“In this world, one thing is certain: Everybody hurts. Suffering may take the form of tragedy, heartbreak, or addiction. Or it could be something more mundane (but no less real), like resentment, loneliness, or disappointment. But there’s unfortunately no such thing as a painless life.” – Foreword of Glorious Ruin by Tullian Tchividjian
If this statement is true, then it also means that our churches are full of hurting people. At any given time, there will be someone that we know that will be going through a season of suffering in their lives. The church – the body of Christ – should be the one place where one can count on to find rest. In fact, it should be the safest place on this earth for a suffering soul to find encouragement, support, and compassion. But unfortunately that is not always the case, and sometimes the church can be one of the scariest places for someone in the midst of a trying circumstance. All too often, we fail to remember that as a community of believers, we are called to “bear one another’s burdens” (). Instead, we choose to put on a weekly facade of having it all together and expect others to just do the same. When it comes to following , we’re usually pretty good at rejoicing with others…but can be downright terrible at the second part.
So, because it is true that everyone will face some form of suffering during their lifetime, and that as a church we are also called to “weep with those who weep,” I believe it is important for us to truly examine if we are a safe place for suffering. A good place to start is to gain a sense of what NOT to say or do when we encounter pain in the lives of others.
1. Do Not Minimize Suffering – “Minimization involves any attempt to downplay or reduce the extent and nature of pain. Any rhetorical or spiritual device that underestimates the seriousness of suffering essentially minimizes it.” – Tullian, Glorious Ruin.
“This too shall pass.” Have you ever heard someone say that? Have you ever said it to someone yourself? This is classic minimization of someone’s suffering. It essentially dismisses the situation as anything worth being concerned about, and (whether intended or not) ultimately causes one to feel shame for experiencing the pain they are in. In our attempt to comfort a hurting friend, “this too shall pass” tells them to place their hope in a false certainty that things will get better (which is never even promised in Scripture on this side of eternity), instead of offering any source of real biblical hope at all. Using a trite saying in attempt to “cheer someone up” will be received about as well as using a bucket of cold water to wake them up from a nap. ( NLT)
Another way we minimize suffering is by comparing one person’s trial to another’s. While the intent is to help one gain perspective of their situation & realize that things could be a lot worse, the reality is that this also does more harm than good. For example, when our response to a couple’s struggle to have children is, “look on the bright side – you could have cancer,” we are not offering any level of encouragement. Instead, we’re only describing their struggle as unimportant and unworthy of the pain they are experiencing because things just “aren’t as bad as they could be.”
The book of 1 Peter is written specifically to believers who are facing various forms of trials and persecution. Peter mentions some form of suffering around 19 times in the book, tracing back to at least 5 different Greek words (one simply meaning “unpleasant experiences”). This shows me that suffering manifests itself in so many different ways – circumstances that might not seem all that terrible for one person may be completely heartbreaking for another. It is never our job to determine what suffering should look like in someone else’s life.
2. Do Not Use Scripture With a “Quick-Fix” Mindset –I am not suggesting Scripture is unhelpful, powerless, and useless to a hurting soul. Obviously we know the exact opposite is true. But my point is this – throwing Bible verses around as a “quick-fix” method hardens a hurting heart more than it heals (yes, even the most applicable, hope-filled passages). Unless you have been walking through a trial with someone on a personal, intimate level; unless you have taken the time to weep with one who is weeping…lobbing out in passing with a smile is not a source of comfort.
3. Do Not Avoid Suffering – It’s probably safe to say that this is the category most of us fall into. We’ve all been there: “I just don’t know what to say.” So in our attempt to avoid any awkward silence, we avoid the topic of suffering or the person involved altogether. Let me offer a source of relief: When I’m in the midst of a difficult trial, I don’t expect – or even hope– that everyone I come in contact with will share some profound, mind-blowing revelation to me. I imagine the same is true with anyone facing difficulty. We don’t have to offer a perfect, Holy Spirit-inspired message or solution to our hurting friends. But we do need to offer our listening ear, our shared sorrow, and our compassionate response – even if that response is expressed only in tears. Don’t just tell them you will pray for them – take the opportunity to pray with them in that moment.
All 3 of these “methods” reveal our heart when it comes to helping those who are suffering. When someone close to us is hurting, it makes us uncomfortable too – so we immediately try to figure out how to solve the problem. But is this truly motivated by a desire to help them, or by a desire to erase our own feelings of discomfort? It is much harder & more time-consuming to walk through the valley with someone, so instead we choose to throw them a self-proclaimed lifeline. “Here – use this to climb out of your valley & join me.”
But if the church is the body of Christ, shouldn’t we aim to follow His example? The gospel is not only comforting to those who are in the midst of suffering, but it is a guide for those of us seeking to minister to a suffering friend. Jesus was uninterested in His own comfort when he left the glories of heaven to put on human flesh. Jesus was indifferent about His comfort level when he bore the burdens of our sin as a substitute on the cross. Jesus didn’t just throw us a life-line from heaven & tell us to climb out of our spiritual death. Instead He humbled Himself by taking the form of a bondservant, and He met us where we were. ()
If the King of heaven could humbly step into the world He created and suffer for us, why can’t we humbly walk through the valley of suffering with each other? Maybe if we showed Christ’s love to someone during their darkest days, they would be much more inclined to then listen to us tell them about how Christ’s love can be an anchor through their storm.
Are we a safe place for suffering?
2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (ESV)
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (ESV)
20 Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart
is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day,
and like vinegar on soda. (ESV)
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (ESV)
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (ESV)