Comfort vs Encouragement: Jesus’ Responses to Mary and Martha

August 14, 2012 § 5 Comments

The past few weeks have been kind of tough for my wife and me. Not long ago, we marked the one year anniversary of our return to the States after living in Taiwan for 10 years. We assumed that by this time we’d have this next stage of our life on track, but instead, we’ve got a lot of loose ends, still looking for full-time work and long-term housing. As Ruth Van Reken says (talking about Third Culture Kids, but it has broad applications), “Every time there’s transition, there is loss,” and then she adds that “where there’s loss, there’s grief.”

One of the ways I’ve dealt with our losses is by attending a “grief group.” While most of the other people in the meetings have lost loved ones, I have found it very helpful to hear their stories and learn general principles for dealing with grief.

The more I hear the experiences of those who are going through difficult times, the more I’m convinced that good listeners are hard to find—and I’m sure I don’t always fall into that category, myself. Too many people would rather offer quick-fix cliches than to share in another person’s grief. In fact, we even have a hard time accepting our own grief. Grief counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt, in The Journey through Grief: Reflections on Healingwrites about the grieving process,

I must keep opening and changing through it all until I become the unique person who has transcended the pain and discovered self-compassion—a vulnerable yet grounded me who chooses to live again.

“Self-compassion” is an interesting concept, as compassion comes from the Latin com and pati, meaning “with” and “suffer,” respectively. So according to Wolfelt, we must discover how to “suffer with” ourselves.

In a previous post, I quoted Van Reken as saying,

There is a proper place for encouragement (“you’ll do fine,” “just think about others who have so much less,” etc.) but when it happens too soon, it can also abort the grieving process. Comfort is simply acknowledging the loss, validating its reality, and giving the person space to grieve properly before pushing him or her to move on or past it.

She elaborated on this idea in a presentation I heard her give several years ago, citing a wonderful example from the New Testament: When Jesus traveled to Bethany after the death of his friend Lazarus, Lazarus’s sister Martha came out to meet him:

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

(John 11:221-27 NIV 1984)

This, says Van Reken, is an example of encouragement, given by Jesus because he knew the needs of Martha. But Van Reken sees herself more as a Mary, Lazarus’s other sister. According to Van Reken, Mary didn’t need encouragement, she needed comfort:

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept.

(John 11:32-35 NIV 1984)

While both sisters said the same thing to Jesus, he responded to them in different ways. Van Reken, in an e-mail discussion by the SIM AMK Task Force, says that while Jesus “appealed to [Martha’s] reason and gave her truth as information,” with Mary

Jesus entered into her experience with the truth of his compassion and comfort. Words to her would have bounced like icicles on her heart. Didn’t anyone CARE? And He showed, He cared. I love it that Jesus knows us well enough to meet us as the people He made us to be. I love it when He meets others in their way—but sometimes when they try to meet ME in their way, or I try to meet them in MY way, we can clash. I think they don’t care because they aren’t on the floor crying with me, and they think I’m a basket case who needs to look at the facts a little more clearly and I’ll be “just fine.”

I think that many of us are Marys. We need tears of compassion rather than words of reason. And I would suggest that, lacking the insight of the Son of God, we would do well to start with the kind of comfort that comes alongside those who are grieving, instead of trying to pull them out of their grief with our words or actions. There will be time for encouragement, when the griever is ready. For many of us, it’s not that we don’t understand the encouraging truths, it’s just that other truths, of loss and pain and sadness, are demanding our attention, and we push them away too soon at our own peril.

“My process has been hard at times because so much of our system of faith precludes the simplicity of the ‘Jesus wept’ verse,” says Van Reken. “And for whoever I am, those kinds of tears will change more for me than anything else. The problem with a quick spiritual answer is I actually KNOW the answer; I’m just not there yet.”

(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,’” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007; Alan Wolfelt, The Journey through Grief: Reflections on Healing, Fort Collins: Companion Press, 1997, p 42; Ruth Van Reken, “Mary and Martha,” Simroots Open Dialogue)

[photo: “The Eye of Eliza,” by Augusto Serna, used under a Creative Commons license]

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