I was planning to write a devotional on suffering to accompany this past week's sermon, but I happened through no plan of my own (by the plan of God) to read this devotional thought by Rebecca VanNoord in a devotional I have called Connecting the Testaments this morning. I thought it fitting advice on the subject of suffering, because we all tend to struggle with how to best empathize with others.
"It’s difficult to know how to respond to people suffering grief. Those brave enough to speak often attempt to rationalize another’s grief with ill-timed theological truths. Those who feel inadequate or awkward about reaching out to grieving people sometimes avoid them altogether.
Job’s friends are well known for misinterpreting Job’s suffering. But they aren’t often recognized for the moments when they responded to Job’s anguish with wisdom. When Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar first heard of the tragedy, they immediately came to comfort Job: 'Thus they lifted up their eyes from afar, but they did not recognize him, so they raised their voice, and they wept, and each man tore his outer garment and threw dust on their heads toward the sky. Then they sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, but no one spoke a word to him because they saw that his suffering was very great' (Job 2:12–13).
Often we try to diminish grief with clichés that seem helpful and fill the awkward silence, like “God is in control.” Job’s friends realized that such spoken attempts—even spoken truths—would only interrupt and add to the grieving that was necessary and appropriate. Instead, they shared his grief, offered their presence, and didn’t speak a word.
Job’s friends didn't keep silent for long, though, and when they did speak, Job wished they would be silent: 'O that you would keep completely silent and that it would become wisdom for you' (Job 13:5). Our response to grief should be measured and prayerful. Attempts to explain events that we don’t ultimately understand can bring even more pain. However, shared grief and empathy can bring comfort to someone who knows truth but is struggling to come to grips with a new reality."†
Rebecca Brings up a great point. Often times it is difficult to empathize with the suffering of others, even others very close to us. Regardless of how difficult it might be though, it is something that is important to the Christian life and to the community of faith. Romans 12:15 says we are to "...Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." When people are suffering they don't need to hear profound theological truths. They already heard those in a Sunday Sermon somewhere along the line, and if they haven't, than they aren't ready to now. What they need is for people to simply join them in their pain and to show them that they are loved by you and by God through you. Sometimes (in fact, often times) the holiest response to difficult circumstances is simply to be broken and contrite in our pain. Its is more often than not to write some theological treatise on suffering and God's sovereignty, Its not to run for the hills saying "we just need to give him/her time and space", there are times for both these things to be sure, but when someone is feeling the pain of loss, injustice, sickness, or any number of other bitter tastings of this world, they don't need these. I think of our Lord himself upon hearing of the death of Lazarus, and knowing full well that He would raise him from the dead, took the time to stop and weep with his sisters (John 11:28-44). In my own simple sort of logic I think to myself "If Jesus didn't see anything incredibly profound to say to Mary and Martha in a moment like that, who am I to think I can do any better?
May God give us the will to accomplish the ministry to which we have been called. May we learn to love like Christ. If anyone, believer or unbeliever, in our circle of influence is in pain, may God grant us the wisdom to say nothing and the grace to weep with those that weep. Amen
†Barry, John D., and Rebecca Kruyswijk. Connect the Testaments: A Daily Devotional. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012.
Art by Chris Koelle He's a great biblical artist. Check him out at http://chriskoelle.com/