There are times when it's hard to know what to say, when the situation is so bleak, the problems so entrenched that it's hard to see a way out. "Everything will be all right" sounds hollow, but sometimes it's the best I can come up with. I confess to a certain tendency to commiserate. I suppose I've felt that, having no practical advice to offer, I could at least be sympathetic, and hope that brought some comfort.
But I've had to rethink that approach in light of a front-page article in this paper last week (July 19) about websites endorsing group suicides. Here was well-intentioned sympathy taken to its ultimate conclusion, and it was not helpful. Encouraging and supporting someone in taking his or her own life doesn't ease the pain of loneliness or depression or uselessness; it validates it. It says, in essence, "You're right. Your life is pointless. You've hit bottom and there's no way out." I want no part of that on any level.
There have been times when I've dug myself into some pretty deep, dark holes - a strained relationship that nearly tore my family apart, finances on the brink of bankruptcy, a teenager whose behavior was spinning out of control. These were tough times.
Looking back, I remember three or four friends whose calm, caring confidence that there was a light at the end of the tunnel brought me hope when I needed it most. They didn't flippantly dismiss the challenges I was facing. But they didn't commiserate either. They help me put things into context. They encouraged patience, prayer, and commitment. Their confidence that there was a way out encouraged me to hope.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me" (Ps. 23:4) took on deep significance for me. I began to trust that I was not a failure; things were not hopeless; God was caring for me and my family, guiding us through the dark hours, deepening my understanding, strengthening my character, turning hardships into stepping-stones to grace.
"Trials are proofs of God's care" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," page 66) was another statement that gave me hope. At first I think I just took comfort in the idea that trials weren't proof that I was a failure as a human being. But in time I came to see that real solutions involve something deeper than just escaping painful consequences. Real solutions require spiritual growth, a deeper understanding of the principles that govern right living, a willingness to put those principles into practice. God won't let us stay trapped in destructive behavior. His very mercy impels us to grow up and out of hardship.
The woman who wrote "Trials are proofs of God's care," Mary Baker Eddy, knew what those words meant. She'd lost a husband and a dearly loved mother, and her young son was taken away from her. She'd been penniless, homeless, scorned, and slandered. But she passed through it all to found a system of spiritual healing, a church, and, near the end of her remarkably productive life, this newspaper.
The Bible also offers hope for the struggling heart. Isaiah, a Hebrew prophet whose words still ring with relevance, said of the promised Messiah: "A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth. He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth" (Isa. 42:3, 4).
A modern translation puts that passage this way: "He won't brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won't disregard the small and insignificant, but he'll steadily and firmly set things right" (Eugene Peterson, "The Message").
It would be a shame if the best we could offer the "small and insignificant" were indifference or a tacit validation of their worst fears - that their life has no value and would not be missed. I would like to do better than that. So I've resolved that there will be no more commiserating. I've been through too much myself to doubt that God wants to help and guide us. And I've been too much blessed to overlook an opportunity to give back some of the encouragement and support I've received along the way. There is always a way out.
O Lord ... thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.