Let's not be sheepish about it, words are hurtful - they can and do leave mental bruises. The example most of us will easily recall is name calling, the chosen weapon of the school yard bully. Sadly, some of these names even follow us into adulthood - I've got a nickname from my football years that to my great disdain still get's unearthed and exhumed at certain reunions.
But I'm talking about something different.
I'm talking about words truly delivered without villainous intent. Specifically, I'm talking about phrases that we have all subconsciously responded with when we are uncomfortable or don't know what else to say. Phrases that used carelessly and without context, actually achieve the opposite of what we desired when saying them.
The reality is that we as Christians are quite good at falling back on certain axioms. I am no exception to this. Many times in my life and especially early in my ministry, upon confronting new territory or uncomfortable terrain I spit out some cliche or anecdotal blanket statement. It's something that I believe we need to improve on as a collective. The harsh truth is that careless “auto-speak” can leave deep emotional and spiritual scars, serving as a barrier between people.
I recently keynoted a three day retreat, working with wonderful staff from a variety of youth ministries and drop-in centers across the prairies. I had woven my personal story into the sessions, and my last presentation was focused on love as our primary job description as followers of Christ. Jesus, and the account of his life and ministry in the New Testament serve as the perfect example of how we need to live out our calling to love the world around us. In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul states “What is important is faith expressing itself in love” (Gal 5:6). He goes on to say in Gal 5:13, “Use your freedom to serve one another in love”. Love and service are intimately connected to our faith and our purpose in life.
There was a section in my presentation notes that was highlighted with a giant yellow question mark. It had to do with how we can love, serve and encourage people when they are experiencing adversity. As the days and hours led up to this final message in the last session, I could not decide whether to use or scrap this section. So I did what I figured would honor God the most - I decided to make an in-session, seat-of-my-pants call based on what I felt led to do in the moment.
Scary? Yes. Rewarding? Absolutely.
I was seeking to inspire and stimulate thinking, not to provoke and offend and I hoped that in the moment my very personal journey with “auto-speak” would be received humbly and thoughtfully. And so I shared the well-intentioned, but disappointing phrases that I have heard from people throughout the difficult journey since breaking my neck.
Everything happens for a reason...Christ died for your pain...You are already healed...It's God's plan for you...
As I repeated these four statements to the 75 or so people in attendance, I was actually shocked at the reception I received. Many people were vigorously nodding their heads in agreement. Some people's faces clouded over in anguish as they moved mentally to that place where some well-meaning person, somewhere in their life had smothered their vulnerability with one of these blanket statements. Even more impacting was to see people look down for a moment and wince with shame, clearly recalling a situation where they themselves had responded to someone's cry for help with “auto-speak”.
Personally, after seven long years of struggling with my worsening chronic pain, major surgery and the inability to function normally and even work, I was in a place where I was actually avoiding church and other big group settings. I had no ill will towards others, and still do not. I was just fragile. In my diminished state, I couldn't bear to open up and possibly hear the wrong thing. It was an act of self protection.
Please hear me as someone who has been on both sides of this debate.
When people are burdened, when they are being crushed and oppressed by the difficulty of life, and when they finally have the courage, faith or transparency to reach out in their toughest moments - these types of "auto-speak" responses can do damage.
I believe we can each find immense purpose in persevering through hardship. I also believe that God's plan for pain can't always be for us to skip it. But in the midst of prolonged suffering, and in the midst of sharing that burden with someone else, being told that it is God's plan for your life is a difficult, bitter pill to swallow.
Everything happens for a reason in no way comforts someone in their darkest moments of crying out. Knowing how lovely the end product of Chanel perfume smells in no way makes whale vomit (it's main ingredient) more appealing. I believe with everything in me that God has a plan for each of our lives, but that knowledge does not soften the sting of suffering through it in the immediate moment.
You are healed! Am I? It doesn't feel that way today. Do I believe each day that I could be fully healed at any given moment? Absolutely. Has my faith grown despite that not coming to pass as of yet? Yes! Are my heart and soul healing even as my body has suffered over these years? Certainly. But this statement can lead to a lot of confusion.
So what should you respond with?
I'm glad you asked! We'll take a look at what I believe that answer could be in my next article.