"Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep."
Since that time I have been serving in a ministry that offers support groups for women and many of them come into our group with some deep heart wounds. And some of the stuff Christians have said to them as they attempted to share about their emotional pain is what I have come to place in the category of "Stupid stuff Christians say to hurting people!" Today I want to just address a few of those things we graced humans have a tendency to say when we come into contact with another's pain.
We've had women share about their journey with clinical depression. Most were told at one time or another by Christians that if they would just read their Bible more, pray harder, serve others, love God more, and quit being self-centered they would feel better. Now, I know when I have a melancholy day, I can try anyone of those things and I will feel better. But people who are struggling with clinical depression have brain chemical imbalances that are severe enough to cause the negative thoughts with which they struggle. The imbalance also causes body aches and a lack of energy so profound that getting out of bed and into clothes can leave them totally exhausted. Sometimes the imbalance even causes dense brain fog that makes focusing on prayer and Bible reading next to impossible. Most all of them also express shame that runs deep because they mistakenly believe good Christians aren't supposed to feel depressed. They label themselves as defective because they haven't been able to pull themselves out of the funk they feel like they are drowning in. Quite frankly, the simplistic suggestions and admonitions others give them don't help. If anything, the comments deepen the shame they experience, reinforce the desire to isolate, and feeds the negative view of themselves. Thankfully, most of our ladies connect with Christian therapists who offer them the support that they need to get better. Out of all the ladies I have worked with in group, I can only remember one who had a caring response from someone with whom she had shared her struggle with depression. The person told her she was sorry she was hurting, was thankful she shared her story, and that she would love to hear what God teaches her through the season of depression when she was ready to share it. Our lady felt validated and began to hope that God would even use the depression in her life." Sadly, one of the most shaming statements depressed women hear, is that God won't give them more than they can handle. They are trying hard to hold on, but the joy seems out of reach.
A few years ago I sat in the ICU unit with our son for a two week span. I did everything I was supposed to do as a good Christian lady. I pretty much held it together and stuffed the overwhelming fear I felt and the grief of almost losing him. I sat with him day after day silently praying his body would heal and he could come home with me. I had some good friends who were checking up on us, but at the time I had a lot of misconceptions of what a Christian was supposed to be like. My friends told me letter they were both worried that our circumstances were going to catch up with me sooner or later, but I maintained I was fine when asked. It was not until after our son was well enough to come home that I had a chance to breath and my emotions began to churn inside. I bumped into a couple of acquaintances who had heard about our sons accident. They asked about him and as I thought about what we had been through I became overwhelmed with emotion and I began blurting out the whole story to these people I casually knew. Both of the them interrupted my monologue, saying, "Isn't he okay now?" In the moment I needed to share my story and what it felt like to sit in a hospital praying for my child to be healed, knowing there was nothing I could do to insure I would get the answer my heart desired. I needed to share how vulnerable it felt to trust doctors we had just met to make crucial decisions concerning his health and treatment plan. I just needed the people to hear my story and mirror my fear and grief before I could rejoice. I realize they had no clue their question triggered suppressed emotions and I really caught them off guard with the intensity I felt. I learned from that experience to journal prayers and in those prayers to be honest and transparent with God as I go through things. I learned how to ask safe people to let me talk during painful events so that I don't bottle it up. But I also leaned that when I ask someone how she is doing and she begins to tell me her story, to let her talk about her deepest fears, anxieties, and desires. I learned to thank her for trusting me enough to be real. It feels sacred to have another person share their hard with me. The most frustrating words I heard during that time, "Thank goodness God will only give you what you can handle."
As I sat in the hospital I remembered having coffee with a friend whose child is severely disabled and requires constant care. She allowed me to ask her questions about her journey and I was blessed by her honesty. Her daughter suffers severe pain daily that would make any mama feel as if her heart is being squeezed in two by a vice grip. Her daughter's health is fragile and she faces the possibility of losing her often. Their suffering is long term and their suffering is intense. When I asked how people have responded to their situation she shared that when she first tells people about it, they are compassionate and offer to pray with and for her and her family. Some have been, still are, and will continue to be their faithful prayer warriors for as long as they are on this difficult journey. Others follow up to see how they are doing and when she gives them an honest account of their week it becomes obvious they are uncomfortable with her truth. Some hoped things would be better. Some hoped she would say they are doing fine. But the truth of it is their "fine" is truly never going to be fine. Then there are those people who think if she and her husband just had enough faith, truly confessed their sin, or prayed harder that their daughter would improve, maybe even be healed. Then their comes those words I hate the most, "God will only give you what you can handle.
