I recently finished the popular, and highly controversial Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, based on the novel by Jay Asher. In the series, 15-year-old Hannah (the main character) takes the viewers through the 13 reasons that led her to the decision to kill herself. We journey with her as she tries to navigate high school and the complexities of boys, bullies, friends, enemies and everything in between.
I started watching based on the recommendation of a few friends, not truly invested, and honestly, not really understanding what all the fuss was about. Even several episodes in, I still didn’t understand the controversy. High school bullying, sex, underage drinking. . . typical high school drama, right?
Then I got somewhere around episode 10. And I understood. The last few episodes of the series are no joke. They dive head-first into scenes about rape, sex, and suicide. Raw, hard-to-watch scenes carefully portray the pain, loneliness and heartache that accompanies these very real issues. Take caution if you choose to watch the show. The graphic depiction of high school depravity is intense, and this series isn't for everyone. That being said, the directors made a bold choice and address some really difficult topics, sparing no details—and for that, I applaud them.
Sex, rape and suicide are hard topics. Taboo, even. And like most taboo topics, we tend to hide them in the dark. We keep them tucked away where we don’t have to deal with them. Because hard topics are. . . well, hard. They’re taboo for a reason—painful, uncomfortable, and difficult to talk about.
As Christians, we’re to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness,” but we are called to press into these challenging topics (Eph 5:11). We can intentionally pursue good, healthy, difficult conversations about real, taboo, hard things.
Jesus didn’t stray from difficult conversations. He leaned into them with love and grace. And as Christians, I believe we’re called to do the same. Some of you may already be shifting in your seat. What? You want me to talk about hard things? Like with other people?
Yes. But before we start talking, we listen.
Listen with grace.
Healthy conversations involve listening. When others entrust us with hard stories, we’re called to listen with grace. We can value others greatly with our ears. Graceful listening expresses love and grows trust.
“Poor listening rejects; good listening embraces,” writes David Mathis. “Poor listening diminishes the other person, while good listening invites them to exist, and to matter.”
Rarely does someone share the hardest part of their story at the very beginning of a conversation. It takes time. They’re feeling you out—are you hearing them? Do you care? Will you respond in disgust? In anger? In fear? Will you respond at all?
Respond with compassion.
Unfortunately, we often don’t know how to respond to hard topics. We resort to silence, or, sometimes, avoidance. But If we’re not careful, our silence can be misinterpreted as judgment or disgust. Often our discomfort with a topic (sex, rape, homosexuality, suicide, etc) can be misinterpreted as discomfort with the person. As believers, we can respond to difficult stories and hard conversations with compassion for the people who share them with us.
Press in with affection.
We’re called not only to respond to hard topics, but to press in with care and affection. Consider your own experiences. Have you ever put yourself out there and shared something vulnerable? Something that took courage to say? Those are the moments I want someone to press in—to gently and carefully dig deeper. Because we have received God’s loving-kindness, we can listen to the messiest parts of one another’s stories and still show love.
I love the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. This woman was shunned in her community because she had already had five husbands and was now living with a man that was not her husband. She made a point to draw water from the well alone, during the hottest part of the day, because she had already experienced judgement and shame from others in the community. Jesus already knew the woman’s story and he intentionally responded to her with love and compassion. He pressed in. He didn’t shy away from the hard parts of her past, he pursued her with affection. Her past didn’t make him uncomfortable—and it didn’t define her—because Jesus knew he came to overcome it (Jn 16:33).
Remember Our Hope
I want to take a moment and speak to anyone who has ever felt abandoned in the hard parts of their story—who’s been left feeling unnoticed, unheard or uncared for: I’m sorry, but more . . . God cares (Ps 34:18).
Even if many of us are afraid to address taboo topics and painful stories, Jesus sees you (Gen 16:13). He’s not intimidated by your past. He desires to comfort you (2 Cor 1:3). And because of his life and death on your behalf, you no longer bear the guilt and shame of your past. And for those who have surrendered our lives to Jesus, you are no longer defined by the most painful parts of your story—by his wounds, you have been healed (1 Pet 2:24).
For those struggling in loneliness and isolation, be encouraged and know that you have the ultimate Comforter and the Author of compassion on your side (2 Cor 1:3). God will care for you and fight for you (Phil 4:19).
And if you are battling with suicidal thoughts, tell someone. Please.
For those of you that get twitchy at the idea of talking through taboo topics, know that the strength of the Lord is with you as you seek to love others in their suffering. Because he will one day make everything right, you can rest with confidence in his perfection to listen with grace, respond with compassion, and press in with affection. Remember the comfort you have received—“[God] comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor 1:4).