How to deliver bad news when you must

“O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem….” (Matthew 23:37)

I was 13 years old and riding the schoolbus home. During the nearly hour-long drive, I kept noticing a thin trail of white smoke in the distance. At one point, someone stopped the bus and asked for my older brothers to go with them. Since older brothers seem always to have their own agenda, there was nothing unusual about that, I thought.

Finally, the bus reached our little county highway. The last stop before our place was the home of a cousin. As he stepped off the bus, his mother came out of the house and called, “Joe, y’all’s house burned down.”

That’s how my two sisters and younger brother and I found it out. They started crying. The bus let us off at our stop, but we still had a quarter-mile walk down the unpaved road, up the hill, and around the curve. As we entered the clearing, no one and nothing could have prepared us for the sight. Where our house had stood that morning was now a blackened cemetery, the ebony gravestones poking up, the white trail of smoke still rising. Family members stood around the perimeter, no one doing much of anything, just crying, hugging, and talking in low tones for some reason.

It felt like a wake.

Even though in the aftermath of that fire, our family reaped a hundred wonderful blessings, the day still looms in our collective memory as the death of a loved one.

How to give someone bad news is what this is about.

I’ve had many years to reflect on the way our aunt delivered that sad announcement to us. Mostly, I have felt what she did was cruel, that the information seemed a choice bit of gossip she just could not wait to unload. Eventually, however, I changed my mind.  She did us a great favor. Without that advance notice, we four children would have been completely unprepared for what lay ahead as we neared the homeplace that afternoon.

I do not care to imagine what coming upon that scene unexpectedly would have been like. I’m glad she gave us the news, as bad as it was.

That was 1954. What follows happened some 30 years later.

The distraught husband called me from the next town. “Pastor,” he said, after introducing himself, “I need you to go see Mrs. Landon.” She was one of our beloved elderly saints, a widow whose husband had been a legendary educator in the area, and the mother-in-law of the man calling.  “Her daughter, my wife, was just found in our house. She killed herself. With a pistol. We need you to tell Mrs. Landon and get some women from the church over there to stay with her until we arrive.”

While my secretary notified two or three of her closest friends, I drove to the Landon home. She came to the door, and was surprised to see her pastor in the middle of the day.

She said, “Is everything all right?”

I said, “Mrs. Landon, I need you to come inside and sit down with me.”

She said, “Oh, is anything wrong?”

I said, “Yes, ma’am. Something is bad wrong.”

She said, “Is it Lydia?” (Her daughter had had problems of depression. If there was to be trouble in the family, she felt it would involve Lydia.)

I said, “Yes, I’m afraid so.”

She: “Oh no. Is she dead?”

I nodded. “I’m so sorry, but yes.”

She sobbed a moment, then said, “How did it happen?”

I said, “She did it herself.” And she collapsed into heartbreak.

After a few moments, she recovered enough to say, “How did she do it?” And I told her. “With a gun.”

That was a generation ago and I recall every moment like it was this morning.

There is no perfect way to deliver bad news.

No one but the most sadistic would enjoy sharing bad news. And certainly no disciple of the Lord Jesus would.

But sometimes we have to.

Times when I had to do such terrible things as this are when I knew beyond any doubt that God had called me as a pastor. He had given me a pastor’s heart. That means my heart broke with my people’s pain, and my tears were as genuine as theirs.

Jesus, the ultimate Shepherd, told some people, “Unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5).

The scripture writer asked, “How shall you escape if you neglect so great a salvation?” (Hebrews 2:2)

A beloved friend will warn you if the bridge is out, if you are in great danger, if drastic action is required to save a life.

Recently, on Facebook, we got into an extended discussion regarding something I had posted.

I had remarked about the people who say they got off the plane at the New Orleans airport and “just felt the evil in the air.”

I commented that the last time someone said that in my presence, I answered him. “Then you should have turned around and left. We don’t need you to bring any more evil. We have enough as it is.”

This quickly morphed into a discussion as to whether people can “sense” evil in the air, whether this kind of spiritual discernment is possible. Some vow that they have “felt the demonic influence” in certain mosques or bars or in entire cities like ours or Las Vegas. Someone said he’d sensed evil at the Western Wall of Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites for Christians and Jews.

Finally, I’d had about all I could take. I blurted out: “There is no scriptural foundation for anyone sensing evil in the air. Even the Apostle Paul in Athens simply said he ‘perceived’ that the Athenians were very religious or superstitious.” (Acts 17) Even the prophets–harsher in their preaching than any of us have ever been–did not pull that little stunt.

