I could see the suffering on her face every time I looked at her over the last few months. Yet she couldn’t hide her surprise when I asked her out for coffee to interview her for a class paper on the topic of suffering. The relative comfort Samantha has enjoyed since her escape from the toxicity of her family of origin makes it hard for her to identify the more ordinary struggles of life as suffering. Difficulties in her church have recently led to considerations of leaving. All the while, her Martha-spirit is learning to be still as she has newly retired and become an empty-nester.
Samantha could not categorize herself as a sufferer today, but as she recalled the childhood memories of suffering in a broken and emotionally abusive household, her identification with suffering deepened in front of my eyes. Overlaying the lessons learned from her childhood of anguish with her present struggles, Samantha commented that she has always found it helpful to see the faithfulness of the Lord in her life through her own memories. She explained that in her moments of despair, having the right person to talk to – one that would listen without offering advice, give honest and loving feedback, gently point to the goodness of God- has always been her comfort in life and death. Sadly, this has rarely been her experience.
I’ve been with my husband from the very beginning of his pastoral ministry, and have had a unique vantage point to see his growth in caring for sufferers. He said, “I used to think ‘helpful’ was saying the right thing, but now I know it’s just being in the right place.” In numerous situations, he has seen that approaching a sufferer as a counselor has only inflicted more suffering. Yet coming alongside as a friend, even in times and locations that are inconvenient to him, has been meaningful to those in turmoil. This has been also learned through our own suffering – financial difficulty, strained familial relations, health concerns, ministry hardships, and more – as well as the suffering to which we have been able to minister. We know the pain of quaint Bible verses haphazardly written in cards, thoughtless comments that make little of our hurt, or failure to acknowledge the suffering at all. Like Aaron and Joshua holding up Moses’ arms, “helpful” in the midst of pain has been physical and emotional presence, paired with tangible actions of assistance.
Here are some things I learned about suffering recently:
1. Everyone suffers
Sometimes it looks small, sometimes it looks overwhelming. But I cannot and should not attempt to quantify or compare suffering. Just because your situation may not be a cause of suffering to me doesn’t make it any less painful for you. Suffering for my first grader is the struggle of spelling tests. Suffering for someone else may be a bad breakup. For another, a difficult co-worker. For someone else abuse or addiction. Regardless of the form, the sin around us and the sin within us affect us every single day.
2. Suffering is not just something to “get through”
It is an anti-Biblical worldview that thinks of suffering like a blocked drain – with the right thoughts, behaviors, interventions, even prayers, we can unclog the drain of suffering and “get through” a painful situation. This kind of thinking totally disregards the meaning of our suffering. The incessant need to “get through” something that is difficult fails to see the suffering as an opportunity for growth in the love and fellowship with God.
3. God is in the midst of every aspect of suffering
This seems quaint, doesn’t it? Perhaps it is familiarity that has bred such passivity to this amazing reality. It is a comfort to know that the God of all existence, who in control of tumultuous weather and government regimes, is so personal as to be aware of my daily struggles and wants to be in the forefront of my groaning. He is not surprised by my pain but desires that I would use such difficulty to draw closer to Him. To find my comfort in life and death in who He is. The all-knowing, all powerful, all present God is also all good. My suffering, your suffering, is not good. But we find hope and comfort as we draw near to the God who Himself is all-good.
4. I can help in the suffering of those around me.
The universality of suffering means that I know something about you as you suffer. It may look different, but I am also a part of the pain club (cf. Mike Wilkerson, “Redemption”). Suffering, like all sin, has this mysterious way of distancing people. But as I draw near to our good God, I can also draw near to those around me. I can be aware enough to see those who seem to be withdrawing and invite them into true relationship. I can make meals, send cards and texts, give hugs, etc. I can spend time to listen. I can cry alongside of you. I can pray for you and with you.
The greatest comfort is knowing that the God who speaks is also the One who listens. He listens to the cries of our heart without distinguishing the level of relative hardship for such suffering. The example of the Psalms to be emotionally naked in the presence of the Lord is not reserved only for “serious” matters. “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” (Psalm 119:50 ESV, emphasis added). The level of complexity to our suffering does not change God’s involvement in our pain. When suffering looks like my three-year-old being scared to poop in the potty, or my friend facing a new church, or a battle with cancer, or the loss of a job, our great God brings comfort by His presence and His Word. When the whole world is sinking sand, our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.