What Can We Say to Friends Facing Suffering?
A heavy question today from a listener to the podcast, Joseph from Pleasanton, California. “Hello Pastor John, my friend has been suffering through extreme fibromyalgia for three years. He describes the experience as the feeling of knives stabbing, fire burning, and thirty people pounding and beating his body daily and constantly. Day and night this happens, unabated. He and his family have been desperately praying for healing and seeking all avenues of treatment, but with no results. Although they are a Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, missional family, their family is having a difficult time holding onto God’s goodness. Christ’s suffering ended after a few hours, but my friend has been suffering for years, with little hope of recovery for the rest of his life. I know there are many good books and videos that teach about knowing God’s goodness in pain and suffering and hoping in the next life, but what is some practical biblical counsel for encouraging this family?”
The first thing I would say is, don’t let their suffering drive you away. It is easy to become weary sharing in someone’s suffering. Yet Paul tells us in Galatians 6:2 that the law of Christ is fulfilled precisely in this, that we bear one another’s burdens. Consider it a beautiful ministry in the name of Jesus, for the glory of Jesus, by the power of Jesus to be steadfast in your friendship and your personal presence. That’s the first thing I would say.
All Suffering Is Unique
The second thing I would say, and I’m sure it’s almost too obvious to need saying, is that you don’t give the impression that you have been through this yourself and can empathize. Even if you have suffered much, all suffering is unique — absolutely unique.
There are things about it that no one else has tasted in the very same way. Therefore, the comfort we give should not include statements about our own suffering and our own capacity to empathize — “I know what you’re going through,” or something like that. We don’t. It’s almost worthless to ever say that. If you have a capacity to empathize, and it sounds like you do, it will be seen and known by your presence and your patience and your mercy.
I would say don’t give up on praying patiently for relief and healing. Sometimes, we just settle in with sickness and we’ve prayed so long that we’ve given up on hoping for healing. Unless you get a pretty clear word from the Lord about that, don’t give up.
“Don’t let suffering drive you away. It is easy to become weary sharing in someone’s suffering.”
In order to avoid vain repetitions, which sometimes we fear — like “I’ve prayed for this so often. It just sounds like an empty, vain repetition in my prayer” — in order to avoid that, ask for specific kinds of relief from day to day.
Maybe there’s a special sore that just won’t heal. That sore, you put your hand on gently and you pray, “God, heal this sore.” Or maybe they just haven’t been able to sleep for three nights. That’s what you focus on in prayer. Or maybe it’s some relational burden, some child that’s adding to the burden, or some dad, or spouse.
But don’t ever stop praying in the presence of those folks to God for his merciful relief. There’s always some measure of relief that they could use even if the whole disease isn’t taken away. Jesus said to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12). We all would hate to live in constant pain. How can we not ask that there be some measure of respite?
Suffering and Sin
Here’s the fourth thing I would say. This gets biblical and theological, but you discern the time when it’s right for this. Remind your friend and his family that suffering, while owing to the universal sin of mankind, is not always owing to a specific sinfulness in the one who suffers. Therefore, this suffering need not be an indictment of some particular flaw in your friend.
To me, one of the most amazing and encouraging and important passages about suffering is in Hebrews 11, where the author says that great triumphs over suffering are given through faith, and great endurance of suffering is given through faith. Listen to this passage, and I’ll point out where the transition occurs. It’s really remarkable, because there’s not even a heartbeat in between the two: “Through faith [they] conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection” (Hebrews 11:33–35). Stop. No comments. If you just stopped right there, you’d say, “Whoa, the Christian life is triumph, triumph, triumph, triumph.”
“Christ suffered so that all of your sufferings might be repaid with endless ages of happiness in his presence.”
Without any explanation, the next thing out of his mouth is “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated” (Hebrews 11:35–37). All of this is said to be by faith. By faith, they did those things. Those who lead their lives in utter misery were champions of faith, just as those who experienced miracles of deliverance were champions of faith.
My point here for the encouragement of the family is that you find regular ways to remind them that there is a whole stream of Scripture about the suffering of the righteous, not just the suffering of those who need chastisement, and that’ll change the way the battle is fought.
Maybe the best example that everybody would think of for righteous suffering is Job, because Job is considered the most righteous man in the east. That’s what the Bible says he was (Job 1:1). Yet God permitted Satan to afflict him with horrific boils — fibromyalgia, perhaps, without even knowing it. We don’t know how long these boils lasted, but Job was brought to the brink of unbelief by them, and God showed up just in the nick of time in those latter chapters to keep Job back from despair.
The book of Job forces us to do two things. It forces us to come to terms with the fact of God’s absolute sovereignty over our suffering, even though Satan had a hand in it. At the end of the book, in Job 42:11, the inspired writer says this: “Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him.”
“Don’t give up on praying patiently for relief and healing.”
Even though Satan was the immediate cause of Job’s horrible sickness, and it’s right and good to resist the devil always and to pray for relief from his attacks always, nevertheless, we always submit to the fact that God is sovereign over Satan.
What God permits, he permits wisely and with good purposes. That’s the second thing to see from Job; namely, that by God’s grace, we can actually come to see God’s purposes as compassionate and good, because that’s exactly the way James talks about Job. He says, “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:10–11).
Pray for Miracles
The last thing I would say is that you be in earnest prayer for two miracles: always the miracle of healing and physical relief on the one hand, and the miracle of actually seeing and feeling the hand of God as compassionate and merciful. That’s a miracle of equal standing with healing.
Christ suffered unspeakably so that your friend’s sins might be forgiven, and all his sufferings might be repaid with endless ages of happiness in the presence of God. Pray that he believe that and rest in that.