Be a Comforter, not an Interpreter

Given my discussion of the “why” question in the last few posts, I want to offer a caution to would-be comforters. Here is some advice from a sufferer.

We don’t know what God is doing in a person’s life.  We don’t know the reason “this” or “that” happened. We don’t know for certain whether there is a reason or there is no reason.  We are neither prophets nor prophetesses.   I don’t even understand why I do some of the things I do much less why God does or does not do what he does!

Consequently, do not offer any sort of reason or explanation for the tragedy.  This includes such comments as “it will turn out for the best” or “God is trying to teach you something” (and certainly don’t specify what you think God is trying to teach them) or “It could be worse.” These are interpretative statements.  They assume more than anyone knows.

To intepret a person’s tragedy is the worst possible and, unfortunately, the most common mistake of would-be comforters.  An interpreter is no longer sitting with the hurting but is rather directing the hurting to not hurt or not hurt as badly.  When you interpret my tragedy, you no longer sit beside me but you stand over me as some kind of magisterium. This is was the mistake of Job’s friends and so many have made after them.

One sort of interpretative move is tell sufferers how they should feel or how they will feel.  Never tell a sufferer what they are feeling, how they should feel and how long the feeling will last or should last. The comforter should only speak of their own feelings.  We can tell them how we feel but never  how they should feel or do feel. Let the sufferer speak their own feelings, and we should never speak for them.

Sufferers are rarely looking for advice from their comforters.  If they need advice, they will ask for it.  But it seems like comforters tend to think they have just the right piece of information or direction that will help resolve the inner conflict of the sufferer.

Be a comforter, not an interpreter.  Be present with them, listen to them, weep with them, express your love for them, tell them how you feel, and do something for them.


I will now lay aside this prolonged discussion of grief, suffering and pain.  It certainly deserves more attention, but I think I need a break.  I will take a break for Memorial day and then begin my series on “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics” (specifically as it applies to Churches of Christ in the 20th century with some background in the 19th century).

19 Responses to “Be a Comforter, not an Interpreter”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Most of the time when people tried to offer their reasons for “why” my son died, I took them with great patience realizing that despite the hurt of such reasons that they were made with good intentions. However, one person tried to rationalize that God did not let my son live because God was not ready for me to be a parent yet. That made me mad enough that I shouted out “if that is true then God failed because I will always be a parent and father to my son Kennny.”

    When it comes to comforting the hurting, our “sermons” need to be with action and NOT words.


  2.   J D Says:

    Thank for these messages John Mark. I am totally in the dark in my grief. You have given some light … but … it just feels like nothing much matters.

  3.   preacherman Says:

    Moving post brother.
    We are praying for strength and comfort for the days, weeks and months ahead.

  4.   Quiara Says:

    Thank you, once again. (I must sound like a broken record, I’m sure, but there are only so many words that express that thought and all of them poorly.) If there were anything I wish people would grasp in relation to one another, it is this. Ironically, the only one we care to ask for interpretation of our sorrows and loss is God — and he, more than anyone, doesn’t say.

  5.   CarisseB Says:

    I think that comforters sometimes slip into interpretation because of their own anxious need for order and reassurance. They are really trying to console themselves, not the one who actually has lost a beloved one.

    I think that Stephen Broyles’s book The Wind That Destroys and Heals presents grief authentically and compellingly. A couple of years after my father’s death, this book came to my attention and I read it at one sitting. Broyles can help a grief stricken person because he expresses feelings rather than interpreting. He articulates what he is feeling in a way that a sufferer knows that this is a person who understands what it is to suffer.

    I appreciate this recent series of posts. It is a privilege to see deeper into your heart. And I think your words of pain, like Broyles’s, help us utter the unutterable. They are costly words, but I thank you for them.

  6.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Maybe we’ve been asking a question.
    Maybe we got exactly what we asked for.
    I know when I was 22 I wanted to learn all that I can learn so that I can teach my kids and be prepared for life.
    Here I am 60 years old and six kids and a wife.
    A beautiful wife and wonderful kids.
    Am I happy.
    I feel like I’m on God’s emotional trampling.

    What I’m getting at here is maybe we got exactly what we asked for.
    And we have a little inkling of what God goes through every second of every day.
    In one respect or another.
    Were all supposed to be particulars of the divine nature.
    Maybe we just don’t like

  7.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    it is creation that has it seems to have put them through an awful lot of grief to me.
    Maybe that’s what grace is all about.
    You think

    Just another perspective
    blessings rich in California

  8.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I, too, would recommend Broyles book. It is quite helpful and he moves us through some of the lament of Scripture.

    I am reasurred that darkness is as light to our God (Psalm 139), but sitting in the darkness there appears to be little, if any, light. John, may God give you some light in the midst of your deep and overwhelming darkness.

    Words are woefully inadequate. Those worth hearing are those that speak the feelings of the heart for those who are hurting.

