What to say to the suffering

"If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. You are the body of Christ and individually now members of it. And God has appointed in the church ...gifts of healing, helping..."
~ I Corinthians 12:26-28 (exc. ESV)

I have been blessed to encounter many people going through worse trials than I have ever seen in my own life. As I accompanied these families for a short way on their path, I learned a lot about how to deal - and how not to deal - with suffering, pain, uncertainty, and death. One strikingly universal trait was how these families avoided communities - church, social groups, even shopping malls and grocery stores - like the plague. I was always puzzled by this, as I assumed one would turn to those very networks of support in a time like that. Obviously, my assumption was wrong - but why?

I got a little taste of this when I was going through each difficult stage of my thyroid cancer, especially those stages that involved uncertainty. Any group setting was difficult: how do you respond to people when they say they are praying for you? When they comment on your spiritual strength? It is not polite to argue with them or disagree (i.e. "I'm not as strong as you think!"), nor do I want to minimize what I'm going through, or ask them to pray for something more important just because I am self-conscious about being on the receiving end of their prayers(the starving masses in Africa, perhaps?). It is a very uncomfortable place to be in, I discovered.

Church, in particular, has never been the easiest place for me to be. Wounded beyond words by a church in my teen years, I turned my back on church (and even on God, to a certain extent) for years. I had to work through those issues when I started contemplating regular attendance of a church again as a young adult. I was helped immensely by another of Yancey's books, Church: Why Bother?, which gave a logical and Biblical argument in favor of church attendance. One of the points that struck me then, and is being brought home to me in new ways as I navigate this health crisis, is that church is not necessarily just a place to find comfort and joy! Once again, I may have fallen victim to another of the world's lies - where in the Bible does it say that Christians are supposed to rest on their laurels, singing joyful songs and receiving pats on the back for their wonderful accomplishment of recognizing truth?? Is the community of saints supposed to be one major worship fest in which we feel no pain, have no interpersonal difficulties and never disagree with our Pastors?? Oops - I guess I may have mistakenly thought that church was supposed to be a little slice of heaven here on earth! Quite the contrary, God says that, " As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." (Proverbs 27:17) And what about the numerous Epistles in the New Testament that deal with church difficulties - Romans, the Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, Ephesians, the Thessalonians, the Phillipians? Do you suppose the church has somehow outgrown difficulties since it is over 2,000 years old now? I would tend to think that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics applies to churches as well..."the total entropy of a given system tends to increase over time" unless significant energy is put into the system to prevent entropic change.

So what is the role of the church for any given believer? For those who are suffering, in particular? What am I supposed to get out of church, why is it important in Christian living? "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." (Hebrews 10:24-25) For me, going through a trial at this time of my life, this passage means that I need to allow myself to be "stirred up to love and good works", I need to go to church whether it is difficult or easy, and I need to allow myself to be encouraged!

What about for the rest of the church? What are we to do when we aren't in times of suffering ourselves, but rather in a time of encouraging others who are suffering? Since I have had the privilege of walking beside so many people undergoing the loss of a loved one, or serious physical illness themselves, I have a little list to share that might be of help as we frame our words when reaching out to those who are suffering. My list isn't exhaustive, and obviously doesn't apply to all situations, but these are just a few things I learned as a nurse dealing with suffering families and dying children. These thoughts have been steadily reinforced as I navigate my own suffering, answering myriad questions from people I hardly know, or was faced with the quandary of whether to run, head down, when a dear friend threatened to hug me and make me lose my cool in front of a whole bunch of concerned strangers.

  1. Avoid platitudes like the plague. It is difficult to hear "everything will be fine", "I'm sure God will take care of you" when you aren't fine, and you don't feel very taken care of! Saying this just introduces more doubt to the suffering person or family, or, at the very least, is difficult to respond to.
  2. Sometimes, less is more. A hug and a simple statement like, "I've been praying for you", "I love you", or even, "I'm so sorry this is happening in your life right now" is a lot better than a flood of words that don't have much substance. If you don't know what to say, that's ok! Just don't say anything, in that case!
  3. It's o.k. to ask questions. Even if it seem like a difficult subject! If you sense the person is uncomfortable, too rushed, or doesn't want to give details, ask if you can be added to a phone tree, e-mail list, or other form of update system. If the person doesn't have a way to update, maybe you can start something!
  4. Physical touch speaks louder than words. If you know the person well, and touch is appropriate, a hand on theirs or an arm around their shoulder may minister them in ways your words never could. Be prepared, though, for you might feel stiffening when you're trying to hug them! This usually means, "Please don't make me cry right now, in front of all these people!"
  5. Avoid identifying with their pain. Unless you're sure your situation was very similar, it may not be best to say things like, "I know what you're feeling", or "I've been there". Even the same medical diagnosis can entail drastically different lived experiences for different people, so identifying too closely with them might be insulting. Instead, say something like, "I wish I could take some of your pain for you today" or "I can't know what your feeling, but [blank] helped me so much when I had [blank] experience last year". This allows you to express your feelings, or even offer helpful suggestions, without insulting them by trying to tell them how they feel when you really can't know that.
  6. Offer to help. The best offers are those that help with the everyday tasks that the sick or suffering person might be avoiding - for physical or emotional reasons. Can you offer to fold and put away clothes, weed the garden, take the kids swimming, bring a meal, mow the lawn, field phone calls for an afternoon? The best offers for help are also accompanied by a "no visiting" rule, in many cases - be prepared that the person might take you up on your offer, only to disappear for a much-needed nap or some other quiet, solitary activity. Also be prepared that accepting help might cause more stress rather than relieve it! Be open to suggestions from the person you're trying to help - sometimes just asking, "What can I do to help you on Wednesday?" is more welcome than a specific offer.
  7. Just because they open up doesn't obligate you to speak. Sometimes a suffering person has a melt-down on your shoulder. What then?? Just because they opened up to you doesn't mean you have to offer some words of wisdom. On the contrary, it may be most helpful to just squeeze them and let them have their cry. This happened to me a lot as a nurse, and it really is true that you don't have to say anything to be a comfort to a needy person.
"And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily." Acts 16:5