Stop Talking. Start Listening.
When tragedy strikes, people want desperately to make sense of things. Whether it is a global concern with lots of people being hurt and killed or the sudden death of a beloved public figure, we turn to words to get a handle on things when words are woefully inadequate to address tragedy.
In general, we use words to control things, to define things, and to give ourselves hope and meaning. The problem is that words struggle to do those things at all in complex, deep tragic situations. It is frequently a false sense of control, shallow definitions, and false hope that emerges. All the while, we begin to feel “better” as we put things into nice neat boxes: here’s “why” this happened, here’s “what” we should do, etc. However, should feeling better and having resolution ever be our goal in the midst of tragedy and pain and suffering?
If you’ve ever been with someone right after they lost a loved one to a suicide or a murder or an accident, words are not helpful. Presence is what is needed. Listening is the currency of love in those situations. In talking with people who experienced tragedy, “friends” are often in short supply as people either give platitudes (i.e., words) or they just don’t show up because they don’t know what to say.
The reality is that we haven’t been trained or mentored in our modern world to just be quiet and listen. We live in a “telling” culture, not a “listening” culture, and our technology puts “telling” on hyper-drive. We get to tell and express “our words” to our heart’s content on social media, saying things that we might not say if we were sitting across the table from someone. It’s hard to live well in the midst of tragedy in this modern world, but it’s not impossible.
First, we have to come to grips with the fact that when we feel like our lives are out of control and a mess, we go to words. James 1:19 says, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” Why does James give this counsel? For the first part of James 1, the discussion is about trials and sufferings. What is our temptation in the midst of sufferings? To talk. To get angry. However, we are counseled to listen … to hear. Why? Because the anger of man does not “produce the righteousness of God.” So, in verse 21, we are challenged to “receive with meekness the implanted word.” In other words, in tragedy, we stop talking and start listening to God with humility. We open ourselves to the reality that, especially in suffering and trials, we don’t know and we can’t control. We open ourselves to God. We stay quiet so that He can speak and lead and guide. The words of God that we find in the Bible do not explain the problem of evil but tell us how to love each other and trust Him in the midst of it.
Second, we have learn to wait. In Lamentations 3, the prophet Jeremiah is watching the destruction of his beloved home of Jerusalem. It was not only a physical home but a spiritual home as well. As he watched the tragedy, he penned these words:
Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. (3:19-25)
His point (not that he was necessarily trying to make one)?
- Feel the pain and let it bring you to a place of humility
- Bring the confusion and hurt and disappointment to mind and look to God
- Remember that He is good and He is your portion (what you need) not control or definitions or meaning
- Wait for Him
There doesn’t seem to be a suggestion that actions and responses in the midst of tragedy aren’t called for but there is a spirit in which we act and speak. It is with a listening, waiting heart … a humble, dependent heart that doesn’t know all things and can’t control.
I wonder if this is why someone once said, “Preach the gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” Remember, there should not be an “either/or” approach to words and actions. We are clearly called to both but only that listening, waiting heart can give power and substance and weight to our words and actions.
Let’s be careful out there and be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.