Three Wrong Ways To Respond To Suffering

Job’s comforters are busy these days. I’m sure you’ve seen them. Somewhere in your Facebook feed, on the “interwebs” or on TV, they are working overtime, delivering, with a smile, their consolation laced with condemnation to those in the midst of tragedy.

The story of Job tells us of a man who suffered unimaginable pain and loss. He went from great wealth to the depths of sickness, poverty and despair. Through all this, his three ‘friends’ insisted that his misfortunes were God’s punishment for his sins, something he had done wrong. But Job persisted in his belief that misfortune comes to both the godly and the wicked. He was convinced of the goodness, mystery and wonder of God, even in the midst of his pain.

The dictionary describes a Job’s comforter as someone whounwittingly or maliciously depresses or discourages someone while attempting to be consoling.”

You know, that person who seems to be saying the right thing, the spiritual thing, even the true thing, all while making you, or those they’re meant to comfort, feel worse.

Job Rebuked by His Friends – William Blake (1757–1827)

 

Instead of mending wounds, Job’s comforters poke their fingers deep into those wounds, inflicting pain instead of bringing healing.

We must NOT use times of tragedy to make a theological point.

We should never use someone else’s pain as a battering ram for our beliefs.

  • While it is certainly a fact that a house can be rebuilt, it is too soon to utter those words to someone standing in the rubble.
  • It is true that the sun will rise tomorrow, but for the one caught in a desperate midnight of the soul, that fact brings little comfort.
  • Perhaps time does heal all wounds, but spouting slogans to someone in pain, only serves to delay the healing.
  • Maybe those parents, grieving the loss of a child do have other children remaining but offering such trite comfort only reinforces the fact that we have grossly miscalculated the depth of their loss.
  • God can and does heal, but for the person trapped in a broken body or consumed with chronic pain, these words may sound more cruel than hopeful.

So how should we respond?

Number 1 – don’t ignore the suffering of others. When we are suffering and the world spins around us with no acknowledgment of our pain, the loneliness is soul-crushing. Let the suffering know they are seen.

Number 2 – don’t glorify pain. Yes, God can use our pain for a greater purpose – in our lives and the lives of others. But remember how Jesus responded when he heard his friend Lazarus had died? He simply wept. We should do the same when faced with pain, grief and loss.

Number 3 – don’t weaponize someone’s grief against them. For the love of God, don’t imagine you know whether or not they should be grieving, whether or not their level of grief is appropriate, whether or not they have unconfessed sin in their life. Unless you’re God, or their therapist, it’s not your place to figure that out.

Let’s save our theological debates for the classroom, the discussion group, the one-on-one conversations. They are not welcome, helpful or kind during a time of tragedy.

So, what can we do in response to suffering? It’s so simple, it’s almost ridiculous.

 

Weep with those who weep.

Lament with those who lament.

Scream with those who must scream.

Walk with those who are restless.

Eat with those who need food.

Pray with those who desire comfort.

Touch those who need to connect.

 

Be still with those who are silent.

Offer the simple, powerful gift of your presence and God’s presence in you, to bring healing and hope to a broken and wounded world.

 

 

Hey, I would love to have you join my private Facebook group “Pain-A Conversation.” Beginning September 25, 2017, I will be sharing a daily video conversation on the subject of pain, with my good friend Sanejo Leonard. We would love to have you join the conversation. Click here to join.

Thank you to Kelly M. Kapic for his insightful and compassionate book “Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering

Thanksgiving – My Story of Seizures and Coming Out of the Dark

“Where am I? What am I doing?”  These were the thoughts that raced through my brain as I sat by the side of the road, gripping the steering wheel in my hands.

Thanksgiving Day, 2001 – I was driving home from my parent’s house, less than five minutes away. We had just enjoyed a day filled with an abundance of food and laughter in the midst of our large and noisy family. Our two youngest children, Sam (3) and Rachel (5) were with me in the back seat of the car. Steve had gone on ahead in a separate car.

