When tragedy strikes our friends, we usually try to cheer them up or comfort them. We could do better, though, just to grieve right along with them.
On the last day of my Caribbean honeymoon, I received a call that my dad was sick. He'd had a seizure and a CAT scan indicated the presence of a large mass in his skull — a brain tumor.
We immediately altered our flight path and the next night I sat on a dirty hotel room floor near the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and held my new wife while she wept for my father. As planes roared overhead, she wailed, "Loren, why did God have to make us so frail?"
I knew the answer. God had not made us so frail. Indeed, He created mankind in His image to reflect His glory, seating him just below the angels who minister over everyone who will inherit salvation. Only when Satan deceived our first father, Adam, did corruption enter the world. God simply compounded that original corruption by cursing the ground with thorns and punishing the human race with death.
Yes, I knew the answer. But I didn't say it. I clung to her and cried as well.
Why did I stay silent? If we believe that correct theology should inform our daily lives, why sweep it under the verbal rug, so to speak? Because while intellectual knowledge is necessary, it's only half of the equation. The Bible also instructs us to sympathize with others through gut-level grief. The apostle Paul enshrined this principle by writing, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). While instructing the Thessalonian church on the resurrection of the dead, he further emphasized the legitimacy of grief by stating, "[I hope] you may not grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
When Lazarus died, Jesus displayed the idea in action. Not only did he instruct Martha regarding the resurrection, he sobbed over his dead friend—despite knowing he would soon be brought back to life (John 11:17-35). Then there are the examples of other mournful scriptural characters such as David (2 Samuel 18:31-33), Joseph (49:29-50:11), Job (Job 3:1-3) and the Israelite exiles returning from Babylon (Ezra 3:8-13).
My father has recounted to me many stories of kindly saints who have treated him with utmost love. They've showered him with phone calls, letters and tears — both privately and publicly. But we've all run into individuals who exhibit incompetence or apathy when it comes to sympathizing with the suffering. I know them well because I've been one of them until recently. Allow me a moment of boldness: I have come to believe that mourning is an unappreciated spiritual discipline that the evangelical church has lost and needs to reclaim.
Supposing you agree with me (or are at least a little curious), how does one go about honing—for lack of a better word—such a discipline? Well, I have a few humble suggestions. As mentioned above, mourning does not consist in proffering positive theological precepts. Upon hearing of some crushing tragedy, one is doubtlessly going to hear someone say "God is in control." We've all said it. I maintain its truth in my father's case; the healing powers of Dilantin, Dexamethasone and Temodar take a distant second to divine touch. Scores of books on its ramifications fill bookstore shelves. It and other doctrines can comfort during great trials. But casually tossing off platitudes, aphorisms or one-liners — even when they're true — can and often does serve as a substitute for shared grief and a way to fill an uncomfortable conversation. Yet to those smack in the middle of a painful situation, hearing doctrinal soundbites they already believe proclaimed to them can seem desperately unhelpful and sometimes insulting.
Mourning centers on others. The human mind has an amazing ability to isolate a snippet of information, correlate it with some ancient commonality and dredge it to the surface of memory. We call it cross referencing and many of us use it to recall old stories. Happy stories. Sad stories. Funny stories. Any kind of story whatsoever lies poised on the tip of the cerebellum, ready to spring at the slightest cue. This is great when you're trying to keep a conversation going, but not so wonderful when trying to sympathize. Such verbal tennis usually comes across as self-centered. Mourning necessitates empathy and it's impossible to be empathetic when focusing on anything but the one suffering, no matter how perfectly timed a tale might be.
Mourning requires sensitivity. Whether the situation is medical, social or professional, mourning requires a hearty dose of tact. Forget miracle cures, unsung experts and witty anecdotes about people you know who have miraculously survived hardship. Though you might think your suffering friend might be overlooking a Really Big Helpful Point, understand that your friend might barely be able to see beyond the tip of his nose. Perhaps he already has determined a reasonable course of action. Or maybe he has been plied with so much info from so many sources he is ready to scream. If you want to mourn with him, then mourn. And be careful about asking for too many details. A good rule of thumb is if you haven't shared a meal with the person in question for the past five years, don't dig.
Finally, mourning needs emotion. This seems so idiotically basic that it might sound inane. Yet it is the capstone of Romans 12:15. Mourning is primarily a non-rational outpouring of emotion. Far too many godly, churchgoing Christians pat a wounded soul on the back Sunday morning, ask about a prognosis or the status of a poor financial situation or the gradual dissolution of a marriage, mouth that they'll be praying, and go on about their lives as though they have righteously suffered along with that person. But if you don't find your heart twisted with sympathy while thinking about a person's pain, you haven't. One of the reactions concerning my dad I treasure the most came from a friend who has virtually abandoned the Christian faith. He sobbed uncontrollably before unleashing hair-curling curses. Appropriate? No. But I knew he hurt along with me.
"Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting," writes the Preacher (Ecclesiastes 7:2). You will find plenty of opportunities to mourn in college and beyond. Don't waste them. I did for too many years. One of my friends slowly lost his grip on the things of God, completely abandoning the faith before he graduated. Another was partially blinded during a car wreck. Yet another learned that her fiancé was addicted to pornography.
And I didn't mourn with them.
It took personal tragedy for me to learn, as Solomon penned, that "sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better" (7:3).
Copyright 2004 Loren Eaton. All rights reserved.