Nancy Guthrie knows what it is to grieve. She has felt, as she calls it “the dark clouds of sorrow” moving in.

Nancy and her husband David have a 20 year old son, and also had two children, a daughter, Hope, and a son, Gabriel, who were born with a rare genetic disorder called Zellweger Syndrome. Hope and Gabriel each lived only six months. Her own experience of going through suffering within the church led her to write about the hope that can be found in suffering, and to look more closely at how the church can walk alongside someone going through loss.

In church, we can sometimes give the impression that tears reflect a lack of faith.

Speaking at Oxygen Conference this week in Sydney, Nancy gave five practical ways that Christians can disciple a brother or sister in Christ through grief:

1. Overcome the awkwardness to engage

How many times have you thought, when seeing someone at church who you know has suffered a loss in their family, or is experiencing a health issue, “I need to say something, and I want to say something, but what in the world should I say?”

Nancy says a common thing that holds us back from speaking to those going through suffering is the fear we will say the wrong thing, or something that makes things worse.

“It can seem safer to keep your distance,” she said.

There’s also a tendency to justify not saying anything to a suffering friend because there are others who know the person better, or can say something better, and so perhaps they won’t even notice if we never say anything. But in her own experience Nancy says “I knew every person who was willing to overcome the awkwardness to engage. Even if it was just to come and squeeze my hand, or say ‘I’ve heard about what’s going on.'”

She says that the effort it takes to say something, matters. By not saying anything, disappearing while a friend is grieving, you are likely hurting and disappointing them even more. “The most important thing is to say something.”

Guthrie says, to a person who is hurting, it can feel as though there’s a “hurdle” between them and every other person. And until you overcome the awkwardness and say something to acknowledge that person’s loss, the wall will stay up.

 2. Make room for tears and sadness

“In church, we can sometimes give the impression that tears reflect a lack of faith.” And that’s a problem. For a person in deep grief, says Nancy, church is a hard place to be.

She gives the example of what it was like for her after losing her baby daughter, Hope, and coming to church.

Faith doesn’t make loss hurt less.

“I remember singing ‘I sing for joy at the work of your hands. Forever I’ll love you, forever I’ll stand.’ How many times I had sung those words, and how easily those words had come. But now they cost me something: to declare to God that no matter what He did, I would have joy in what He did in my life, and I was going to love him forever. That was easier to say before it cost me so much.”

Nancy describes her grief as one where tears were “always close to the surface”. And at church, as she sung words like that, and cried, she felt as though she were a spectacle.

“I felt like my tears made people worry, like something was wrong that I was that sad.” At another church event, she felt like she needed to say to people “I’m not slipping into a depression, I haven’t lost my faith. I’m just sad. And I just need you to give me some time and space to be sad.”

Guthrie says that a supportive person will make it okay to “just be sad”.

“Faith doesn’t make loss hurt less.”

There are also times, says Nancy, when it might look like a person who’s been through an ordeal, or is in the midst of suffering, is actually having a good day. They might be smiling. And it can feel as though we shouldn’t say anything to them about their hurt, because it’ll make them feel sad again. But Guthrie says that’s a fiction.

“You know what? They’re already sad. And when you say something to them, it’s not that you make them sad, you give them the opportunity to release some of the sadness that they’re already feeling.”

3. Go deeper than deliverance in prayer

A church that only knows how to pray for suffering to be removed and knows nothing about praying for it to be redeemed isn’t a safe church for sad people to be in.

What do the prayer requests in your church newsletter look like? If your church is like many, they’ll be a list of physical needs and prayers of deliverance: “God, please heal X”; “Lord, please pull X out of their suffering.”

But Nancy says Scripture reveals over and over again that God has good purposes in mind for our suffering, so why would we limit ourselves to praying only for suffering to be removed?

She gave several examples of things to pray for beside those prayers of deliverance. For example, we could pray through 2 Corinthians 12:9, that the person in suffering might experience what others only read about in the Bible.

“Jesus will give the grace you need in the form, timing and quantity in which you need it. [He says] I’ll be enough for you to endure the suffering that I’m not going to remove from you,” says Nancy. “You could pray through this passage – that [the person suffering] might experience the ‘enoughness’ of Jesus in the midst of their difficulty.”

Other Bible passages that you could look to for guidance on how to pray for your friend who is suffering: John 9:3, John 15:2, 2 Corinthians 1:3, 2 Cor 1:8-9, 2 Cor 4:10-11, 2 Cor 12:7, Phil 3:10, Hebrews 12:10-11, James 1:2-5, 1 Peter 1:6,7.

“A church that only knows how to pray for suffering to be removed and knows nothing about praying for it to be redeemed isn’t a safe church for sad people to be in. People are left confused and oftentimes angry when there was only prayer for deliverance, and the deliverance didn’t come.”

4. Anticipate the family (and church) pressure points 

There is likely going to be some awkwardness or tension in the church or in the family after suffering or loss. When Nancy’s daughter died, she recounts the heartbreaking experience of congratulating another member of her church on the birth of their own child, just days afterwards. Or, the experience of a widow or widower coming to church (amongst many, many couples) for the first time since the death of their spouse.

There are two ditches, says Nancy, that people can fall into after loss. The first is to draw away and hide. But despite how difficult it may be, these people too need to come back to church. Looking for opportunities to come alongside those people, like meeting the widow outside church, sitting with them during the service and having lunch with them afterwards, so they don’t immediately go back home alone, is a practical way of supporting them.

The other ditch people can fall into is that they’ve gotten used to their struggle being the centre of attention. “And they can feel resentful when people stop focusing on them anymore. Grief has a tendency to become very self-focused. We can expect everyone to walk on eggshells around us.”

But sometimes, those people eventually need someone to “gently nudge them out of their self-focused. That they don’t want their sorrow to become their badge of honour.”

5. Encourage turning misery into ministry

“Sometimes people who have the deepest hurts in your church might be the best equipped to help others in the midst of pain.” But there’s a need, says Nancy to facilitate a culture in the church that encourages those who’ve gone through sorrow to “change their mindset”.

“Now that they’re eyes have been opened to great sorrow, [we can encourage them to] open their eyes to people who are hurting like they are, and give their lives away to other people who hurt.”

Ultimately, Nancy says that suffering presents incredible opportunities to develop genuine,  deep and life-changing discipleship.” It’s where Christians often realise for the first time how much their faith matters.

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