In the third episode of Netflix’s drama, House of Cards, our main character—the Machiavellian Francis Underwood, married to a regular Lady MacBeth—gives a sermon at the church in his hometown. He’s a southern boy through and through, living and growing up in the Bible belt. Underwood is forced to visit his hometown under terrible circumstances: a young girl died while texting about a water tower that Underwood had fought to keep, and some of his political opponents are spinning it to make him look bad. In the end, he spins it back, but he still must deal with the family of the young girl, who have already told him off and made it clear that they don’t want to hear from him.
But what interests me is this: the sermon he gives sounds pretty good. Aside from the directed-at-the-camera asides, which take away from the alleged sincerity of the sermon, he speaks fairly well. “I hate you, God,” he screams, reminding the congregation that they likely have all spoken these words, and that none of them would blame the grieving couple for yelling the same. He recounts a tale of losing his own father—noting to the viewers, however, that he had no respect for his father, and his death was not a sore trial—and again brings the discussion back to pain: “I hate you, God. Why did you take my father from me?” He then concludes predictably by reminding us that we are to trust in God, even when times are tough. We aren’t asked to understand, but to trust.
The sermon sounds good, and without the asides and the knowledge I already possessed of the character, I might have thought he was sincere. In fact, I might have even said that this was one of the best sermons I’ve seen in televised fiction. Most of the congregation found him convincing, even as he lied through his teeth about his own beliefs. The only one not fully convinced was the grieving father, and even he eventually comes around to Underwood’s manipulative ways.
One reason it sounds so good: I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that sermon before. In fact, I know I have, sans the screaming hatred towards God. I heard it after my own father passed away, and I suspect I’ve given small versions of the sermon to friends who were grieving over similar losses. Pastors often preach that we cannot know why God gives or takes away, and that at the end of the day, we must trust that God knows what he is doing. Underwood’s version is eerie, partially because it feels so much like a real sermon. Christians have been offering these same condolences to grieving families for as long as they’ve been around.
However virtuous his message may sound, this sort of recommendation is often painfully empty. Trust doesn’t feel like a step at all at a time when all I want to do is move forward. There’s something decidedly still and unmoving about the sort of trust we envision; after all, it’s offered as a solution to an outward frustration with God. We want to slam our fists, rage, fight to get back our loved one or, at the very least, find out why God would take someone away. Yet we are told to be still, to trust. It can be a painful non-action, giving up what we feel we deserve, the questions we desire to ask.
And therein, I think, lies my problem with Underwood’s sermon: without the proper framework, without the appropriate community, and without the right sort of reminders, telling someone to trust God at their darkest hour is sort of like telling a bank robber to stop robbing the place when he’s got the money in the bag. You aren’t going to get anywhere, and they might just get mad and shoot you.
The difference between Underwood’s empty condolences and those I received is that the people who told me this message did so in a way that also told me much more. They empathized, implicitly telling me they too didn’t understand what God was doing. I heard them speaking not just to me, but right back at their own hearts: trust God. They have to trust God to help me just as much as I have to trust that God hasn’t forsaken me, even in my time of doubt and anger.
This is what Underwood is missing, though his sheer charisma ends up working for him in the context of the show. Without the relational aspect, these hard truths simply ring through deaf ears. I don’t much care if my congressman showed up to tell me he was sorry, because what does that really mean? That he took a day off of work, made a publicity stunt, and then left, never to be seen again? Those closest to me—my friends, pastors, mentors, elders, and even, in my case, professors—are the ones who will make a difference.
This isn’t to say that acquaintances or those outside of your inner circle cannot offer condolences under any circumstances. If you don’t know someone personally at all, however, I don’t see how you can do much good for them with simple words. After all, even Underwood realized this when attempting to convince the grieving father of his own sincerity: Underwood offers to resign, and even though he is bluffing, he still demonstrates that action is what will ultimately convince someone of your sincerity. I may have felt that those closest to me had the biggest impact on my life, but I will never forget that hundreds of people prayed for me. I’m certain I will never meet everyone who offered up their prayers, but I’m grateful and touched by the sheer notion of it, if not the grace actually conferred. Sincerity, as borne out by our sacrificial actions toward and around those who are grieving, should be our primary relation towards the grieving.