Nov 18, 2015

Can Paris Be Comforted?

A friend recently commented that they could only go to Yad Vashem, the intense Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, every five years. My answer was, “Every ten!”  It wasn’t because I want time to dim the pain or because I want to avoid pain altogether, but because in my heart pain actually doesn’t dissipate — just as the reality of what happened will never disappear. It will be as fresh to me five years later as on the day I was trapped in crowds of teenagers on that zigzagging path through memories not mine, which are etched in my soul as if they are.

 Paris is reeling today; Israel feels tragedy often; Russia and Lebanon and Nigeria are suffering. In our world and in our history lessons and in our own private experiences, searing pain is rampant. 

Is it possible to ever truly recover? Is it even right? 

Some fear forgetting, but constant (or even periodic) reminders of a sorrow aren’t often necessary — because that pain inside us is from a reality that exists outside of us. The truth is, nothing can undo something that has already been done (not even time). Once the sword pierces a heart, the fact that a wound occurred can never be denied, even if it heals — that’s what a scar is. Only Superman, in the ultimate scene of furious love, was able to force the entire globe to spin backward until time reversed and his dead love, Lois Lane, was alive again. That’s not reality. And even Jesus has not promised to spin the Earth backward—back to Eden. Instead He looks forward, and talks of comfort. 

In one of the most lyrical and heartrending passages of Hebrew scripture, Rachel, weeping for her dead children, refuses to be comforted. 

A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more.  (Jer. 31) 

I understand her. Friends have at times prayed that I would be comforted, and I have found myself resisting — fighting their words and their wish. People seem to long for comfort to end pain; but time cannot go backward, things once done cannot be undone, and accepting dullness in place of the stinging ache is to become party to a lie — that it didn’t really matter. It did. The children are dead. 

Do you feel that “comfort” would be disingenuous — pretending that all is well, that a death never occurred? 

What is dead is not alive, and to feel otherwise about it would devalue that life and delegitimize the pain of its absence. Some who’ve lost a loved one feel startled and guilty when they find themselves enjoying the little pleasures of life again. We resonate with the exiled Israelites who stirred up their remembrance for centuries, terrified of slipping into complacence: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!”   

A few years ago a man described to me how through his own drug addiction he had lost the girl he loved. He talked of a night, before he found Jesus, that God supernaturally came to him. “I can’t explain it. The only thing I can say is that God somehow comforted me.” What had happened? What did God do? This man didn’t have words for it. I’ve often remembered his story and wondered. My heart aches when I think of him (who I barely know), middle-aged and still alone. If I am still saddened, how was he comforted? One thing is sure, it wasn’t something that time did. God did it in one night. 

Pain is tricky. Time does seem to dull it, even take it away. Then one small trigger brings it back as sharp and cutting as it was the day of. That’s when we realize what we thought was comfort didn’t change the past. That’s when we feel betrayed by our own heart, which disconnected and deadened but told us it “healed.” That’s why I have resisted the word comfort, feeling guilty all the while because I know God well enough to know that He likes the word — He even calls Himself by it. 

Why is God’s Spirit called Comforter, and what does He mean when He talks of comforting us? Isn’t comfort a disingenuous dulling, an invalidation of very valid pain, a dishonoring of the truth of the event (the Holocaust, the broken heart, the missing child)? Why would He, a good God, comfort us over something as terrible as millions of innocents unjustly and viciously killed, or 129 murdered in the City of Love? Why would a good God comfort a heart that was raped or pierced or betrayed? I want Him to fix it, not assuage me. 

God’s answer to Rachel is profoundly unexpected. When she refuses to be comforted, because the children are actually dead (“they are no more,” Jer. 31:15), He tells her two things. Two very illogical things. And because of these two things He instructs her to stop weeping and dry her tears (don’t try saying that to a grieving mother anytime soon). 
  •  your children are not dead (“they shall come back”)
  •  your work will be rewarded.
 Rachel had seen her descendents killed on the streets of Jerusalem, her people exiled in chains to Babylon to be a nation no more, and the baby Messiah’s playmates murdered in every Bethlehem home. They were definitely dead. Yet God turns her accurate physical perception on its head. He regards the situation according to His own true identity, the “God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9), and speaks of them as if they were not dead. 

Did He not notice the bodies? He did, but in His mind this is already a given: He has, and will, raise them from the dead.  Therefore, they are as good as alive. So much so that Rachel ought to stop weeping. 

I know this about God. I’ve seen Him raise the dead before. It is His second unreasonable reason for her to dry her tears that strikes me to my core: 

Your work will be rewarded. 

Validated.  My work.  Validated are all the tears (for perhaps they are tears of intercession, and are doing good and real work, even while I think I am simply mourning). Validated is all the effort I’ve put into believing in the face of disappointment, into hoping against hope, into working for the freedom and redemption of those who seem lost. Validated is the pain (for suddenly, pain and suffering are gathered under the umbrella of Jesus’ own suffering, a work of great importance which I’m participating in). Validated is the prayer (how much time we have poured into lifting both family and strangers before God for help). Validated is faith (which is sometimes all I have to offer, when I am helpless and strengthless and voiceless).

The hard work of tears, of believing, of pain, of faith . . . these are not all lost in the abyss of grief. These have been safely deposited into the hands of the God who raises the dead, and He will reward them. 

