When Words Fail

We like to know what to say in hard situations. We search for the right words. We like to say things that carry profound meaning. Different scenarios call for different words. A pre-game speech before a football game will be profound for different reasons than a graduation speech. The scenario will dictate the desired result of what is said, yet in every scenario, we want whatever we say to be right. Of course, this isn’t always the case. We have all found ourselves in places where we have said the wrong things, things that are unhelpful, untrue, or even harmful. As a pastor, I am aware of the power of words. Words do things, and they matter. 

Yet I found myself in an uncomfortable place recently when I was in the room with death. The thing is, death isn’t consistent. It strikes unexpectedly and leaves tragedy and grief in its wake. It also leaves people standing there in the carnage, with their world falling apart, and they are expected to speak. If you have ever been with someone when they’re grieving or have been on the receiving end of terrible news, you know that sometimes words fail. As hard as you try to find the right words, nothing comes together, and nothing comes out. After the moment passes you might think of what you should have said, but it’s too late now. The moment is past. The comfort that was sought was never given. Regret creeps into your mind, and you wish you had the words, but you didn’t. They failed you. 

So, I found myself in the same room with death. I always thought I would know the right thing to say to a dying person, and their family waiting for death to whisk away their loved one. I searched for the right words to say. My mind scrambled to put the proper sentence together, to say something comforting and profound. But there I stood in silence as death settled in comfortably in the room. I’m aware, the ministry of presence is a valid practice, but eventually, I would need to speak. It is the expectation. A pastor is called to say something when no one else will, and maybe when no one else can. So, what happens when the pastor can’t come up with the words to say? What happens when words fail the pastor? 

Well, I don’t know the answer to this, and this isn’t a pat on the back. It took me far too long to humble myself and realize I didn’t have the words either. So eventually, I did the only thing I could come up with. I opened my Bible to the Psalms, and I began to read. Psalm 8, 23, 46. I read, and this person who was slowly fading heard not my words, but God’s Word. Then I switched over to the Gospels, sharing with this soul the accounts of Christ and his resurrection. I spoke directly to death and proclaimed God’s Word that it had no power here and was a defeated enemy. Through God’s Word, I proclaimed the promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation. These things were far greater than any pathetic phrase I could have crafted together because the Word of God is living and active. It creates and strengthens faith. 

I learned something that day. That regardless of my theological training, my practice in crafting together sermons and words that proclaim the forgiveness of sins found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, my words will sometimes still fail me. There will also be times when words will fail you, too. Who knows the situation you will find yourself in, or who will be on the receiving end? But maybe we should be quicker to simply let God’s Word speak for itself. It is alive after all.