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How to Minister to Someone Who is Suffering

“Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Psalm 10:1

Suffering has a way of sobering us.

C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Timothy Keller, in his most recent (and excellent!) book, begins with a statement by Lewis and then follows it up: “Suffering ‘plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.’ It is an exaggeration to say that no one finds God unless suffering comes into their lives—but it is not a big one. When pain and suffering come upon us, we finally see not only that we are not in control of our lives, but that we never were.” (Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 5)

When we see painful suffering in the world or when it arrives on our door step, it has a way of forcing us to wrestle with the big questions like, “Is there a God? If there is, is he even aware of the pure evil, sickness and suffering occurring on his watch? Has he done anything about it? Will he do anything about it? Where is he?”

In John 16:33, Jesus tells us that “in the world, you will have tribulation” (John 16:33, emphasis mine), so the question is not if we will suffer. The question is always, how we will suffer.

Where do we go in suffering?

In the Old Testament, there is a godly man known as Job. Job loses his 10 children in natural disaster, is stricken with boils, and his wife encourages him to join her and abandon the God who appears to have abandoned them. Job’s buddies arrive to comfort and counsel him. They appear helpful by holding their tongues. Then they open their mouths.

They speak, and things get worse. They begin asking theological and philosophical and personal questions that don’t help. Sometimes, silence is the best counsel. In fact, maybe that’s why God feels so distant during our sufferings. Maybe he knows that sometimes no words will comfort us, only his presence can provide the healing and relief we so desperately long for.

You see, in times of suffering, pithy, cliche, Christian bumper sticker aphorisms never help anybody. In fact, they’re patronizing. I’ve heard Christians try to counsel each other with trite statements such as, “Brother, you just need to let go and let God.” Or “Have a little more faith, man!” Or “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” What does that even mean? Those kinds of silly statements sound quite obnoxious to an individual in the midst of their suffering.

There’s no airtight, fortune cookie-sized one-liner, that puts someone’s suffering on the run. In fact, if there was one, most people would’ve probably thought of it. Trite statements more often stoke the fires of others’ suffering when they need water.

What should you say (or not say!) to someone who is suffering?

Everyone suffers differently. Some speak. Some are silent. Some vent all their feelings to anyone and everyone, while others simply shut down. For those of us who want to comfort the suffering, the Bible simply doesn’t tell us what to say exactly. Solomon admonishes us on a number of occasions to be ever so selective with the timing and tone of our words. “A word fitly spoken is like golden apples in a setting of silver. (Prov. 25.11) Or “a gentle tongue can break a bone.” (Prov. 25.15) 

Christians are provided with more than a mere script when it comes to helping those who hurt. We are admonished to offer our presence to the suffering. Paul says that we are to “weep with those who weep.” (Rom. 12.15) I’ve heard it said that 80 percent of communication is nonverbal. Sometimes opening our mouths is the worst thing we can do. Paul desires us to feel with the hurting. He admonishes us to “bear one another’s burdens.” (Gal. 6.2)

The body of Christ is in and of itself a healing and comforting community. This is because the children of God are filled with the Paraclete, the Comforter, the Counselor, the Holy Spirit. Many times we want to say something in order to just make the pain “go away.” We do this oftentimes because we’re either insecure in the moment or we want to play the role of the hero or are just truly ignorant about how bad it actually hurts.

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Alex Early planted Four Corners Church in Newnan, Georgia, with Acts 29. After that, he moved to London to pursue his second master’s degree in hermeneutics at the London School of Theology. He now serves as Pastor of Preaching and Theology at Living Stones Church in Reno, Nevada.