Thursday, October 13, 2005

Suffering Well With Others

Right now many of my friends are suffering terribly in different ways. Bad news is breaking forth everywhere. Through this manifold of variegated tragedies it strikes me that many of us fail to minister to our friends who are suffering. We say and do things that hurt more than help. We dispense acid rather than balm. By and large, we do not know how to lament and grieve with others—although some saints excel in this grace. Popular culture teaches us next to nothing in this regard. It has no time for such realities. In the wake of the recent epidemic of natural disasters and given my many friends, relations, and students who are suffering deeply (from bereavement, marital crisis, cancer, and chronic illness), let us consider briefly a few ways to suffer well with others.

First, we ought to pray for wisdom before speaking or communicating in any form with one under the pressures of loss. Ask God to give you the heart and tongue that heals—or at least doesn’t multiply the pain. Consider a few egregious examples. Someone loses a spouse only to hear someone ask within a few weeks of the spouse’s death, “Are you grieving well?” Is this some kind of test? One should grieve with the sorrowful heart, not ask it for an internal audit. Or consider this. Someone is diagnosed with cancer and is trying to reorient their life to handle this. A member of the person’s church says, “Oh, if I had to have chemotherapy—just shoot me.” Perhaps the shooting should come before that… The dear person who received this body blow is now preparing for chemotherapy with courage and hope. Remember what The Book of James says about the power of the tongue (James 3:1-12).

Second, one should not over-interpret the dire situations of a fallen world by trying to read God’s mind. This only makes for hollow comfort. Yes, God will bring good out of evil for his people (Romans 8:28), but we don’t quite now how he will do this. As Os Guinness writes in his superb new book, Unspeakable, the silver lining of a dark cloud—if we can even find it—does not explain the full meaning of the suffering. In light of this, we must learn to silently stew in our ignorance instead of spewing forth our pious pronouncements on the specifics of divine providence. Job’s friends went wrong only when they broke their silence in his presence and began to speak without knowledge.

Third, learn to lament with people. Study the Psalms of lamentation and the many laments in Scripture, such as those uttered by King David, Paul, and supremely Jesus himself, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” (You can find a link to my sermon, “Learning to Lament” on this web log.) A lament is the cry of the anguished soul before God, which displays puzzlement as well as anger. It expresses disorientation in search of reorientation. However, a lament is directed to God and before the audience of God, “the audit of Eternity,” as Kierkegaard put it. Listen to the stories of the suffering and identify with them. Say un-profound, but appropriate, things like, “I am so sorry” and “That is terrible.” The American South has expression that captures this perfectly: “I hate it for you.” I hate the fact that two marriages are being ripped apart and are may be dying. I hate the fact that my friend’s spouse is going through chemotherapy. I hate it for all of them, and I should show them that I hate it. I hate it because I love them.

We should never try to tell people that losing a spouse or having cancer or facing a divorce isn’t really so bad. It is bad, very bad. This is a fallen world, a world that is still groaning in anticipation of its final redemption (Romans 8:18-26). As Nicholas Wolterstorff writes in his moving and profound meditation, Lament for a Son, we must sit on the mourner’s bench with the suffering and lament with them. This in itself provides a kind of comfort.

I am but babe in this healing skill—suffering well with others. Will you join me in the school of lament? Will you learn to sit on the mourner’s bench before God and with those whom you love?


Tim Berglund said...

An excellent and timely post. I have been lamenting this week with friends whose profound loss imposes no direct cost on me whatsoever, but has nevertheless left my wife and me profoundly sad. It has taken discipline to avoid the urge to be overly helpful to people for whom many are already caring well, but it has taken no discipline to avoid spouting foolish platitudes and sinful divinations of the secret will of God. It is enough simply to be heartbroken with them.

Susan said...

I just returned to my desk from talking with a co-worker who is struggling with her Dr. He is pressuring her to take anti-depressants to "manage" her sorrow after the recent death of her mother. This is the society we live in. Grief is an inconvenience. It hinders productivity. Take a pill.

What was that book by Harry Frankfurt...?

stc said...

I learned a valuable lesson when visiting a woman in hospital one time. She was crying when I arrived, and just continued to cry as I read scripture and prayed with her. After a few minutes I had no idea what to do next, since she was inconsolable. So I just sat by the bed, holding her hand in silence.

It proved to be a good strategy, at least on that occasion. In a few minutes, her crying diminished, and a few minutes after that we were able to begin a conversation.

You make a good point about Job's friends: they went wrong by opening their mouths when they had nothing helpful to say.

In the incarnation, God made himself present to us. Similarly, the best thing we can do for others who are suffering is to be present with them.

Having something profound to say is secondary. Sometimes no words are adequate to the situation; but that's OK.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


I wish I had your email address, so I could more personally thank you for that thorough and thoughtul and large post about how to help those who are ill. Thank you so much for writing that. I hope you can listen to my sermon, "Learning to Lament," which was posted a few days ago. You are sure to identify with it at some level, and I hope you share the biblical perspective on this.

Madeleine said...

This is very good Doug. Over the weekend I caught up with a friend I'd not seen in years. On arriving she quickly told me of a profound loss just the week before. It was devastating for her and like Tim wrote above, there was no direct cost on me whatsoever but I was left profoundly sad as she revealed what had happened. I too had suffered a very similar loss some years previously so in part it probably triggered my own memories but it was the desolateness I saw in my usually bubbly friend coupled with knowing intimately what her loss felt like and knowing that nothing, no words would take away or make one iota of difference to the pain that got me. All I could do was hold her and tell her the truth that this was indeed devastating, her feelings of anger and pain were totally understandable and that that I felt so very deeply for her.
I was aware of wanting to be able to say something, to do something for her to help her hurt less but I knew there was not anything beyond walking a few steps with her - which felt so useless but I recall it was friends doing that for me that helped me the most.
People say the stupidest things at times like this, they do not mean to hurt of course, but it is hard to be charitable when you are hurting.