Reflections on the Stupid Things People Say When They Talk to You About God
The following is a reflection written by my friend Cordelia. It made me think about the way I respond to others in crisis … Well said, my friend. Thank you for sharing.
One of the particular useful bits about going through difficult times during seminary is that one is afforded with the opportunity to personally experience the kinds of things other ministerial or pastoral types say in response to a crisis. (Another useful bit is that finally there is something useful to write about in whatever journal it is that one is obligated to write as a spiritual discipline for whichever class is requiring it this semester J).
Kate Braestrup wrote in There if You Need Me about the experience of losing her husband while she was at seminary. She found it a comforting yet oddly unnerving experience to have all those empathetic, caring types flexing their pastoral care muscles in her direction. In my current painful personal side excursion I have found those close to me to be wonderfully sensitive and supportive, yet the experience has caused me to be more aware of how other people talk about the ways in which God is present in crisis. People say stupid things – even smart, theologically sensitive people – and I have been compiling a list in my head. Here is my current list of comments that truly bug me:
1. “God is good.” This is usually the next sentence after sharing positive news as in “The test results came back and it is not cancer. God is good.” or “The baby is healthy. God is good.” What does this mean- that God wouldn’t be good if the cancer had returned or there had been complications with the birth? Are they saying that God is particularly blessing them or that God’s nature is provisional and dependent on our levels of comfort and achievement? I suspect that what people mean when they say this is that they are happy for good fortune and rejoice, giving thanks to God, but I wonder what happens, every time these things are said, to the people hearing the words who have not received a positive diagnosis or good fortune. Do they feel forgotten by God and have we reinforced this feeling with this phrase?
2. “God is really testing you right now.” This makes it sound like a person in crisis is engaged in some sort of advanced placement or achievement test. Where are my number two pencils? If I do really well, what is my reward – an AP calculus test? Does this mean I get to test out of some even more painful part of my life? Do I get a certificate? God is not testing me or you – God is with us, most especially during difficult periods in our lives, seeking to transform our pain and confusion, to redeem suffering and create wholeness.
3. “God will never give you more than you can handle.” This makes it sound like we are in the midst of a celestial fitness routine with God as trainer pushing us forward, urging us to do one more repetition, cheering us with “Just one more! I know you can do it,” driving us forward into achieving spiritual abs of steel or awesome emotional triceps. Life is not a test or an endurance routine. It is a gift. Almost anything is too much to handle when we feel all alone; almost anything can be borne when we feel loved and supported.
There are more, but I don’t want to sound too overwrought and besides I have several papers which I have to continue to avoid doing. I know you will want to share your favorites as well. As we come to the end of Holy Week and move from considering the unbearable to trusting in the impossible, it seems a particularly appropriate time to reflect on the ways in which what we say reflects, often inadvertently, what we really believe about God. Who is the God revealed in the words we speak to others- particularly those in crisis?