Grief is lonely. Suffering in general is a lonely road. I've learned this truth firsthand. Grief and suffering can leave you feeling like you can't breathe or like you are drowning. Even with wonderful people surrounding and lending support, a suffering person can be left battling great loneliness, but those people are part of the lifeline that help the suffering heart grab hold of hope. I am left to wonder then, how much more lonely is it to suffer and grieve when no one or very few want to or are willing to enter into the hardship a person may be facing?
I find myself asking, Church, why? Why are we willing to allow our brothers and sisters or worse yet, those who do not know Christ, to suffer alone?
Sometimes I think it is because we have this idea of what socially acceptable grief is and what it isn’t. We don’t want to enter in if it could be hard, or ugly, or long, or something we don’t understand. We fear such situations. It is hard to come alongside someone who has lost a spouse or a child to illness or an accident. There is nothing easy about coming alongside someone who has a terminal illness. However, many people tend to dig deep and show up in some way for that kind of suffering even if it is uncomfortable or awkward. We find it even easier yet to lend support when someone is struggling because of a major surgery, difficult delivery of a baby, or laid off from a job? These are all fairy socially acceptable ways to suffer and we show up.
Friends, what happens when the suffering is something that makes us uncomfortable? What happens when we don’t know how it should play out or what the right answers are in the hard? Let’s get real here. What if the heartache isn’t what we have defined as socially acceptable like someone who has had an abortion, abuse within marriage or the church (any kind of abuse: emotional, sexual, physical, spiritual), someone battling against same sex attraction, a person dealing with chronic depression, that person who cannot beat anxiety, a family who has lost one of its members to suicide or overdose, or a family who felt called to adopt and has faced endless heartache with the child they’ve made a part of their family. The list could go on.
I can tell you what we often do. We talk about it behind closed doors. We come up with high and mighty theology and theories about it. We look down on it. We live our lives thankful we don’t have to deal with that issue. We claim ourselves not qualified so it isn’t our place to be involved. We disbelieve them (or at least show that we do with our lack of care). We avoid it. Subsequently, we avoid those people. Oh, we may talk to them. We paste on our smiles and keep things shallow while inside the other person is drowning in the deep. Without so much as acknowledgement, a question, or a prayer, we leave them to try and hold their head above water another day when they barely thought they could make it through the last day. Or maybe we do let them know we are praying but leave it at that because it’s safe - for us - but the sufferer cannot even breathe.
Let’s be a people, Church, who refuse to leave the hurting alone in the fire. A people who will hear of or see someone in the flames and will not let them burn because when we read 1 Corinthians 12:26 “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together,” we know it is talking to us and that hurting soul right in front of us. We need to see them in the fire, and just like God didn’t leave Shadrach, Meshsch, and Abednego alone in the fire, we join them (Daniel 3). We decide to be a lifeline. We know ultimately it is Christ the hurting need, but as the Church, we are His hands and feet on this earth. So, we need to become that life line that is anchored solidly in Christ.
It is not an abandonment of the idea that Christ is the answer to the grief or the suffering to say we should reach out and be a part of the rescue of these dear souls. Blogger Tim Challies writes: “It is clear from Paul’s use of the word “need” in 1 Corinthians 12:21 that he does not see the Christian’s dependence on other Christians as a defect in our dependence on God. Total dependence on God’s grace does not mean no dependence on God’s means of grace.” We can be the means of grace.
In Luke 10:29-35 we read of a man who was suffering. He had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. What happens next? Two religious leaders come along and not only walk past him, but go to the other side of the way to completely avoid him. This example is a good picture of how the grieving and the suffering among us often feel. They are split wide open and bleeding and those of us who should care the most because of God’s calling to His followers to love big, those of us in the Church and even Church leaders, move ourselves out of the way - especially if it is one of those less socially acceptable sufferings. So who should come along? A Samaritan man who culturally would have been seen as the person who shouldn’t care, yet the Bible tells us he had compassion. But, before it tells us he had compassion, it tells us the Samaritan SAW the hurting man. He saw him! Do we really look at people and see their pain and does it move us to compassion regardless of what has caused that pain? The passage goes on to tell us he bound up the man’s wounds, treated them, took him to an Inn, and even paid to have the man taken care of into the future. Culturally, it was an uncomfortable situation - a Samaritan helping a suffering Jewish man. However, the Samaritan sees the pain, enters in, and does all he can. He became a lifeline. Whether he knew it or not, He became the physical hands and feet of Jesus to the one suffering.
So Church, are we ready to be part of God’s means of grace? I am not saying this because this is something I have perfected. By no means. I believe I have failed at this more times than I have been a real lifeline for someone. But by God’s grace, I hope and pray I am growing in this practice of loving the suffering well, and doing it more and more.
Here are several ways that I believe the grieving and suffering need us to be that lifeline:
1. Do not ignore the hurting person. Validate the person's pain.
Philippians 2:4 says we are not just supposed to look to our own interests but also the interests of others. We cannot ignore the suffering and grief of another and live that verse out. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 tells us we are to “encourage the fainthearted.” Fainthearted means little spirit. The grieving and suffering often times have little spirit left. And that word “encourage” means to console and comfort. We cannot do this if we have not first let them know we believe them, we can see they are struggling, and understand their struggle is for good reason. We cannot be like the Levite and the priest and just pass them by in judgment or fear. They. Are. Drowning. And God may want to use us to be a lifeline if we are firmly anchored in Him. How can we validate their pain? Let them know we believe them, ask them often what are ways we can be praying for them, send notes of encouragement, don’t pretend life is great, be sensitive to how situations they find themselves in may further their grief. And, don’t be afraid that our bringing up their pain is going to suddenly make them think about their pain and make things worse. The one suffering and grieving, is always thinking about it. Our acknowledgment of their pain as real and hard is foundational to loving the suffering well.
