Immediately after he passed away, a nurse came in and made an empty attempt at comfort, “He’s in a better place” she said. As soon as the words were uttered they seemed to bounce around the room with nowhere to comfortably land. For the sake of context, this was spoken to a dear woman, only nanoseconds removed from the loss of her husband and best friend of forty-eight years. Better place? Really? Is it wise to tell a woman who has just lost the closest of human relationships that your husband is better off because he’s no longer here with you? Regardless of intentions and whatever this might mean, Christians (and especially pastors) need to do better.
I believe that “heaven is for real,” not because some four year old has an out of body experience and lives to tell about it. Heaven, like hell, is real because the Bible assumes the veracity of both. Christians are often easily duped into throwing out the Bible and taking up second-hand experiences as proof of this and that. We should remember that the Bible is sufficient reason enough to believe that after our earthly existence, our souls will be immediately present with Christ and will await a future resurrection of our bodies in which the ultimate destination (i.e., place) becomes a new heaven a new earth. This I know because the Bible tells me so.
Could this be what that poor nurse was getting at? Was she attempting to emphasize that, “he’s in a better place”? If so, it would seem that the weight of scripture would be on her side. The great Apostle surely indicates as much, stating that to be absent from the body is “to be at home with the Lord” (emphasis mine, 2 Cor 5:8). Also, we believe in the immortality of the soul so if it’s not here then it has to be somewhere. So if this were her intention she would be theologically correct on a number of points. However, I don’t think this is what she was aiming for.
The problem of the nurse’s hollow comfort is one that is painfully acute with Christians. We want to say something, anything that might bring comfort so we grab for sayings that have been handed down to us by our own experiences or from the self-help section at the Christian bookstore. In so doing, we grab the mantle laid down by the likes of Job’s friends. He too had questions about “place” and the afterlife. Poor Job wondered, “Man expires, and where is he?” (Job 14:10). His friend, Eliphaz, chimes in and says that such questions are “useless talk” and then proceeds to wax on about his life experiences.
You see the problem is not with the technicality of the answer from the nurse. On the theological merits, she was correct—he was in a better place. The problem is that the suffering widow was not asking a question. She was grieving, sobbing, and her mind was undoubtedly racing in many directions. The nurse was answering a question, that at least in that instant, no one was asking. In such moments it is imperative that a pastor retain the discipline and wisdom of holding his tongue. This is not to say that we take up vows of silence when thrust into these situations but less is more.
The Proverbs speak of the delight of a “timely word” (15:23). If we were to unpack the fullness of what this means then we would see that it is a word that is measured with wisdom, truth, and patient compassion. A timely word can be a word delayed either in a letter, email, or note of sympathy. A timely word may be a conversation over coffee months later when important questions do arise. A timely word may be no word at all, at least in that moment.
I was recently reminded of this from the likes of an atheist no less. In a sad Vanity Fair essay Christopher Hitchens, who is suffering from esophageal cancer, says something that I was unable to forget:
So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.
In the essay, Hitchens was bemoaning the dictum that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” This line, probably adapted from Nitzsche who borrowed it from Goethe, rings hollow for Hitchens. It’s nothing more than a “facile maxim.” This led me to wonder, how often do pastors spout mottos that have a ring of truth in the moment yet fail to deliver (“live up to their apparent billing”)? Let’s part ways with them and redeem our conversations. This will mean that when we do speak, it will be the truth in love with the goal of helping one another mature in Christ (Eph 4:15).