Years ago, C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful book entitled The Problem of Pain. It is a great discussion of the subject from a theological perspective. A few years afterward, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. He started keeping a journal of the time he had left with her, documenting their experiences and the struggles of faith it presented. This was later put into a book entitled, A Grief Observed. The notable thing between the two books was that the logic and theology of the first melted under the prolonged and progressive pain chronicled by the second. Faith was stretched to its breaking point when actual pain dominated their lives. All the negative emotions, bitter questions, and challenges to faith come out in that journal. Yet as time passed and he continued chronicling their experience, he finally come to peace with God.
When reading the book of Job, one realizes the disadvantage Job had in not seeing “behind the curtain” with the view we are given. He could not see the end result while enduring his pain. Starkly obvious, as he himself noted, he had no mediator between himself and God (Job 9:32-33) through which he could get answers. He couldn’t understand the reason for his suffering after his thorough and consistent efforts to be righteous. Having no direct line of communication in order to redress his grievances with God, he became frustrated: “Behold, I cry, ‘Violence!’ but I get no answer; I shout for help, but there is no justice. “He has walled up my way so that I cannot pass; And He has put darkness on my paths” (Job 19:7-8).
Job illustrates the predicament of all who believe in God but have no direct knowledge of His will or purposes, or that there now IS a mediator between ourselves and God (1 Tim. 2:5).
Job also speaks to that associated pain of loneliness, when even friends fail the sufferer: “He has removed my brothers far from me, And my acquaintances are completely estranged from me. My relatives have failed, And my intimate friends have forgotten me” (Job 19:13-14).
Job had friends all right. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar came to sympathize with him (Job 2:11), and for seven days did not speak a word because “they saw that his pain was very great” (Job 2:13). Their blunder came in not leaving it at that and perhaps offering to help him take care of those things he wasn’t able to do. They eventually felt that they had to open their mouths and offer their opinions as the reason for Job’s suffering.
Though the church should visit more, and especially those who are suffering, some (like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) are not especially suited for this ministry. Great sensitivity must be exercised in visiting the suffering. You can’t just say, “My uncle had that, and he died!” Or, “You know, if you’d have paid more attention to your health, you wouldn’t be in this situation.” The suffering one does not need to be visited by modern-day friends such as that! The best visit to the suffering does not require much to be said at all. Just a gentle touch, an understanding smile, a direct look into the eyes, and a heartfelt “I love you and am praying for you” does wonders. The suffering one is already impressed that you took time to come see them, and understands that they are important to you.
Most importantly, know and remember that we DO have a mediator between ourselves and God—the ONLY one so qualified, Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5-6)! He has opened up for us “a new and living way” into the presence of God Almighty, that we may have confidence to be heard in prayer (Heb 10:19-22)! Consider what lessons that suffering teaches us:
1) Suffering Teaches Us To Lean on God, Not Ourselves. The apostle Paul shared the circumstances under which he learned this lesson. Because of the great revelations he was given, to keep him from exalting himself, God gave him “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7). He prayed three times that God would remove it. Any one of us who has suffered can understand repeatedly asking God for help for our suffering in prayer. During Paul’s third prayer God answered him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9). Accepting this, he proclaimed: “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). When have you ever heard of anyone praying, thanking God for their suffering? Quite the opposite! We, like Paul, pray that God will remove the pain, when we need to learn what Paul learned, and thank God for showing us we need to trust in Him more!
2. Suffering enables us to show not just sympathy, but true empathy toward others who are suffering. The subtle difference is important. We should be sympathetic and show compassion for the troubles in which people find themselves. But empathy means actually being able to feel their pain because we’ve gone through their experience ourselves. But you can’t be empathetic if you’ve never suffered. You can’t KNOW their pain unless you know their pain! The Scripture testifies, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Cor 1:3-5). The person who has not endured suffering cannot fathom what someone else is going through. I was reawakened forcefully to this truth not long ago. A friend of mine lost his mother some years ago. I was there for him and visited her in her final days. I showed sympathy, love, and was very genuine in my desire to bring them comfort. Then, in the summer of 2014, I lost MY mother. The reality of this hit me hard. But it opened my eyes even wider. I shared with my friend (who himself recently passed away) that while I wanted to share his grief in losing his mother, I didn’t fully understand it till my own mother died.
He just smiled and said, “I understand.” The empathy that filled that conversation (on both sides) was much richer than any well meaning words of sympathy I had offered earlier. He wanted to share his grief in losing his mother, I didn’t fully understand it till my own mother died. He just smiled and said, “I understand.” The empathy that filled that conversation (on both sides) was much richer than any well meaning words of sympathy I had offered earlier. We must first learn through suffering, and trusting God in prayer through that suffering, to truly be able to help others in their suffering. It adds a richness—because of the pain—that can exist in no other way. Therefore, even pain becomes a blessing when used to serve others.
3) Suffering enables us not only to empathize with others who have suffered the same pain, but as 2 Cor 1:3-5 also teaches, it qualifies us to empathize with and offer comfort to “those who are in ANY affliction.” It is true that personal pain is unique pain. No one can know with exact certainty how someone feels when going through pain. Having said that, your own pain—and more importantly how you deal with it, if you lean on God and remain constant in faith and in prayer—does enable you to offer true comfort to others in their pain, even if you haven’t gone through exactly what they are going through. It keeps you interested in their struggle. It prevents you from sounding dismissive and uninterested when they open up to you. And . . .
4) Suffering forces you to look inward, upward, then outward. Inwardly—You have to assess the strength of your faith. Will you believe when faith ceases being just a theory and has to face hard, difficult facts? Can you trust God when you don’t know or can’t see the outcome, and when the real possibility for the future is not what you would want? When you realize that you are not in control? Upwardly—Will you get angry at God? Will you face the Scripture, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain!” (Phil 1:21) and believe it, or will you fight tooth and claw for life HERE, demonstrating that you walk after the flesh, and not by the Spirit? (Rom 8:2-11). Outwardly—Having decided to trust God through the pain and commit your prayers to Him for strength, you will become useful to Him and to others who have not yet surrendered their life fully to Him.
“For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it.” –Matt 16:25)