It smacks of super-spirituality, a snobbish superiority that discounts all the godly men and women in that city who are laboring night and day to bring Christ’s message to its citizens and elevates the speaker as the arbiter of righteousness.

This started me thinking about how the Lord Jesus came into Jerusalem, a city facing certain judgment because of its rejection of the salvation He was offering.  “He saw the city and wept over it” (Luke 19:41). Through His tears, He said, “O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen  gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matthew 23:37).

That’s how it’s done: through tears, the heart breaking, love laid bare.

How simple it would have been for our Lord to have pronounced damnation on Jerusalem for her wickedness. Instead, he wept over her.

How easily Paul could have damned Athens for its idolatry and paganism. Even though “his spirit was provoked within him” by the idols, he reached out in compassion and love. (Acts 17:16ff.) He told them the truth, but did so in love.

The old expression goes: “No one should preach on hell without tears in his eyes.” It is God’s truth.

Otherwise, we should be quiet.

We have no right to tell the bad news unless our heart breaks for the recipients.

I once heard a radio preacher damn a group of unbelievers. I’ve long forgotten the details as to who they were or what had brought him to say that about them. He said, “You’re going to go to hell, and I would like to be there to shovel coal on the fire!”

There are no words to register how reprehensible are such words and such unChristlike behavior.

A younger pastor texted two other older pastors and me with a question. He was working on a sermon on godly values and asked, “Since God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their sodomy, and the United States is rushing to make such ungodly behavior accepted and respectable, do you agree that our country is in danger of the same fate as those two cities?”

I replied, “S & G were not destroyed because of their wickedness. They were destroyed because ten righteous people could not be found within their walls.  Unsaved people may always be expected to behave like they are lost. But the onus is on God’s people to be faithful to Him.”  Then I added, “Since I assume you will not be preaching to President Obama and the Washingtonians, may I suggest you speak to the ‘righteous people’ of your town and call them to faithfulness.”

It’s so easy to go negative in an increasingly perverse culture. While we must speak to the evil, we must never forget that in Scripture we have the only remedy for it God ever provided.

We speak to the despair, but we offer hope.

Why do people need bad news anyway? Isn’t the gospel of Jesus good news? And isn’t that enough?

It is indeed good news. The best ever.

However, there is a principle that goes like this: “Good news must address a bad situation to be called ‘good;’ otherwise it’s meaningless.”

If I invent a cure for a disease that does not exist, no one rejoices because I’ve not done anything. But if I discover a cure for cancer, it’s the best news ever.

If I find a $5 bill on the sidewalk and my name is Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world, this is so insignificant that I might decide to leave the money there for someone who needs it. However, if I’m unemployed and wondering how to buy milk for my baby, the money is good news.

To appreciate what Jesus did on Calvary, one must first know why it was necessary.  Otherwise, what He did will seem pointless. So, someone must tell me why I need a Savior.

To appreciate how “the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:9), one must know that he has sinned and what that means. So, in telling you about Jesus and His cross, I might need to begin with the sinful condition of your heart.

To appreciate God’s forgiveness, we must come face to face with the reality that we need His forgiveness and why. To tell an innocent man that God forgives him makes no sense.

Helping people to see their precarious situation they are in without God is necessary in order to prepare them for the good news of the Gospel of Jesus.

Unless they know the bad news–the dangerous spot they are in–they will not appreciate the news that there is a Savior and His name is Jesus.

As a follower of Jesus Christ sent into the world to make disciples, I must tell people the bad news and then the good news. One without the other is incomplete and pointless.

How I do the first–impart to them this terrible news–is of utmost importance.

I must tell them the truth: God’s standard is high, they have failed to attain it, they are under His judgment.

I must be serious and not dilute the message with humor.  When Lot tried to warn his sons-in-law of the coming doom upon their cities, “to them he seemed to be joking” (Genesis 19:14).

I must earn their trust if I expect them to believe such news. Why should they believe me?

I must expect resistance and rejection from many, since the bad news is frightening and the good news is incredible. People want their religion to be sweet, easy, and reasonable. They label as doomsday prophets those who speak to them of hell.

I must use every method possible to convey this news–both the good and the bad–to as many as possible. 

I must expect opposition from some claiming to be Christian workers who, in their desire for acceptance and popularity, refuse to deliver the dark side of the news. Sometimes our greatest opposition in spreading Christ’s gospel comes from people claiming to represent Him.

I must persevere to the end, looking to the Lord for the results in His own time and way. We do not measure our faithfulness by the numbers responding, but by the pleasure of the Father. Our greatest ambition is to some day hear His “well done, good and faithful servant….”


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