“Usually when you are grieving and someone says something senselessly optimistic, the moment is more about them than you. They need to feel helpful or they cannot entertain their own pain.” – Nadia Bolz Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint
Scrolling through my social media timelines, I found myself venting to my mother about what Christians were saying in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in France on November 13, 2015. Too many of them were saying this was a wakeup call from God in order for the world to come back to him. Others were thanking God for the fact that many killed in the attack were Christian and ready to meet the Lord because God doesn’t take anyone who hasn’t been introduced to the faith first. It seemed that, with every scroll, someone was saying something stupid in the name of God and I was over it.
“People think they’re being helpful but they’re not. They’re actually only making matters worse.”
“Candice, people are only doing what they know. They’re only telling what they’ve been taught. If they need to do better, they have to be taught better. Because people are only trying to be helpful so give them a break. Be a little nicer to people because one day, people are going to be trying to be helpful like this to you, too.”
Less than 24 hours later, my mother was dead. It was unexpected, it was surreal and it changed my life forever. And, like my mother said, people began saying these same things to me.
“God needed another flower for his garden so he took your mother.”
“God knew your mother was ready and he came and got her.”
“Satan knows his time is running short and he’s just acting out. But he won’t win because we have the victory!”
“Where God is taking you requires sacrifice. In order to get to your next level, you will have to experience pain.”
“God allowed this to happen to you because another sister is going to go through the same thing and need to see that God can keep her, too.”
In the week leading up to my mother’s funeral, I practiced her final words over and over and over. I was trying to be kind, extend grace and understand that people just don’t know any better. It became increasingly difficult. Because of the unexpected nature of my mother’s passing, many felt it was important to explain to me what God was doing by calling her home. One pastor said that God used my mother’s death as an illustration to what the Rapture would be like for us. When someone would see me cry, they would rush over and tell me to be strong. My mother raised me to be strong and lean on God, they would say. This wasn’t the time to lose strength because God wouldn’t put me on me than I would be able to bear. I’d heard that all my life. It didn’t make sense then and it sounded more and more ridiculous with each person who said it to me now. I finally asked someone, “what does that even mean? God won’t put more on me than I can bear. What does that even mean?”
“It means God knew you were strong enough. If you couldn’t handle it, it wouldn’t have happened this way. God doesn’t do things to break you. If this breaks you, it’s because you’re not trusting in God.”
So God thought I could handle losing my mother unexpectedly, hours after talking with her and three days before seeing her? God thought I could handle learning my mother died via text message? God didn’t think these things would break me? Didn't God know how close we were? How close we still are? That’s an unrealistic amount of faith God placed in me and I wish he’d have thought otherwise.
When trauma happens, we say some seriously ridiculous stuff- partly because pain makes us uncomfortable. We feel if we sit in and around pain too long, we’re not doing what’s necessary to “fix” the problem. And, in our desire to fix things, we make meaning where there is none. And, in making that meaning, we make a mess. In earnest, it felt like some folks were trying their hands at ministry on me. They were preaching trial sermons on my couch and hosting bible studies in my text messages. Part of me wondered if it was my theological education or public persona that made people feel they had to say these things. Then I remembered days prior when folks were offering this same commentary about people in France they’d never met. I don’t know if people say these things because they genuinely believe them but I do think they offer these kinds of condolences because they believe they need to be said. They believe it’s comforting. While I don’t know what is soothing about the imagery of a God who looks at Earth like a flower garden and decided my mama was one of the roses he wanted to put on his kitchen table that day, it speaks to the arrogance that we know what hurting people need more than they know what they need themselves.
Do we think before we speak in moments like this? This is a serious question to which I believe the answer is no. My mother loved the acronym: T.H.I.N.K. Before You Speak!
Is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary? It is Kind?
I wonder if people THINK before they tell parents who have lost a child that everything happens for a reason.
I wonder if people THINK before they tell sexual assault victims that all things will work together for their good.
I wonder if people THINK before they tell people going through divorce that, in the end, it will all be worth it.
We often don’t think through the implications of what it means to say the wrong things to people who are already hurting. We assume that, because we mean well, what we say will be accepted in that spirit. But, just because we mean well doesn’t mean that we are giving people what they need in that moment. We’re actually giving them extra work on top of their grief. First, we’re giving them the labor of having to decipher our good intentions and then they have to do the work against internalizing what we say in the hopes of not exacerbating their current grief and pain. Whether we realize it or not, the things we say can lead vulnerable people to even darker places. Questions and feelings they didn’t have or already worked through can arise. When we do this, it becomes less about being there for people in times of crisis and more about us- for whatever reasons we make it about us. That is unfair and unloving.
Here is what I know to be true: God isn’t somewhere dispensing gut-wrenching circumstances as a litmus test for the depth of our faith. That's petty; God ain't petty. Life is hard and, dare I say, unfair. Some circumstances are beyond our control and they leave us with questions. God can handle our questions. God doesn’t need us speaking out of turn and incorrectly on God’s behalf. This is what got Job’s friends in trouble. By offering their commentary on Job’s conditions, his friends began to make meaning where there was none. My mother did not die because God was walking around Heaven and wanted her up there with him. My mother’s death didn’t expedite some manifestation of my purpose that God could not have otherwise done. My mother died, I believe, because God called her home and throughout my life she told me that no person stays here one second longer than God allows. This does not alleviate my pain nor does it keep me from asking other questions. What it does do, however, is quiet the voices of those who seek to speak for God on this wise.
Contrary to popular belief, “God will not put more on you than you can bear” is not scripture. Many people believe it to be 1 Corinthians 10:13. In that text, Paul is telling the church at Corinth that they will never be tempted beyond what is tolerable because God will always give people an opportunity to say no. And while I believe even this text should be interpreted differently altogether, temptation and suffering are not the same. Not only is this not scripture, it’s also not true. If we were “strong enough” to endure every challenge that has come our way, we wouldn’t need to rely on God. I’ll say it again- life is hard and some things are unbearable. Without question, I know that I am on this side of November 14, 2015 because I fully lean and depend on God for strength. I have had to cry out to God in helplessness, reminding him that I can’t do this by myself. That this is, in fact, breaking me. And in those moments, God doesn’t chastise me for my weakness. Like a loving mother, God takes me into her arms and reminds me that I don’t have to be strong. Her strength will always be sufficient.
Sometimes we want to appear to be deeply spiritual and attune with God in moments of crisis. If we are to be the best we can be for people in the midst of trauma, we must be honest about the ways we can make things worse despite our good intentions. If I am honest, nothing Christians said to me on behalf of God, in the wake of my mother’s passing, made me want to serve him. Evangelism and outreach are not just the times we ask someone if they know Jesus and want to be saved; more times than not, they are our daily actions and the ways we show up for people when they need us most. Instead of saying the wrong thing, “I love you”, “I am praying for you”, “I am here” and even “I don’t know what to say” are always appropriate. Trauma is its own beast; there’s no need to add to pain with flowery words and empty Christian rhetoric that sound good to say but are almost always painful to hear.