August 26, 2015

Ministering to the Suffering

by Eric Davis
Question-About-Suffering1

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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:

  1. 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).

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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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

  1. Keep the odors to a minimum.
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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?

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • Brian Morgan

    Brother, good to see you back! I was just thinking of you last night.
    I would add that going to them is so important. I have found some won’t go “because I don’t know what to say…” Keeping #3 in mind, I encouraged them to something as simple as “I cannot imagine how painful this is for you, but please know I/we are praying for you and love you…” A simple card with a written out Psalm is also encouraging. But go! 🙂
    God bless you brother. Would love to converse with you personally if able. My email is 1996bmorgan@gmail.com. No pressure or presumption.

    • Eric Davis

      Thank you Brian. Will get in touch with you when I’m back in the office next week.

  • Welcome back! And thank you for these practical ideas for ministering to those who are suffering.

    • Eric Davis

      Thank you, Linda.

  • Wow, I need these words tattooed on my brain. Very practical. Very biblical. We are so uncomfortable with suffering — ours and others — in our flirtations with prosperity gospel thinking and believing. This list is an excellent primer for those of us who are trying to get our brains in line with the reality of living on this fallen planet.

    • Eric Davis

      Glad it was helpful!

  • 2ruthmatters

    What a great article! I believe we don’t always know when people are suffering (the silent ones) since we are so wrapped up in our own much too busy lives. Let us continually pray for our Lord to sensitize our hearts to actually ‘look’ to the needs of others. When we minister to our brothers and sisters who are in Christ, we are loving Him. Matthew 25:40

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks 2truth. You make a good point there. Let’s keep our eyes open to the needs of others.

  • 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.

    Boom!

    Been wondering how you are doing also, Eric. Wonderful to have you back! This is such a well written, well thought-out treatment of a very vital role in the church!
    Very, very helpful, and in ways I hadn’t thought of.

    A pastor I know once used the words “a ministry of presence” and this idea has stuck with me. He was referring to something broader than one-to-one ministry but the concept can applied all over the place. Just the simple act of “being there” for someone (or some event) can have an impact we may never even know about this side of eternity.

    One way our church gathers people for more practical “helps” is to use sites such as Sign Up Genie (e.g. chores) and Take Them A Meal.

    Blessings on you and yours and in your continued recovery!

    • Eric Davis

      Thank you Suzanne. Those are some helpful suggestions.

  • Another observation is that we as a church (generally speaking) seem to always answer “fine” to the question “how are you?” I think we do this because we are not certain that the person asking genuinely wants to know. Or cares. In a world as filled with suffering people as ours is, we often give the impression that it’s everyone else who is suffering, but we’re fine and dandy, thank you. So while we do indeed need to suffer along with others, those suffering also need to know they are safe to share their suffering and not receive a thousand yard stare in return (or a panicked look that says you’re trying to figure out something pious to say so that you can get away). This is a significant part of forging authentic relationship in the body of Christ and of biblical burden-bearing.

    • Eric Davis

      Agreed Jennifer. And it’s up to all of us to help cultivate an atmosphere in the church where we can be appropriately transparent with one another.

  • Susie

    Yay, I’ve been wondering too, how you are, and so glad to see that you are back at Cripplegate. I was afraid that “no news was not good news”.
    Praise God and might He continue to heal you and bring you back to full health.

    • Eric Davis

      Thank you Susie. Surgery went well, by God’s grace. The new aorta seems to be working ok. Had some very gifted and skilled surgeons. Recovery is slow, which is good for my sanctification.

  • Matt Mumma

    Thanks brother for the sound words of wisdom.

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  • Barbara

    As a loud person I’ve had to learn to use a calm quiet voice. Also, humor when the timing is appropriate. As an aside, to Jennifer, as someone who deals with Chronic health issues from a heart defect to chronic pain it’s just easier to say, ” fine” .Questions are exausting, and talking about your own suffering feels self centered and actually too self focused. I usually tell well meaning questioners, ” In this fallen world I’m fine in God’s loving kindness” The bigger question is, to me , this, ” is our church a place for suffering? ” Carl Trueman has deemed to broach the question, and I always wonder why so many churches continue their happy clappy church services in denial of the truth and reality of Suffering, The days church members die and that Sunday is business as usual makes me cringe

    • Hi Barbara, thank you for your insights. I also have chronic pain stuff going on related to work injury and I really hear what you’re saying about the exhaustion factor. What I have been trying to do is reach out without expectations that the other person would ask about me (how can I serve this person?). So I’ve asked a person, “what are you feeling like?” When they sort of are shocked by someone asking or if they say, well, I don’t want to focus on myself or whatever, I say, “well, who’s going to ask and actually want to hear?” That’s the kind of attitude I’m talking about (not that I’m setting myself up as some sort of shining example, believe me!). I guess because I have this pain, I know others must and it’s a wearying struggle sometimes. I just want to know there are sisters/brothers in Christ I can tell and know they actually care (for me and others).

  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    So glad to see you back and that the surgery went well! Take good care of yourself.

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