Responding to Suffering

Suffering is the great equalizer in life. Nobody is immune. It can hit the rich, the poor; the smart,  the stupid; the educated, the uneducated; and the talented as well as the untalented. Nobody really knows when the bottom is going to drop out of your life, and we are all quite unique in how suffering effects us. Some seem to have a very high tolerance for pain and strive on seemingly unaffected by trauma. While for others simply careless criticism can push them all the way to death’s door steps with suicidal thoughts. 

But it really isn’t the actual suffering that I want to write about in this post; it’s how we respond when we see the people we care about suffering. I suppose my biggest concern is that quite often instead of making things better, we may make an incredibly bad situation much much worse. 

People suffer for a multitude of reasons. People may even suffer for reasons that they have no idea how to explain. Sometimes there’s a solution. For example, a person suffering from job loss or financial hardships can be helped out if another job can be given or some money to help them climb out of a pit. But the suffering I want to address here is the suffering that can’t be fixed. It is this type of suffering that we have the hardest time with especially if we are people of faith. 

I think people of faith have a particularly hard time with suffering because we assume that God loves us personally, and even though God allows bad things to happen to others, we are at a loss when bad things happen to us. We read how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, how the blind where given sight, the lepers cleansed, and so forth. So in our faith, we trust in what God is capable of doing while remaining dumbfounded when he doesn’t miraculously remove our suffering. But, God rarely removes such suffering. 

Now this may sound very pessimistic, but part of my trouble is that I don’t think God ever promises to shelter us from suffering. Furthermore, it isn’t exactly helpful for somebody who has just lost a loved one or who’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness, that God has a plan in this or everything is going to work out in the end. 

The last thing people want when they are suffering is to be preached at. It comes across as condescending and it is hurtful to those who are already hurting. Of course people who do so have the best intentions. It’s all part of a deep desire to fix things. This desire if very much apart of my make up too. When I see a friend suffering, I want to fix it; but some pain can’t be fixed. 

Having served several years as a preacher, I have done my share of funerals. Even though each is quite unique, there are some similaritities in how friends seek to comfort the suffering: 

  1. Some will get all theological saying things like God just needed another angel, or the passing loved one is a better place. These people like to quote scripture about the coming resurrection and how all things work together for the good for those who are in Christ Jesus. I’m sure the hope of seeing the loved one in Heaven does offer comfort to people who are grieving in many ways. But this does not take away from the loss they feel as they miss them NOW! They hurt NOW and someday doesn’t do a whole lot for the emptiness they are experiencing right now. They are in pain, and they should be allowed their pain. When people preach, it can carry the idea that they shouldn’t feel sad and their sadness is a mark of a shallow faith. This is ridiculous. Pain is enough. People don’t need guilt to go along with suffering. 
  2. Some talk all about the fun memories of the passed loved one. Humor definately helps in these situations and I do consider this constructive for some while being painful for others. 
  3. Some will talk about everything but the loved one who has passed. “How’s work?” “The weather sure been nice lately” etc. There may be nothing wrong with this because it may be comforting just to talk about something else.  But there is still an elephant in the room that is quite obvious  to everyone. 
  4. Then there are those who don’t say much at all, if anything. They don’t need have to. Chances are, the closer the relationship the less need there is to say anything. These people just seem to grab a cup of coffee offer a sad smile of sympathy and sit quietly by those who are greiving. 

I think it’s incredibly significant in the biblical book of Job when Job’s world falls apart his friends came together and sat with him for several days without saying anything. It’s only when they began to speak that it all got screwed up. Accusations were made, people became offensive and defensive, and people spewed out all sorts of nonsense that they really knew nothing about. I can just imagine God listening to the quarreling speeches thinking will everyone please just SHUT UP!

In so many ways it’s seems socially unacceptable to be sad. We’ll permit it for a while, just like Job’s friends, but sooner or later people feel the need to step in and say enough is enough. That’s when the accusations and judgment starts, relationships get ruined, and the person in pain feels more isolated then ever. 

Recently I read two books by some song writers that I greatly admire: Rory Feek and Steven Curtis Chapman. Both of these artist have been hit hard with loss. Rory lost his wife to cervical cancer, and Steven Curtis Chapman lost his little girl. There is no telling how many sympathetic tears I have cried listening to their stories. Both these men are obviously sincere in their faith and both were rendered a crushing blow in life. What I enjoyed so much about both of their book is: one, they were very open in discussing their heart-breaking story; and two, neither offered any of the typical garbage of “here’s how we overcame our grief.” They simply shared their lives. Instead of being the experienced teachers who discovered some godly truth that will fix every ill in 5 easy steps, these me shared their pain. They talked about their journey, and neither one is over their pain. Both books are incredible examples of inspiring faith through incredible pain. 

You see some pain just doesn’t go away. Sometimes God’s silence doesn’t make any sense to us. We are not going to understand certain things. I think faith has more to do with trust than it does with certainty. I know some have the idea that doubt is the opposite of faith, but I don’t. It seems to me that faith is trust in the midst of doubt. When I hear about the heroes of faith in the Bible, like in Hebrews 11, I know these people had their doubts. They didn’t understand why, but they trusted God with their lives, and that’s about all we can do. 

Perhaps the best thing we can do is be there for somebody in their suffering and sympathize with them. I don’t think there are many people who want a lecture when hurting, but it sure is helpful to have a friend who cares and is willing to listen.  The common statement of “if you need me, call” is not nearly as affective as a specific offering to help in a way you know is needed. People usually find their own ways of coping through the pain especially when they feel secure that there are people who care for them. Knowing you are loved and people care means great deal. 

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About Ken Sayers

I'm currently employed by a children's home where my wife and I care for a cottage of girls who have been displaced from their families. I'm a middle age man with two grown children of my own and one grandchild. I have worked as a United States Marine, a youth minister, a preacher, a childcare worker, and a truck driver. My hobbies include photography, horses, playing guitar, writing, and fitness.
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