Sharing in Suffering: Being with People in the Midst of Pain

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There are undoubtedly many ways in which we could discuss life’s curveballs that move us into difficult days of disillusionment and disorientation with the world around us. We could sit here and talk about how to make sense of pain, suffering, evil, and heartache from a philosophical, theological, psychological, or biblical perspective, but my hunch is that such conversations typically provide cold answers in a place where what we really need and long for is deep compassion and comfort. The Apostle Paul had such moments.

From prison, Paul wrote a letter that contains some of the most memorable verses in the entire Bible. One these verses says, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:13).” It is widely recognized that this text is often abused and taken out of context. Surely, Paul is not saying that if I jump out of a plane without a parachute that I will be successful in landing on my own two feet. He is also not saying that if I chant this verse, I will be able to close a big business deal. He is speaking of the strength and contentment that comes from being in Christ, which means that moments of conflict and trouble (like Paul’s imprisonment) don’t have the final word. But if Philippians 4:13 is one of the verses most often taken out of its context, then perhaps Philippians 4:14 is one the verses most often overlooked. It reads, “Yet it was kind of you to share in my troubles.”

The heartbreaking realities of life such as divorce, illness, financial crisis, betrayal, death, persecution, etc. are equal opportunity offenders – at some point we will all encounter a deep sense of heartache. I know that from my personal experiences with grief and suffering that there is a tendency and temptation to try and navigate through it in isolation. We live in a culture of independence and autonomy, and these values creep their way into every area of life, including those areas where they don’t belong – like moments of suffering and tragedy. We think we can do it on our own, but that wasn’t God’s design.

To be sure, when we walk through tragedy or distress, alone time is important for the healing process. Retreating gives us the private space we need to wrestle with God, cry, journal, think, process, etc. Retreating in a healthy fashion is rejuvenating and redemptive. “Retreat,” however, should not fully characterize the way we journey through intense moments of pain. In his book Embodied Hope, Kelly Kapic writes, “Seasons of physical distress challenge Christian hope, so the suffering saint leans hard upon other believers for spiritual sustenance. Fellow pilgrims strengthen us by embodying gospel promises.”[1] The idea of “preaching the gospel to ourselves” in the midst of suffering is often unattainable, as suffering can be like a smoke that hides the beauty behind it. It is hard to see, let alone preach, the good news when we are engulfed in a cloud of confusion. Kapic goes on to say, “…when the pain is intense, some people just want to be left alone, but being alone is often not a safe to place to be.”[2] In grief, we need other to embody the good news around us.

For the suffering believer, this means that he or she needs to seek strength from the Holy Spirit to create space for others to share in his or her sufferings, whatever those sufferings may be. For those who are sharing in the suffering of a friend, family member, or a stranger this means prayer and presence. When we share in other’s sufferings, we are not trying to solve the problems, we are simply being present in the most appropriate ways. For Paul, the church community in Philippi shared in his suffering at a distance through prayer and sending provision for his daily needs (Philippian 4:15-19).

The key to understanding the weight of this text is knowing that Paul could do all things through Christ who gave him strength, but that he still needed others. In other words, “I can do all things in Christ who gives me strength, but I still need you.” Why? Because often times God strengthens us through those who are sharing in our pain. Again sharing in suffering is not trying to solve the problems of one’s pain. I have heard it said that Job’s friends had it right until they opened their mouths. Job was able to grieve while they sat with him, but when they tried to solve the problem, it got worse. Pastor Tim Keller once wrote, “…suffering people need to be able to weep and pour out their hearts, and not immediately be shut down by be told what to do.”[3] Give people the space to grieve, even if their words are not theologically accurate in the moment, or even if their silence makes you feel uncomfortable. Meet them with grace and sensitivity. We are called to bear one-another’s burdens, not just to be there when things look beautiful.

To wrap up, we are not called to suffer in isolation or insulation, but rather we should have people around us who will share in our sufferings. The most important person, however, to allow into our suffering space is the Holy Spirit, as he is the comforter – and when all words fall short, he intercedes and speaks over us words of encouragement (John 14:26, Romans 8:26-27). God is able to comfort us because he too knows what it is to experience suffering through the person and work of Jesus. On the night of his arrest, Jesus  said to his friends, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me (Matthew 26:38).” They, however, failed to be present and pray, and I always wonder if Jesus would have found more comfort before the cross had they been willing to share in his suffering and sorrow in that difficult moment (Matthew 26:39-45).

Reflection

Are you sharing in someone else’s suffering?

Are you allowing others to share in your suffering?

How does Jesus’s suffering impact your relationship with God and encourage you?

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[1] Kapic, Kelly, Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation of Pain and Suffering, (Downers Grove, IL, IVP, 2017), 127.

[2] Ibid, 134.

[3] Keller, Tim, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, (New York, NY, Dutton, 2013), 245.

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