It seems that we recently have been seeing many articles about lament, suffering, and caring for the sufferers in our midst. As a sufferer, I appreciate this! Many of the pieces are directed toward those whose friends are hurting, offering insight into how to help your hurting friend, and suggestions of both what to say and things to avoid. I see a need for this, as much as I dislike “Ten Things Not To Say…” lists. There is undoubtedly an awkwardness in how many of us respond to suffering (myself included!). Many do not realize how certain comments or phrases can affect a grieving person, and even those of us who have had significant losses can easily stumble into uncomfortable conversations where we say things that we know are not helpful to hurting people.
It is good to offer comfort to hurting people, and when it is your friend or family member who is hurting, it is best for you to love and comfort and hurt with your friend or family member. They need your understanding, they need tender, gentle care, and they need your support. I think that nearly all of the time, that is all they need from you (except maybe some meals, childcare, errand running, etc.). And when my friends and family suffer, that is what they need from me.
At the same time, suffering is not purposeless in our world, and comfort is only one piece of healing. In my darkest nights of grief I needed support and love from my friends and family because I was dealing with significant loss, yes, but also because I was dealing with significant temptation and unbelief within my own soul. In the case of my first miscarriage, I was left deep in grief and confusion. I was receiving care and comfort, but the tenderness of friends and family were not what drew me out of the darkness and allowed me to heal. It was the gentle care that I received even from a distance that made it safe for me to deal with the dark things within. In truth, dealing with and repenting of the sin in my heart was what changed my trajectory from moving further and deeper into grief and sadness into one of healing and joy.
I sometimes fear that often we are so worried about doing further injury to an already-suffering person that we neglect their long-term growth and joy by assuming that anger and doubt and jealousy in grief are the same thing as grief. Sin is often so entwined with grief that I worry that for many it has been conflated with grief, as if jealousy and anger are part of grief. True grief is mourning the loss of something good in your life, and is needed and appropriate. Anger, jealousy, and self-pity are not grief; they are sin. Grief has the tendency to amplify areas of sin in our lives and shine light on the dark areas of our heart. And for that reason, it is a rare opportunity to see hidden sins in a new light, repent, learn obedience, and grow into greater maturity (Hebrews 12).
But please hear me again: Most of the time our suffering friends and family need to be treated gently and to have friends that enter into their grief and suffer with them. If you or I believe that it is up to us to sanctify our friends in their suffering, we are probably wrong. And yet, for the sake of our loved ones who are suffering, we should long and pray for them to experience the sweet training of the Lord that comes in the midst of, and because of, their hurt. My concern is that by emphasizing so strongly the need to not say anything about the sanctifying and refining portion of suffering we will create a culture that helps people forget that grief is not something to experience passively, but it is also an opportunity to be active — to press into the wisdom and knowledge of God and obey.
God revealed my sin to me in miscarriage and it led to my taking huge steps toward healing. I want that healing for others. This is the primary reason that I have written and will likely continue to write about the sin and temptations often found in the midst of suffering. Writing creates a distance between the author and audience that may just be far enough away to be able to probe where friends and family cannot. In that way, it can enter into people’s lives in a different way than a face-to-face conversation.
It almost never goes well and is almost never kind or appropriate to tell your friend how you think they are sinning while they are suffering. But God may, however, use a written word from someone who is far enough removed from them to gently nudge them to look for what God may have for them in their suffering. I do not claim to be very good at this,* but I hope that God will use my weak and insufficient words from a distance to help people whose walk with Christ can be deepened and whose raw grief can begin to be healed by dealing with sin and temptation.
*Nancy Guthrie, on the other hand, is really good at this. I admire the way she is able to comfort and challenge with such gentleness in her book Holding On To Hope, which I wrote about here.