2. Don’t assume someone else, someone more qualified, someone who has walked that road will help and then do nothing.
Maybe they will need professional help, and maybe someone who has walked the same road will be able to speak some special encouragement in the life of the hurting, but that does not discount the help we can bring by loving well. James 2:14-17 says: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” If we simply say to a suffering and grieving person, “I will pray for you. Christ is the answer,” but but do not pray and do nothing to show we care about their needs, we are living out this passage in James - whic isn't a good thing. We have to be ready to sacrifice and give of ourselves, our time, and our resources to meet the needs of the hurting. What that looks like varies from situation to situation. We should pray and ask God to show us how we can come alongside the sufferer in a tangible way - maybe it’s meals, or regular prayer meetings for that person, or bills that need covered, or being people who can be called at any hour, or helping that person find resources for counseling or other services, just to name a few.
3. Be present.
This action is one of the most important and it doesn’t mean having to be physically present though that is important sometimes too. In the age of technology and communication, distance does not have to keep us from showing a suffering person that we are present - we are with them in the hurt. Galatians 6:2 says we are to “bear one another’s burdens.” That literally means to put on oneself, or to take up and carry according to Strongs. Romans 12:15 says we are to “weep with those who weep.” To carry someone’s burden and to weep with them means to be present. We let the one hurting know that we are in this with them, it grieves our hearts, and we cry with them. This kind of support can be accomplished through checking in often. If we really do live in close proximity we get together with that person regularly to listen, pray, let them cry, cry along with them, give them a hug, whatever shows them this matters to us and hurts us because it hurts them. If we don’t live nearby, we can do the same thing over the phone - minus the hug. Showing this kind of support doesn't have to be mysterious to figure out. It is simply saying, “I am not trying to fix this, I am just with you and love you.”
4. Listen. Listen without judgment.
A suffering person’s emotions can be all over the place. They have to work through times of raw anger, gut wrenching grief, maybe guilt, and on and on. Listen without the need to correct what they are feeling and without casting judgment on what may sound ugly. They may throw out words they wouldn’t usually use or ideas they don’t normally adhere to. Listen and give them time.
Do not be pushy or apply pressure about what they should talk about or when they should talk. No one hurting wants to talk to everyone. They will talk if and when they want to. Give them space to do so and just be available.
When they are sharing, just listen. Generally speaking, trying to compare their pain to something in our own lives is a bad idea. If we haven’t walked this particular road of pain, we shouldn't go there. If we have been down a similar road, we still should not be quick to point back to our own pains. Just listen. If asked about our own experiences, then answer the question honesty but always bring it back to the sufferer.
Listening is hard but we get better with practice.
5. Pray for and WITH the one hurting.
A hurting friend of mine recently said that it was good to be prayed for but life-sustaining to be prayed WITH. Pray for those we know who are suffering but every chance we have, pray with them. Don’t pass up an opportunity. If we are in their presence and they’ve been in the middle of a trial causing great grief and suffering, they are always going to be thankful that someone took the time to pray with them. Exodus 17:12 is part of an interesting story involving Moses. The Israelites were in battle and as long as Moses held his arms in the air, they prevailed. However, after a time Moses grew weary. Aaron and Hur came to his rescue. Each took one arm and held it up for Moses. The suffering are like Moses. They are battle weary and we can be like Aaron and Hur when we come along and pray with them because in doing so we are helping to hold up the worn and weary. Prayer is powerful and how much more so when we pray together.
6. Get educated.
Whatever the trial the hurting person is facing, get educated so we can help all the more. For instance if it is suicide, learn about help, prevention, and after care for families. If it is anxiety and depression, we should learn all we can about what it is like to live with those, and how to come alongside those who suffer with these things. If it is abuse of any kind, get educated about what help looks like, what the victim is going through, and what abuse looks like in its many forms. We needed to know what kind of resources and services are in the area to help those who are hurting. Whatever the suffering, it is essential to learn all we can.
7. Don’t be in a hurry.
In our instant gratification society we want to put a time limit on grief and suffering, and we want quick fixes and answers. The problem is, suffering has its own time table. It isn’t neat, and tidy. It’s messy. It’s long - sometimes life long. We need to be the kind of people who can suffer long with others.
I am sure there are many other suggestions that could be on this list, but if we just started here, we would begin to make a difference in the hurting hearts of those around us.
One of the things I’ve noticed about suffering is that no matter what causes it, there are always some things that look the same. It is lonely and it affects every area of the person’s life. We are surrounded by people in our church pews and the world around us who are drowning and so often, we don’t even notice because we have not taken the time to really see people. Or, it may be that we have seen it, but in our discomfort, we’ve done nothing. I know I’ve been guilty of such inaction. Let’s stop letting people drown right in front of us when we have the ability to be a lifeline.
I know there are some of you out there who do this beautifully. You have loved where it is hard and done it with such grace. May I just say a huge thank you? I pray we can all learn from your example.
Just this week I heard this song. It articulates better than I ever could what it is like to be grieving and what is most needed by those of us surrounding the grieving. Please take a few moments to listen to what is shared before this song, and listen to the song itself. May the Lord strengthen each of us to do as the song says and pull up a chair next to those who are in the fire.