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We’ve all been there. Something happens. The unexpected becomes reality. The questions of life come knocking at our door, demanding immediate attention, and we don’t know what to do.

“How could God allow this? Why did this happen to me? What am I going to do now?”

Whether we have been on the receiving end of tragedy or been one attempting to show sympathy and support, we know there is that moment when words simply fail us. I have been in situations where I feel like I didn’t say enough. I have been in just as many situations where I feel I said too much.

Words are important. We use words as tools to communicate our emotions or to convey a specific idea or picture we are seeing in our minds in order that it may be shared by others. However, sometimes our ideas or emotions fall short of the words available to express them. Words are ill-equipped to carry the full weight of burden we need them to. Sometimes words fail us.

For some of us, our tendency is to avoid these situations. We observe those who grieve, mourn, or even have anger against the Gospel and we have a moment of pause. Is it worth it to engage? How would I engage? Wouldn’t my involvement just make matters worse?

We don’t want to risk doing more damage, being too present, or not present enough. If we don’t have the answer, we tend to avoid the situation. It’s just easier that way.

For others of us, the pendulum swings the opposite way. We are quick to run into relational and emotional fire. We want to fix it. We want to make it right. We want to draw every drop of emotion out of the person and use it to put out the painful fire surrounding them. In essence, we often run to a situation that is not in our capacity to mend. Not every situation can be fixed. Not every word helps.

I want to offer three suggestions for what to say in that moment when words fail you. These seem like the most unlikely or unhelpful conclusions. However, I can tell you from experience, though these are minimal and insufficient, they often carry the most weight.

Here are three things to say when words fail you:

1) I’m Sorry. It is important to communicate not simply that we are sorry for the person, but we are sorry with the person. While we may never be able to relate experientially with a certain circumstance, we all feel the pain and sorrow of a broken world. We all are going to experience sin and destruction of a world that spurns God as King. Ultimately, in Christ, it does not end for us with sorrow. But until then, simply coming alongside is the best way to help. Weep with those who weep.

2) I don’t know. I can’t tell you how many theological arguments spurred by pain or emotion could have been avoided in my life if I was simply humble enough to say, I don’t know. Allowing ourselves to say I don’t know allows us to recognize to ourselves and the other person that we are not God. In God’s grace, He has given us His Word and His Spirit as a guide. They are true, and we embrace them as such. However, sometimes there are simply questions of which we don’t have answers. Sometimes all we can do is fall at the feet of a loving God and trust that He is sovereign, He is right, and He is good. When someone comes to you as God’s representative and lays a burden down at your feet, feel free to lift it up to God’s. “I don’t know, but I believe God does and He is good.”

3) Nothing. This is perhaps the hardest thing to say when words fail you. But in these times, remember, it’s not about you. It’s about God and the other person. You don’t have to have the answer. You don’t have to have the right word. Sometimes your presence (or even your absence) for a short time can be all the difference. When someone is sharing a deep wound with you, take it in with your ears before ever using your mouth.

This list is obviously not exhaustive and won’t work in every situation. But it is a start. Remember, words will often fail us, ultimately to remind us we aren’t God. We haven’t figured it all out. We are broken in a world beyond our fig coverings and best intentions. The only solution is the Gospel. Only God can repair all things. He has done so through the cross of Christ. He is doing so through the Spirit. One day, He will fully do so and make all things new.