Loss and its accompanying grief fragment and shatter our reality. Familiar paths of life and meaning are ruptured or dissolved by a rising tide of events we have little control over. Soul care, at its best, is a ministry that provides a balm to the seeping wounds of grief. It scaffolds and holds the sufferer through the unfamiliar tangle of grief when the familiar paths are overgrown, moving only at the pace that the sufferer can manage.
Yet, anyone who has spent much time with people grieving the loss of someone they love will have heard on more than one occasion examples of people’s rather clumsy attempts at words of comfort. These attempts might include phrases such as “they’re in a better place,” or “you’ll be fine,” or “stay strong.” They may offer explanations: “everything happens for a reason,” or suggestions that the sufferer sees things from a different perspective that begins with “at least you still/or can …” Sentiments such as these very often require a commitment to an image or idea that further burdens the sufferer.
Similar attempts to quote the Bible or express a biblical sentiment place similar burdens on the sufferer.
- There are several verses so repeatedly misapplied they bear outlining them here.
- God is faithful. He will not allow you to be tested beyond your ability (1 Cor 10:13)
- Do not be anxious about anything (Phi 4:6)
- God intended this suffering for good to accomplish his work (Gen 50:20)
- Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thes 5:18)
- The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the Lord (Job 1:21)
- And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good. (Rom 8:28)
- We may plan all we want, but it is still the Lord’s plan that will reign. (Proverbs 19:21)
The critical issue is, will this verse resonate with the sufferer in the midst of their present suffering? Are they able physically and mentally to integrate this concept into their world now, or does it simply become another overlay that prevents genuine integration? Such verses were written for a specific context and are a helpful but generalised touchstone of faith. There are inherent dangers in applying extracted and globalised wisdom to highly specific local situations which risk exacerbating and intensifying the sufferer’s grief. As with the words of Job’s comforters, these attempts minimise, or worse still, deny the reality of the suffering of the bereaved. In a previous post, we observed that suffering is nuanced, and context always matters. To this, we could add another truism – grief and loss are experienced as anguish within the soul, not as dilemmas to be solved.
There are many reasons why these words further injure the bereaved. Such causes include misunderstanding the nature of the losses that people grieve, poor skills at communicating sympathy and compassion, and a lack of differentiation between the comforter’s unease and the care needed for the sufferer, leading to an unfortunate consequence that their own discomfort is inadvertently projected onto the sufferer.
Their actions exhibit a faulty theology, such as the theology of Job’s comforters for which they God critiqued them, “You have not spoken truly about me, as my servant Job has.” (Job 43:8)
John Frame’s Triperspectival ethical model offers a framework that helps avoid the failure of Job’s friends. Frame contends that errors in interpretation stem from misunderstanding our finitude and not sufficiently grasping our limited perspective and that we do not see reality from a Divine perspective. Frame’s triperspectival ethic accentuates three perspectives from which events can be viewed: 1) a normative perspective where events can be understood from a divine vantage point; 2) a situational perspective from the point-of-view of information and that which can be gained by observation, and 3) an existential perceptive which represents the internal experience of the people involved in the event under observation.
If we consider the verses listed above, they tend towards a normative viewpoint, where all the intertwining threads of existence can be seen from above across time. Similarly, we might consider the sufferer’s limited perspective on events they are experiencing, yet, seeing only through a glass darkly viewed from below, shrouded in mist. If the carer assumes a theological perspective above, it distances the carer from the sufferer rather than moving towards them. The ministry becomes commentary rather than sympathy. Comfort, intercession and accompaniment are lost while the other passes alone through their valley of the shadow of death.
There are rich streams of comfort through Scripture that speak into shadowy and fragmentary experiences of pain, loss, suffering, and evil. Scriptures that are written from the view below, verses that intercede for broken hearts and crushed souls. Frame’s Triperspectival model provides an integrated theological framework for making sense of God and reality and provides a well-defined explanation for why the above comments fail to offer the comfort the carer intended.
A critical task of pastoral theology is to cultivate the ability to act appropriately at particular times. This includes understanding why some pastoral interventions help in some circumstances but cause harm in other contexts and identifying the multiple variables in a situation. Theology, in essence, is wisdom, a sense-making framework from the standpoint of Scripture.
To be continued in the next post The Existential Frame of Soul Care