It is difficult to address the problem of suffering, especially in the face of people who are experiencing it. So we punt by saying things like, "There are no pat answers."
In fear that we will offer an inadequate response, is it better to offer virtually no response at all? No, we should be able to do better than that.
We do have to take care to avoid trite comments. I have personally experienced the death of a child, chronic illness, serious trauma, and four major surgeries, so I’ve been on the receiving end of many well-meaning, but insensitive remarks designed to say suffering is okay.
- God needed your little girl in heaven.
- I guess you have suffered, because God knew you could handle it.
- Praise God, now you will be able to minister to others who are suffering like you.
- Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth. (Ouch!)
Agree that suffering is bad
But it’s not okay. Suffering is a terrible thing. And somebody needs to say that out loud.
- I’m sorry for your loss.
- I can’t imagine the pain.
- I’m so sad about what has happened.
Agreeing that suffering is bad is not a pat answer. It is one of the best things we can do for people who suffer. But it can’t be the only thing.
Affirm that God is great
A theology of suffering cannot be reduced to 140 characters, the social media standard for communication. Yet, if we have any understanding of the character of God, we might say something helpful to those who experience it.
It is not a pat answer to set human suffering against the larger backdrop of God’s story and eternity. I hate it that terrible things happen in a lost and fallen world. I don’t know why this happened, but I believe that one day we will understand, and that he will wipe all the tears from our eyes.
Jesus suffered, and we can become more connected to him in a powerful way through our suffering.
Offer prayer and love
I’m praying for you. We care for you. These statements are elegant affirmations of what we believe about suffering, God, and our hope for the future: The world is a messed up place, but God is good. Life is hard, but it will get better, and the sufferer is not alone. Prayer and love are not pat answers, and to offer them is a deep expression of hope.
Find God here, now
“Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:8–9).
Jesus is the Son of God, yet he suffered, and gained from the experience of suffering. We follow Jesus, and there is something to be gained from suffering. Jesus suffered because he became like us; when we suffer, we become like him. Jesus’ suffering literally saved the world!
God doesn’t allow suffering because he’s short-staffed. He does, however, enter fully into the human experience and redeem every moment of it, including suffering. Jesus suffered, and we are connected to him in a powerful way through our suffering. The Holy Spirit can help us to express this in ways that are sensitive.
- God is here, now.
- Jesus knows your sorrow. He will help you through this. His presence is our source of hope in every human condition.
- I pray that in you, God will bring you the grace and power you need, and you will know his love and his presence
We are all in this together, and God is in it too
There’s nothing trite about that. In the face of suffering, we can affirm that there is trouble in this world, but God is good. We become more like Christ when we persevere through it, and know that better days are coming. In short, we have faith and we have hope. We can say these things with words, but we can also clothe words with love when we add tears, hugs, presence, or acts of service for those who are needy or who are mourning.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor. 1:3–4).