Comforting People in Trauma
Ever since I heard about the tornadoes that touched down in Oklahoma this past Monday, I’ve been thinking about how to talk to people in trauma. Experience, others’ experiences, and blog posts I’ve read from strangers all confirm that reminding people that God is sovereign over their trial, and has a plan for them in it – especially right after it happens – can perhaps make their pain even worse. Although it is true that God is sovereign, it is not comforting to many people to hear it… at least not right away.
So then, am I saying that it’s not a good idea to comfort suffering people by reminding them about who God is in the immediate wake of terrible tragedy?
That question deserves some attention.
I wholeheartedly believe that the basis of our attempts to comfort people should be, must be, pointing them back to who God is. That said…
…Just because something is true does not necessarily mean it is always good to say it. “Tact” will become an important word in this post. Tact is not lying; it is having the wisdom to know how to say what ought to be said appropriately, and refrain from saying what ought not be said, even if it is true. A tactful person would never go up to an overweight woman in the store and say, “Wow! You’re fat!”…even if it is true.
It seems to me that this principle of tact can be applied to theological truth just as well as any other sort of truth. In other words, I think that there are theological points that may be unhelpful for someone to hear who is deeply hurting. If that is true, then we should try with all our power to minister to hurting people with appropriate truth, and avoid speaking truth that is inappropriate. And I think the truth that “God is sovereign over your trial, and He has a plan for you through it” is a truth that may not be helpful to share with someone who is grieving, at least not right away.
So many grieving people are confused. Some of them, even Christians, are asking questions like, “Why did God let this happen to me?”, “What could have I done to avoid this pain?”, and “How in the world am I going to move past this?” Grieving people are not ready to wrestle deeply with truth that is difficult to wrap their minds around, and let’s face it: the sovereignty of God is a very complex topic. It is extremely difficult to come to terms with how the sovereignty of God works, especially when it comes to suffering, and especially when you are the sufferer. Grieving people need truth to cling to, and it’s challenging to cling to the sovereignty of God in suffering when it’s hard enough just to understand it. They have had their hearts broken, and they need to be pointed to some simple gospel “constants” in the midst of their changing world.
Here are five such truths:
“If you are in Christ…”
1. “God is for you.” – “If God is for you, who can be against you? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for you, how will he not also with him graciously give you all things?” (Romans 8.31-32)
2. “God is with you.” – “It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; He will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed (Deuteronomy 31.8).”
3. “God is your Father, and He will never stop loving you.” – “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in His holy habitation (Psalm 68.5).”
4. “God does not condemn you. (This is not a punishment).” “There is therefore now no condemnation for you, because you are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8.1)
5. God will bring you safely through this tragedy. “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand (Isaiah 41.10).”
If you’re talking to unbelievers, they need to realize the hope that God offers to them through the gospel, even in their pain.
Also, don’t try to tell that that you understand. You don’t. Even if you’ve gone through a similar experience, you’re not them, and you don’t know exactly what they’re feeling. Grieving people also don’t need you to try to solve their problem; sometimes even just being there for them is the most comforting thing you can do, even if you don’t say anything at all.
Those points are just a few examples of a plethora of concrete truth that may be helpful to suffering people in the immediate wake of their tragedy. It might be months before they come out of “survival mode” and are ready to really process what has happened. When they’re ready, it may be helpful to remind them that God is sovereign over their trial, and He has a plan for them in it (Jeremiah 29.11). Until they’re ready, though, be tactful. It’s good, and loving, to let them get to that place in their own time.