So it seems this is comfort            
God will reverse it (the dead will return)            
God will give me gifts (for laboring through it) 

Is this truly the nature of comfort?  A short look at the word, as used in the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible, surprises. Job sums up his role during his prime of prosperity as a “king in the army, one who comforts mourners.” The entire passage (Job 29) describes the actions that receive that summation. He was: 
  . . . eyes to the blind
  . . . feet to the lame
  . . . a father to the poor 

  He . . . caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy      
        . . . broke the fangs of the wicked 

This is not an American description of comfort, which is more akin to the feeling we get when a fluffy goose-down blanket is lulling us to sleep. (Not that there is anything wrong with drifting to happy oblivion within a warm cuddle, but it doesn’t bring back the dead child or cause victory over Islamic terrorists.)

Lest you think I stretch the definition of to comfort as I connect it to kingly, restorative, enriching action, let’s look at the word: 
  • the dispelling of grief by the impartation of strength (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
  • to make strong; to invigorate; to fortify; to corroborate; to assist or help; to aid; to impart strength and hope to; to encourage; to relieve; to console; to cheer (Webster’s)
  • to call alongside of
 It is that last one which, in Greek, is the premier title of our most beloved and relied upon companion—the Holy Spirit of God.

Comforter.  Parakletos.  “One called alongside. Advocate. Paraclete.”  (John 14:16)  Comforter is actually the secondary, not primary, meaning. Helper encompasses it better. 

And this, dear hurting hearts, is where the power of God meets the tender needs of the human soul. When Jesus introduces us to the Holy Spirit, He calls him Parakletos, which means advocate, helper, strengthener, called to one’s side. I am deeply comforted by having a faithful companion who will never leave — but also immensely comforted by the truth that He has all power and He promises to use it to advocate on my behalf (like a lawyer), to defend me, to strengthen me, to restore to me everything that was lost, and to reward me for my work.

And so I discover that comfort, the very thing I have resisted and am uncertain how to give to others, means something entirely different than I thought. It means God will fix what shouldn’t have happened, reward me for my struggle, defend me against accusations, strengthen me, AND make me free from pain and anxiety. 

How? I can sort of see how a feeling from freedom from pain might come from the promise of reward, of a dead-raising-resolution, and of having the powerful God of all as my strengthener and constant advocate. But God doesn’t leave it up to those kingly actions to, simply as a matter of course, bind up my wounded feelings — no more than He leaves it up to time. 

He is much more intimate than that.  

Most beautifully, the “how” of a comforter is sweetly articulated in the subtext of the Hebrew word for comfort, nacham.
Nacham: weeping with one who weeps, sighing deeply with one who sighs.

Now I see it. Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the amazing Father — not only seeing our pain and promising to fix the source (as men like to do), but coming beside me to weep as deeply over it as I am weeping.

He feels with us. 

My tender roommate was the first person this morning on the scene of a dramatic rollover. The one occupant, a teenage girl, was pulled out miraculously unscathed (a few scratches) but traumatized, and my roommate simply held this stranger — held and held and held her while the girl cried and cried. Later, my own roommate cried and cried over the girl’s pain. I told her that she had been Jesus’ emissary, doing what He does. 

Sometimes I accidentally teach myself things as I write. As I’ve been pondering comfort, a memory has pricked me of a scene I wrote some time ago for an unfinished novel. The protagonist is appealing to Jesus to comfort the heart of a man (T---) whose brother has died without salvation . . . 

     “What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked. He always knew. 

     “Lord, when M---- was lost, the only thing that comforted me was that your grief was deeper than mine.”

     He nodded, searching my eyes. “It is T---- you are concerned for.”

     “To be alone in grief, to be the one with the deepest grief—it is unbearable. Your own grief is the only real comfort.      Man of sorrows,” I whispered.

It is only when Jesus himself weeps our weepings (nacham), that those griefs are fully, validatingly, comprehensively experienced. I am not capable of feeling the depth, extent, and ramifications of even one of the deaths the families in Paris are suffering this week or the families in Israel have suffered these months. But each life is intrinsically worthy, each sorrow or loss or broken heart intrinsically valid. As our hearts and bodies scream that the loss of any person, or any innocence, is devastating and must be honored by being entirely felt, I discover that only God Himself has a heart capable of fully feeling a loss like that. Only God can mourn a life as it should be mourned. (My human frame cannot withstand the depth of that pain; my human mind cannot comprehend the extensive ramifications of a life now missing, or a heart broken, or a child abused.) Only God can feel the full pain of 6 million Holocaust victims, or 129 murdered Parisians, or one rape.

Only God has the capacity to know and grieve fully. 

Just as He is currently our comforter and intercessor, kneeling beside us and breathing intensely with deep sighing over the things we sigh over, experiencing the depth of grief that would physically ruin us to experience . . . there was one particular day that Jesus did the unimaginable, the epic, the never-to-be forgotten. 

He felt it while a human man. He did it when it would hurt Him most — when it would kill Him: 

Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. 

(Isaiah 53:4)

Paris, grieve. Israel, grieve. Russia, grieve. Nigeria and Lebanon, grieve. Gentle hearts everywhere, grieve. Do not be ashamed that you cannot feel it fully or grieve it adequately. And do not be afraid to eventually come to a state of freedom from pain. Because, if you are willing to come to the Man and the Comforter, HE will grieve it fully for you. His comfort can be accepted, because it is part and parcel with His restoration, His rewards, His justice, and His promise to raise the dead. 

Our tragedies are fully grieved by a God strong enough to do it. Our hearts will be fully accompanied through them by a God who is crying as hard as we are. This is why we will be able to fully let them go, and receive our dead back alive again and receive our reward. All of this together is comfort.

[Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22)

Receive the Comforter

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