The Two Words I'm Eliminating from my Vocabulary

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not healing, not curing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.
Henri Nouwen.

Photo by  Ali Morshedlou  on  Unsplash

Whenever something small goes wrong at work, my lovely, hilarious colleague automatically responds with “God’s judgement.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek throwback to her Catholic upbringing. Her boyfriend has even started saying it now, which vexes her greatly, as he doesn’t even believe in God!

Job’s friends, though, aren’t so funny. Here is a man who knows what it is to suffer. He loses his children and his business in one day and then gets covered in painful sores all over his body.

When it first happens, Job’s friends respond well. They come and sit with him in silence for seven days, recognising the depth of his pain.

But as soon as they open their mouths, it is clear they have come with their automatic message of “God’s judgement.” They assume Job and his children must have done something wrong and have been punished as a result.

“Remember,” says Eliphaz, “who that was innocent ever perished?” (Job 4:7).

God, however, does not agree with their assessment. Twice, at the end of the book, he reprimands these friends: “you have not spoken of me what its right.” (Job 42:7, 8). Reading back through the lens of the New Testament, we can understand why. God himself, in the person of Jesus, became the innocent person who perished. He absorbs, rather than causes, suffering.

Job’s friends are casting round for an easy answer. They want someone to blame so they don’t have to face Job’s powerlessness in the face of his suffering – and, by extension, their own. They clutch onto black and white thinking, where the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. They’re not able to embrace the mystery with Job. They’re not willing to stay in the questions or hold space for an experience they can’t comprehend.

I notice this tendency in myself sometimes. The desire for quick fixes and simple solutions in the face of another’s pain. I notice it in my responses that begin with at least…

At least it’s not worse.
At least you’re not starving.
At least you don’t have to go to work tomorrow.
At least you’ve got a roof over your head.

When I respond with at least, I’m negating someone else’s suffering. I haven’t paid attention to how they really feel or what they’re trying to communicate. I’m too busy trying to look on the bright side, to move them on quickly or chase my own agenda.

It leaves no room for grace or mystery. It leaves no space for healing or presence. It’s not the way Jesus treats people. He sat and talked with the woman at the well. He grieved with Mary and Martha when Lazarus died. He noticed Zacheus up a tree and had dinner with him. He paid attention the blind man’s cries for mercy. He pays attention to us, too.

So I want to eliminate those two words, at least from my vocabulary. I want to replace them with things like, I’m so sorry; that sounds really hard; how do you feel about that? How best can I support you right now?

And maybe sometimes no words are needed at all. Just being there is often enough.

This is my third post in a series about friendship. You can read the first two posts here:

Building Bridges not Walls: Three Practices for Flourishing Friendships

On Dismantling Barriers and Coming Home