Yesterday, Helen told me that her husband, Gerry, is now a quadriplegic. In college, Helen was my wife’s roommate, and Gerry and I lived in the same dorm. Helen was maid of honor at our wedding. When we graduated from college, my wife and I went to seminary in the Boston area, and Gerry and Helen became missionaries in Malaysia. For more than forty-five years they ministered in Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Recently they moved back to the states and settled in Fort Worth, Texas.
Last week, Gerry fell and shattered his spine. He cannot move his arms and legs nor can he breathe on his own. I spent the night in prayer. Instinctively I reminded the Lord of Gerry’s long faithful service, and told Him this was not an appropriate final chapter for a warrior like Gerry. Helen has entered the valley of mourning, and my wife and I are seeking to pray with empathy and with kingdom focus for our friend and comrade.
The previous sentence contains five carefully selected and thought-filled words. Let me unpack them for you.
Mourning is one of life’s universal experiences. To mourn means to feel deep grief, sorrow, heartache, anguish, angst, pain, misery, unhappiness, and woe. It is the opposite of joy. Mourning comes from loss that is perceived as irreversible, such as death, terminal illness, and devastating accidents. It is not expressed in the same way in every culture, but no matter where you live on the planet, sooner or later you will face “a time to mourn”. In spite of the fact that all human beings mourn, each person’s experience of grief is always unique.
The little book of Ruth in the Old Testament tells the story of a Moabite widow who became the great grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus Christ. When Elimelech and his two sons died, Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem, and she urged her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab. Ruth replied to Naomi with empathy: “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For…your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16–17).
The name Ruth means “comrade,” “companion,” or “friend.” The archaic word ruth meant “pity” or “remorse”; it still has this meaning in the word “ruthless.” Ruth is empathy personified. Being empathic with those who mourn means being their “Ruth,” their “comrade,” “companion,” and “friend.” It means identifying with them as they walk through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4).
Christian praying is a believer’s conversational response to God’s self-revelation in the person and work of Christ. Christian prayer must be in harmony with Christ’s teaching on prayer. A great deal of what is called prayer today does not meet this minimum biblical standard.
Central to Christ’s teaching on prayer is the petition, “Your kingdom come.” This kingdom is twofold: it is a kingdom of grace, which is the invisible, internal, present, personally experienced rule of God in each believer (see Rom. 14:17). It is also the future kingdom of glory, God’s future global reign in sovereign power, after Christ has made His enemies “a footstool for his feet” (Heb. 10:13). The kingdom of grace and the kingdom of glory are intimately connected. Only those who are born-again members of the kingdom of grace shall reign with Christ in the kingdom of glory (see John 3:3, 5).
Most praying is an emotional reaction to crisis, and as such it is usually self-centered and sentimental. Praying with focus proactively prepares for crisis by claiming the promises of God for the people and situations Providence places in our lives; it is God-centered, earnest, confident faith.
Why should Christians pray with empathy and kingdom-focus for those who mourn? I believe the most significant reason is that Jesus did this during His earthly ministry, He is now doing it, and He desires that we be His coworkers.
Jesus — the ultimate empathizer
Jesus is God, and He laid aside His divine privileges, made Himself nothing, took the form of a servant, and, “being born in the likeness of men,” He humbled Himself and died on the cross (Phil. 2:5–8; see also Heb. 2:14–15; 4:14–15).
The Example of Jesus
The death of Lazarus is an example of Jesus praying with empathy and kingdom-focus for those who mourn (John 11:1–45). When Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill, He said, “This illness…is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). He delayed two days going to Lazarus because God’s glory directed Him rather than urgent desire to ease human suffering. Jesus empathized with Mary and Martha in their grief. “He was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” He “wept.” Those who observed said, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:33, 35–36). Jesus prayed with confident kingdom-focus. He lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:41–42). He audibly prayed for and with the mourning sisters. Lazarus was raised, and Jesus was “glorified through it.”
We have seen what it means for Christians to pray with empathy and kingdom-focus for those who mourn and why believers should do this; let us now consider how Christians can do this.
The “how” of prayer must include both human activity and divine empowerment.
In response to the disciples’ request for the Lord to teach the Twelve to pray, Jesus gave a brief lesson consisting of four parts: first, the Pattern Prayer (Luke 11:1-4); second, the parable of the friend at midnight (Luke 11:5–8); third, the A-S-K principle: Ask, Seek, and Knock (Luke 11:9–10); fourth, the Father’s gift (Luke 11:13).
The first three parts of this lesson indicate that the subject matter of prayer and the manner in which we pray can be improved by understanding how prayer works. This understanding gives insights into prayer’s nature and instructs believers in the methodology of prayer, which helps to eliminate certain roadblocks to improving the life of prayer. Reflecting on the nature and working of prayer should help you become a better pray-er.
The fourth part of Jesus’ lesson moves us beyond human activity to divine empowerment. Jesus said that the Father gives “the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13). The Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of grace and pleas for mercy” (Zech. 12:10). He is the enabler of prayer (Rom. 8:26–27). The Holy Spirit dwells in all believers. He knows all things; therefore, He understands both the real needs and the felt needs of those who mourn. When we ask for His help, He provides what is needed. Without the Spirit’s ministry, all prayer will be impotent.
Let me conclude by suggesting five practical steps for those who desire to pray with empathy for those who mourn.
1. Ask God to show you the mourners for whom He wants you to pray. Don’t assume you are responsible to minister to every person who mourns.
2. Read: Every Christian should devote time daily to reading through the Bible. As you do this, ask the Spirit to give you insights to pray for those He has put on your heart. Outside of the Bible one of the most helpful books is C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed.
3. Meditate: Ponder carefully the insights God gives you through the recommended reading.
4. Write: Write your insights in a journal. As you write out your thoughts and feelings, be honest.
5. Pray for those who mourn. Turn your journal notes into earnest prayer. Let them hear your voice lifting them into the presence of the Lord. Usually it will be helpful for you to enlist other Christians to pray with you in this ministry.
Mourning and empathetic kingdom-focused prayer were made for each other. Because of mourning’s link with irreversible loss, it usually forces serious thought on what comes after the grave. The kingdom on which we focus moves beyond the grave and culminates in the new heaven and new earth. When Christians meaningfully connect with one who mourns by praying for and with that person with kingdom focus, God Himself will give “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified” (Isa. 61:3).