What (not) to say to someone who is suffering

I have often joked about implementing a tax where I take money for every time a Christian friend or counselling client complains to me that in the midst of their emotional pain someone quoted Romans 8:28: ‘we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ Their general response is that they feel crushed and worse than they did before the person offered them this nugget of advice. Maybe you have felt the same way.

The advice is unhelpful because what people really need while they are metaphorically sitting in ashes and scraping their sores with pieces of broken pottery (Job 2:8) is someone to be there with them, mourning alongside them. In psychological terms we would call this ‘validating their pain’. This means we do not pronounce judgement, offer advice or try to fix the problem for them.

Instead, we patiently and intentionally choose to sit with them in their pain and feel it with them. This is one of the main lessons in the book of Job. We are to stop and just be with a person in their suffering, and not be like his wife who famously said, ‘Curse God and die!’ (Job 2:9) or his friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, who after sitting with him in his pain for a while, concluded he must have done something wrong to bring this much suffering upon himself.

Hearing someone say that pain is for our good can take us to a place of despair.

We tend to say platitudes like Romans 8:28 as a universal bandaid. So why do we say it? I wonder if it has more to do with making the person who offers advice feel like they have contributed something so that they can move on and stop thinking about and feeling the pain of the other person.

Yet it has the reverse impact on the person who is suffering because it actually amplifies the story of pain in their head and makes it more unbearable. Hearing someone say that pain is for our good can take us to a place of despair. We ask ourselves, how can this possibly be good? And we intuitively know it is not good. It is therefore not surprising that when quoted out of context, this verse can cause the suffering person to question the goodness of God.

We are reminded that if we love our fellow Christians, we will not do something that will cause them to stumble (1 John 2:10). Rather, we are to ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn’ (Rom 12:15). Let’s not be so frightened to take the time to share our sadness.

I wonder what Paul would say about our quoting him out of context?

At this point you might be still wondering about Romans 8:28. When it’s not taken out of context and is instead understood within the wider setting of chapter 8, we see that Paul is trying to encourage us in our sufferings as they ‘are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us’ (Rom 8:18). He says, ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans’ (Rom 8:26). For ‘in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’ (Rom 8:37), and nothing ‘will be able to separate us from the love of God’ (Rom 8:38).

I do think that suffering can work for our good, as it brings us closer to Christ and forces us to depend upon him. It refocuses our life. And I believe that this is the direction that Paul is trying to lead us in Romans 8:28. I wonder what Paul would say about our quoting him out of context? He would probably tell us to please stop. And he might have something to say about his thorn in the flesh and how God told him ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me’ (2 Cor 12:9).

'The Discipline of Suffering' by Katherine ThompsonThis article is an excerpt from Katherine Thompson’s new book The Discipline of Suffering: Redeeming Our Stories of Pain, published by Acorn Press and now available from Koorong.

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Discipline of Suffering: Redeeming Our Stories of Pain

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