As I drove down the hill, I suddenly felt lost. I knew this road well. I had driven it hundreds of times before but, at that moment, the familiar became strange and unfamiliar. A fog began settling in my brain. I looked down at my hands on the steering wheel and had no sense of what I should be doing. My heart trip-hammered wildly as I pulled over to the side of the road and I struggled to get my bearings.

“Why are we stopping?” Rachel asked. “What’s wrong?”

I could hear her voice and my mind formed the answer, but my tongue was tied tight and I couldn’t speak. She repeated the question but again, I couldn’t answer. A numbness and tingling spread across my left cheek, like a foot that has fallen asleep. Eventually, the fog began to lift, my voice returned and I turned to reassure Sam and Rachel that everything was okay but deep down I knew it most certainly was not.

The whole incident lasted mere seconds, maybe a minute or two at the most, but in my mind, time became elastic and those seconds stretched into an eternity.

I didn’t want to continue driving, for fear that the incident would repeat itself, so I sat there, waiting for someone to drive by, hoping they would see me at the side of the hill and come to my aid.  The minutes ticked by and nobody came. Sam and Rachel became anxious.  They could sense that something was wrong and they were afraid.

Cautiously, I pulled away from the curb and drove through the hills. I arrived home without incident and sent the kids to get ready for bed with further reassurances that everything was fine.

I walked down the hall and into our room. As soon as I saw Steve I burst into tears and told him of my strange ordeal.

I vowed that I would not get behind the wheel of a car again until I knew what was wrong.

The next morning Steve brought me to the doctor’s office as soon as it opened.  I told the receptionist I needed to see someone immediately and I was willing to wait all day, if that’s what it took.

When I finally saw the doctor I shared how I was feeling and the specifics of my incident the day before. He asked if I ever spaced out and lost track of time. “No,” I said. “Yes, she does,” Steve interrupted. I looked at him in disbelief and told him he was wrong.

The doctor questioned Steve further. He asked him what my behavior was like when these incidents occurred, how often it happened and for how long. The doctor then proceeded to perform a litany of tests – tapping my knees with a hammer, pressing down on my upturned palms and watching me walk across the room. I had no idea what on earth this weird series of exercises meant but when he was finished, he sat down and pulled his chair close to me.

“Karen, I believe you’re having seizures. You can’t drive anymore until you see a neurologist. I’ll make a referral right away.”

The impact of his words hit me like a punch to the face.

I looked out the window, at the cars driving by, and thought, “This can’t be happening to me. What does this mean? How will I survive without driving?” The rest of his words were a blur. We walked out of his office and I wept the whole way home.

That day, I walked into a dark and scary tunnel. WE walked into a dark and scary tunnel. My license was suspended and for three years I was unable to drive. I underwent constant tests and doctor’s visits – EKGs, EEGs, CAT scans, SPECT scans and more. I was diagnosed with epilepsy. I was experiencing partial complex and absence seizures. The neurons in my brain were misfiring.

Daily, as endless seizures rolled in, I questioned God, my faith and my sanity. My children learned to dial 9-1-1. The doctor prescribed one medication after another, in an effort to stop the seizures. We fumbled through our days and, clinging to God and to each other, somehow survived.

It’s hard to believe, as I write this story, that fifteen years have passed. I have now been seizure free for twelve years!

My faith wavered but ultimately was strengthened. My sanity is still up for debate. Our marriage, by some miracle of God’s grace, survived this and subsequent years as illness, heart attack, injury, chronic pain, depression, drug dependence and more, have plagued our lives.

Next week I will celebrate my 55th birthday and another beautiful Thanksgiving together as a family. We marvel at God’s grace that continues to lead us.

