One of my mentors used to wisely say, “We are either in a trial, about to enter a trial, or coming out of a trial.” Such is life under the weight of the Curse.
Since God’s people are called to be skilled relationally, this means that relating to people in suffering is going to comprise much of our relationships.
Here are a few reminders for Christians as we minister to others in their suffering:
- We’re all called to skillfully minister to those in trials.
In many churches, the pastors are viewed as the ministry-putter-on’ers. Church leadership are expected to do all of the ministry while the other 95% of Christians watch. But Scripture commands the contrary: pastors are to equip Christians in local churches to do the ministry (Eph. 4:11-12).
Those suffering around us provide great opportunities for our ministry as the physical and spiritual needs can be significant. We can, for example, “love one another with brotherly affection,” “contribute to the needs of the needs of the saints,” and “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:10, 13, 15). Depending on the severity of the suffering, individuals often need help with things like daily chores, shopping, food preparation, kids, finances, spiritual care, visitation, to name a few. One pastor cannot possibly meet these needs for all those suffering in a church at given time. Nor should he since he is not the body, but merely one member.
God’s design for normal Christianity is that every member of local churches would be equipped and eager to skillfully pour out their gifts, skills, and resources for the needs among them.
- Be wise with words.
Since we are called to relational skill, then we are called to skill in speaking. Suffering is a time in which that is especially important. Scripture is packed with help here: “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly” (Prov 15:2), “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances” (Prov 25:11), and “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thess. 5:14).
3. Avoid saying, “I understand…,” unless you really do.
Most of us have probably said careless things to those in a trial. Sometimes we just don’t know what to do or say because of the difficult to identify. Well-meaning individuals often will attempt to comfort the individual by saying something along the lines of, “I understand how this is…”
But we should be slow to say such things. Often we do not understand. We may have experienced a similar struggle, loss, pain, or persecution, but often our circumstances were not identical to theirs. For example, we may have experienced pain, but not in the way the individual is. Or, we may have experienced a miscarriage, and while that is a loss of a child, it is different than the loss of an 8-year old.
So, in an attempt to identify with the individual (which is good), it may be better to say something like, “I understand that pain/sickness is so difficult.” Where we can, we should identify in a sympathetic manner. But, if we cannot, we should not attempt to do so. And it’s OK because we are not called to be others’ great high priest. They have a far better One (Heb. 4:14-16).
4. Beware of minimizing others’ trials.
Most people are not out intentionally to minimize another’s suffering. But the individual may be in a moment where we see that their response to the suffering seems greater than the actual suffering. Perhaps they are viewing their trials as if the end of the world would be a bad thing (assuming they are regenerate). It’s possible for God’s people to, in our less noble moments, unintentionally view our trials through the eyes of untruth.
So, we may see their suffering and think, “You know, I don’t think it’s really that bad.” And we may be right. In view of the horrors of eternity in hell, and the glories of eternity in heaven, no trial is that bad for the regenerate.
However, God commands us to speak in a way that fits the need of the moment so that the hearer is imparted grace (Eph. 4:29). Doing so involves more than saying to people, “It’s not that bad.” Further, “It is not that bad” is a myopic view of things as it pertains to understanding suffering, the present groaning of this world, and a biblical/true worldview.
More than knowing “it is not that bad,” we need to know/be reminded of God; the sovereignty of God, the redemptive plan of God, the penal substitutionary atoning work of God in our place, the goodness of God, the mercy of God, and the eschatological plans of God. Rather than hearing, “It is not that bad,” we need these God-centered, redemptive realities to inform our understanding of what is, especially in struggle. Certainly it is not that bad, but it is these truths, more than saying, “It’s not that bad,” which equip us to worship and glory in God during trials. We might also observe that God’s approach to our trials is giving us a loads of verses on trials, and not merely one verse that says, “Oh, stop, it’s not that bad.”
