“Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Psalm 10:1
Suffering has a way of sobering us.
C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Timothy Keller, in his most recent (and excellent!) book, begins with a statement by Lewis and then follows it up: “Suffering ‘plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.’ It is an exaggeration to say that no one finds God unless suffering comes into their lives—but it is not a big one. When pain and suffering come upon us, we finally see not only that we are not in control of our lives, but that we never were.” (Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 5)
When we see painful suffering in the world or when it arrives on our door step, it has a way of forcing us to wrestle with the big questions like, “Is there a God? If there is, is he even aware of the pure evil, sickness, and suffering occurring on his watch? Has he done anything about it? Will he do anything about it? Where is he?”
In John 16:33, Jesus tells us that “in the world, you will have tribulation” (John 16:33, emphasis mine), so the question is not if we will suffer. The question is always this: how we will suffer?
Where do we go in suffering?
In the Old Testament, there is a godly man known as Job. Job loses his 10 children in natural disaster, is stricken with boils, and his wife encourages him to join her and abandon the God who appears to have abandoned them. Job’s buddies arrive to comfort and counsel him. They appear helpful by holding their tongues.
Then they open their mouths.
They speak, and things get worse. They begin asking theological and philosophical and personal questions that don’t help. Sometimes, silence is the best counsel. In fact, maybe that’s why God feels so distant during our sufferings. Maybe he knows that sometimes no words will comfort us, only his presence can provide the healing and relief we so desperately long for.
You see, in times of suffering, pithy, cliche, Christian bumper sticker aphorisms never help anybody. In fact, they’re patronizing. I’ve heard Christians try to counsel each other with trite statements such as, “Brother, you just need to let go and let God.” Or “Have a little more faith, man!” Or “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” What does that even mean? Those kinds of silly statements sound quite obnoxious to an individual in the midst of their suffering.
There’s no airtight, fortune cookie-sized one-liner that puts someone’s suffering on the run. In fact, if there was one, most people would’ve probably thought of it. Trite statements more often stoke the fires of others' suffering when they need water.
What should you say (or not say!) to someone who is suffering?
Everyone suffers differently. Some speak. Some are silent. Some vent all their feelings to anyone and everyone, while others simply shut down. For those of us who want to comfort the suffering, the Bible simply doesn’t tell us what to say. Solomon admonishes us on a number of occasions to be ever so selective with the timing and tone of our words. “A word fitly spoken is like golden apples in a setting of silver.” (Prov. 25.11) Or “a gentle tongue can break a bone.” (Prov. 25.15)
Christians are provided with more than a mere script when it comes to helping those who hurt. We are admonished to offer our presence to the suffering. Paul says that we are to “weep with those who weep.” (Rom. 12.15) I’ve heard it said that 80 percent of communication is nonverbal. Sometimes opening our mouths is the worst thing we can do. Paul desires us to feel with the hurting. He admonishes us to “bear one another’s burdens.” (Gal. 6.2)
The body of Christ is in and of itself a healing and comforting community. This is because the children of God are filled with the Paraclete, the Comforter, the Counselor, the Holy Spirit. Many times we want to say something in order to just make the pain “go away.” We do this oftentimes because we’re either insecure in the moment or we want to play the role of the hero or are just truly ignorant about how bad it actually hurts.
As a pastor, I will often have someone in my office who is grieving. After listening to their story, sitting in silence and letting them weep in the arms of God, I will ask them if they would mind if I say a prayer for them. Sometimes, they are a Christian but are struggling to speak with God. Other times they are an unbeliever and aren’t comfortable with prayer, to which I will simply say, “Thank you for letting me into this part of your life. I’m always here for you should you want to speak again.”
However, more often than not, the person will let me pray for them and I will try to say to God in prayer what the suffering cannot say through their tears. I believe that there’s nothing I can say that will rattle God or take him off guard, so I can just say things like, “Father, Sally is so so angry, hurt, confused, shocked right now, and we need you more than we need answers. Help Sally, Father. We aren’t calling out on anyone but You.”
I’ve lost five family members in the last five years. Five. One morning, after the third death in my family happened I was reading Job and came across the last chapters in which God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind (Job 38:1, the same type of storm that killed his children) and God began asking Job a series of questions:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38.4)
“Do you give the horse his might?” (Job 39.19)
“Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars?” (Job 39.26)
In that moment, all of a sudden, I felt bullied by the God I loved. I wasn’t ready for his questions. I was enraged, my pride was insulted and I was humbled. Before I knew it, I threw my Bible into the wall and said “Where were you?” I couldn’t trace his hand and I couldn’t understand his wisdom in those questions. I broke. I sobbed. And his questions kept washing over my mind as I was sobered that he is God. He is sovereign. He is near. And my most recent crisis was not “news” to him. In a matter of moments, I knew that he cared about my broken heart.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NIV) There are innumerable other gods, faiths, substances and addictions to which we are tempted to turn for comfort. Jesus says for us to exclusively come to him and him alone.
In our lowest, most disoriented, frustrated, angry and confused state—when faith feels like faith, it is in that moment we can join with the psalmist and “pour out our complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.” (Ps. 142.2) He can take it. He is God. Jesus’ friend and disciple, Peter, who suffered greatly and wrote to a suffering people, told them and urges us today to “cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7) You don’t have to tip-toe around the throne of God. You don’t have to find your best outfit and clean yourself up.
You don’t have to speak with the tongues of angels to get your Father’s attention. I have a little boy named Jude. He’s two years old. One Saturday night, my wife and I were finished getting ready to go out on a date. I was sitting in my chair reading. Jude had been in the the back yard playing in the dirt. He was absolutely filthy, covered in dust and peanut butter and jelly all around his mouth.
He marched right up to me in incredible confidence, climbed up on my lap, pulled my face up close to his and said, “Daddy, where’s the pretzels?” As God’s children, we have that same right. We can march as boldly and confidently as my little Jude before the throne of God because when it comes to his kids his throne is a throne of grace (Heb. 4.16). And when we get there, our Father doesn’t want us to mince words. His desire is to hear us say what we must say, cry the tears that must be cried, and rejoice loudly in his presence. He is our all-powerful, all-knowing, always-present, Abba Father.
How do we pray when we suffer?
We have a God who is not only aware of great suffering, in Scripture we are reminded that he entered our great suffering, and out-suffered the entire world’s sin, sickness and death, and crushed what crushes us through his triumphant resurrection from the dead. Currently, Jesus is building a home for us. Currently, Jesus is praying for us. There is coming a day on the calendar of God that I am certain he is eager to see arrive, for it is the day when he will appear glorious by wiping away every tear from every eye.
Here’s the significance: The incarnation, which sums up the entirety of Jesus’ earthly existence (not just his birth), is an atoning moment. In the incarnation, God identifies with humans—all humans in all the dimensions of human life—to bring humans grace. He becomes what we are so we can become what he is.