When my first daughter went to be with the Lord, one friend wrote to me, “There are no words.” There are no words to describe, quantify, or eliminate the pain of child loss—it was a depletion of my person in nearly every possible manner.
There are no words for the kinds of suffering we can endure on this earth. Yet, experiencing that kind of depletion is not a reason to despair with hopelessness, for it can give way to great rejoicing. Through it, the abundance and sufficiency of Scripture become unmistakable. There are divinely-inspired words—that can never be depleted—to speak into intense suffering.
God Speaks through His Word
Many who have not personally experienced intense suffering feel depleted of words the minute they hear about someone else’s deep pain. Perhaps that is you. You feel you cannot relate well to others’ agony. Perhaps you have heard the wide-spread advice that the best approach to someone who is suffering is to be present and only listen. Or, perhaps you have only had occasion to read or learn about what not to say when someone is suffering, so you are at a loss for exactly how to act or be. God’s Word is an abundant, sufficient help for you too.
In The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom was familiar with her own suffering and that of others. She recounts that women with her in a Nazi prison camp would encircle her and her sister, pressing in closely and attentively, as they read the Word of God (thanks to a Bible God miraculously provided). Precisely during this level of suffering, they desperately needed and wanted the Word. The God speaking there—through those pages—was their only hope. This remarkable account shows the Word bringing hope and light to a dark and, from an earthly perspective, hopeless circumstance.
So as a Church, as disciplers, as teachers, as leaders, as friends, as one who is suffering intensely—right where you find yourself—let’s do well at speaking Scripture into suffering. In order to do so, we will need to learn the Word itself, not just verses we pluck from the book, but the meaning of passages and, then, the application of passages to our overall theology and the way we view the world. Then, we need to become good listeners. I have learned that there is no substitute for these—learning the Word and listening—and that when they are done well, I have much more to offer someone who is suffering in addition to myself.
Applying Scripture to the Aches of Suffering
Think about your life and heart. What often results in your own spiritual growth? You have an ache. And you bring it to the Lord and his Word. Whether through an article, a conversation with someone else, a lecture, a small group meeting, a sermon, a book, reading the Bible in the quietness of your home, you have a realization about that ache. That is, you learn what the Bible speaks into that ache. When you do, you grow. You are made more whole with the truth of his Word. One experience like this after another, after another is what carried me through grief.
So, if you have a suffering friend, listen for the ache when he or she speaks. If you cannot identify it or if you do not yet know how the Bible speaks into it, then be satisfied with being a good listener—after all, you would only be speaking for the benefit of your friend. Make no assumptions, for a response of biblical perspective to the ache they feel might not be the words you think they need to hear.
If you can indeed identify another’s ache and can grow to interpret and apply the Bible well to the aches you begin to hear around you, then trust that the Word of God is your sufficient and most compassionate resource to share with someone who is suffering.
Scripture for the Ache of Suffering’s Presence
When suffering is new, resonate with the ache. A sorrowful reaction to suffering is biblical.
- When everything in life now feels meaningless, remember that there is reason for this feeling—the world is not as it should be (Ecclesiastes).
- When the experience of grief is life-consuming, remember how consuming David’s grief was over his baby’s impending death (2 Samuel 12:15-17).
- When suffering makes you feel lonely, read the Psalms to know you are truly not alone.
- When you feel angry with the woeful way of the world, think of Jesus’ troubled, even angered, response to death because of death’s impact upon those grieving the loss of Lazarus (John 11:33).
- When this life feels full of anguish, think of Jesus’ anguish in the garden of Gethsemane. The burden he felt when anticipating the cross demonstrates the miserable state of the world (Luke 22:44).
- When suffering makes you feel ostracized, take heart that you are in good company when suffering (1 Peter 4:12).
- When suffering makes you feel misunderstood, look to the account of Job and the mistaken assumptions of his friends (Job 4-31) or to the gospel accounts to see how constantly Jesus was unappreciated, misunderstood, unrecognized for who he is. People are flawed.
Scripture for the Ache of Suffering’s Purpose
Listen for the aches longing for light, hope, comfort, or purpose amidst suffering.
- When friends and family members do not meet all of your needs, be encouraged that the comfort we receive—even when given through others—is comfort ultimately from God (2 Corinthians 1:4).
- When you see debilitating sickness or death overcoming your body or the body of someone you love, remember that we believers will one day have resurrected, glorified, and redeemed bodies just like his heavenly one (1 John 3:2; 1 Corinthians 15:42).
- When the force of emotion is strong and your words won’t suffice to express your heart, take comfort that the Holy Spirit himself intercedes for you (Romans 8:26).
