Help for the Hurting
Tony Cooke

Help for the HurtingI recently spoke for Pastor Terry Roberts near St. Louis, Missouri. He asked me to teach on the topic of grief recovery, and then they launched some grief recovery groups. It was good for me to go back and revisit some of the material from my book, Life After Death: Rediscovering Life After the Loss of a Loved One. Not only do those grieving the loss of a loved one need comfort, but believers also need wisdom and grace in ministering comfort to others.

The reality is that (1) God is good and (2) we live in a fallen world with much pain. God is not the source of our pain, but is the source of our comfort. As much as we want to be positive people and “stay on the victory side,” there is much to be said for the awareness of our need for comfort and to be comforters. British Minister, F. B. Meyer said, “If I had my ministry over again, I would devote far more time to the ministry of comfort and encouragement.”

Solomon remarks, “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance” (Eccl 3:1, 4). Paul echoes this thought and indicates what our response should be when friends go through the various seasons of life. He writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4). Jesus even called the Holy Spirit, the One who would be sent alongside of us, the Comforter—“And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever” (John 14:16).

One thing that I have observed in many years of working with people is that everyone is wired differently when it comes to handling loss. It is unfair for people to compare their experiences with others or to expect others to handle their loss exactly the same way someone else did. Paul seemed to be a type of person who felt things pretty deeply. Paul said that if his friend and co-worker, Epaphroditus had died, he would have had “sorrow upon sorrow” (Phil 2:27).

Others in the New Testament also expressed profound emotion. In Acts 8:1 (NIV), we read, “Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.” Paul told the Corinthians, “God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (2 Cor 1:3-4).

Most people want to comfort others, but are often lacking in know-how. When people hear that someone else has suffered loss, they tend to do one of two things: (a) Withdraw from the person who is hurting because of their own insecurities and lack of confidence, or (b) Start throwing out all kinds of clichés and platitudes, or feeling a need to share their own experience (“I know exactly how you feel because when I went through my loss…”). At the right time, sharing your experience with another can be helpful, but more emphasis should be placed on listening and empathizing, especially early in the process. Joe Bayly shared the following:

Sensitivity in the presence of grief should usually make us more silent, more listening… I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly, he said things I knew were true. I was unmoved, except to wish he’d go away. He finally did. Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t ask leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.

The book of Job is one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted books of the Bible. Job experienced horrific, unfathomable loss. His ten children died. Many of his employees were killed and his economic empire collapsed. His health deteriorated terribly and his wife’s only “encouragement” was for him to curse God and die (Job 2:8). Three friends came to comfort Job, and at first, what they did seems pretty amazing (Job 2:11-13, NLT):

When three of Job’s friends heard of the tragedy he had suffered, they got together and traveled from their homes to comfort and console him… When they saw Job from a distance, they scarcely recognized him. Wailing loudly, they tore their robes and threw dust into the air over their heads to show their grief. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.

You have to admire the intentions and the initial response of these three friends. They came from a distance to be with Job, and they gave him what today is often called “the ministry of presence.” They were just with him. It is important to remember that a person you supported during a crisis will probably not remember what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

What made the situation in the book of Job so difficult is that when Job started lashing out, cursing the day of his birth, and accusing God of treating him unjustly, the three friends began attacking Job. They essentially told him that he was being punished less than he deserved, and that the devastation he experienced was nothing more than the law of sowing and reaping at work.

At the end of the book of Job, we discover that Job and his three friends had all said a lot of things that were not true, and it is clear that much of what the three friends said was not loving, edifying, or helpful. In the Talmud, it was later written, “Hold no man accountable for what he says in his grief.” When people are hurting profoundly, that is not the best time to try to correct their theology!

Let us remember that Jesus came “to heal the brokenhearted,” to “comfort all who mourn,” and to give people “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Isa 61:1-3). Jesus is touched with the feeling of our infirmities (Heb 4:15) and he cares profoundly for each of us. Isaiah 52:3 (NLT) describes Jesus as “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.” Consider some of the sorrows that Jesus knew:

  1. Jesus grew up with the knowledge that Herod, “…sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16, NLT).
  2. Under threat of death as a young child, Jesus lived in Egypt as a refugee with His family (Matthew 2:13-21).
  3. Jesus possibly experienced the pain of losing his earthly father, Joseph, to death. This consideration is based on the fact that Joseph is not seen after the trip to Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-51) when Jesus was twelve years old.
  4. Jesus felt deeply the pain of others. Luke 19:41 says, “Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it.” He wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35). When Jesus heard of the beheading of John the Baptist, “He left in a boat to a remote area to be alone” (Matthew 14:13, NLT).
  5. What about the spiritual and emotional pain Jesus experienced in the time leading up to Calvary? “And taking with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He began to show grief and distress of mind and was deeply depressed. Then He said to them, My soul is very sad and deeply grieved, so that I am almost dying of sorrow…” (Matthew 9:37-38, AMP).

The compassion of Jesus is seen throughout Scripture! Isaiah 42:3 (MSG) states, “He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant, but he’ll steadily and firmly set things right.” That’s Jesus’ nature and heart toward us! Let’s remember what John Henry Jewett said, “God does not comfort us to make us comfortable but to make us comforters.”