Many of my friends are suffering terribly in different ways. Bad news is breaking forth everywhere. This is likely true for you as well, whether you discern it or not. Through this manifold of variegated tragedies it strikes me that many of us fail to minister to our friends who are suffering. We say and do things that hurt more than help. We dispense acid rather than balm. By and large, we do not know how to lament and grieve with others—although some saints excel in this grace. Popular culture teaches us next to nothing in this regard. It has no time for such realities. In the wake of the recent horrors (such as ISIS) and given my many friends, relations, and students who are suffering deeply (from bereavement, marital crisis, cancer, and chronic illness), let us consider briefly a few ways to suffer well with others.
First, we ought to pray for wisdom before speaking or communicating in any form with one under the pressures of loss. Ask God to give you the heart and tongue that heals—or at least doesn’t multiply the pain. Consider a few egregious examples. Someone loses a spouse only to hear someone ask within a few weeks of the spouse’s death, “Are you grieving well?” Is this some kind of test? One should grieve with the sorrowful heart, not ask it for an internal audit. Or consider this. Someone is diagnosed with cancer and is trying to reorient their life to handle this. A member of the person’s church says, “Oh, if I had to have chemotherapy—just shoot me.” The dear person who received this body blow is now preparing for chemotherapy with courage and hope. Remember what The Book of James says about the power of the tongue (James 3:1-12).
Second, one should not over-interpret the dire situations of a fallen world by trying to read God’s mind. This only makes for hollow comfort. Yes, God will bring good out of evil for his people (Romans 8:28), but we don’t quite now how he will do this. As Os Guinness writes in his superb book, Unspeakable, the silver lining of a dark cloud—if we can even find it—does not explain the full meaning of the suffering. In light of this, we must learn to silently stew in our ignorance instead of spewing forth our pious pronouncements on the specifics of divine providence. Job’s friends went wrong only when they broke their silence in his presence and began to speak without knowledge.
Third, learn to lament with people. Study the Psalms of lamentation and the many laments in Scripture, such as those uttered by King David, Paul, Solomon (Ecclesiastes) and supremely Jesus himself, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” A lament is the cry of the anguished soul before God, which displays puzzlement as well as anger. It expresses disorientation in search of reorientation. However, a lament is directed to God and before the audience of God, “the audit of Eternity,” as Soren Kierkegaard put it. Listen to the stories of the suffering and identify with them. Say un-profound, but appropriate, things like, “I am so sorry” and “That is terrible.” The American South has expression that captures this perfectly: “I hate it for you.” I hate the fact that two marriages are being ripped apart and are may be dying. I hate the fact that my friend’s spouse is going through chemotherapy. I hate it for all of them, and I should show them that I hate it. I hate it because I love them.
We should never try to tell people that losing a spouse or having cancer or facing a divorce isn’t really so bad. It is bad, very bad. This is a fallen world, a world that is still groaning in anticipation of its final redemption (Romans 8:18-26). As Nicholas Wolterstorff writes in his moving and profound meditation, Lament for a Son, we must sit on the mourner’s bench with the suffering and lament with them. This in itself provides a kind of comfort.
I am but babe in this healing skill—suffering well with others. Will you join me in the school of lament? Will you learn to sit on the mourner’s bench before God and with those whom you love?