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Saying the Wrong Thing

by Tim O'Hearn

When someone is hurting, is sick, is dying, we always want to say the right thing. We want to say something comforting. We want to say something. Unfortunately, most of us haven’t learned from Job’s three friends. “So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.” (Job 2:13) After that week, though, they felt the need to speak, and said the wrong things. Actually, Job’s friends did pretty well. They lasted a whole week. Researchers say that most people feel the urge to speak after only forty-five seconds of silence.

Most often, we say something that is actually hurtful. A baby dies, and someone is sure to say, “God wanted them more than you.” Would you walk up to the mother of a kidnapped child and say, “the kidnapper needed him/her more than you”? Somebody else dies, and we tell the survivor, “They are in a better place.” Even if the deceased is a Christian, the remaining loved one is only thinking, “but they aren’t in my place.” And if the survivor is a Christian and knows the deceased is not, they may respond, “No, he’s not.”

A mother learns that her child is developmentally or physically disabled. The parent does not want to hear, “It is God’s will,” or “God doesn’t make mistakes.” We aren’t ready to hear that God has a plan. It may be years before we are able to see what that plan is; until then, the idea that God has a plan for this child makes God appear cruel and heartless.

We say these things because we don’t know what else to say, because we have heard others say them, because we feel the need to speak. Instead of saying something potentially hurtful, why not just hug the person, and sit with them for a week. Then if you have to say something, you have at least had time to think of something helpful.

The other category of speech may not be immediately hurtful; it may just be inaccurate. If they can be true when the scriptures may say otherwise, then what does the Bible say that is actually wrong? The repetition, rather than the scripture, becomes authoritative.

One group of statements may be a particular example of this. One is the aforementioned, “He’s in a better place.” Some say “(s)he’s gone to be with the Lord,” meaning that the person has died. Some athletes say, “I did it for my dad who is looking down at me from heaven.” Other than the story in Luke 16, the preponderance of scripture seems to indicate that the dead are in the grave on earth until the end of time. Paul seemed to believe so.

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God lead with him....For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (1 Thes 4:14, 16-17)

Although verse 14 is sometimes translated that Jesus will “bring” those who died before, it is still ambiguous. To state it as a fact that the dead beat us to heaven could be dangerous.

Perhaps there is no harm in repeating things that may not be quite scriptural. On the other hand, maybe repeating them undermines the authority of the Bible, just as saying hurtful things damages the speaker.