Each month we ask two writers to reflect on a quote by Dr. Stanley. For November, Renee Oglesby and Gayle Reynolds explore what it looks like to encourage those who are suffering. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Stanley’s sermon “Encouraging One Another”:
Then Jesus said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me” (Matt. 26:38). The Lord Jesus Christ was asking someone to encourage Him—Jesus didn’t ask them to say anything. He just said, Would you all come over here with Me? He wanted those three to be close by when He was going through the agony of His life. Not only was Jesus God in the flesh, but He was man. The physical, human side of Him felt the very same things you and I feel. When we go through tough times, we don’t want just anybody by us—we want somebody who can encourage us.
by Gayle Reynolds
As a young pastor’s wife, I often struggled to find the “right” words to comfort and encourage others. I felt this inadequacy most keenly in moments of extreme grief, when loss was sudden and devastating. One night, after receiving news that the wife of another pastor in our community had collapsed, my husband and I went to the hospital to offer support and comfort. The waiting area was filled with other pastors.
At that moment, I expected to hear healing scriptures, wisdom for the moment, and eloquent prayers from these seasoned men of God, but the room was quiet. Others joined us, many just squeezing the shoulder of this grieving man as they passed him before taking their seat. For me, the silence was deafening, but for these men, it seemed to be expected. As the late hours of evening came, the group began to trickle out, exiting with a pat or a hug to accompany some quietly spoken version of “I’ll check on you tomorrow.”
At that moment, I expected to hear healing scriptures, wisdom for the moment, and eloquent prayers from these seasoned men of God, but the room was quiet.
The power of presence is seen throughout the Bible. Though God is everywhere, He instructed the people of Israel to construct a tabernacle “so that [He] may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). It was a visual representation of what those transitioning people most needed to know: God was with them. Joshua received this message again as he led the people to battle for the Promised Land: “The Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:9). In the New Testament, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to dwell within believers so that we, having God’s very Presence within us, know that we have all we need. God further promises, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever abandon you” (Heb. 13:5).
Our friend’s wife eventually passed, and from his time of grief, I learned about the ministry of presence. The pastors in that room didn’t say or do anything that seemed remarkable or looked helpful, and yet at his wife’s funeral, the bereaved pastor spoke of the great love he received that night. Those who simply waited with him became tangible reminders of God’s presence.
by Renee Oglesby
For a number of years, I had a peculiar job of reading letters from people in the midst of grief. And for a number of years after that, it was my peculiar job to respond to those hurting people, to try to communicate the comfort and presence of God. Having searched, read, typed, explained, and proofread related Bible verses so many times, I thought I understood God’s words for those experiencing loss and the promised comfort of His presence.
Then my dad died suddenly, and I realized that what my head knew, my heart did not.
The scriptures I had offered so often as a balm to others did not immediately soothe my own hurt. I looked for some sign that God was with me, just as He promised, but for a time I couldn’t sense Him in His Word or in prayer. In the shock of those early days without my dad, I thought my faith had failed me. But I began to see over time that while I could not sense God’s presence, there were friends and family—even co-workers and neighbors I did not know well—who were offering theirs.
I thought I understood God’s words for those experiencing loss and the promised comfort of His presence. Then my dad died suddenly, and I realized that what my head knew, my heart did not.
What’s especially amazing to me about Jesus’s grief in Matthew 26:36-38 is that, while experiencing the deepest and most extreme emotions, He makes a simple request—for His friends to remain near. Jesus isn’t seeking answers from the disciples about His circumstances or asking them questions about what the future holds. He doesn’t seem to expect anything from them but to remain close by. Isn’t that a beautiful recognition of the power of presence? Perhaps the beauty ends rather quickly because the disciples soon fall asleep, unable to sit with the Lord throughout the night. But it is still a tremendous moment, and an example for us today.
When you’re with someone experiencing loss and suffering, it might feel natural to offer, “Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” It can seem even easier to tell ourselves we have no answers for their questions, no solution for their needs. But bear in mind what the Lord did in the darkest of nights—requesting the simple company of His friends—and ask Him, “Where can I be Your presence to someone who needs to know You are near?”