I have officiated more than 40 funerals ranging from suicides to infants. I have buried the young and the old. I have sat in hospitals with the dying as well as in prisons with those who have taken life. For the last two years, I have walked with my Resplendent Bride as she has suffered through lymphoma, leukemia, and a bone marrow transplant.
With one addled brained banality, I hope to forever clinch my claim to the title of Captain Obvious by opening an article on how to disciple a member of the fellowship of the suffering with this astute observation: “People suffer differently.” So the process of discipling them through their pain will look different depending upon the person who walks next to you through the shadow-lands.
People suffer differently. People are soothed differently. The goal of discipleship in the midst of suffering must be comfort in Christ, for the closer we walk with the Lord Jesus the more we see of the massive burden he always carries on our behalf. Surely the Lord Jesus walks with us through the feasts and the famines (Ps. 23).
Here are some lessons I have learned since joining the fellowship of suffering.
1. Show up.
Do you know what is worse than saying the wrong thing? People feeling like you have abandoned them in their darkest hour. The elders of the church I have the honor of shepherding all agree on this truth when it comes to visitation: it’s trepidation followed by relief. For many, visitation is trepidation followed by feeling silly because it wasn’t that bad at all. Solidarity with the suffering requires presence. Show up. Send a text. Dial a number. Mail a care package.
Show up even if you have to take a road trip. As our society becomes more and more transient we find that people appear in our inner orbit for a minute only to end up minutes later in our outer orbit. We hear of this or that tragedy, but they live way over there. If only there was something we could do. We feel sad about it for a few minutes and quickly move on to planning our upcoming trip to the big gospel shindig where we’re going to fellowship with a bunch of brothers over how must we enjoy serving the one true living God.
We’ll go miles and miles for fun while ignoring the shut-in next door. My Resplendent Bride moved from St. Louis to the small town where I pastor near Omaha. Her pastor from St. Louis has visited three times over the last two years. One time he stopped on the way to Sturgis, South Dakota. Another time he brought up my Resplendent Bride’s father (who has a long history with brain tumors and can no longer drive long distances) with a trunk load of Christmas presents from his church. That’s a pastor.
Riddle me this:
How far would you travel if you were invited to speak at a conference?
How far would you travel for the silent invite of a member of the fellowship of the suffering?
I don’t like the answer I see in my heart either. Show up.
2. Bring communion.
Bring the bread. Bring the cup. Bring them to the hospital room. Bring them to the empty, desolate house of mourning. Bring them to the hospice. Bring them to the nursing home. Bring them. Break bread with those who suffer.
Read Scriptures together and point the sufferer to Christ throughout (Lk. 24:27). Pray, confess sin, and partake together. Remember Christ as he commands us to remember him, for in doing so the sufferer will remember that Christ remembers him in the midst of his plight.
3. Get vaccinated.
If your doctor doesn’t want you to get a flu shot because, say, you are pregnant, then by all means decline the flu shot. If, on the other well-manicured hand, you fear needles or a sore arm I would humbly ask you to reconsider your position.
Many of those who suffer are also immuno-compromised. Many senior saints languishing in loneliness at the local nursing home have weakened immune systems. People undergoing chemo have weakened immune systems.
Don’t take your Typhoid Mary self to the hospital to go “love on people” if you haven’t gotten a flu shot. And whatever you do, don’t scoff at a suffering saint for following doctor’s orders.
4. Don’t say things you don’t really mean.
Don’t say, “I’ll be praying for you” if you are not actually going to pray for a suffering saint. The phrase “I’ll be praying for you” conveys to a suffering saint that you are indeed remembering her before the God of all comfort. The phrase does not exist to make you look good. If you catch yourself typing “I’ll be praying for you” on social media, consider praying before you type the infamous phrase.
In the same vein, unless you're planning to do absolutely anything refrain from saying, “If you ever need anything, and I mean ANYTHING, don’t hesitate to ask.” Suffering is not on a schedule. Sometimes it’s a late-night phone call or a last-minute meal. Sometimes it's a shoulder to cry on. If you offer anything, be ready and willing.
5. Talk about things that don’t matter.
Sometimes a person needs to be reminded of the world of the living. The suffering saint is often consumed by his suffering. Talking about your child’s messy trip to Dairy Queen may be a welcome distraction. Talking about normal, everyday life can be balm to the soul for a member of the fellowship of the suffering. Talking about the mundane normalacy many take for granted can give hope to the suffering saint that she might enjoy such things again.
Make them laugh (unless they have stitches).
