A mother cannot feed her children. A teen girl raped is now pregnant. A wife uncovers her husband’s affair. A young man grieves a lost lover. A community is swept up into war.
There is no easy solution for tragedy. Despair can loom for months or years – maybe even a lifetime. The long-term impact of suffering increases the risk of people giving up – or giving in. When despair turns to hopelessness, people often turn to destructive coping behaviors.
For the poor, theft may suddenly become a viable justice strategy. For the spouse victimized by adultery, relational trust may be elusive. For the community caught in war, a whole generation’s access to education may be lost (among other devastating consequences).
The one thing suffering people do not need is our failure to understand their suffering. Unfortunately, they are prone to being dismissed with unhelpful cliches that fail to extend love or practical care.
I once heard a wealthy man say, “I am tired of hearing about poor Haitians. Why don’t they just work?” He had never traveled to Haiti. This get a job cliche allowed him to live comfortably detached from the decades of justice work needed to improve job prospects for poor people around the globe.
More recently, a state senate candidate claimed that the bodies of rape victims can block pregnancy. If this were true, the argument goes, then we would never have to allow abortion for any reason. The problem, of course, is that this ongoing claim is not so accurate.
Individuals who experience unwanted SSA commonly hear similar cliches that leave them feeling deeply misunderstood. Those who are uncomfortable with homosexuality tend to sweep others’ pain under a rug of cliches. They resort to things like just let it go or you can change if you just try harder.
For people who have already tried very hard to change, these cliches open up old wounds. It may trigger the self-hatred and suicidality they just recovered from. Or it may trigger old fears of family rejection, religious condemnation and social exclusion.
Cliches surface whenever we possess limited tools for addressing complex issues. In the case of homosexuality, historically our only tool was moral doctrine. This one-dimensional approach crippled our ability to care well for hurting individuals.
While the church is enhancing its pastoral care response to those who experience non-heterosexual orientations and identities, unhelpful cliches continue to surface. The result is predictable – an increase in others’ suffering. I counsel these individuals every day and see their tears.
There may be no easy solution for those who face personal difficulties like SSA, but there is a fix for our deficits in care. We can listen patiently, pray compassionately, invite warmly, visit regularly, walk faithfully, include generously, counsel practically, and hug frequently.
As for cliches, just let them go. When we do, we find a more authentic reflection of Christ shining in and through us. The fruit is not just what we offer others but a more intimate comfort we receive from Jesus for ourselves. The giver and the receiver both benefit when authentic care is offered.
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