promise to redeem all of creation.
“Where is God in the midst of this suffering?” is a question best turned around and posed to God, defiantly so. “What’s taking you so long, God?!”
Only a God whose power is suffering love could appreciate the irony: faith that looks to any outsider like doubt or, sometimes, even despair.
Jason Micheli is executive pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, VA. Jason is the author of Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo, a co-host of the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast, and writes the popular Tamed Cynic blog. He lives in the Washington, DC area with his wife, Ali, and their two sons.