On platitudes

A close up of some pretty embroidery
“Needlepoint expressions”: Sometimes the phrases worked into old-fashioned textiles have deeper meaning.

Grace for the one who hurts:

Platitudes are ubiquitous. You know what I mean. I’m talking about the things that people commonly say when faced with someone who is suffering. They roll off the tongue. Phrases like, “This too shall pass,” “Everything happens for a reason,” and “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

Most of us feel a certain distaste for platitudes, and for good reason. When we’re hurting (whether physically or emotionally), we long for those who see our pain to take it seriously. We long for a friend who is brave enough to sit with us in our heart-break and “weep with us when we weep.”

But when someone glances over all the pain that we’re in and says something (which seems to us to be) simplistic, or worse, insincere, we balk. It’s as though they have added insult to injury. When life seems bleak and hopeless, a good friend is someone who has the patience to listen, to care, and to speak authentic words of hope.

Grace for the one who doesn’t know what to say

The irony is, we’ve all been here too. We’ve all been faced with someone who hurts – and our own total inability to heal that pain. The silence is awkward. Their pain is unbearable. We do not know what to say. And yet, surely we must say something – especially if we have other obligations that prevent us from staying with them for long. What are we supposed to do or say?

I think the answer begins with acknowledging to yourself that you cannot “fix” their suffering. And in most cases, the sufferer isn’t expecting you to. We can listen. We can acknowledge that we see their pain, refusing to minimize it, explain it away or claim to understand it perfectly. And whatever we do say, we must seek to be honest and genuine, even if that means saying, “I wish I could fix this for you, but I know I can’t. And I’m not even sure what to say. I’m so sorry.”

We’re not always in a position to offer further care to someone. But if we are, we can ask the question: “Is there anything I can do for you?” And, if we can do so authentically, we can offer to take their situation to the one who is able to do for them all that we cannot: “Will you let me pray for you?” But if you offer to pray, then do so. Pray there and then. Pray later. And send them a text or an email to let them know you have been praying, perhaps even including some of the words that you’ve prayed.

The truth behind the words

A further irony is that some of those same platitudes that we referred to earlier actually do have a deeper meaning that can act as a consolation. That’s how they ended up becoming platitudes in the first place. That’s how it is that they are so often used by the well-intentioned. Aren’t they technically true? Yes, perhaps, but if they are to provide consolation, then we must delve more deeply into the meaning behind the words.

Let’s take this for an example: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” This platitude is an extrapolation of 1 Corinthians 10:13:

“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (NASB).

The passage is speaking about temptation rather than suffering, but the promise that God will not allow more than believers can handle is there. But this does not mean we will always be happy and healthy. In fact, the suggestion is that we will have trials that take us to the edge of our capacity. So this is no easy promise. It is a hard one. But there is hope in remembering that God is faithful, and in seeking him in the midst of our trouble.

Grace at the end

At the end of the day, whether we are the consoled or the consolers, we are all imperfect. We all stand in need of grace; grace to make it through the difficult moments and seasons; grace to be authentic when it’s easier to be cliché; and grace to seek God in all.

“Walking with God through Pain and Suffering” by Timothy Keller

On platitudes
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