How to Help the Suffering
All of us know people who are suffering in various ways. What do you do for them? And what do you say to them? Perhaps we’re tempted to do and say as little as possible. But sooner or later, suffering will strike close to home. And we will have no choice but to think about what we should do for them, and what we should say to them. Where do we find the wisdom to know what’s appropriate to do and to say? As a hospital chaplain for nearly sixteen years, I’ve turned to the Bible many times for guidance. And not surprisingly, I’ve found that it has much to say about how to help the suffering. Following are some selected biblical passages that can guide us in such times.
Admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone (I Thess. 5:14). For the despairing man there should be kindness from his friend; so that he does not forsake the fear of the Almighty (Job 6:14).
In serving the suffering, the goal is to be encouraging, helpful, patient, and kind. It sounds so easy. But if you are like me, you know that it isn’t always so. Often we feel it’s much easier to simply avoid getting involved. But this is not the way God calls us to go. And I know as well as any, that if we are to go His way, we need Him to help us. Serving the suffering is not merely the acquisition and execution of certain skills. But it’s the overflow of a changed heart. How many times have I needed to ask God to help me simply be more patient and kind. And I still do.
Weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15). Like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar on soda, is he who sings songs to a troubled heart (Prov. 25:20).
Empathy is the ability to enter into the emotional suffering of another person. According to the Bible, it’s a virtue that characterizes God Himself. Speaking of Israel in her sufferings, God says, In all their affliction, I was afflicted (Isa. 63:9). And Jesus is spoken of as a High Priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:14-16). Empathy is something that comes naturally to some…though not to all. But it is a quality that I frequently find myself asking God to instill in my heart as I talk with patients…as only He can. The consequence of failing to empathize with the suffering is illustrated in the Proverb cited here. It tells us that we should not be surprised at the severe reaction, when rather than empathizing, we seek to impose a kind of “forced cheerfulness” on someone who is suffering. It’s like pulling off someone’s jacket in sub-zero weather, or pouring vinegar on baking soda! Not something we want to do.
Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances (Prov. 25:11).
I have many words to tell you, but you cannot bear them now (John 16:12). The Lord God has given Me the tongue of disciples, that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word. He awakens Me morning by morning, He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple (Isa. 50:4).
Words can bring either healing or pain…depending on which ones we use (as well as which ones we don’t), and on how (and when) we use them. Part of wisdom is knowing how to use words in an appropriate way, and at an appropriate time…especially with the suffering. Often I find myself speaking without thinking…or at least being tempted to do so…hopefully less now than before. But once spoken, our words cannot really be taken back. Jesus’ statement from John is instructive. Shortly before his death, He told his disciples that He had much more to tell them. But He knew it would need to wait…to wait until their hearts were prepared to receive what He had to say. He knew when to speak…and when not to. I need wisdom to do the same. The statement from Isaiah teaches us that the ability to use words in such a way as to uplift and sustain is acquired as we take time first to listen to the Lord as He speaks to us through his word, each and every day.
Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger (James 1:19). Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great (Job 2:13). O that you would be completely silent, and that it would become your wisdom!.... Be silent before me so that I may speak, then let come on me what may (Job 13:5, 13).
Sometimes…more often than we think…the best thing we can do for someone (particularly when they are in the crucible of emotional pain) is to simply listen to them. Or, if they are in too much pain to even speak, our own quiet presence is the best gift we can give them at such a moment. I often find myself thinking that to be helpful I need to be doing something, or saying something…when the best thing I can be doing is to simply be there…and to listen. When we listen, we are telling someone, “You are valuable. And your thoughts and feelings are important to me.” What a balm such quiet presence can be to someone who is suffering.
For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Rom. 15:4). Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…. (Colossians 3:16).
When we’re suffering, the Scriptures can bring hope…and encourage us in such a way that we can persevere, when we feel like quitting. Part of ministering to the suffering is knowing how to use God’s word in such a way that it accomplishes this desired effect. But first…Christ’s words must dwell richly and deeply in our own hearts. I have learned the hard way how important it is, that before attempting to minister God’s words to others, I take time to let them sink deeply into my own heart.
You also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many (II Cor. 1:11). Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive (lit. “agonize”) together with me in your prayers to God for me…. (Rom. 15:30). Is any among you suffering? Then he must pray (James 5:13a).
Perhaps the most important thing we can do for anyone who is suffering is to pray for them…and when possible to pray with them. If there is anything God has done for me all these years in the hospitals, it’s to teach me how indispensable it is to give myself to prayer…for myself, as well as for and with others. As the Romans text above suggests, prayer is a struggle. It is for me. I struggle in prayer…not with God, but against my own spiritual weakness, as well as against the spiritual adversaries who will do everything and anything to keep me from it! How thankful I am that part of my everyday “job” is to pray with many people. Not just for their sake…but for my own as well.
Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth (I John 3:18).
A fitting way to close this short piece…to be reminded that all we do be done in love. Love can be communicated in words. But it is most powerfully shown in our actions. Few of us will have opportunity to offer “great” acts of love for others. But as Mother Theresa is reported to have said, “It’s not the extraordinary things we do, but the ordinary things done in extraordinary ways, that truly matter.” Only the Lord can produce such love in our hearts.
The Bible says that the ultimate root of all human suffering is sin…our turning away from God and his will for our lives. Not that every incident of human suffering is due to the sin of the sufferer. Certainly not! But the fact that we live in a world where suffering is universal, is due to the universal presence of sin. What a wonderful thing that God did not ignore us in our own suffering…but He chose to do something in our behalf. He sent his son Jesus into the world to enter into our experience, and to taste the full force of human suffering himself. And not only that, but also through his death to make payment in our behalf, for our sin… so that all those who place their full trust in Him might experience his forgiveness, and the gift of a new life in harmony with Him. One day, when God makes all things new, suffering will be no more for his people. But until then, He promises to help us in our suffering…and to use us in helping one another.