Search This Blog

Saturday, January 11, 2014

What NOT to Say to Sick Friends

If there is one good thing about Facebook, it may be the opportunity to learn just how many stupid things people say in attempting to comfort their sick friends. Check out this piece from a well meaning friend of a friend:
"Let's all make sure we pray for X every day...prayer is powerful and God answers those prayers every day according to His will. God only does what's good for you."
Let's examine this statement for a moment. The person in question, let's just call him Steve, has a life threatening illness with an uncertain prognosis and is currently undergoing treatment. If God only does what's good for you, why does Steve have this illness? This statement leaves us in a theological bind, but more importantly it says something to Steve that I am sure his friend does not want to say - that God thinks it's good for Steve to be seriously ill. What kind of God would possibly believe that it is good for anyone to be seriously ill?

What about the prayer piece? We all need to pray for Steve every day. Why? Does God have some sort of dementia that requires we remind her every day of our concerns for Steve? Or is it that God thinks we aren't serious about our concern for Steve and so we need to repeat it over and over to convince God that we are serious? Perhaps worst of all, do we really want to say that God is of such a nature that we must constantly hammer her with our requests until she relents? What if the person doesn't recover? Are we saying they would have recovered if we'd only said six more prayers? Is that a vision of God or of a seriously mentally ill psychopath? Perhaps the real and healthy reason for prayer is to express our love and concern for our friend and send healing energy their way.

"God answers prayers every day according to His will." So if our friend doesn't recover then we can be pretty sure God had it out for him, right? Or maybe it wasn't that bad, maybe God was just completely ambivalent about our friend and just couldn't decide whether or not it was worth the energy to intervene on his behalf. Maybe God was too busy watching the NFL playoffs to heal Steve. If only Steve had the good sense to wait until after the Super Bowl when God's schedule was lighter, Steve might have had a chance. Honestly?

This kind of muddied thinking arose after people started making some pretty outrageous claims on God's behalf and then got called on them. That's when, instead of doing the sensible thing and reevaluating the claims, people just started throwing in qualifying statements like "according to His will." We added these things without ever considering their impact on the person for whom we are praying. Shouldn't our prayers at least be comforting to the person involved?

Perhaps a moment of honesty is in order. People get sick, sometimes seriously so. The reason we get sick isn't really known to us beyond that is seems to be the way life works. We can be certain that it has nothing to do with Divine judgment - and neither does recovery (or lack thereof) from illness. Sooner or later, we all encounter some illness from which we die no matter how many prayers our friends offer on our behalf. None of us ever knows when that day is coming. When we get sick, we want and need to hear that our friends are thinking about us and praying for us. We want people to listen to us when we need to talk and just be present with us when we don't feel like talking. We don't want any nonsensical promises based on contrived theologies that may give us great comfort when we are well and not facing any challenges but the impact of which on someone who is ill we have never considered.

In truth, we often offer platitudes when we don't want to hear about the pain and suffering that our friend or loved one is going though. Sometimes we offer them more to reassure ourselves that everything is going to be okay than to comfort our friend. Often times serious illness in those close to us forces us to confront our own mortality, something that most of us are loathe to do. We need to remember that since ostriches are not immortal, the odds are that ignoring that human beings are of the nature to age, get sick, and eventually die isn't going to change our fate. In fact, I believe that by confronting our own mortality now we not only will be better able to cope with our own health challenges but we also will be a better support to our friends and loved ones in theirs.


  1. okay-maybe I'm not fully on target today but, what does "We need to remember that since ostriches are not immortal, the odds are that ignoring that human beings are of the nature to age, get sick, and eventually die isn't going to change our fate." mean?

    1. It's a reference to the perhaps apocryphal stories about ostriches sticking their heads in the sand when they become frightened, which of course doesn't save their lives if real danger is present but rather leaves them more vulnerable. So, I am trying to say that denial never helps - but in an admittedly obscure way!