How Do You Talk About Suffering With People Who Are In the Midst of It?
How do you talk about suffering with people who are in the midst of it?
I think you need a pastoral, wise, tender, patient, and discerning heart when you approach a suffering person, especially one who has just entered profound shock and pain (like the immediate death of a loved one, or the announcement that so-and-so has cancer, or a child that's been born with a profound disability).
There are situations where the reality has landed with such force that what's needed first is support, before explanation. And you need to come in alongside with a lot of simple affirmations that "I am here." Like Job's friends, seven days and not a word. Those were good days for Job. Good days for Job. It's when they opened their stupid mouths and began offering inadequate explanations which put Job in the guilty seat that they became false comforters.
So to be there physically and offer a lot of touch, prayer, support, and common burden bearing (like providing meals, cleaning the house, and doing the practical things that need to be done when you're at the hospital all day long)—those kinds of things communicate the love of God in a very powerful way.
And then we try to discern when they are ready to hear more biblical truth. You probably should start with the massive truth "God is for you. Believe him." They may not feel like believing him, but you just keep saying the truth, "God is for you. Christ died for you. 'He who did not spare his own Son ... how will he not with him graciously give us all things?' (Romans 8:32)" And then, as they perhaps press you over time for why this has happened, then you can move towards truths that feel, at the beginning, more difficult.
I mentioned some time ago during a recording that there are a couple families in our church right now that are beautiful testimonies of the fact that it does take time to come to rest in the sovereignty of God in the midst of great crisis. So I want to give people time.
I've got this phrase that I learned from the book of Job that talks about "words for the wind" (Job 6:26). And I think it means that sometimes you say things in the midst of a crisis that nobody should take seriously. They should be words for the wind.
Say you're sitting and listening to somebody and they say something like, "I don't think God can love me and do this." Well if you know that person, and they've walked with God a long time, instead of letting that word go in your ear, lodge down, and produce doubts in you about their faith, you should just let the wind blow that word away. You should tell yourself, "That didn't come from their heart. That's a word for the wind. Just let it go." Because they're going to regret saying that, and they didn't really mean it. It's just that they don't have words right now to express their pain, and that seemed like one that would work.
I like to bring people along far enough so that they don't ever say things like that, but as a pastor I don't have the luxury of dictating what my people say. I just want to be patient and helpful.
If a person is finding no comfort in believing that God is involved even in our catastrophes, I think it helps to point to the opposite, to see whether the opposite of God's involvement is more comforting to them than his involvement. I think what people might need to hear at a point like that is, "If God is not powerful enough to stop that accident, what help can he be to you now?"
In other words, get people to think just a little beyond the immediate statement of theological problem that they're raising, so that the consequences of rejecting a sovereign God are felt to be as awesome, ominous, and terrible as they are. And how precious it is that we have a God on our side right now in our crisis who can, in his sovereignty, work everything together for our good, which we wouldn't have if he were the kind of God who couldn't have stopped that accident.
We should be patient with folks and not assume that their windy words are the last word.