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How to Minister to Someone Who is Suffering

As a pastor, I will often have someone in my office who is grieving. After listening to their story, sitting in silence and letting them weep in the arms of God, I will ask them if they would mind if I say a prayer for them. Sometimes they are a Christian, but struggling to speak with God; other times they are an unbeliever and aren’t comfortable with prayer, to which I will simply say, “Thank you for letting me into this part of your life. I’m always here for you should you want to speak again.”

However, more often than not, the person will let me pray for them and I will try to say to God in prayer what the suffering cannot say through their tears. I believe that there’s nothing I can say that will rattle God or take him off guard, so I can just say things like, “Father, Sally is so so angry, hurt, confused, shocked right now, and we need you more than we need answers. Help Sally, Father. We aren’t calling out on anyone but You.”

I’ve lost five family members in the last five years. Five. One morning, after the third death in my family happened I was reading Job and came across the last chapters in which God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind (Job 38:1, the same type of storm that killed his children) and God began asking Job a series of questions:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38.4)

“Do you give the horse his might?” (Job 39.19)

“Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars?” (Job 39.26)

In that moment, all of a sudden, I felt bullied by the God I loved. I wasn’t ready for his questions. I was enraged, my pride was insulted and I was humbled. Before I knew it, I threw my Bible into the wall and said “Where were you?” I couldn’t trace his hand and I couldn’t understand his wisdom in those questions. I broke. I sobbed. And his questions kept washing over my mind as I was sobered that he is God. He is sovereign. He is near. And my most recent crisis was not “news” to him. In a matter of moments, I knew that he cared about my broken heart.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NIV) There are innumerable other gods, faiths, substances and addictions to which we are tempted to turn for comfort. Jesus says for us to exclusively come to him and him alone.

In our lowest, most disoriented, frustrated, angry and confused state—when faith feels like faith, it is in that moment we can join with the psalmist and “pour out our complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.” (Ps. 142.2) He can take it. He is God. Jesus’ friend and disciple Peter, who suffered greatly and wrote to a suffering people, told them and urges us today to “cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7) You don’t have to tip-toe around the throne of God. You don’t have to find your best outfit and clean yourself up.

You don’t have to speak with the tongues of angels to get your Father’s attention. I have a little boy named Jude. He’s two years old. One Saturday night, my wife and I were finished getting ready to go out on a date. I was sitting in my chair reading. Jude had been in the the back yard playing in the dirt. He was absolutely filthy, covered in dust and peanut butter and jelly all around his mouth.

He marched right up to me in incredible confidence, climbed up on my lap, pulled my face up close to his and said, “Daddy, where’s the pretzels?” As God’s children, we have that same right. We can march as boldly and confidently as my little Jude before the throne of God because when it comes to his kids, his throne is a throne of grace (Heb. 4.16). And when we get there, our Father doesn’t want us to mince words. His desire is to hear us say what we must say, cry the tears that must be cried and rejoice loudly in his presence. He is our all-powerful, all-knowing, always-present, Abba Father.

How do we pray when we suffer?

We have a God who is not only aware of great suffering, in Scripture we are reminded that he entered our great suffering, and out-suffered the entire world’s sin, sickness and death, and crushed what crushes us through his triumphant resurrection from the dead. Currently, Jesus is building a home for us. Currently, Jesus is praying for us. There is coming a day on the calendar of God that I am certain he is eager to see arrive, for it is the day when he will appear glorious by wiping away every tear from every eye. 

Here’s the significance: The incarnation, which sums up the entirety of Jesus’ earthly existence (not just his birth), is an atoning moment. In the incarnation, God identifies with humans—all humans in all the dimensions of human life—to bring humans grace. He becomes what we are so we can become what he is.  

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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.