A few years ago, a friend of mine from high school killed himself.
He was about a year older and graduated a year or so before me, so I didn’t know him all to well. I never put a whole lot of myself into any of my high school friendships, and this was closer to an acquaintance than anything. In spite of this, however, I did go to his funeral.
He wasn’t really a Christian, which of course puts any Christian at a funeral in a weird place, add the ambiguities of suicide, and you have a whole bowl of difficult questions and awkward uncertainty. The service weighed heavy on sentiment, on keeping his memory alive — I suppose that’s the best one can do without an eternal soul — I don’t know how much better it makes anyone really feel, but at least it’s some degree of hope, some amount of joy that can be salvaged.
When the service was over and it came time to say one’s condolences to his family, particularly his mother, like everyone else, I got in line. I honestly had no idea what I would say, and the only reason I did get in line was because the part of me that was still growing as a young and new Christian had compassion for his family; if anything, the absence of Christ was the very thing that made me aware of the reality of their suffering. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough, I still had no words. I said little if anything — I think I slipped in an “I’m sorry” — and the next person came, and eventually I left.
Years later now, after growing and facing more of my own pain, after learning words and learning better how to face the reality of other people’s lives, I see that my best attempt at love, given such circumstances, probably would have been to pray for not only his soul, but for his family, instead of worrying about all the uncertainties his death arose — and this is where we face our great challenge.
You see, “I’ll pray for you” has become an almost dirty phrase; it has become, “I’ll say this Christian phrase to make me feel better about your circumstance, and make me feel as though I did the right thing,” when in truth, we rarely pray or do anything.
When it comes down to it, it seems that the Church has shifted from being a fellowship of love and care, to becoming a fellowship of bitter emptiness, of people who do not care, yet who throw out words like candy.
For instance, would you stand before and declare, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” to a woman who was just raped and who cannot see any hope beyond her current pain? I would hope not — but this is often how we go about it. I would hope you would sit in the dirt with her and show her compassion, show her that someone is there to not only listen, but to fight for her, to show her that the hope she cannot see now, is still holding onto her — not to stand against her like a stubborn bull, upset that she bleeds. Instead of compassion, we have traded for disgust; put the unclean in their place, and the righteous in sanitary coats and gloves. We throw out words to defend against those who might defile us, and hide in our rooms silent, crying in our own self pity.
At the end of the day, the difference between saying nothing and say something comes down to our actions. And, of all the words we throw out, “sorry” has to be one of the worst. Sorry does not require any action, or any sincerity. Why did I say, “I’m sorry” to my friend’s mother? What exactly was I sorry for? Sorry she lost her son? Sorry she would never hold the child she raised and gave birth to? Sorry he killed himself? I had no hand in any of this, and it was worthless to be sorry for it. If anything, I was sorry I had nothing to say, sorry to be sorry. Not even God asks for “sorry” though; He asks us to repent and turn from our sins. Lewis would discuss worship as a dance; our mouths pray, our bodies follow, and our spirits and hearts dance before God, unaware of how clumsy we may be (1). Worship is the liturgy, the dance of our mouths, bodies, and spirits, and if our lives are to be of continual prayer, then we ought to dance through life in worship. Sorry on its own is useless. Sorry is an accompanying word (every word really should be), a word that accompanies action. It would be far better to say, “I’m sorry, now let me come help you,” than to simply state “I’m sorry” and walk away. Sorry demands our knees to follow.
All these phrases and words, while they may have truth to them, end up bringing us very little if anything. They rarely bring us anywhere closer to God, let alone others, and they rarely give us immense guidance when life really isn’t what we’d prefer. They’re just hollow little knives that shatter before they even strike a single heart.
Lewis wrote, and it’s by far my favorite of his, “You yourself are the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words” (2).
“Sorry,” “Hi,” “How are you,” “I’m here for you,” “I’ll pray for you,” and whatever else you may, are absolutely nothing but words on their own. Words cannot be lone riders in the West, lone ships set out to sea, for alone they are nothing.
There’s a value I hold when it comes to testimonies, a value I find over and over again I alone share; I believe that testimonies are of great importance, if not the most important thing we can share with others. I know it may sound partially ridiculous (certainly telling about the “gospel” is more important), but consider it, testimonies are entirely God written, and if we allow them to be, entirely directed toward God. Telling someone about the historical event of Christ is one thing, but telling someone the story of how that same Christ altered and transformed a person’s life (two millenniums after such historical event) — certainly there’s something important there.
Testimonies are words, yet words accompanied by action. Testimonies declare an active God, an alive Christ, a “history” of faith. They not only prove us true and real, but they prove the One who wrote them true and real. And more than this, they give us reason to act, reason to believe God’s faithfulness, to declare that faithfulness, and to then act on it. Testimonies are a history of words that became action, and therefore a declaration of effect.
Speak and act, act and speak. Faith without works is dead, works without faith is breathless (3).
If someone doesn’t have faith, then give them reason to; if someone doesn’t believe, then give them reason to; if someone is hopeless, then give them reason to be hopeful. Don’t declare a self righteous command or talk them to reason. If a man is drowning, you don’t tell him to find a lifesaver, you jump into the water and save him.
While we hope to be sincere and genuine in our words, in all that we do, we are only betraying our tongues and our lives if we do not step forward with every heave-ho. Christ declared that He had come “to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to proclaim liberty to the captives and to open up their prisons” (4), and He did, and still does everyday. This is the best model we have, and the only one worth following.
1. C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcom, pg.4 2. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, pg.308 3. James 2:14-26 4. Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18 5. Image header: Francisco Goya, The Dog, 1819–1823 6. Image body: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Ballet Dancers, 1885 7. Image closer: Claude Monet, Impressionism, Sunrise, 1872