It is absolutely amazing how Christians respond to suffering. I think a lot of it has to do with what we are taught about suffering depending upon which Church we attend. We may be taught the health and prosperity gospel, and live a life expecting only good things to happen and if something goes wrong it’s because of a lack of faith. Or we are taught that God is sovereign over our suffering, and allows it to occur for a reason. Whatever end of the spectrum we find ourselves, our response to those going through prolonged suffering can simply be unhelpful.
Throughout my life I have been told things such as you have a disability and illnesses because of the sins of your ancestors (“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. John 9:3). I have been told that I am constantly sick because I don’t have faith that I will get better or that I must be cursed. The majority of these comments are not even biblical, particularly given Jesus tells us in John 16:33 that we will have trouble in this world. The only things these types of comments do is sow seeds of doubt in my mind as to whether God loves me, and what I did wrong for Him to allow such circumstances in my life.
It has taken me many years looking at the Bible to see the truth that God allowed my disability and multiple illnesses because He felt it was for my best, and to bring glory to Himself (Romans 5:3-5, Romans 8:28, 1 Peter 5:10, 2 Corinthians 4:17). I firmly believe that God has used my multiple illnesses to draw me closer to Him, and it has nothing to do with my sin or lack of faith. Jesus died on the cross for my sins and paid the penalty on my behalf (Romans 5:8, 1 John 2:2). He has given me a unique perspective of His love and care for me through my suffering. If anything God has bless me because I will have much more joy in heaven when I get to know what it is like to have a body and mind that functions normally.
On the other end of the spectrum, I have been told that God must love me more than others because He has allowed me to suffer throughout my life. Then the people on this end of the spectrum tell me that all I need to do is trust God more. I usually politely smile and nod my head, but what I really feel like saying in response to this comment is, you cannot possibly be a Christian who is sick all their life without trusting God. I can assure you I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t trust God. I know that people think they are being helpful by making a comment like this, but in actual fact they are making a judgement on my level of trust in God. Yes at times it is hard to trust God and to believe that He has my best interest at heart by giving me another illness. At times I may express this doubt, but don’t you doubt God yourself over different circumstances in your life? How would you feel if my response to you is always, well you just have to trust God? Would you feel that I was just dismissing the challenges in your life or passing judgement?
How can a church better support someone through prolonged suffering?
1. One of the things I think Christians find hard to do is to encourage people going through suffering. Nothing gives me more joy and spurs me on to keep going than encouragement from others. It is helpful that the reality of my life isn’t brushed over, but acknowledged and I am encouraged keep going. Ask individuals how you can encourage them.
2. I think some Christians don’t think they should encourage but just correct individuals attitudes over suffering, but correction if needed, is always better received with encouragement and acknowledgement that actually things are pretty tough for you.
3. Don’t always assume that being given Bible verses, articles, songs, books is helpful. Ask the individual if it would be helpful, because they may not be in a frame of mind to receive it. They may be focused on something else in that moment, a song they may have on repeat to just get through the day.
4. Don’t assume you know what life is like for the individual. Ask them what life is like for them going through this season of suffering. Ask questions and don’t make assumptions.
5. If needed, reassure them that yes life has its challenges, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love them or loves others more than them.
6. Don’t compare a person’s suffering with your own suffering or another person’s suffering. This is way too common in the Christian world, and simply invalidates the suffering of the individual. There is no need to compare suffering. At no point do we see Jesus comparing the suffering of those whom He is healing in the Bible.
7. Allow room for biblical lament, and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). In my experience, very rarely do Christians weep with those who weep. I have had a lifetime of heartbreaking suffering, and can only count a handful of Christians who have actually wept with me. It is far more common to be corrected for having a negative attitude over the challenges in life. This simply has to stop in the Christian community and be replaced with biblical lament.