In his song ‘Anthem’ Leonard Cohen has this wonderful line:

There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Hard times and deep grief will come to us all. If there isn’t a crack, there soon will be. All families, churches and communities will sooner or later experience grief and loss. Even great grief and loss. For my family and our church, Risen Church, it has been the toll of my son’s cancer and recent death.

Hard times and deep grief will come to us all. If there isn’t a crack, there soon will be.

There’s much to say about why there is suffering in this life and what it means to understand God’s goodness, love and power in a world with so many deep cracks. These are deep theological, pastoral and emotional issues. But rather than focussing on those issues, I want to offer some thoughts on caring for the sorrowful with Proverbs as a lens. In my experience, it is these imperfect offerings that God uses to shine through the cracks.

Here are five things I have learned:

1. Your good gospel words make a real difference.

Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down,
but a good word makes him glad
. (Proverbs 12:25)

Those going through grief and loss—for whatever reason—feel anxious. The world feels less stable, less safe. Anxiety becomes a weight that presses down on their shoulders and saps their strength. It can be a shadow that blocks the light of the gospel.

We can love anxious people deeply by drawing alongside them and speaking good words to them. But first, we must start by listening to them (Proverbs 18:13). We ask things like: ‘How are you feeling about this situation? … How has it affected your trust in God and his goodness?’

As we listen, we prayerfully consider if there is a good gospel word we can speak. Good gospel words matter! They bring light.

This doesn’t just mean saying positive things that make light of the situation—like one comment I received after sharing the news of my son’s illness: ‘at least you know where he is going.’ This person didn’t mean to make light of my son’s killing cancer. And yet the emotional impact was such that it did.

A good word of the gospel doesn’t just point to the hope of the gospel, it acknowledges the awfulness—the heartache, wrongness and pain—that make the gospel so necessary.

2. Those suffering need your time and care for grief is lonely and isolating.

The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy. (Proverbs 14:10)

There is something about heartache and pain that is isolating. There is a kind of shame in suffering, especially in our photo-filtered 21st-century lives, where the bumps and warts are smoothed away and pain is hidden. When you suffer, pain makes you withdraw and the shame of the wrongness of whatever you’re going through makes most of us retreat into a corner or close the door.

There is a kind of shame in suffering … pain makes you withdraw.

When you are in a situation like that, opening up your heart to tell others about this pain is doubly difficult. You have to muster up the energy to be with others but also bring your vulnerability out into the open. It’s like opening up your chest, pulling out your wounded heart and placing it on the table for others to see.

And so, we don’t. We keep our deepest hurts and deepest fears hidden away. But this is how bitterness grows. Those of us who are grieving, we need to learn to try and open up our own chests anyway—not to all, but to close friends and confidants. God has given us to each other for times like this.

Those who are offering care need to know that it might take some time for us to be able to do this. It might have to happen very tentatively. But pray for it to happen and pray for ears ready to listen.

Before moving on, I want to add one small practical thing people can do to care for the sorrowful. Be with them. Not constantly, that’s overwhelming, people need space. But nonetheless, be with them. At a church, offer to sit with them. Don’t wait for them to come to sit with you. At the Christian conference, don’t let them face the crowd alone, ask them to join you and sit with you. In everyday life, create opportunities for the sorrowing to be with you. After her husband passed away, my aunty suddenly found herself invited to coffee every Friday with a couple from church. I don’t know if she went every Friday, but she told me that just being with people who cared for her made an incredible difference. Sometimes they spoke of significant things. Many times not. This is what real love looks like.

3. Don’t be fooled by laughter or Christian attendance

Don’t think too quickly that the grief and heartache are over. Much of the time it is just hidden.

Even in laughter the heart may ache,
and the end of joy may be grief.
(Proverbs 14:13)

I once had a friend who went through a terrible time. I reached out, trying to see how I could care for them but I was rebuffed. Their pain was too great.

My mistake was to think that after a month or two, because this friend was regularly back at church and involved in Christian ministries, the heartache was past. On the surface, everything looked lush and green, but underneath there was still great pain and spiritual struggle. Heartache can be hidden. Laughter and smiles are sometimes the greatest camouflage.