Our times of suffering and crises of faith appear like underground tunnels, ominous and dark. We don’t know what’s around the corner or when the tunnel will end.

long dark tunnel

If you are at the entrance of a dark tunnel, looming large and long ahead of you – take a deep breath, grab the Light of God’s Word and hold tightly to God’s hand. (Psalm 119:105)

If you are in the middle of that dark tunnel, with the damp and dark pressing in on all sides – guard a flickering light of hope, reach forward towards daylight and remember that, even when it seems like a lie, God is there with you in the dark. Search for Him. He will be found. (Jeremiah 29:13)

If you are coming to the end of that dark tunnel, with a glow of light ahead – rejoice in the light, thank God for bringing you through and reach back to grab someone’s hand who is still wandering in the dark. (Philippians 4:11-13)

Here’s my hand, dear friend. Grab tight. You are not alone.

The Chains We Show and The Chains You Cannot See

He was handsome, with dark black skin, a proud erect stance and a muscular build. I hadn’t seen him before but I was fairly new so perhaps he was a regular. He moved quickly across the yard and took his place in line. It was Friday morning and I was serving breakfast to our local homeless community.

He was younger than the average man there and taller by several inches. But the thing that made him stand out was what he wore. Draped around his neck was a thick chain.

No, that’s not it. That picture you have in your mind – a thick gold chain, a piece of jewelry – that’s not it. He wore an actual chain.

No. You’re still not picturing it right. It wasn’t like a bike chain or a dog chain, it was more like this.

chain-690088_1920

The chain he wore around his neck was a heavy, steel chain – dark gray like thunderclouds – the kind of chain you would expect to see in a shipyard, tied to a piece of equipment or lifting a crate to the deck of a ship.

It weighed several pounds. It was at least three feet long and each link was two inches – but in spite of it’s weight, the young man stood straight and tall. The burden of it made no impact on his posture.  He had that chain draped around his neck and hanging down his chest as casually as a winter scarf.

As he moved up the line, I felt it and it was clear the other men felt it too. The tension in his body crackled in the air around him, electric like a gathering storm. Inadvertently, the men in front of and behind him moved a few inches, giving him a wide berth.

Finally, he stood before me. I looked up into his handsome face, smiled and greeted him. He stared back at me with blank eyes as dark as a winter night, without a flicker of light or warmth.

He didn’t respond to my greeting but simply took his food and walked away.

I finished serving breakfast, completed my morning tasks at the kitchen and went home, but I couldn’t get this young man out of my mind.

That chain. He was literally wearing his chain. He had surrendered to the burden that life dealt him so completely that he wore it, like a millstone, for the world to see.

How weary he must be, shouldering that every day, I thought. I sat down on the sofa, imagining the weight on my own shoulders, and prayed for peace for his soul.

That’s when it struck me. We all have chains. Some of us show our pain on the outside, sending signals to the world through our faces, our clothing, our scars, a tattoo and even a chain. There’s a scar that runs the length of my husband’s chest – the result of his open heart surgery. It’s a constant reminder to us of his brush with death.

Most of us, however, wear our chains on the inside. Our scars are hidden there where nobody but God can see.

We wear masks to hide the pain. Paste on smiles to disguise our scars. Laugh and nod to one another while hiding the burden of our chains.

I have borne my own chains. The chains of my sin. The burden of my past. The heavy weight of regret and pain. These chains shackled my spirit with fear. I was helpless to remove them on my own. But then this.

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

Oh, how the tender words of Jesus ministered to my heart, like an ointment to my sin-sick soul. When I fully surrendered my sin and my pain to Jesus, he removed the chains that were binding me and set me free to love fully and accept his forgiveness completely.

I don’t have to bear the burden of my sin. You don’t have to bear the weight of your shame.

Surely He has borne our griefs

And carried our sorrows;

Yet we esteemed Him stricken,

Smitten by God, and afflicted.

But He was wounded for our transgressions,

He was bruised for our iniquities;

The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,

And by His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

We have turned, every one, to his own way;

And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:4-6

To My Friend Who Had An Abortion

I remember the day you told me. The shame and anguish in your voice. The tears that flowed like a storm surge after a hurricane – unrelenting and washing over you in wave after wave of grief. Your body convulsed and your wailing pierced the air. How helpless and inept I felt in the face of such sorrow.

I think of you often these days. I’m reminded of you every time I see a post meant to heap even more shame and guilt. How is your heart holding up under the weight of it all?

