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Guthrie on Sad People, Safe Churches

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

I corresponded with Nancy Guthrie, author of several books including Hearing Jesus Speak Into Your Sorrow and editor of Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross, to learn how to walk with each other through loss.

Why did you initially become interested in making churches a safe place for sad people?

Because I’ve been a sad person, and I know what it is to look to my church for companionship, practical help, prayer support, and theological clarity in the midst of overwhelming and perplexing sorrow. I remember attending a church choir retreat three months after burying my daughter and saying to the group, “I’m not sinking into depression. I haven’t lost my faith. I’m just sad, and I need you to let me be sad.” The truth is, most of us are uncomfortable with sadness, as individuals and as churches. We want to fix people and help them to feel better, and we are far less patient than God is with the process he uses to bring healing.

But making a church a safe place for sad people is about much more than providing personal and practical support. A social club can do that. The gospel is what provides the solid truth that grieving people need to inform their feelings and undergird their hope. For a church to be a safe place for sad people does not merely mean that we offer comfort and acceptance. Sometimes it means that we gently but boldly challenge misbeliefs or misunderstandings of Scripture.

Last week I was with a friend whose mother had died, and we were just beginning to talk about what people were telling her about her mother being right beside her, watching over her. As I was beginning to talk through what the Scriptures have to say about what happens after death, another woman who was there with us stopped me and proceeded to tell us about her experiences of seeing and hearing from her parents after their deaths, convinced that these visions were from God. People long for supernatural signs in regard to the deaths of their loved ones, and unfortunately they often endow those experiences with far more authority than they give to Scripture. A church that is a safe place for sad people will lovingly present the Scriptures as authoritative and sufficient, providing all we need to entrust our loved ones to God.

What’s the most helpful thing we can do for a fellow church member struggling through grief?

Grieving people have four primary needs that the church has a key role in addressing:

  1. They have intense sadness that is lonely and lingering that needs to be respected.
  2. They have significant questions that need to be addressed in light of Scripture.
  3. They have broken relationships that need to be healed and normalized.
  4. They have a deep desire to discover some meaning and purpose in their loss.

While we make room for people to be sad, we want to walk with people in expectation that God will indeed do a work of healing in their lives so that they do not stay stuck in their sadness, but emerge from it strengthened in their confidence in God, deepened in their understanding of the Scriptures, and equipped to serve others.

What are some common errors we make when trying to help someone going through a difficult time?

On a practical level, we say, “Just call me if I can help.” The truth is, when you’re going through a family crisis or grief, you don’t really want to have to keep asking for help or organize all of the help you need. To have someone assume the responsibility for organizing meals and other practical help is a great gift. Even better is the person figures out what is needed and simply says, “I’m coming over Wednesday morning to do your laundry.”

Sometimes we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing to someone who is hurting so we say nothing, adding to his or her hurt by ignoring it. Or we’re afraid that “bringing it up” will make the person sad, not realizing that our “bringing it up” actually allows that person to release some of the sadness they are already feeling.

On a spiritual level, I often hear Christian leaders or counselors say to the person who is grieving something like, “It’s okay to be angry with God. He can handle it.” I know they are trying to encourage authenticity before God and with other people, and that is worthwhile. But a church that is a safe place for sad people brings the truth to bear on the untruths and misunderstandings that serve as grounds for anger toward God rather than giving permission to hold on to or simply vent that anger.

Perhaps another mistake we make is assuming that people have grasped the sovereignty of God that has been preached from the pulpit. Often it is not until believers’ lives are shaken by circumstances or sorrow that they are finally ready to delve into deeper theological truths. As they are struggling to put together their understanding of a loving God with the God who allowed the accident or the illness, we have to be ready to talk through the implications of God’s sovereignty in very real terms. And usually it is not one conversation that settles this, but must be a series of conversations, giving time for these deep truths to settle in.

What is the uniqueness of a gospel-centered church in the way it ministers to people grieving a loss?

I don’t remember a lot of what my pastor said when we stood at my daughter’s graveside. But I remember him saying, “This is where we ask, ‘Is the gospel really true?’” And I remember whispering to myself in that moment, “Yes!”

While many of us are content to stay in the shallow end of the theological pool when things are going well, significant loss forces us into the deep end of the things of God, and that’s a good thing. This is where our understanding of God working out his plan to put an end to the brokenness of this world caused by sin moves from a religious discussion outside of us to become a gospel reality at work in us. We want to understand the bigger picture of God’s purposes in the world to make some sense of what has happened to us. The words we sing in worship have new meaning. Christ’s victory over death is more precious. Our future hope is more real. Gospel-rich teaching and preaching, counseling, and worship help to answer our questions and bring healing to our lives.

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