In these situations we pray for healing, provision, and restoration; encouragement and hope. But if you are like me, you feel a bit like Gomer Pile or Barney Fife in finding the words to say that match what you feel in your heart. The words, “That’s hard. I am praying for you” are said with conviction are usually comforting but perhaps also expected and therefore feel insignificant. We don’t want to say the wrong thing. When we have not suffered exactly the same way someone else has, we know they’re hurting but we can’t identify well enough with what they’re going through to know what to say.
God Uses Suffering
One morning we were all sitting around the breakfast table having a “light” theological discussion about suffering. One of my children suffers with seizures. Prescription medication (in our case) has not helped. I don’t remember how we arrived at this point, but we went around the table and each sibling mentioned something about how they had grown in the Lord as a result of their sister’s seizures. Comments included: “I am more compassionate toward other people’s suffering.” “The way she handles the situation shows that faith is real.” “I have grown in my struggle with anxiety.” “I have learned to trust God more as I’ve seen how in each episode he has protected her and worked in the situation.” I think someone mentioned seeing their own struggles as being smaller in light of what she has to go through. Other kids said things that I wish I had written down because I forgot them. It was a very precious time; a tremendous encouragement to my daughter and an eye-opener to me about one way to encourage people who are suffering: help them see how God is using their suffering to work in other’s lives.
To do this, we have to first accept suffering that while bad, God can use for good. One of the reasons suffering is so hard is that it can seem capricious (why is this happening to me?) and at the same time, completely without purpose. Enduring suffering is hard physical, emotional, and spiritual work that can just seem without purpose. When my daughter saw how God was using her suffering to work in the lives of her siblings that encouraged her and gave her hope as she awaits the healing that one day will absolutely occur if not in this life, certainly in the next.
Jesus’ Purpose in Suffering
Hebrews 12:2 tells us that “for the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross.” Could there be a more excruciating case of emotional and physical suffering than what Jesus went through? What was that “joy”? It was the joy of obeying his Father’s will. It was knowing how his Father was going to use the results of his suffering to redeem His people.
So, while we pray for God to relieve the suffering, we can be confident that God uses suffering to do his transforming work not only in the life of the sufferer but in others’ lives as well. In each case, it might not be until we are in heaven that we learn the extensive ways that God has used our various sufferings. This provides a tremendous measure of hope and encouragement to those suffering that their endurance has purpose not only in them, but perhaps in many lives, such as in the case of my daughter and her siblings.
Comforting Words for Sufferers
How do we comfort people who are suffering? We certainly do all we can to alleviate it. We pray fervently for God to bring resolution. But perhaps we also pray for God to show how he’s using the suffering to work in others’ lives. Maybe it brings someone to conviction over some sin in their life. Maybe it causes someone else to reflect on how important faith is. Maybe another person finds real hope that carries them through a struggle they might have years hence.
Whatever the case, we can rest assured and remind the one suffering that God has great plans to use their suffering for His glory in their life and the lives of those around him. At an appropriate time, we might actually ask the people who are close to the situation. “How is God using this in your life?” Then suggest that they share what God is doing in them with the person who is suffering.
We should expect to continue to face various kinds of suffering in this life. Dealing with suffering in a redemptive and therefore positive way is also one way to strengthen our witness to suffering people who are without Jesus Christ. The world has no answer for the problem of suffering. Only through a sovereign, supernatural, loving, and merciful God can we find beauty in the ashes of suffering.
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