- When you feel forgotten in your suffering, remember that God memorializes every tear that falls from your eye (Psalm 56:8), just as he knows the number of hairs on your head (Luke 12:7).
- When suffering severs a relationship, remember the ultimate relationship forsaking willingly endured within the Godhead for you (Matthew 27:46). God understands.
- When you do not feel the compassion of others, remember that Jesus’ suffering (Is 53) and overcoming-power makes him a High Priest who relates to us and causes us to overcome with power too (Hebrews 4:14-16)—giving grace for the present and the promise of heaven.
- When death or the fear of death seems to conquer you, remember that he has ultimately defeated death (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).
- When you feel distant from God, dwell upon the truth that he has given a love that no suffering, pain, or heartache can pull away from you (Romans 8:38-39).
- When suffering makes you feel unmoored, haphazardly walking through life while wondering when you will finally be free from earthly concerns, remember that you are truly and solidly anchored through Christ to the world to come (Hebrews 6:19).
- When suffering makes life feel slow, remember that by God’s definition—in view of the eternal state—this suffering is light and momentary (2 Corinthians 4:17).
- When you need to be reminded of the treasures that can come alongside of suffering, learn why Jesus said that it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting (Ecclesiastes 7:2), or why Peter said that faith refined through suffering is gold (1 Peter 1:7). God’s glory can be evident in your faithfulness, giving you purpose and joy.
Scripture for the Ache of Suffering’s Pain
Listen for the ache of being stuck when suffering.
- When you experience unending bitterness toward God, look to the story of Jeremiah, who also felt bitterness at his intense suffering. Hear how patient and sure were the words of exhortation and restoration that God spoke to him (Jeremiah 15:18-21).
- When others avoid you or when you are tempted to always avoid others who do not fully understand, think of how you might give someone opportunity to enter into your mourning or suffering with you. Then, take heart that when you can share their joy, it truly becomes your own (Romans 12:15).
- When you can think of no reason to not blame God for the suffering that has come into your life, look to Genesis 3; the original sin of Adam and Eve is what broke the world. God is One in whom there is no darkness (1 John 1:5), who created the world good (Genesis 1:31), who cannot tempt with evil (James 1:13), and so, cannot be convicted of wickedness, malice, or evil.
- When you simply cannot understand your suffering within God’s sovereign plan, rest content that his ways are beyond yours (Romans 11:33; Matthew 18:2).
- When suffering makes you stuck in a cycle of looking only inward, remember that you have gifts that can be employed for others’ good and God’s glory (1 Peter 4:10).
- When you, Christian, are having difficulty being grateful for what you do have, remember the wrath from which you have been saved (Romans 5:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:10).
- When escape from suffering has become your focus, remember that Jesus Christ, and his good pleasure, is your reward (Matthew 25:23).
- When you are tempted to blame yourself for circumstances beyond your control, remember that God has purposed all of the events in your life and the lives of those you love—including birth and death, and every circumstance in between (Psalm 139:16)—just as he planned from the beginning of creation that Jesus would die for us (1 Peter 1:20). Remember his sacrificial love as reason to move forward, and move forward in devotion to him.
- When you question if your suffering has any meaning or purpose, trust in the sovereignty of God to bring his purposes to fruition through the circumstances of your life, all of which are a part of his plan (Genesis 50:20; Job 42:2).
- When you question what miracle of goodness God can bring from your suffering, meditate on Romans 5:3-5 and trust that suffering can teach you, give you a depth of knowledge of God like never before, and bring encouragement when the genuineness of your faith becomes evident (1 Peter 1:17).
This list is far from exhaustive. What would you add?
Listen for the Ache
Whatever the circumstance, listen for the underlying yearning or longing. Let’s keep learning how to carefully apply Scripture to all of the aches we experience. The process of teaching and discipleship is God’s to faithfully lead. And our aches are often the impetus and route God uses for our growth in order to increasingly display his glory through changed and faithful lives. The kind of lives that display his glory like this are grown from his Word.
While it’s not ours to invent or assume others’ aches, it is ours to listen well, to acknowledge back to the sufferer what we hear, and trust that for every need of the heart, God has spoken abundantly and sufficiently in his Word. You can learn skillful application of his Word to human aches and be empowered to give others more than yourself—you can speak his Word. Take heart that this is your source of compassion for the sufferer and this is your source of comfort when suffering, for putting his salve of truth skillfully into our aches is always our good.
If or when a circumstance of suffering comes into your life that cannot be described in words, remember, he speaks.