  9.   Gardner Hall Says:

    Thanks for your wise exhortations and also the excellent comments about them

  10.   Keith Brenton Says:

    John Mark, if some day you can stand to go further with the subject of suffering and pain … and especially how to (and NOT to) help others through it … do you have any idea how much a book like that is needed among those of us who have only been hurt enough to be hurtful when we mean to be helpful?

    Even if you just edited it?

    Can you imagine how powerful such counsel could be coming from those who have some depth in the matter? Yourself? Mike Cope? John Dobbs?

  11.   Mark Littleton Says:

    Thanks for the wise counsel, John Mark. As a preacher trying to help those who are grieving, I’ve tried to follow your advice, but more than once I’ve stuck my foot squarely in my mouth. The urge to “fix it” just becomes so overwhelming, and I wind up saying things I really don’t have any knowledge of. Thanks for the reminder…

  12.   Adam G. Says:

    When my father died I needed people to either listen or just remain silent with me, not tell me what was happening. It upset me to read that people have been telling John Dobbs that ridiculous line about God “needing another angel.” Job’s friends did the most good while they just sat and said nothing. They started talking and only made matters worse.

    Regarding the loss of John Robert Dobbs, I say the same thing I felt about the death of my father: THIS IS WRONG.

  13.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Another favorite is “God plucked a rose from his garden to take it home with him.” I understand the intent of the metaphor–it is supposed to be a comfort, a sense of God’s care as the loving gardner who appreciates beauty and communion.

    The problem is that I think of that rose as my rose. The metaphor sends to the sufferer the sense that God is picking on them–he picked my rose (much like in Nathan’s parable the rich man took his neighbor’s lamb!).

    At another level, however, I do recognize that it is not really my rose but God’s rose. He will care for his garden as he pleases and I will trust his wisdom and care. But, as a sufferer, it feels like betrayal to my rose to think that way.

    Certainly, in the moment of grief, especially in the earliest moments, it is not only unwise but triggering to use such metaphors. It is better, as Adam, says to remain silent and listen.

  14.   Rex Says:

    Adam is exactly right about the listening and silence aspect to comforting the suffering.

    When someone is suffering (death of a loved one, divorce, victim of a crime and/or victime of abuse, etc… many forms of suffering), just be there and listen. If the sufferer wants to talk about it then they will talk about it, leaving the comforter to listen and when the comforter must speack, to do so with wisdom and without interpretation or analogy.

    When my son died there were times I wanted to speak about it and times I did not. Some people understood that and respected that wish. They were very helpful, not because of what they said or did not say but because of their willingness to be available and vulnerable (two qualities that I believe are necessary to truly grive with the grieving).

    Wonderful post!

  15.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    It really is all about Fellowship.
    In the common bond that we all have in the church especially.
    I find that so lacking in my life at times even with my wife, it drives me to such despair I don’t know whether I’m looking up or down.
    Rich in California

  16.   Rhonda Doss Russell Says:

    John Mark,
    I have been reading your comments on grief and suffering. It has been helpful to me to see others that have the same responses and feelings after a tragic death of a loved one. My son-in-law was killed in action in Baghdad, Iraq on August 17, 2007 from small arms fire and a road side bomb. He was married to my daughter for 2 years and was only 24 years old. I have been overwhelmed by my anger with God not only to lose my son-in-law but to watch my daughter grieve for her husband.
    John Mark I’ve known you since we were teenagers and I always admired your insight even back “in the day.” Thanks for sharing your struggle with grief and trying to make sense of it all. I’ve shared this with my daughter hoping in some way it will help her through this journey.

  17.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Rhonda, I am so sorry to hear about the death of your son-in-law. What a horror that has come to so many in the last five years! Surround her, my friend, with you love which I am sure you are doing.

    Thank you for your kind remarks and the nudge to remember those childhood days.

    Blessings on your family, my dear sister.

  18.   Florida Says:

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Florida

  19.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Just when I think I have heard everything and am prepared to hear everything, I get caught completely off guard.

    At our church there is a Christian lady who really has some fanatical stories about encounters with God. My wife believes she suffers from bi-polarism. Any ways, last Wednesday I tried to explain to her why a child’s death is never “good” even with the promise of heaven. We have an elderly couple at our church who many years ago lost a son (in a car accident) and the father was telling our small group about his experience, when this lady proceeded to tell him that his child’s death was a good thing. So later that evening, I told her that I too had lost a child and that I do not believe child loss or any death can ever bedescribed as a good thing.

    So last Sunday this lady came up to me, trying to comfort me, and proceeded to tell me that God allowed her to speak with my son, Kenny, and that Kenny told her to tell me that I should not be upset about his death because he is with God now.

    I was very gracious to her as I realize that she meant well even if such comment is not well. But I really wanted to tell her she has no right to speak about my son, that she never even knew him. However, I am not sure such rebuttle would serve any good purpose.



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