While attending a funeral today I was talking with Paul Miller about the difficulty of expressing condolences. When a loved one dies, what do you say to those left behind? We often want to give words of comfort, but our desire to do this may cause more damage than help.
Specifically, when a father dies, it is not helpful to tell his son, “God knows what he is doing, boy, this is for the best.” or “It’s hard for you to understand now, but God has a plan.” or “Someday you will understand why God did this.” There are many variations on this theme, but the idea is that God either allowed or caused the death of this person. We are put in the untenable position of trying to say that our loving God is responsible for a horrible tragedy that has ripped hearts open.
To me, this is a variation of the pop theological statement, “Everything happens for a reason.” I have blogged before about this, but let me review a little. This is not a Christian idea. It might work in Buddhism, or possibly in extreme forms of Islam, but it is not a biblical idea. Why?
The laws of cause and effect would assume that there is a reason (cause) for all things that happen (effects). So, at one level, the idea that everything happens for a reason is true. There are two explanations for this. First, if we life in an entirely mechanistic world, everything is preordained because of its physical nature. Everything is matter and chemical, all things that happen are the coincidences of nature, There is no free will or independent decision making because everything humans do is the result of chemical processes in their brains. Freedom is an illusion. Second, if there is a divine reality outside of our material world (God), the only exceptions to mechanical processes are God’s deliberate manipulation of the forces of nature. In other words, these two choices say that human tragedy is either the result of inevitable mechanical processes or the intentional machinations of God.
I don’t think this is what most folks have in mind when they say, “Everything happens for a reason.” What the usually mean is “Everything happens for a good reason.” The implication is that something good always comes out of tragedy, even if we have to wait a long time to experience it. A variation on this is “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” concluding that horrible experiences have a useful side: strengthening our bodies or our character. All of this seems to have a biblical patina, proof-texting such verses as Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good,” or Romans 5:4, “endurance produces character.”
But how does this play out in real life, especially in the time of tragedy? Is there comfort to be found in “Everything happens for a reason”? I don’t think so. If you are in a position to offer words of comfort to a grieving son, let me suggest three things you might say:
1. God still loves you and so do I.
2. Don’t try to figure out a reason for this terrible thing. Your head will explode.
3. It’s OK to be sad, because your father was a wonderful person and he has gone to be with Jesus now. I miss him, too.
There is one other thing I am tempted to say, but usually don’t:
4. The people who tell you this is for the best and that good will come from it are idiots. Just ignore them.
Maybe I’m being too judgmental, but grief should be comforted, not rationalized. If you have been through tragedy, you know that it does get better eventually, but now is not the time to share this. Walk with your friend in his grief and don’t try to dismiss it.
Nebraska Christian College