If you’re like me, you don’t think about suffering much. At least not deep, intense, long lasting suffering. Honestly, suffering is not a category of engagement in my life. Yes, I have struggles, challenges and disappointments. But suffering? Not really. Now, yes, there are those in my life that truly are suffering:
The man I know with chronic back pain and the diminished sight in both eyes, one severely, for almost 20 years.
The woman I know for whom multiple concussions have become a chronic battle with headaches, impaired vision, and neurological disruption.
Another woman suffering through the effects of chronic Lyme Disease and its ancillary medical presentations. Its ravaging of her energy, her ability to be physically stable, and her ability to engage friends and life in the way she needs and desires.
These battles are ongoing and many years long. The trauma is real. The suffering is intense. And, while my heart yearns for their healing and restoration and my prayers are earnest and fervent; suffering, in this intense sense, is not a “real” category that I personally live in.
For the most part I live under Blue Skies. My life is what most people would call good, even blessed. I have a good job, a loving wife, children who love us and each other. We have a beautiful home, five cats, and plenty to eat. My health at almost 62 is pretty good even though I have recently experienced some of the adverse effects of my 62 year old body not being able to keep up with my 35 year old mind when it comes to softball.
And yet … and yet … there are those around me who live under Grey Clouds. A life of chronic pain, fatigue, loneliness, and physical or mental diminishment that pushes toward the removal of color from life.
Dan Allendar says that “You can only take someone as far as you have gone yourself.” I want these dear hearts and lovers of Christ to be set free; and, I would love to be able to be able to encourage them, guide them, and lead them into that healing and restoration. But I haven’t been “In their shoes.” While I can empathize because I have experienced some degree of pain and loss, I have not suffered in the same sense or to the same degree. So, I ask God, “What do I have to offer them?” and “How can I minister to them effectively?” "Lord, What can I do for these that I know and love?” If I can’t walk them through this out of experience, how can I be of any help to them?
As I have been asking God about this, two things have come to mind … the first and maybe the most important thing I can do has nothing to do with counseling, supporting or even encouraging. The most important thing I can do is point them to God. Paul’s prayers for believers in the young church were full of just that. Take a look at Romans 1:8-17, Ephesians 1:16-23, and Colossians 1:9-14. What does Paul pray for? A change in circumstances? An end to their suffering? No, he prays that they may know the fullness of Christ and oneness with God. In our suffering, we first and foremost need to know and lean into Jesus and know him crucified. This is the one thing we all need in greater abundance in all situations and especially in and through our suffering.
John Eldredge puts it this way; “Especially in the early stages of suffering, you can have God or insist on understanding. If you insist on understanding you will often lose God. Over time we may receive understanding but what we really need is God.”
The second thing I can do is a simple, yet powerful admonition … “Be there.” To the extent possible, be there. Most of us have experienced the ministry of presence. Those times when we were lost, lonely, confused, fearful; feeling shame, diminishment, and/or are physically or mentally expended. Those times when we were in a dark place and someone came along side us; not with words or answers, but, with their compassion and presence.
In Psalms, Dave reminds us “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” And, in Luke, Jesus himself, as he starts his ministry, says ‘“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. … Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”’
As I follow Jesus, the path he is leading me down is one of sharing him and being there. Right now, in this place, I cannot think of a better combination.
Footnote – Recently the team at Ransomed Heart; specifically John Eldredge, Bart Hanson and Stacy Burton, shared an important two-part podcast series on the subject of Finding God In Suffering (Part 1 and Part 2). I recommend this series very highly. As with all Ransomed Heart podcasts, it is raw and honest and leads our hearts home to God.