Some clarifications from the previous post: this is definitely not a finished reflection on Christian counselling strategies. There is an immeasurably important place for careful, well chosen words that draw out pain and provide comfort for suffering people. I guess we could all work harder at learning the art of using those kinds of words. I’m working here to try and trace the foundations upon which we can speak those words and which make them comforting in a real and genuinely Christian way.
What I’m wondering about here is how our basic form of communication seems to be withdrawn from the person who suffers. We find that the only kinds of words that we can appropriately share with a suffering person are words that refer constantly to their suffering. We have a sense that to not do this would be to ignore the most significant fact about this person. But this means that in every conversation the sufferer is continually being marked out as different, separate, not part of the rest of us. No matter how much we are seeking to comfort, we are also fixing them in their pain, and excluding them from our blessing.
I’m also suggesting that our ordinary talk is perhaps under-recognised as our most comforting kind of talk. The ability to talk about ordinary things is an extra-ordinary act of trust in the simple goodness of God in sustaining and providing for our common life, and its an act of trust in the people we talk with, that we have shared interests, loves, and that we will stand and fall by them together. The suffering person has been wounded in this trust, and whenever trust is broken in one instance it threatens to overthrow all acts of trust. Which is why we are so keen to exclude the sufferer, to make him or her exceptional in some way. The question is, how do we talk to suffering people in a way that acknowledges their suffering but re-affirms that the promises of our community have not been withdrawn from them? The problem is intensified by the fact that the definitive word/acts that would re-affirm the promises of community cannot be spoken by us. We don’t have the strength to make that kind of guarantee. In fact, one of our most serious mistakes when confronted with a sufferer is to try.
What we need is to be able to say to the sufferer: “I see your suffering, I care about it. It is particular to you but it is also mine because the wound you have suffered to your trust also wounds mine. I also am a man of sorrows, the suffering I bear is particular to me, but my wound is also yours. I dwell in the eternal ‘yes’ of my Father, I have heard the word of affirmation whose writ runs right to the outer limits of hell. And I have believed it for us both. Would you like to come over for dinner?”
Only He can say it, but we can repeat it in him. Especially the bit about dinner.
For Christians, the word of affirmation spoken in the death and resurrection of Jesus enables us to gladly begin a new conversation, a ‘holy small talk’, which is the sharing of our common life in him. Through him we have a new foundation for our trust, a new hope, and thus a renewed ability to give ourselves in conversation. Actually, ‘holy small talk’ should be more properly thought of as ‘table talk’, the kind of words spoken over a shared meal. We can acknowledge suffering and still talk about our common joys. We can walk through the valley of the shadow and remark on the beauty of roses. We can be locked up in a Philippian gaol and singing choruses.