One of my dearest friends lost both parents to suicide. Her father died when she was a teenager, and her mother passed away more recently. I was stunned and speechless when she told me about her mother’s death. How does anyone endure that kind of loss?
I was sure my words would be inadequate and unhelpful, yet my friend kept calling, asking my advice, letting me minister to her. She humbly shared both her pain and her struggles. She confessed her anger at her siblings’ callous response and asked me to pray for her. When she told me that our conversations had helped her, I was convicted by how rarely I let people into my pain. I had often assumed that if they hadn’t experienced what I had, they wouldn’t be able to understand it.
Rather than inviting others into my pain and grief, I’ve often pushed them away. I’ve felt a vague sense of self-righteousness, confident that no one could speak into my life except God himself. I’ve dismissed others’ experiences, even the comfort of friends, because they couldn’t fully relate to my suffering.
Temptation to Isolate
Right before my son’s death, my husband and I had worked through a significant marital struggle that intertwined with my grief. Messy and muddled, there were parts of my pain I felt I couldn’t share with others, so I was sure that no one could know how I felt. I withdrew from fellowship, hesitant to share deeply with others — it felt too vulnerable to be that exposed. Besides, I looked stronger and more spiritual when I didn’t let people in.
My attitude unknowingly intensified my pain, cutting off an important means of God’s grace and rescue: his people. My grief isolated me, ushering me into a silent silo in which I felt compelled (or perhaps entitled) to deal with my struggle alone. I said I was tired of hearing platitudes, but in truth, I was tired of hearing anything. I had closed everyone off, and no one dared to enter in.
This temptation to isolate, to pull away from community, assuming no one can help, is common in suffering. So how do we fight this temptation to pride — to believing that no one understands us and therefore no one can help us?
Pain and Loss and Sin
As someone who has dealt with layers of losses, I have seen this temptation to pride and isolation more than once. Pain, like sin, has a way of hardening my heart and blinding me to my real need.
When I was a single parent dealing with a significant physical disability, I was less concerned about being rescued from my sin than I was about being commended for my faith. In fact, I saw myself as a righteous victim in anything related to my suffering. Yet even those commended by God for their righteousness were not sinless, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). For instance, while Job was a righteous man, his suffering humbled him, and he repented in dust and ashes for pridefully speaking of what he did not know (Job 42:5–6).
I hadn’t fully considered my own sin as it related to my suffering until I heard Joni Eareckson Tada share about how pain and loss had sanctified her. She was paralyzed in a diving accident at age 17 and often spoke about how God changed her, transforming her once-sour and peevish disposition as she submitted daily to Jesus. Most of us would expect, or at least excuse, a quadriplegic with an irritable attitude, but Joni was determined to let God use her disability to refine her character. She writes in Lost and Found,
I felt ashamed of my root of bitterness and my spirit of complaining. I don’t want to be like that, God, I prayed. If I was to find myself, I needed to get rid of those sins and more. (28)
My Greatest Problem
I have come to see, like Joni, that regardless of what I’m suffering, my greatest problem on earth is my sin. When Jesus healed the paralytic, he first forgave his sins because, like us, he needed a much greater healing than a restored physical condition (Luke 5:17–26). Our deepest need is to be right with God, to be rescued from our sin — and suffering can help us see that. Suffering often exposes our sin for what it is, showing us our need for God’s grace.
I often journal in the morning, reflecting on the previous day and my reactions. As I write, I can see patterns — I’m often recounting how people have annoyed me or hurt me while overlooking my ungracious responses.
“Satan wants us to feel alone and self-righteous in our pain.”
One morning, I’d been writing furiously about how misunderstood I felt when I read, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). I sat there, convicted, as I realized these words were directly applicable to me. I had been impatient, unkind, irritable, and altogether unloving when people were trying to help me.
One of the cruelest things Satan does in our suffering is persuading us that we don’t need to be rescued from sin, but rather to be understood, revered, and left alone.
When One Member Suffers
Satan is prowling around, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8). And he loves to use suffering, convincing us that grief excuses our uncharitable responses. That we can’t be sanctified through our pain. That other people can’t and won’t understand us.
So, we lock the doors when people knock. We erect walls that proclaim our self-sufficiency. We tell everyone we want to be left alone. Few are brave enough to keep knocking at the door or calling over the wall. They may feel more and more inadequate to minister to us, afraid that they’ll say something foolish or worried about how we’ll respond. So they stay away, not wanting to offend or presume — and we cut ourselves off from the means of grace that God offers in community.
“How do we receive the grace of community? We need to let people in. More than that, we need to invite people in.”
How do we receive the grace of community? We need to let people in. More than that, we need to invite people in, offering grace when they are awkward and unsure, expecting they won’t meet all our needs, and assuming they may misunderstand us. We have been called to be the body of Christ, which means that each part has its own role to play. We don’t expect a knee to have the same perspective or experiences as an eye, but we expect every part to work together. Our brothers and sisters may not have had the same experiences as we have, but we trust that Jesus will minister encouragement to us through them in some unique and meaningful way.
Comfort for Any Affliction
We know that God alone provides for our needs and perfectly understands us. He walks with us through the darkest valley (Psalm 23:4), sees all our tossings and tears (Psalm 56:8), and knows everything we think and say (Psalm 139:1–4). We can trust him as we move toward the community he has called us to.
Certainly, those who have been through similar losses to ours may have uniquely comforting insight and experience to share, but other believers can minister to us as well. Those who have been comforted by God in their affliction can comfort other believers in “any affliction” with the comfort they have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). Any affliction implies that if we have ever received God’s comfort in suffering, we can use that experience to comfort others, since God is the source of true comfort. The Lord gives wisdom to those who ask for it (James 1:5), often in the moment (Matthew 10:19), so even those without a shared experience of loss can speak words given by the Spirit. And these Spirit-shaped words carry the deepest, most lasting comfort of all.
In suffering, we tend to draw inward and isolate to protect ourselves from further pain. Satan preys on that instinct, convincing us that we don’t need anyone else, and that others will only add to our grief, rather than easing it. He wants us to feel alone and self-righteous in our pain. Yet as we lean into God and his people, the Lord can transform us into humble servants, sanctified and shaped by our suffering.