So keep praying for those who’ve been through a terrible event or who are struggling with suffering. Please don’t assume that just because they are back at church or hitting a few social events that the heartache has gone away. Grief can be like a deep underground river flowing swift and strong. And it may last for a long time, which takes us to the next reflection.

4. Crushed hope and a crushed spirit brings a special grief

The human spirit can endure in sickness,
but a crushed spirit who can bear?
(Proverbs 18:14)

Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
(Proverbs 13:12)

Don’t underestimate the special pain of crushed hope. Our western medical system is very very good. And our culture doesn’t want to face the reality of death. This means that medical teams and our culture more broadly keep offering hope: the hope of a cure, the hope of a successful intervention. Hope against hope. We experienced this in hospital with our son’s cancer. The door kept being left open for hope.

There is something profoundly right about ongoing hope. As one dear Christian brother said about my son’s cancer, ‘Don’t give up hope of a miracle.’’ Our God is in the business of radical reversals. Exhibit A is the cross and resurrection. And so, I kept praying that God would radically intervene. He is the God of life. He didn’t, but it was right to ask.

I kept praying that God would radically intervene. He didn’t, but it was right to ask.

But sometimes our medical system, friends and culture—even our own hearts—offer us hope that isn’t really there. And so those suffering find themselves on a roller coaster of hope. A new treatment … new drug … new expert lifts your spirits and fills you with optimism. But, the higher the climb, the faster and greater the descent. When the thing fails it can be so bleak that you wish you hadn’t hoped at all.

Hope for a cure isn’t wrong. But the hopes must be rightly ordered—hope in a good God and his gospel must be the first hope. It is his gospel that is the cure for death, sickness and suffering.

We can help those who are suffering by very gently directing their hope toward Jesus. With my son, I printed out five Bible verses. One sounded the pure note of God’s love for sinners through Jesus. The other four harmonised with the promise of the new creation, the resurrected life and the reality that in Jesus death was already conquered. I tried to read one with my son each day and pray with him. And, in God’s mercy, over time, his comments and reflections on these grew increasingly deeper. The gospel is the hope we need.

But hope misplaced, crushed or deferred can crush the spirit so the sufferer stops looking for any medical intervention or any new avenues of treatment. Despair starts to take root.

This is why the next reflection is so critical.

5. Go deep in the gospel now

All the days of the afflicted are evil,
but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast
. (Proverbs 15:15)

There is evil and suffering in the world. There is a crack in everything. The existence of the gospel is proof of this. We wouldn’t need the good news of Jesus and our salvation if everything were fine.

But what is interesting in this proverb is the contrast. All the days of the afflicted are evil. Yet the solution is somewhat surprising, as shown by the contrast: not the absence of affliction but a cheerful heart. This cheerful heart continually feasts—it has a soiree even when things are sorrowful.

But the goodness that this heart enjoys is not because of its soundness. It comes from listening to God’s words and by seeking his wisdom and his righteousness (Proverbs 2:1, 2:9, 2:20). Goodness of heart comes from following the good God.

This is a wider theme in Proverbs. Even in the direst circumstances, living God’s way, trusting his word, and honouring him makes life good.

To live this way while there is suffering and evil, we have to go deep with the gospel. We have to go deep with the truth that God is at work in all things for his people—and that all things includes suffering and affliction. (Romans 8:28?)

We see this most clearly in the cross. The greatest evil the cosmos has ever known, the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus, brought about the greatest good the cosmos will ever reveal—the glorification of the Lord Jesus and the salvation of God’s people. God works through all things for good, for our good. We must understand this if we want to endure evil and affliction. The heart that understands this can grieve with joy and offer joy in the midst of grief.

The cross tells us that evil has been conquered and so will be conquered. The cross shows that evil will be overcome, affliction will end and be no more; days of evil will pass never to return. When he returns, it will all end.

This is the gospel that we need to face suffering. It will equip us to offer imperfect offerings of love to those who are sorrowing. It will prepare our hearts and give us the strength to face suffering when it comes.