We never talked of it again, you and I. I’m sorry that the only thing I offered you was a weak hug and a few tears. I long to go back and hold your face between my hands. Remind you how much you are loved and how deeply you are forgiven. I regret not praying with you. I regret not weeping with you. I regret not mourning with you or acknowledging the depths of your loss, your pain, your heartache, your shame.

If, by some twist of fate, you happen to read this, please know God’s love for you is greater than the storm surge of your grief. His forgiveness is deeper than the pit of your shame. His blood has washed away the stain of your scarlet letter.

winter-20234_1920

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (Is. 1:18)

I pray that your life is surrounded by grace; that your heart is immersed in love. I beg you – lay down the stones you cast at yourself. Pry open your hands and let them tumble, one by one at the Savior’s feet. Stand up and acknowledge your scars and use them to bring healing to others.

I haven’t forgotten you, dear friend. I’m thinking of you tonight and I’m reminding you of God’s grace.

You are not your past. You are a precious child of God – loved and redeemed and whole.

Praise the Lord, my soul;
    all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
    and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
    and crowns you with love and compassion.

Psalm 103:1-4

Life With Pain – What I Found

Here’s what I found. Pain is a gift.

It took years to believe this and there are times I still choke on the words, but deep down, I know it’s true. Pain seems like the kind of gift no sane person would desire, but it is a gift nonetheless.

Several weeks ago I wrote a heartfelt and painful post – Life With Pain – What I Lost. It is a lamentation – mourning the things I lost through years of pain. If you haven’t read it yet, go back and take a look, because it’s where this story begins.

That wasn’t an easy post to write but it came from such a raw place that the words poured out of me. This post has proven to be even harder to write. I struggled with these words for weeks. I wrote and rewrote this post but I’m still unable to express how profoundly pain changed me for the good.

If pain is anything at all, it’s complex. I don’t want to sound trite or give you the impression that the things I found came quickly or easily. They did not. So here is my humble attempt – a celebration of the lessons I learned and the beauty I found in pain.

I found trust.

As a mother, my deepest desire was to keep my children safe, provide for their needs, and let them know they were loved. Seizures and pain robbed me of that ability for years and many precious childhood moments are lost to me. But recently, as we began unpacking the pain of those years together, we looked back as a family and recalled an endless catalog of ordinary days, hilarious mishaps, sweet family times and more. Every photograph and memory is a treasure to be mined over and over again.

Sometimes, in our desire to protect our children from all pain and discomfort, we don’t allow them to experience growth essential to character development. I see now that the trials and difficulties we survived as a family drew us closer to each other and challenged my kids to discover God for themselves.

My children can’t live their faith on the coattails of their parents or grandparents. In order for it to be real, their faith must be their own. I need to trust God enough with my children to allow them to “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling”.

God is developing their faith and their character. I trust Him with that.

I found the Source of strength.

Before the years of pain and illness, I looked strong. A young, healthy, type-A woman, I was organized, disciplined and appeared to be in control of my life. But much of my confidence was bluff and bravado, masking a deep uncertainty about my place in life and my relationship with God.

Pain strips everything down to the core. It removes all the skin and fat and leaves the bare bones of the matter.

In the stripping away, my bravado was removed. My confidence was shaken. I questioned everything I was taught. Everything I believed. But when I hit rock bottom, I found a foundation. I found a sweeter, truer, deeper faith than anything I knew before, and I found that I can’t do it on my strength alone.

I can’t manufacture a feeling of wholeness out of emptiness. I can’t coax ‘good feelings’ out of depression but I can tap into God’s power, knowing that it is in surrender to His perfect will that I find the strength to carry on, in spite of the pain.

 

"The cross was Jesus’ voluntary acceptance of undeserved pain as an act of total solidarity with all of the pain of the world. Reflection on this mystery of love can change your whole life.” Richard Rohr

I found a connection with Christ’s suffering.

