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The Language of Comfort, Post-religion

I recently ran into a friend at the grocery store. I was minding my own business, shopping for the only flavor of Belvita crackers my kids currently deem edible, when I spotted her.

After a little chit-chat she hit me with, “You’re a Christian right?”

I thought, “Oh boy,” but I said, “Uhhh, sure?” I never know how to answer that question any more. So much depends on the person asking it.

But it didn’t take me long to understand what she meant by “Christian.” She described a family member of hers as an atheist, very ill, and most likely in her last days. While my friend was upset that her loved one was physically dying, she seemed more deeply distraught about the state of her loved one’s soul.

In her (very common) interpretation of the Bible, Jesus’s death was a debt paid, a necessary sacrifice because humans are sinful. In return, we owe Jesus/God our belief and loyalty. When we give it, we get salvation — or the opportunity to go to heaven instead of hell. So to my friend, her loved one was not Just dying, she was dying and going to hell forever.

This idea of people needing to accept Jesus’s death as atonement for their sins is referred to as transactionalism or substitutionary atonement theory. It’s considered a foundational belief by many Christians across denominations. As another Christian friend once said to me, “I just don’t understand what the point was of Jesus dying if it wasn’t to save us from our sins.”

In her desperation, my friend at the grocery store had made her fears known to her loved one and begged her to reconsider Jesus. The result was a broken relationship and additional heartache. An already painful situation made more distressing by religion instead of less.

“What do you think?” she asked me, and I knew she was asking whether or not her loved one was going to hell. “People try to tell me that God is merciful and all that, but — “ She made a disbelieving noise as if a merciful, loving God for everyone was not the very Good News Jesus preached.

I tried. I really did. But I felt like we were suddenly speaking two different languages. Once I knew the words to make her feel better. I would have said, “I’m sorry for what you’re going through. It’s so brave of you to share your faith with her. I’ll be praying with you that she accepts Jesus into her heart.”

Instead, I encouraged her to make the most of the time they had left together and take comfort in knowing that God is big enough and loving enough to care for everyone, even atheists. I’m not sure she found my words very comforting.

As Franciscan Richard Rohr puts it, “Only a deeply personal experience of unearned love can move us beyond a worldview of arbitrary requirements to a worldview of abundance and availability. It is indeed the banquet that Jesus says no one wants to come to, and most even resent!”

When I got home from the grocery store, I called my husband to talk it over. “Faith is supposed to help people in hard times. They always tell you, ‘You’ll be glad you have it when life gets hard.’ But too often the religion part complicates what’s already difficult. So what’s the point?”

“Oh, man,” he said suddenly. “Did you just get that Facebook message too?”

A chill passed over me at his tone. I waited while he relayed a message from a childhood friend informing us that his doctors had found a tumor. He described it as ‘not small’ and ‘not 100% localized.’ My stomach dropped.

“Oh God, he’s too young to be dealing with this,” tumbled out of my mouth. Seconds earlier, we were talking about faith during hard times in the abstract. Suddenly it was very real and very personal.

I messaged our friend and his wife and sent them both our love and support. Somehow it didn’t feel like enough. My heart was swelling with love and emotion so intense that it didn’t need words. Except that this was a Facebook message and words were all I had to work with.

One of the hardest parts of no longer subscribing to a traditional American concept of the Christian religion is finding common language to comfort people during difficult times. One thing religion is good at is giving scripts.

Clergy and parishioners have centuries of experience fitting words to theology to circumstances (even if too often those words bring more shame and confusion to sufferers than they bring comfort). Once you step outside that tradition though, it can be hard to find the right words.

So I reached for the language from our shared experience in the Christian tradition and typed the words that best reflected what I was feeling. It was the closest thing to a universal expression of love and support I could offer.

“You’re in our hearts, and we’re praying with you.”

— Christa Hogan