Encountering People Who Are Suffering

What do you say to someone who is suffering more than you have ever suffered? As a Christian and a person working in ministry, I face this question almost daily.

Yesterday I started a conversation with a Cup of Cool Water client in typical fashion. I asked Tom (not his real name) how his day was going. As the conversation progressed with this person I know very well, I realized that he is in deep pain. He deals with a drug addiction and he has become everything he despises. How do I as someone who is privileged enough to have a loving family, a college education, a steady income, and no drug addiction, speak into this person’s life with love and truth?

I believe there are ways to speak hope to anyone but it isn’t always immediately apparent. When someone says to me, “I don’t want to believe in God, if he exists, he has dealt me a bad hand from day one and he is a vindictive bastard,” my knee jerk reaction is to retreat into my own world where this isn’t the case. I want to ignore these very real tensions because they cause me to doubt. I am usually a person of feeble faith. I have gone through a lot in my life, and at different times, my faith has been strong, but far from unshakable. When I hear these stories of pain and anger, I easily forget the gospel.

I was participating in an independent study at Whitworth last spring and this issue came up. I was reminded that the God of the Bible is a God of hope. I have not been through the same things Tom has, but Jesus is someone who not only stands with Tom but also has suffered with him. No person is beyond Jesus’ grasp.

I have had both positive and negative responses when I point out that Jesus has suffered in every way we have, and more. It is easily dismissed because it feels like a pat answer to a lifetime of suffering.

What I am starting to realize though, is that it is our job as Christians to show the “Toms” of the world who Jesus is through moving toward them in love and speaking in truth. We do this through persistent gestures of love, mercy and grace. We do this through consistency and continuing to dive into difficult conversations we are uncomfortable with. Sharing a meal is one way to do this, saying “I love you” to someone you aren’t convinced you actually love and learning to be convinced by your words. Forgiving someone when they offend you.

In my relationship with Tom, I felt confident trying a few of these things. He asked me for forgiveness because of some lies he had told me, and I forgave him. I let him know that Jesus loves him and that I love him. We talked about Dragon Ball Z (not all of the conversation was serious). I talked to him about going to treatment, which didn’t sit well with him. When the conversation was over, we didn’t seem to “get anywhere.” Except he was visibly encouraged, but I believe most of this was because of our consistent relationship. I was able to show him who Jesus was through my intentional gestures.

My encouragement to anyone wondering what to say to someone who is suffering is to dive into those difficult conversations without fear of not knowing what to say, be consistent in showing up and trust that the Holy Spirit is with you and working in you.