Tragedies remind us of the weakness of words. A couple of days ago I sat in my car in a parking lot talking to my sister on my cell phone. She and her husband had gone for a sonogram that day to discover the sex of the baby she was carrying. They didn’t discover the sex because the doctor couldn’t detect a heartbeat. They planned to reveal the sex of the baby to their two daughters with color-coded cupcakes. Instead, they had to explain that the baby in mommy’s tummy would never live in the bedroom that they had already started preparing. As I listened to my sister’s pain, I was reminded of the weakness of words.
In those moments when tragedies invade the existence of those that we love, we want so desperately to find the right words. As a brother, I wanted to help my sister’s hurt. As a former pastor and current professor of Christian Studies, I felt I should have something wise to offer. After investing so much of my life in the study of words, the study of the Bible, and the study of Pastoral Ministry, I was embarrassed by my lack of eloquence. I wanted to fix the situation. However, deep down I knew that I couldn’t. I knew that no words could take away the gut-wrenching pain. I also knew that some words had the potential to complicate a painful situation.
This was not my first encounter with personal tragedy. I lost my father to a sudden heart attack five years ago. In the days that followed his death, I discovered that well-meaning people often say stupid things to grieving persons. Let me reiterate, the people meant well. However, in the midst of grief clichés don’t help. For example, some mentioned that my father was, “In a better place.” While I agreed with the premise, it didn’t change the reality that he had suddenly and unexpectedly left this place! Somehow the words seemed hollow and empty. After the funeral, several indicated that they knew my father was looking down with pride at the words that I had spoken. Again, I knew that they meant well but I didn’t see where the Bible taught that those who die in Christ stand in heaven and watch their loved ones down below. I also doubted that pride was suddenly allowed and encouraged in heaven. (By the way, grief has a way of making cynics out of Pollyanna-optimists.)
In my time of personal grief, I learned more about the grieving process than an entire course on the subject at seminary had provided. High on the list of lessons learned was the discovery that words are weak and potentially dangerous in the midst of tragedy. An example from the book of Job drives that lesson home.
Job lost everything of earthly value: children, property, health and wealth. The caregivers who responded to Job’s grief were Job’s three friends: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. They provide both a positive and negative example of dealing with another’s pain. Let’s start with the negative because it speaks to the natural default reaction of many ministers. After sitting in silence with Job for a week, the three friends engaged Job in a debate that lingered for thirty chapters. Job would state his condition and the friends would argue against his position. The three friends took turns heaping clichés and trite remarks on Job’s head. They challenged Job’s assertions and attempted to explain God’s activity in Job’s life. As ministers we gravitate toward explaining God’s activity don’t we? When we hear poor theology, we hurry to correct it. When the grieving question God, we rush to God’s defense. Unfortunately, in our rush to defend God, we often offer hollow words that miss the mark and do little to console the wounded heart. In the final chapter of the book of Job, God rebukes Job’s three friends because they did not speak accurately of Him. Apparently, God has confidence in His ability to defend Himself without human clichés It seems that God is willing to embrace the hurting even when they spew venom on Him.
Apparently, God has confidence in His ability to defend Himself without human clichés.
I mentioned that Job’s friends provided a positive example as well. The positive example occurred at the beginning of the story. Before the cliché encrusted debate Job’s friends took a different tact, a much quieter and more effective approach. When they saw Job in his sorrow, they wept with him, mourned with him, and sat with him for a week without saying a word. Did you catch the last phrase? They didn’t say a word! Ministerial training teaches us to speak clearly, but it sometimes fails to help us identify those moments when we should not speak. Job’s friends initially grieved with their friend in silence. In moments of tragedy and grief, sometimes the best way to convey the strength of God is through our silent ministry of presence:
- Ministry of presence majors on listening and resists the urge to verbalize clichés.
- Ministry of presence embraces the pain and the one experiencing pain.
- Ministry of presence descends into the emotion of the moment in order to provide stability for the future.
- Ministry of presence requires little vocal production but much emotional investment.
- Ministry of presence requires walking with the hurting through the valley of grief because no words can make the valley disappear.
As I sat in the car watching the rain blanket the asphalt and hearing the pain in my sister’s voice, I listened and wept. I resisted the ministerial urge to speak. I stifled the clichés that sounded empty and hollow in my own ears. I didn’t fix it, because I couldn’t fix it. I was reminded once again of the weakness of words and the strength of silence.
Kristopher Barnett is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity in Biblical Languages (2001) and a Ph.D. in theology with a concentration in preaching (2008). His dissertation was A Historical/Critical Analysis of Dialogical Preaching. His undergrad work was completed at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas with a B.A. in Communication (1997).
Prior to joining the Christian studies faculty at Anderson University, Dr. Barnett served as pastor to three different churches; Forestburg Baptist Church (TX), Ridglea West Baptist Church (TX) and most recently, East Pickens Baptist Church (SC). Prior to pastoral ministry, he served as youth minister at two churches and did a youth internship at another.
Kris Barnett is the author of What Now?, a companion guide to the Bible. He is a member of the Evangelical Homiletic Society and has twice presented papers at the EHS conference (Wake Forest, NC and Birmingham, AL). Dr. Barnett enjoys filling the pulpit for local churches and serving in an interim role for churches seeking a pastor.
Dr. Barnett is married to Kelly, who is a graduate of ASU with a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in psychology. They have four children, Kenzie, Karsen, Noah, and Kassie.