Have you ever watched your loved ones suffer and been powerless to intervene? Have you ever stood by helpless, knowing no matter what you said or did at that very moment would have no effect on their pain? It’s like standing on quicksand. You take one step and the floor will swallow you up. You want to comfort, you want to embrace, you want to reach out to your family, but on your own you cannot. You’ve already distanced yourself from them because you are unable to grapple with the grief they are facing. When confronted with pain, we cannot withdraw. When challenged with grief or physical suffering, we need to be courageous enough to share in the sadness of others. Suffering should cause us to cry out to God, it should bring us together, and it should move us to alleviate the suffering of others.
The Dictionary of Bible Themes describes suffering as “the experience of pain or distress, both physical and emotional” (Martin Manser). When it is expressed that way I envision a scene where a child has experienced a traumatic situation, and someone older offers comfort and says, “There, there, don’t cry.” The child has no chance to express grief; the pattern to withdraw becomes established. From an early age many are trained to store their emotions, to bottle them up until they finally erupt as a volcano, leaving them ill equipped to handle immense grief. Since they are not taught to deal with such a high level of emotion, many may turn to the world for comfort as I once did. They may end up in a cycle of substance abuse, pornography, or other forms of escape. I’ve seen it happen. Also, when many suffer, they want it to end quickly. They cannot understand why they have to endure the pain they are in. Instead of accepting pain as part of the human life, they run away. They withdraw. That reaction increases their agony and their hearts can end up in the wrong place because they do not cry out to God. Many Christians do the same. They can become isolated, as I did. They may forget that God is with them during their darkest moments. In their anger they may begin to blame him for their affliction and reject him altogether. Instead of working through the anger and expressing it to him it just becomes a question of, “Why did it happen to me?” That is disastrous. We need to stand next to God, our solid foundation, and depend on him for support. We need to look for him when we do not think he is there for us, because he is. We need to cry out for him and learn to turn our souls inside out before him. We can no longer pretend that we are fine during our suffering. It is not true. We need to express our grief to God as Job did. “Job was no stranger to weeping. There is no shame in sorrow and tears do not necessarily contradict faith or submission” (Layton, Talbert). There was a time during my life when I thought that God could not possibly be with me any longer. I had fallen off at ladder work and sustained an injury that caused me to have chronic pain in my right foot. My entire life and family had become so torn apart from the pain I was experiencing and the prescription medications that I was taking, that I concluded God didn’t care. My marriage was failing, my children were pulling away, and I was beginning to think life would overwhelm me. It also became difficult for me to help care for my daughter who had recently been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. I withdrew into myself. I became lost in my situation. I hadn’t sought God, nor had I called out to him. When I did, he answered me right away. Within weeks of seeking him, the operation and healing I had hoped for occurred. My pain became almost non-existent, and my relationships were reconciled. When we reach out to God, I believe we go to the warmest embrace we could ever know.
Marrying my wife Hayley was one of the happiest days of my life, and this year will mark our twentieth wedding anniversary. Little did we know that marriage would bring a form of suffering into our lives that we were not prepared to deal with. Before we had celebrated our second wedding anniversary, Hayley had been diagnosed with endometriosis, a painful chronic pelvic condition. We have spent most of our relationship fighting endometriosis. It has included repetitive operations, experimental medications, and endless doctor’s appointments. Instead of reaching out to each other after the diagnosis, we withdrew. We found it easier to isolate ourselves during painful moments than to face them together. We felt ashamed. We felt we were expected to appear as if everything was fine because we knew God. We began to lose our footing. It was not the right way. That was not the love we promised each other on our wedding day. The withdrawal in our marriage created emptiness. I believe when people isolate themselves from each other during painful moments they withhold love from each other, as Hayley and I did in our marriage. When people do not share their pain with those closest to them, the opportunity for others to love them back disappears. It can be terrifying to reach out with our pain because we have to trust each other with our sorrow. We have to depend on another to handle our burdens without hurting us more. When we depend on someone so deeply we allow them to care for us, comfort us, and lift us up. We do as much for them as they do for us. But I had cried out to God, I had admitted my pain to him. Because of what I did I was able to reach out to Hayley. She reached back. Instead of our suffering remaining a barrier, it began to unite us. It became a common bond. Not only that, but we began to teach our children how to reach out with their own sorrow. We had taught them how to withdraw, but God gave us the courage to teach them how to share. Suffering brought us together as a family.
When a cut requires stitches, it leaves a scar. That scar is a reminder of a past hurt that has healed, although the memory of that hurt remains. So Hayley and I have noticed with the suffering in our lives. The trauma that caused the hurt may have ended, but the emotional or physical scar remained. Our distress had changed us in some way. Hayley once asked me, “Don’t you think we have suffered enough?” That’s a tough question to answer, one I may never be able to solve. For us it never seems to be enough because there are always more ways we need to change. In our journey we had reached out to God and to each other, but we were still withdrawn from the world. A wall had gone up around our lives. We’ve found that there is often a barrier between people and sufferers, because people don’t always know how to reach out to the ones who are hurting. Withdrawal happens on both sides of the barrier. How do you breach it when you don’t understand the pain? For us it was prayer. Prayer to God for the courage to reach out to those around us, or to the people we saw hurting. Prayer to God that he would give us the words to say to bridge the gaps. When we were alone in our suffering we felt like outcasts. People should not be isolated. When we see the suffering of others we should be moved to help, but in our society there is a general conditioned avoidance of it (Phillip Zella). When people took the time to notice us, we felt those were the people we could trust. When people made us feel safe, we could reach out and share our pain. Over time our scars have softened us. We seem to care more for others, and our hearts break for those who are meeting their affliction for the first time. Our eyes can spot those who have met great sorrow. To break down the barriers we need to be bold. We need to be like Jesus. When he met the oppressed and afflicted he was moved to help and to reach out; he was compassionate. When we see people suffering around us, we must move ourselves to help them.
What do you want to do the next time you see your loved ones suffer? It will happen. It is a part of life. Suffering will strike all of us at one time or another, and our pain defines us in ways that we do not expect. Will you stand on solid ground? Will you draw close to those around you and weep with them? Will you cry out to God with them, and lead them in the footsteps of Jesus? My hope and prayer is that you will care for those who hurt, for they may be closer to you than you know.
Manser, Martin. Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. London: Martin Manser, 2009.
Talbert, Layton. Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 2007
Zylla, Phillip. The Roots of Sorrow: A Pastoral Theology of Suffering. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012