Toward More Useful Responses to Suffering

“God is in control.”
These words are often used as an attempt to comfort people going through hard times. More often than not, to that person, it seems like they’re trying to comfort themselves.

The last few years have been tough on us. We’ve teetered on the edge of poverty for sometime now and it’s extremely difficult. I once heard the experience of poverty described as being like that moment where you see someone suffering and you’re desperate to find some sort of solution. It’s like that moment, but all the time. Now, I willingly admit that, while we’re having a rough time right now, it is harder for many of the billions of people around the world living in poverty. But saying “God is in control”, just says to me that you think God wants it this way. That might be ok if poverty were only a short-term experience, but understanding the nature of poverty in this country, and around the world, we know that many will live in poverty for the rest of their lives. Does God want that?

In my view, this is why the concept of human agency is so important. God allows humans to make their own decisions, and out of those decisions comes the cruel injustice of the rich having their ‘beds of ivory’ or luxury cars, while the poor are trampled. It also means that the solutions are not as simple as “God will fix it.”

The key question for those of us who believe in free agency is, “Where is the comfort in that?” (In fact, as Christians, how to comfort the afflicted should be a central question anyway). How do we find hope and comfort in the midst of suffering? Simply saying “it will get better” or “your prayers will be answered” is not satisfying. God hears the cries of the afflicted all of the time.

Perhaps some of the answer comes from what God is doing. We can find some solace in God’s creation, and the small moments of joy amidst the desperation.  We can find hope in the message of the resurrection: justice and peace will win, in the end. But those things can only help so much in the here and now.

For me, when I consider my own sense of desperation and fear for the future, I feel the most helpful thing is to allow myself to allow myself to feel loved and cared for – by my Creator and by those around me. Being loved helps you feel worthwhile, and feeling worthwhile means when the world treats you like shit, you’re going to start taking action to stop it. Being truly loved also means you’re not alone in confronting the cause of your suffering.

As friends and disciples we can minister by simply offering our care and love without suggestions and self-serving attempts to instill hope that their suffering is going to end soon. Offering your solutions is actually a really bad way to show someone you care. Listening and accepting a person’s feelings is far more important. You can’t be part of the person’s solution until you have stood in solidarity with them. At that point we can collaborate with them (and God) to end their suffering (whatever may be the cause).

A compassionate response must always be focused on how the other person is affected and empowering them. Often, our response to suffering in the world is to make ourselves feel better. We see children suffering in poverty, our response is to throw money at it – to offer our solutions so we can start feeling better. Poverty is best overcome by the poor organizing in solidarity with each other to overcome their challenges.

It is the same with our relationships. When our friends or members of our families are going through hard times, our first response is often to offer our solutions or to say something that helps us feel better. What we should know is that we don’t do any good without first fully accepting that person and their experiences, helping them know that they’re loved, and then being prepared to stand in solidarity with them. If you do this, they will truly know you stand with them. Without this, it is harder for that person to be reminded that they are loved, and that God too is standing in solidarity with them.

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4 responses to “Toward More Useful Responses to Suffering

  1. It’s been my experience that I offer solutions, brainstorm and/or try to help problem s0lve BECAUSE I love them and have listened to their distress, frustration, etc…I don’t understand how offering ideas which may make a positive change in someone’s life is a “really bad way to show someone you care.” Why would anyone withholding potentially helpful suggestions to someone they care about? (Unless the struggling person specifically says, “I’m really struggling right now, but I just need you to listen and I want to know you love me, but I don’t want any advice.”)

  2. Often a person just wants to have their feelings validated. Offering solutions is all good and well, it is usually most helpful after that sense of solidarity has been established.

    That was actually something I learned in mediation training. Effective mediation will not begin on brainstorming solutions until the parties have their feelings heard. You really need to build the mutual understanding of how each other feel before you can be effective in finding solutions.

    I feel it is the same for helping people. I think what people need most when they’re suffering is the sense of love and solidarity. That affirms their worth and helps empower them to find their own solutions, which they can do working with others. Without that affirmation, suggesting solutions may not help at all.

  3. I often try to comfort others by being supportive, listening, offering suggestions, and reflecting on what has helped me through tough times. Typically, I offer scripture and convey that I will be praying for that person and their need. I have been in your shoes, and somewhat currently am. I DO understand what it is like to have limited funds and struggle financially. I understand what it is like to have a disease that cannot be cured aside from a miraculous healing, and I understand what it is like to be in pain every day. Life is about choices, and our attitude towards what we have been dealt. One of the reasons I offer scripture is because it is concrete and I feel it offers hope. I agree that God gives us all the free will to make choices. Without a doubt we can create our own misery, or be the solution to help remedy it. When I offer support to anyone I always try to be compassionate and offer advice that might be helpful to them. It is human nature for us to wrestle with earthly things that do not make sense when we look at them through “spiritual eyes”. Meaning, I do not understand suffering, pain, poverty, death, etc. I recently heard a Pastor preaching say that some of these things named above happen because of the choices Adam made long ago. I have not researched that yet, but I am going to. I know through experience of my own suffering over the years, God has taught me that surrendering and trust are two huge components to victory. Sometimes any advice or comfort given while a person is going through a crisis cannot be accepted because there is something blocking “our receptors”. “LIFE” and the experiences of being beat down, turned away, rejected, depressed, opressed, and weary can sadly wear on our ability to trust anything or anyone, including the word of God or encouragement from our loved ones and friends. I know this, because I have felt that way before. Sometimes we have to be our most broken for God to put the puzzle back together the way He wants it. I am not pointing fingers, but rather speaking from my own experience. I love you both, Rick & Emily. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to support you.

  4. I’m just going to add as a sort of footnote:
    I think Rick’s aim here is to give some insight, gleaned in part from his own experiences, but to speak in generalities. This isn’t just a personal pity session. Nor do we post such things as thinly-veiled affronts to friends and family. We hope that our struggles, questions, etc. can be useful to others and ourselves. Blogging helps facilitate this. Commentaries, insights, ponderings, etc. such as the one in this post are borne out of many interactions with people over quite a long time. For example, being told (oft dismissively) “well, things will get better for you” by numerous people, with vastly differing relationships to us, over months, years really, has gotten extremely tiresome. It becomes broken recoredish.

    We’re hoping that posts like this will spark meaningful discussions, get people thinking about stuff they’ve maybe never thought of in such a way, and will ultimately spur people (including ourselves) to more ethical living; rightness of thought and deed.

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