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When Comforting Turns Selfish

A family recently lost their young child.

At the funeral, a well-meaning friend says, “Isn’t it comforting to know that God is using her death for good?”

The mother stares, nods stiffly, and resolves not to reach out to that friend for comfort in the future.

Have you ever wondered why Christians, who should be the most compassionate people on the planet, can say such unhelpful things when hardship hits? We have a whole Bible full of promises that God will redeem terrible situations, and these sentiments should be comforting; but we can often wield them at the wrong time, out of discomfort or fear. In the process we further wound the people we’re trying to help.

Instead of trying to paste over evil with biblical platitudes, we must have the courage to acknowledge that evil and suffering are real. We must respect the fact that God’s redemption is often mysterious. Only then can we apply God’s promises to suffering people in a compassionate and loving way.

Cold Comfort

Blurting out clichés in the face of pain isn’t a uniquely Christian problem. Suffering is uncomfortable and awkward for everyone, and comforters say positive things to try and bring relief as fast as possible. For believers, it’s tempting to use biblical promises this way. I have wonderful promises from God, we think. Surely these will help them zip through their agony. And surely they’ll zip even faster if I apply them to their specific situation. So we start speculating exactly how God is using this situation for good:

  • “You can glorify God through your suffering with this cancer!”
  • “Maybe you keep having miscarriages because God is calling you to adopt!”
  • “Your abusive marriage has given you such a platform for ministry to others!”

But do not these statements also arise from a deeper fear? If God let this horrible thing happen to them, without an obvious goodness shining just below the surface, then maybe he isn’t good. The fear can be so strong that we strip the sufferer of her legitimate grievances—lest we accidentally impugn God’s character. We essentially say, “This thing you’re experiencing isn’t really bad, since God is already spinning it into good.”

In the end we call evil “good,” rather than admit God allows truly evil things to happen to his children.

Minimizing the suffering of others so we can avoid wrestling with the problem of evil is terribly unloving.

But if you’ve ever received such comfort, you know it isn’t comforting at all. When you’re suffering from evil or tragedy, the last thing you need is people implying it’s not actually evil or tragic. You need people to say, “What happened to you was evil.” There is so much grace in having someone simply acknowledge, “This situation is horrible.” Full stop.

The truth is that real evil and tragedy happen in this world, and God lets them happen. This can be an excruciating truth to endure, but for the sake of the suffering people in our lives, we have to endure it. Minimizing the suffering of others so we can avoid wrestling with the problem of evil is terribly unloving.

Suffer Alongside

Instead, we must labor to acknowledge the other person’s horror to its fullest extent. Often this can mean not saying anything at all. When I had a miscarriage, I called my mom to tell her. I started crying, and she sobbed with me. She joined in my distress in a visceral way that was more powerful and comforting than any words. When Job’s friends saw the devastation that had been wrought in his life, they cried and mourned and sat with him in silence for a week (Job 2:12–13). And that was the best solace they offered him; when they opened their mouths they got into trouble.

When we do speak of God, instead of rushing immediately to how we’re sure God is working this horrible circumstance for good, it’s important to emphasize that God is against the horrible circumstance. God hates cancer and miscarriages and abusive relationships. They’re not a part of his perfect plan for this world. If they were, why would we be groaning for a new heavens and a new earth? We can count on God to call evil “evil” and do extraordinary things to stop it, like sending his only Son to die in our place. We can count on him to mourn with us in our tragedies, like when Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus. Note it was when he wept that the people said, “See how he loved him” (John 11:36).

Still, sometimes knowing that God is against the horrible circumstance and yet still allowing it can spark awful cognitive dissonance. Bring that to God, too. Both David and Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46). We don’t need to protect God from these kinds of accusations. He doesn’t resolve this paradox for us, but he does let us rail about it. Don’t take away this grace God has given by being more pious than he is.

Trust God to Redeem

Of course there are times when it’s appropriate and wonderful to talk about God’s promises to bring good out of evil—let’s just make sure we’re saying it for the sufferer’s comfort and not our own. When we have entered deeply into someone’s suffering, acknowledged God hates evil and mourns with them, and encouraged them to express their true feelings about God to God, then we can offer his promises as real hope, not buzzwords to hustle people through pain.

Sometimes, though, life hurts so horribly that we desperately want to plaster a “good reason” we’ve imagined onto someone’s struggle. We’ve all done it, and we will do it again. But when we can be brave and embrace someone in their suffering without explaining it away, we love like God, who entered into our suffering and continues to do so today.

Only then are we truly trusting him, and not our own imagined solutions, to do the work of redemption that’s so often beyond our comprehension.