A word of caution: remember our overarching truth that people suffer differently. A suffering saint may well wonder, Why is this person talking about his mush-brained dog while I have the weight of the world weighing down on me? How rude. Know the situation. Know when silence may be needed.
6. Talk about things that do matter.
Did the Lord Jesus move to a pizzeria and not tell me? I do not jest. Did the Lord Jesus switch up the apocalypse and return as a barista? Because there is an entire school of thought that can be boiled down to this goal: Get the suffering saint around good food. Cry all over him.
Suffering saints need you to lovingly bring their attention back to the promises of the Lord Jesus. He ordains this to be done with words. D. A. Carson rightly observes this of Job’s friends:
In the custom of the day, they display their distress by crying loudly, tearing their robes, and sprinkling dust on their heads. And then they do the wisest thing they could have done, certainly much wiser than all the speeches they will shortly deliver; for seven days and seven nights they keep silence, awed by the depths of Job’s misery. (How Long, O Lord?, 137)
Yes, Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” By all means weep with the heartbroken, but while you weep speak words of solace through your sobs.
John 11:35 does read, “Jesus wept.” Yet John 11:25 precedes it with “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies.’” And John 11:43 follows it with, “Lazarus come forth.”
Additionally, do not weep so much as to cause the one suffering to feel such pity for your distress that the roles of mourner and comforter need be reversed.
7. Yes to Romans 8:28, but no to idle speculation.
Ah, yes, our mutual friend Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.”
Is God causing all things to work together for good? Yes. God is absolutely working out all things for good.
Do you know how? No. But why not speculate that God gave the cancer patient this disease so he could be a great witness to the medical staff?
Why is this poor form? Piled on top of a person already in immense physical pain from cancer is the eternal destiny of the entire medical staff: doctor, resident, nutritionist, care coordinator, mid level, nurse, tech, house keeper, house keeping survey collector, murse, trash man, sharps collector.
“No pressure, and, feel better!”
The connotation is, “God’s working it all out, but it all depends on you maintaining a cheery disposition during the most painful days of your life.”
God is working out all things according to his plan, and he will as sure as he lives bring good out of evil situations. I for one can’t wait to look back from the vantage point of eternity and see how our God orchestrated it all. But until that day much theory is idle speculation.
It also matters who is quoting Romans 8 and why. The “all things” of Romans 8 are brutish, bloody things. We do not breezily quote Romans 8 at a suffering soul as if to say, “Get over it; don’t worry, be happy!”
When the saint who has been in a scrap or two quotes Romans 8 there is a look in his eyes when he gets to the “all things” part. The haunted, hunted kind of look. All the fellowship of the suffering recognize the look. Others seem to quote Romans 8 as if to skip over or negate the “all things,” because their version of Christianity is painless and glossy. The same verse coming from two different people can cause either comfort or rolled eyes.
I asked my Resplendent Bride what should go in this article, and this was one of her main suggestions. She felt that some use the Bible to dismiss the validity of suffering because they were the type of Christians who didn’t like to think about it.
8. Don’t blame the suffering saint for his suffering.
Job’s friends famously blamed Job for his suffering. Job must have done something wrong, right? How does such a blessed man fall into such disrepair if he is not being punished by the divine? If Job’s friends were around today they’d be quoting James 5:16b, “the effective prayer of a righteous man accomplishes much.” When a person is first diagnosed, folks come out of the woodwork quoting James 5, carrying little bottles of oil, ready to anoint and pray for anything that moves.
However, should the illness linger, the sin hounds all come a sniffing. You see, the prayers of a righteous man accomplishes much. “Are you not righteous?” they say. They pay little attention to the fact that in James 5 the party praying is not the afflicted, but the elders.
The Bible does talk about God judging his errant children in the flesh. Ananias and Sapphira were struck down by the Lord for their sin in Acts 5. The assembly at Corinth suffered from sickness and death because they partook of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy fashion (1 Cor. 11:27-30). Hebrews 12 talks about God the Father disciplining his children.
Yet in my visits to the hospital over the years I cannot with confidence say that this or that person was being judged for sin. I would caution the Christian to not rush to premature conclusions, because to do so wrongly is the epitome of being judgmental. Such a casual suggestion could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Rather, our lips should always speak the gospel message—“Repent for the kingdom of God is near.”
Editor’s note: Evan requested the readers know that Danielle, his Resplendent Bride, passed away and saw her Savior on May 3, 2014. This article originally appeared on the Gospel-Centered Discipleship website.