The Spiritual Landscape
Preaching on Suffering and Loss: Some Advice
I've traveled a lot in the last year and visited a lot of churches between Dallas and Chicago. I have also navigated the death of my younger brother. That's given me a rare opportunity, if you can call it that. I have had a chance to hear a lot of priests and pastors preach about suffering, and I have heard it from the vantage point of one who has navigated loss (yet again)—fresh, painful, and unedited.
That has made me a pretty harsh critic of sermons on suffering and they (the sermons) deserve it. So, I have some pretty direct advice to offer preachers from one who sits in the pew and knows what goes on in the study as you prepare:
One, don't offer your own life-experience if everything you've experienced by way of suffering is trivial. If your dog died, your cat got hit by a car, or you didn't pass your final exam, I have a news flash for you: In the scheme of human suffering, experiences of this kind are trivial, at best. So, don't suggest (or even hint) that you've seen the pits of human despair and loss. Those things are hard, but they don't qualify and you will alienate your congregations because, frankly, they will think, "He/she doesn't know what he/she is talking about."
Two, be careful not to equate the sufferings of Jesus (read, martyrdom) with the vast majority of human suffering (read, senseless tragedy—of which, martyrdom is another, more perverse kind of senseless tragedy). By all means, suggest that Jesus understands the suffering of others, but don't argue that cancer, car accidents, and mayhem have a redemptive purpose. They don't, and people aren't comforted by your asserting that's the case.
Three, if you lack an experience of your own, draw on the lives of those who have experienced devastating loss and have given themselves to God in the middle of that loss—without miraculous redemption, without three-fold the riches they once owned. In other words, don't be tempted to revise the ending of their stories the way that someone revised the ending of the Book of Job by suggesting when it was all over, Job was compensated with another family. The lesson that the book—without the embroidery—was meant to convey is the only useful message in many places in life: Whatever happens, trust in God.
Four, spare your listeners the spiritual pablum. No, the memory of your loved ones doesn't live on in your heart or, more accurately, it might, but then you are going to die, so what? Don't tell your congregation, "When you suffer, meditate on the good things of life, like puppy dogs and little children's laughter." If you've just lost your child, then a dog isn't much compensation and if you've just lost your child, then you aren't hearing any child's laughter that doesn't cut you like a knife.
Five, preach the hope of the Resurrection, offered in the middle of pain, darkness, and unremitting loss—a resurrection that is God's "NO!" to the unremitting, ugly, and relentless demands of death.
If you can't do those five things, then use the experience of others, preach on something else, wait until you've been through enough real loss that you are no longer tempted to offer "My Little Pony" sermons—or just go find another job.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/