By Jon Smith @ http://newattitude.org
I will never forget those grief-stricken 4 hours – sorrowful, painful, tragic. My wife and I embraced our infant son Chase, singing to him, praying for him, and could do nothing but helplessly watch his life wither away.
Six months earlier we discovered our son Chase had a fatal birth defect. We knew, barring a significant miracle, that he was going to die, but we did not know of the unimaginable pain and suffering that his death would bring to our door – we had never really suffered the loss of anything. We were able to spend four precious but painful hours with our little boy and our last act as his earthly parents was to hold him in our arms as we sang, “It is Well With My Soul.” Chase breathed his last right before we concluded the last line of this never to be forgotten song.
My wife and I never imagined that we would lay any of our children in the grave, let alone watch them suffer and die in our arms. But, neither did we imagine the band of close friends and comforters that God would send to us in our greatest hour of need. We weren’t the only ones that held him, sang to him, and prayed for him that day in the hospital, nor were we the only one’s weeping at his departure - they were too. They walked with us, cried with us, prayed with us, and carried us for months. They were great comforters to us. They were Christ to us.
This article provides some pastoral reflections on being great comforters to the suffering, but also acts as a tribute to my closest friends, for they were the one’s that taught me many of these truths. What follows are some lessons that I have learned and will continue to learn in caring for people who are suffering. It’s not an exhaustive treatment, just a start.
Weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15b) When suffering and grief enter our door we need people who will simply grieve with us. This can be the single most helpful expression of care for your brother or sister. As much as possible, enter their experience of grief so that you can weep with them and live with them in an understanding way.
Help them run to where their supreme comfort can be found. All grievers seek comfort. And there is only One Person that can provide supreme comfort to our grieving hearts: Jesus Christ. He knows their pain and sympathizes with their weaknesses (Heb. 4.15). He will always hear and He is committed to comforting them.
I have found the following quote from David Powlison to be extremely helpful in this aim:
“So often the initial reaction to painful suffering is Why me? Why this? Why now? Why?...[Then] He comes for you, in the flesh, in Christ, into suffering, on your behalf. He does not offer advice and perspective from afar; He steps into your significant suffering. He will see you through, and work with you the whole way.... This reality changes the questions that rise up in your heart. That inward-turning “why me?” quiets down, lifts its eyes, and begins to look around.
“You turn outward and new, wonderful questions form. Why You? Why You? Why would You enter this world of evils? Why would You go through loss, weakness, hardship, sorrow, and death? Why would You do this for me, of all people? But You did. You did this for the joy set before You. You did this for love. You did this showing the glory of God in the face of Christ. As that deeper question sinks home, you become joyously sane. The universe is no longer supremely about you. Yet you are not irrelevant. God’s story makes you just the right size. Everything counts, but the scale changes to something that makes much more sense. You face hard times. But you have already received something better which can never be taken away. And that better something will continue to work out the whole journey long…
Finally, you are prepared to pose—and to mean—almost unimaginable questions: Why not me? Why not this? Why not now?”
We must care, counsel and pray with people with a view to deepen and clarify their experiential knowledge of Jesus. We must help them draw vast comfort from God through the Word of God. At the very deepest level, men and women must learn, like Job, that Christ is great and it is amazing grace that enables us to know and experience his loving and comforting nearness, even when we don’t have all of the answers.
Help them speak with honest emotion. The Bible is brutally honest about the sorrows of life in this fallen world. The Psalms invite sufferers to bring their grief to the One who cares more for them than anyone ever could or would. We can find such examples in Psalm 134, 22, 38, 42, 61, 73, and 88 to name a few. Maybe you know someone who is angry because of the suffering in their life, or entangled in a web of self-pity, or even envious for the “good life” that other people seem to have. Encourage them to speak honestly with God. He isn’t surprised by their questions nor will he turn them away. God welcomes their honesty and understands their dark moments of pain. He enters these moments to show His steadfast love, comforting mercy, and amazing grace. He will not leave them in their confusion or sin, but will gently lead them to Calvary to see the one that bore their grief and carried their sorrow.
Choose your words carefully. Immediately after the loss of a loved one or news of a fatal disease comforting words are needed, but choose them carefully and apply James 1:19 in being quick to listen and slow to speak. One of the most important things that you can communicate is your commitment to care for them. You could say something like, “I am standing with you,” or “I am grieving with you.”
Understand that asking, “How are you doing?” is one of the most difficult questions for a sufferer to answer. Try instead asking questions that lead them to what we discussed in #2, “Where are you seeing God at work in this trial?” or “What Scriptures have comforted you during this time?”
Let them initiate the doctrinal questions. Often, when we experience trials and suffering of any kind new questions emerge in our minds and we need the help of God and others to find the answers. However, I would encourage us all to let our friends initiate these questions. Especially when it comes to God’s sovereignty – let them bring this up. It can seem uncaring to a friend to bring up God’s sovereignty in the midst of suffering—as if a broad acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty will stop the grieving.
We need to be aware of the spiritual condition of our friends when they ask the “why” questions. Some asking “why?” don’t want an answer, they want to be comforted. When a friend asks a question similar to this a helpful response could be something like, “I can’t give you all the answers to ‘why?’ but you may draw comfort from the fact that the one who loves you and died for you asked a similar question: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’”
Lastly, in the midst of suffering, expressions of practical care are many times more meaningful than weighty doctrinal conversations. Making dinner, going to a movie, offering a small gift, or even something like playing basketball can be far more comforting than an exposition of Romans 8:28.
Don’t ignore them or the death. Let’s be honest. Many of us don’t have a clue how to care for people that are suffering. So many times we ignore it becausewe think that not saying anything at all is better than saying something stupid. I understand this way of thinking but this can often make them feel as if they are bearing the burden alone or make them feel distant in your relationship. Rather, ask them things like, “How did ________ life impact you?” or “What are some of your favorite memories of _________?” Or simply acknowledge that you don’t know how to best care for them and simply ask them what would best. One of the most helpful questions that my friends asked me was, “have we said anything or done anything that was more tempting than caring?”
Pray for those who are suffering. God himself is the one that “comforts the downcast” (2 Cor 7:6); He is the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor 1:3). In the deepest of sufferings, many find it almost impossible to pray. Should not the rest of us carry their burden by interceding for them?
There have been times I have seen suffering people transformed, in answer to specific, believing prayer. God is the God of comfort and he will provide this – often through his people. So let us ask, remembering that he loves to bind up the broken hearted and give good things to his children. Let us ask that God would equip and empower us to imitate Jesus as we care for the sick and the suffering.
Jon Smith is a pastor in the ONE ministry at Covenant Life Church.