devozine

Article

Presence

Will Penner

“I guess God needed another soprano in the heavenly choir.” That’s the “comfort” a church member provided when my friend’s mom died. When another friend’s dad was caught having an affair, all my friend heard from the pastor was that “God moves in mysterious ways.” People of faith try to provide comfort and assurance in times of grief, but the theology behind their comments is often shortsighted.

 

Theodicy

Have you wondered about the seemingly contradictory statements “God is all-powerful” and “God is all-loving”? A typical thought process goes like this: If God were all-loving and all-powerful, God wouldn’t allow so much suffering in the world. If God is all-loving, God must not be all-powerful because suffering still exists. Alternately, if God is all-powerful, then God must not be as caring as we thought because a loving God would put a stop to suffering.

The fancy theological word for these arguments is theodicy, which tries to answer this question: How can evil exist in a world created and sustained by a God who is good? People have been asking this question for years. In the Book of Job, Job’s friends put forth a whole series of propositions to explain his suffering. They were wrong on every count, yet they kept trying: Had Job sinned and not yet repented? Had one of his ancestors sinned and passed down the curse to him? Had he been mistaken about where his faith lay?

Many people look for answers to the question “Why?”—even people with rock-solid faith; and often they latch on to the simplest explanations or the ones that sound best at the time. Rarely do their answers provide the comfort they seek.

 

Grief Can Be Helpful

The problem with jumping too quickly to answers is that we fail to give appropriate time and consideration to grief. Forcing pat answers onto other people can do spiritual damage because simple answers aren’t enough to satisfy their deepest longings.

As a result, they look elsewhere. In the best cases, they turn to friends, who may or may not offer helpful solutions, and to others in similar circumstances, which can sometimes lead to wallowing in the misery. In worse cases, they seek consolation from drugs, alcohol, sex, or other risky behaviors designed to drown the pain. People who are suffering may not be seeking answers as much as they’re looking for ways to deal with their pain.

 

Ministry of Presence

devozine Bullying Comfort FTR TS75676800My friends’ experiences were particularly sad because they should have found comfort from the church. The church should be the safest harbor around—but not if we offer quick fixes or one-liners tossed off from an emotional distance. We comfort only when we enter into another person’s pain and walk through it with him or her.

When a friend is in pain, the easy response is to combat awkwardness by trying to explain the suffering. Simply being present in the pain is more helpful. Hugging, crying with another person, sitting with him or her without trying to fill the silence are ways to be present. We don’t need to be scholars to bring a ministry of presence to people who hurt; we just need to show up.

 

DIG DEEPER

  • Make a list of five people you would feel reasonably comfortable being with in a time of crisis. Keep the list handy for when you need it.
  • If everyone in your life were making the same list, your name would show up on a few of them. Think through how you can be present for other people, without having to explain their pain.
  • Where are you spiritually fed? With whom can you talk about controversial topics? Find a spiritual director, accountability partner, faith friend, or covenant group that you trust. Or help to create a culture of trust in your Sunday school class or youth group. Help the church become the safe harbor Jesus meant it to be.
Will Penner is a husband, dad, teacher, speaker, author, editor, and minister from Fairview, Tennessee.

—from devozine (March/April 2013). Copyright © 2013 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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