Suffering. What a heavy word. No doubt, this word brings various scenarios and feelings to your mind. What exactly is suffering? If you are like me, you tend to think of “serious” stuff. An individual undergoing cancer. Someone being persecuted for their faith. Or, as we just learned in the news, a husband and father of eight children who recently moved to Africa with his family to serve as a missionary was shot and killed. And a mother is left in a foreign environment to take care of her eight children. It seems unquestionable that these things are all suffering.
Now, on the one hand, these scenarios are simple to deal with intellectually, especially for Reformed believers. We generally gravitate towards those sturdy anchor verses like “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18) and “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18a).
And who could forget, Romans 8:28? “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
It is right that our minds first drift towards these verses. Especially considering the rich context of these verses; by themselves, these verses do not make sense without reading and understanding the verses surrounding them. Many reading this have likely heard some great expositions of these passages and been greatly edified. As with all the rest of Scripture, these passages are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). They make for great conversation between seminarians, church members, and fellow pastors.
But, what happens when theological rubber meets the proverbial road? In other words, what about when you know someone who is suffering? And what about if this suffering does not quite fit the mold of the other “more serious” suffering? Quite simply, the question is, having a biblical theology of suffering, what do youdo? What do you say?
Before my wife and I got married, I honestly had little to no understanding of a migraine. I’ve gotten sick. I’ve had headaches. But, I had no context with which to understand the indomitable and debilitating migraine. As a matter of fact, when my wife got a migraine a couple of months into our marriage, it scared me. I had never seen anything like it. And it was attacking my beloved. Little had I known that the “in sickness and in health” part of our marriage vows would be tested so quickly.
Having now witnessed migraines roughly every month of our marriage, occasionally multiple times within a two to three-week period, I will say that I hate them. Loathe them. Despise them. But words fall short. They turn my vibrant and exuberant wife into a still body under the sheets at day time. It may be bright and beautiful outside, but it is dark in the house. It may be dark outside. It is darker still in the house. There are neither words to express the pain that my wife feels nor the soul sickness that I feel as I watch her.
And the question comes. What can I do? What follows is a short list of things I am seeking to do, albeit with much room for growth. Hopefully these might aid you as you seek to love others you know who are suffering.
Pray. The testimony of Scripture is clear. The God who created everything that exists out of nothing is also the loving and intimate Heavenly Father of those who have repented of their sins and trusted in Christ alone for their salvation from sin and death. And He hears His children. Sometimes all I can force out of my throat is “God, please” or “Please, in the Name of Jesus, heal her” or “Please make it stop.”
Cry. I am not advocating that you force tears or manufacture emotion. But it is entirely appropriate to allow yourself, even if you are a man, to be overcome with emotion. After all, these kinds of suffering are a result of the Fall. Grieving a recent death. Persecution. Medical complications. Family issues. These things will not exist in the New Heavens and the New Earth. It is healthy to weep while they exist. Even if you have little else to say, your tears speak loudly. As Christ’s Church, “if one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
Serve. In the context of our family, this looks like me giving my wife a bag of ice to put on her head. Taking our rambunctious two-year-old and one-year-old as far out of earshot as possible. Doing whatever I can around the house to alleviate her burden so that when she arises from the migraine, she will not be smacked in the face with the reality of a chaotic, messy, stinky house. In other words, seeing needs and meeting them to the best of my ability.
Encourage. There is a time and a place for words. It takes wisdom to know when the right time is and what the appropriate words are. Even if it comes through offering prayer for a sufferer, it is good to remind he or she that this is just temporary. Their citizenship is in Heaven. They will receive glorified bodies when Christ returns. There will be nothing inhibiting their enjoyment of God at that time. It is okay to not understand why this present suffering is happening.
As Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said, “The worldling blesses God while he gives him plenty, but the Christian blesses him when he smites him: he believes him to be too wise to err and too good to be unkind; he trusts him where he cannot trace him, looks up to him in the darkest hour, and believes that all is well.”
“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17).
~ Pastor Ryan Parsons