Whether on the internet or in the real world, we’ve all seen this meme or something like it at some point in our lives. The art of comforting someone who is grieving, angry, or just working through their feelings is a difficult one to master. It is a particular set of skills that I was not innately gifted and thus have crafted over the last several years. I have the privilege to be trusted as a source of counsel through my work in ministry; Due to the nature of my position, I needed to develop these skills with a pretty high sense of urgency. It’s been a sink or swim sort of situation in many ways. Whether you’re a teacher, colleague, sister, pastor, or friend – as followers of Jesus, we have the responsibility and privilege to care for those that we call ‘neighbor’ in a special and unique way – by loving like Jesus.
And to love like Jesus, we have to look at his example. When I think of Jesus being a friend to someone grieving, John Chapter 11 comes to mind for me. Maybe you’ve heard the story – the one where Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus died. Mary loved Jesus and always trusted Him to show up, but she had just watched her own brother die right before her eyes. She was broken-hearted, and from her perspective, there was no good to be found in this. There was no more hope, no bright side, and no way around the simple fact that she had lost what could not be replaced. That feeling has been, in many ways, familiar to us over the last year.
Over the last twelve months, I have personally seen more anxiety, grief, and emotional fatigue in the lives of those around me than ever before. We are struggling globally. And the jokes about 2020 being a dumpster fire of a year won’t stop there, because our world will always be broken. I don’t want to dive too quickly into the deep end, but let’s face it – life on Earth is promised to bring us suffering – Jesus told us so. Our world will never be perfect and people will always be hurting, so what are we to do about it? We’re not perfect, either! And the last time I checked, there is no, “Helping Your Friends Through A Global Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crippling Anxiety For Dummies,” book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. So how are we supposed to know what to do?
Well, let’s look back at that example in the book of John. When Mary lost her brother, she angrily accused Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v.32) And Jesus, in this space as Mary’s friend, teacher, and trusted counsel, did not silence Mary’s outburst with a word of caution about her lack of faith or disrespect for who He is (we are talking about Jesus – King of Kings and Lord of Lords, after all). He also didn’t immediately take her pain away, but instead chose to honor it and encourage both sisters to feel their grief at the tomb. He didn’t make promises of healing or resurrection, and He didn’t distance Himself from the pain either; Jesus wept with those who wept. As Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus sat with those who followed Him, even in heartbreak and hopelessness.
So, how do we do the same? What does this look like for us today?
Our first human instinct is to silence the voice that cries out in pain. We want to put an end to our friends’ sadness or anger, so we hush their weeping with hurried attempts to give advice. We are made so uncomfortable by the ugliness of grief that we decide, often with the best of intentions, to rush into sharing our experiences or common anecdotes in an effort to calm the situation at hand. But following Jesus’ example, we know that there is value in simply honoring the need for someone to give space to their feelings – allowing the heaviness to settle and the cry to be heard. What Jesus shows us at the tomb of Lazarus is this: in our pain, we are not alone. In the space where our feelings take over, Jesus meets us there without judgement… and he listens. He provides space for the ugly, the uncomfortable, and the overwhelming.
As we learn to provide space for the feelings of others as they come to us, we must also learn to engage with the mess of it all. We must get comfortable allowing ourselves to feel, as well. Remember when I said Jesus didn’t rush to provide promises of hope or healing? Well, we shouldn’t either. He allowed for Mary’s questions to be asked, as daunting and offensive as they were. And Jesus wept with her, showing us that there is something sacred about the space where grief is empathetically felt. Weep with those who weep, and expect it to be messy.
Just before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, some of those gathered at the tomb began to question, “Could not He who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Now, they likely intended for this to be a slight at Jesus who, as far as they knew, just let their friend die when He could have stopped it. However, this also shows us that even those who wept knew what Jesus was capable of. They knew of the miracles of Jesus. They knew that this was the same Jesus who healed the sick and fed the thousands, but they still didn’t believe that He would again be moved by compassion to bring Lazarus back from the dead. Jesus even goes as far as to say that He was glad that He couldn’t be there to heal Lazarus, so that Mary would believe.
The truth is this – there is something beautifully comforting in knowing that there is work that only God can do in our heartbroken places, so that we would learn to believe and trust Him more. We will never learn to allow our faith to rise up in our fear, pain, and loss, if we don’t allow the suffering to take place. As friends of those who grieve, we have to remind those that we love that there is hope. While we don’t have all the answers, we can offer peace in the midst of pain because of who Jesus is and all that He has promised.
If we, as women of God, can learn to be led by the example of Jesus and the Holy Spirit guiding us into this place of relational and emotional maturity, then we can become a safe space of support and counsel for hurting people. Rather than women who offer temporary advice and the well-meaning, “I can’t imagine how you feel,” we can be women moved by compassion to provide space for our neighbor to feel. We can empathetically express love through sharing in grief and carrying burdens, and most importantly, we can offer the hope of the Gospel.
As you learn to be a friend to those who hurt, it will be overwhelming, and awkward, and uncomfortable. But that’s okay. Allow yourself to feel the powerlessness and helplessness and know that you’re not alone. I see you. God is with you. May we be women who can honor heartache and pain while also declaring the power of Jesus in the midst, so that others will come to believe.
The Gospel Coalition’s article How to Care for Friends with Anxiety and Depression
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Becca Easterling loves tackling a good to-do list, thinking outside of the box, and brainstorming about new projects.