In either case, since we are mostly outside of their circumstances, we may not be able to adjudicate the severity of suffering as precise as we think. We are not them, so we cannot experience the loss, pain, or persecution as they are. It may not be that bad. But, it probably is what they are experiencing at that moment. And if we’re certain it’s not that bad, skillfully minister Scripture, erring on the side of compassion in order to comfort as we correct. Let the individual minimize their own trial. As for us, like Christ, let’s avoid breaking a bruised reed.
- Bring care from the truth of Scripture.
Recently I saw a quote which said, “Sometimes the best way to honor suffering is with silence. Beware of people who charge into your suffering with certainty and Bible verses.” Now, on the one hand, “Yes, be skilled about timing and wording towards the suffering.” However, that quote has the potential to convey that the certainty of Scripture is not needed in our suffering.
But, if we are not going to bring the certainty of Scripture into our suffering, then what will we bring? Or own tumultuous thoughts? The despair we battle in trials? The unbiblical thinking that invades us?
If we are to bring anything to bear on our suffering, it must be Scripture. And if the certainty of Scripture has no place in our suffering, then God himself has no place in our suffering. if Scripture is not sufficient in trials, then God is not sufficient in trials.
In a recent bout with post-surgery pain and related physical complications, my mind began reeling into the dangerous waters of despair. Though feeling better was what I wanted in that moment, it’s not what I most needed. I needed certainty because my thoughts and existence was rocked with uncertainty. And I needed another believer to bring God’s thoughts from Scripture to override my out-of-control thoughts consequent from my response to the struggle. As my mind raged in unbiblical despair and panic, I needed someone to firmly admonish me with Scripture.
- Learn to weep.
Learning to weep with those who weep is not about manufacturing tears for appearance’s sake. Nor does crying automatically mean that we are obediently ministering to the suffering.
Rather, to weep with those who weep is more about a tender heart which makes an effort to draw close to the individual in an attempt to sincerely share in their pain. It’s about a heart that avoids a stoic or business like involvement, and gets into the struggle as much as possible.
Some of us might say, “Well, I’m not like that.” We need to be. God commands it, not for elite Christians, but every Christian.
- Give a thoughtful gift.
Even if they are the type of person who seems to have everything, a thoughtful gift is a way to share and express care in their struggle. And we might consider a gift which will stretch us a bit. Christian giving is sacrificial, as our Savior did for us in his substitutionary work on the cross.
We might give a good book, a gift certificate, help with finances, and time spent cleaning and doing chores. And consider a different approach than, “If you need anything, let me know.” It’s almost a given that they do need something. But it can be hard to ask and figure out what you mean by “anything.” And I can be hard to keep track of who opened himself to meet needs.
- Give grace towards unexpected and uncharacteristic behavior.
Suffering is a time during which we experience the weight of the curse in heavier-than-usual ways. As people are pulled and pressed under previously unexperienced pains, people often say and do things spiritually uncharacteristic of how you’ve known them. And as much as we’d like the Spirit to ooze out of suffering’s squeeze, sometime it just doesn’t. Instead, the flesh shows its ugly head. Both physical and spiritual pain can wreak more havoc on the brain and behavior than we might like to think. This is not to excuse sin, but remind us that we need to give sufferers some spiritual breathing room. They are suffering.
“A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression” (Prov. 19:11).
- Keep the odors to a minimum.
During times of physical suffering, odors can be magnified. For example, individuals undergoing chemotherapy, experiencing post-surgery nausea, or in pain can be extra sensitive to smells. Something like another’s bad breath can send nausea to projectile stage.
But it’s not only bad odors which can do so. Things like perfumes and cologne can multiply nausea. Recently, I had to ask some of my family to exit my hospital room simply because the shampoo smell (something I would hardly notice otherwise) turned my stomach and enlivened my headache. I talked to one individual who said that while they were undergoing chemo even the smell of a certain leather sent them over the top.
Part of our privileged responsibility as God’s people is relational skill. One of the preeminent ways this comes into play this side of heaven is during inevitable suffering. As we competently care for others in this way, Christ’s glory will shine and people will experience something of his love.
What would you add when it comes to ministering to the suffering?