I’m going to begin with a disclaimer. I believe faith is very important, and so is sacrifice, or “offering things up”. That being said, I wish we, as Christians, wouldn’t make “Have faith. It’ll be OK.” And “Offer it up” our go-to phrases when people we know (or don’t know) confide in us about their struggles. Not because I don’t believe, theologically, in the value of faith and sacrifice in such situations, but because I don’t think these two exhortations are the best pastoral approach to take.
(Note: If the person themselves brings up wanting to talk about faith or sacrifice and how it can help them, it’s a different story.)
I believe I can say that I am a person of faith and that my faith plays an important part in my life. I believe my faith has indeed helped me in moments of hardship. But I believe that telling another person going through a rough time to “have faith” can sometimes be more harmful than helpful.
The message we intend on giving isn’t always the message received. What we intend to be encouraging can actually be pretty discouraging and create false expectations that lead to further discouragement and self-doubt.
- God will help you.
- There’s meaning in your suffering.
- God is with you even if things are hard right now.
Received message: (This is based on feedback from people who were told to “have faith” when they spoke of their difficulties…)
- “I don’t have faith.” Or “So-and-so thinks I don’t have faith.” Not the most encouraging thought for someone who’s already struggling.
- “X (bad thing) happening to me is a punishment for my lack of faith.” Again, this idea can be very discouraging and is absolutely untrue. Remember Jesus’ message in Jn 9:3 (“Neither this man nor his parents sinned…”).
- “If I have more faith, my problem will go away.” Another very dangerous interpretation that sets up false expectations. A person can throw their whole heart into trying to be faith-filled in their reaction to a given difficulty and still struggle with it. Faith and prayer isn’t a magical solution to human problems. Evaluating the quality or existence of our faith based on the extent to which it makes difficulties “go away” is easy to do, but completely false and in many cases, disheartening. Faith can change the way we view things and help us find meaning in things, but isn’t necessarily going to make tough things easier or decrease hardship. Jesus never promised to take away the cross. He never promised that we would have an easy life. In fact, he essentially promised that there will always be an element of cross in the life of the Christian when he said things like “Take up your cross and follow me,” and “My cup you shall drink.” He also promised salvation, the final outcome, which comes after the way of the cross and reaches its fullness only in eternity. Yes, God can work miracles and remove difficulties through prayer and effort, but when he chooses not to intercede that way, and the difficulty continues, it doesn’t imply that the person is failing in their faith. Very few saints have been made because their difficulties miraculously disappeared. Many saints have been made because of their perseverance.
“Offer it up.”
Again, I am completely in support of finding meaning in suffering and recognizing its redemptive value. But I also question the pastoral effectiveness of bringing this up when someone who is struggling approaches.
Is the person a Catholic (or other Christian denomination)? If so, they already know about sacrifice and are probably doing their darndest to offer up their struggle. Telling them to “offer it up” is sort of like walking up to someone holding a batch of burned cookies and telling them not to burn it. Point well taken. But bad timing.
Is the person a non-Christian or fallen away Christian? Then Sacrifice 101 might not be the best crash course to start them out with. Yes, we want to share the redemptive value of suffering because that can help them realize that what they are experiencing isn’t pointless. But let’s start with Christian Love 101 and help the person first learn about the Lord, discover the beauty of faith, discover the sacraments, and come to understand how personally God loves them. When a person desires to respond God’s love, sacrifice will start to make sense. Sacrifice shouldn’t be understood as something arbitrary – “Oh, geez. You got the short end of the stick this time. Better offer it up.” No – it should be understood more in light of the sacrifice parents make for their kids, or siblings and friends make for each other. It’s not isolated; it’s not sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake, but sacrifice as one part of a much fuller, meaningful relationship.
When someone has lost a loved one, or seen their home burn down, found out that they have cancer, suffered a miscarriage, struggled with addiction, been betrayed… they need our understanding, our encouragement and our help. In general, when we tell someone to have faith or offer it up, I think we mean to be encouraging and to share with them something we have found to be important, effective, and maybe even comforting. Here are other things we could say to provide such encouragement:
- “May I pray with/for you?”
- “Do you have the help you need? Do you want me to help you find help?” (professional, spiritual, physical, etc.)
- “That must be really tough. I’m here for you.”
- “You’re doing great. You can make it through this.”
- “Would you be interested in participating in “x”? (bereavement group, discussion group, etc. that might be a form of support and companionship).
- Would you like to go to Mass (or church, prayer service, healing service, etc.) with me?
If you are talking to a person of faith and to talk about how their faith might help them, consider asking an open-ended question that helps them talk about where God is in their lives, to the extent that they would like to share. Such as: “Is there any way your faith has been helping you through this?” or “Is there anything you think God has been telling you about this?” Or, if you’ve been through a similar experience, you might mention it and offer to share how your own faith made a difference.
So yes, let’s keep finding ways to help others along their personal journey of faith, but thinking twice about when and how we directly exhort people to “have more faith” or “offer it up”, mindful of what they might be thinking and feeling in that moment.
For my part, if any of you ever hear me saying either those two phrases in response to someone going through a rough time, I give you permission to bop me on the head.