Then there are those who have suffered losses--losses of things, homes, dreams and people. Some of the deaths experienced were expected, some weren't. Some losses were gradual as in the case of cancer where goodbyes were said, regrets expressed, and forgiveness granted. Others were unable to convey those things because dementia took away the ability to do so. Some deaths were so sudden that goodbyes, sorrow, love, grace, and regrets went unvoiced. And then after the loss came the stupid stuff that people say that stings--stupid stuff like, "You can always get pregnant again," "The good die young," and yep, you know it, "At least we know God will never give you more than you can handle!"
Then their are those who share stories of abuses of all kinds--physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual. Those are the stories that people don't want to hear, because they don't want to believe humans can really be so harsh, so hurtful, and so despicable, but we can! Those are the stories believers don't want to hear, because they are afraid to wrestle with the question of a good God and such evil co-existing. Those are the stories that believers don't want to hear, because they don't understand that trauma has changed the human brains that store such horrible stories. Those changes hinder the ability to trust, to connect at a heart level, and to move past the trauma pain. But what we don't realize is when we offer the usual platitudes or we stare blankly bathing another in a deafening silence we cause the person to push down the pain at the same time the shame they feel intensifies it. Oh the things we have heard in our groups concerning those things, "You just need to forgive and forget." "You need to keep quiet or you will destroy the family." "You need to keep quiet or you will hurt the church's reputation." "It is all in the past, you just need to move on." And then, yes, you have guessed it, "Thank goodness God didn't give you more than you can handle."
I am not going to address all the stupid stuff we people say, just the more than you can handle bit. In Galations 6 Paul tells us to bear one another's burdens and for each to bear his own burden. In the original language the burdens we are to bear are the ones too big for one person to handle alone. At the same time we aren't supposed to bear the burdens another is capable of bearing themselves. It takes wisdom and godly discernment to know the difference. Spouses of people with chronic illness get these verses. There at time have to take over for their spouse and they at times have to gently encourage them to do what they are able. We use the phrase that God won't give you more than you can handle to suppress our uncomfortable feelings of powerlessness. A better option would be honest conversations that would help us find out if there is anything we can do to help bear those big burdens. It might be a ministry of meals, a ministry of encouragement, a ministry of praying, a ministry of offering child care, a ministry of lawn mowing, a ministry of listening, or even a simple ministry of presence.
But one of the most important ministries we can offer is found in the verse at the top of the blog..."Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." Sounds simple, but believe me it isn't. To do this, we have to stay present physically, emotionally, and spiritually. To do this, we have to let down our defenses that guard our heart from pain to enter into another's pain--pain that we may or may not fully understand, pain that we can't remove, or heal. As I have shared, I worked with a counselor on abuse. After I shared my story the first time, I sat silently looking at the floor because it was safer than facing those infamous counselor eyes. I waited for admonitions to forgive, to move on, and maybe a few other stupid things we Christians say. But there was silence. When the shame had calmed enough, I glanced up and saw that she was sitting there with tears streaming down her face. She was crying the tears I was shoving down deep inside. Seeing her compassion melted the hard shell I had built around my heart and made way for a long hard journey we took together. She cried with me when I lost friends, parents, and faced the fears of having kids in combat. We didn't just cry, we identified and expressed all sorts of emotions. At times we even laughed and we laughed hard. She rejoiced with me when I published each book and prayed over each one of them with me. All the admonitions and platitudes I heard over the years didn't heal the wounds in my heart or return my soul to joy. It was having that counselor in addition to some very extraordinary friends who understood the healing journey and who were willing to walk with me and hear all the words I needed to say, made it safe for me to feel, and were willing to weep with me when I wept and then rejoiced with me when my joy returned. That was what gave me the freedom to feel the pain that needed to be healed. That was what opened the door of my heart that allowed me to experience God at deeper levels. That was what made it possible to become real enough to fully experience His grace and to let go of the critical inner voice that so often bathed me in shame. Sometimes the hard we are tempted to try to fix with platitudes--those stupid sayings we have all said and all hate to hear--is the hard that is the medium that God uses to form the heart connections that are the conduit for healing. When we shame others with our words we shut down the very process they need to go through to heal the brain changes that were caused by trauma. Oh, how I pray with the psalmist, "set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!" (Psalm 141:3) I so want my words to not wound. I want them to impart hope and life as they invite others to face truth and to rest close to the Savior's heart.