The cross was Jesus’ voluntary acceptance of undeserved pain as an act of total solidarity with all of the pain of the world. Reflection on this mystery of love can change your whole life.” Richard Rohr

There aren’t words to describe how Christ’s suffering somehow makes sense of my own. But it’s true. It does. I can’t explain this. It’s a holy mystery.

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. (Is. 53:4)

I found a purpose for the pain.

Pain serves a purpose. It is essential for growth. It clarifies what’s important and leaves us either crushed or strengthened. There was a time I thought it crushed me – a time when I saw no purpose to the pain, no mercy in God’s will and no end in sight. But today I see the work that God is doing in my life and I am thankful for it.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. Romans 8:18 NKJV

I found a community of the wounded.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it well. “Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above the master. Following Christ means passio passiva, suffering because we have to suffer.”  (The Cost of Discipleship)

This is one of the sweetest things I found. Pain opened my eyes to the suffering of others and initiated me into a special tribe – the tribe of the walking wounded.

It has given me a deep empathy for others and brought connection and community with those who, like me, are walking through their pain, struggling with their faith and trying to make sense of it all.

I could go on and tell you about the peace I found, about the clarity I now have and perhaps, another time, I will. I’m still unwrapping the gifts that I received through the darkest times of my life.

Pain may be the gift I never wanted but it is one of the dearest I’ve ever received.

How To Mend What’s Broken When You Don’t Have All The Pieces

Back in the ‘olden days’ when Steve and I got married, it was traditional for brides to choose a fine china pattern. This china was used for special occasions and stored carefully in a cabinet – safe behind closed doors.

Everyday dishes were second hand or a cheap set of stoneware purchased at the local Sears. Like a dutiful young bride, I chose a beautiful Minton pattern. My aunts bought me a handful of place settings and I promptly stacked them in my china cabinet where they languished unused for years.

About a year ago I realized the china was just taking up space. I decided to ‘use it or lose it’. We took out the pretty Minton wedding china and a few antique pieces of Limoges, stacked them together on the kitchen shelf willy-nilly and started using them.

At first, family and friends objected and asked if I had ‘regular’ plates they could use instead. I reassured them that that these were my regular plates and it was okay if a piece broke. Before long, one of the beautiful pieces of wedding china fell to the ground and shattered into pieces. It was beyond mending.

When something breaks, it is forever altered.

When a leg is broken, it may mend and become even stronger than before but it’s never the same. Five, fifteen or even fifty years later, an x-ray will show evidence of the break. That bone is permanently marked.

When a heart is broken, it may mend and become even stronger than before but it’s never the same. It is forever altered, leaving a scar, a memory, a mark.

But what if your heart is so deeply broken that you fear some of the pieces are lost? What if you struggle to rebuild a marriage, like we did, searching for ways to fill the gaps but you come up empty-handed? 

Maybe we aren’t meant to have all the pieces. Perhaps there’s a way to fill those gaps and not only make our hearts whole again, but make them more beautiful than before.

 

mended kintusugi bowl

 

This is a piece of kintsugi. It is created through the Japanese art of repairing ceramics with precious metals, demonstrating that broken things can be made whole. This process of piecing something back together makes an object more beautiful than it was to begin with.

This week, Steve and I celebrate 35 years of marriage. It is miraculous that we’ve made it this far – that we’ve beaten the odds and are still together. It’s miraculous because we are broken people. We inflicted damage, to each other and to our marriage. Through our selfishness and sin, we were broken and left without the pieces needed for repair.

But something beautiful happened. We gathered up those broken pieces, surrendered them to the Artist and in the care of His hands, gaps were filled and brokenness was mended.

 

mended broken bowl with kintusugi

When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.” – Barbara Bloom

When God mends broken people, he fills the ugly gaps with his grace, demonstrating that through the suffering and the brokenness, we become more beautiful.

What if, instead of hiding our scars, we celebrate them? We can show the handiwork of God in our lives, the places where he has filled in the gaps, replaced the broken pieces and turned our scars into precious gold. If we dare to risk revealing our scars, maybe we can bring hope to others who are broken.

Because, He makes beautiful things out of dust…out of us.