I have noticed that people are often uncomfortable encouraging or correcting believers who are suffering. No one wants to be called out for offering “trite platitudes” to those in pain. We all know that the solution to suffering is not as easy as memorizing a few verses of Scripture.
I think sometimes we who are in pain feel that well-meaning friends or family should rightly back off, because they just can’t understand and nothing they say will really help. But we need other believers. Our walk with God goes much, much deeper than mere platitudes that offer a “quick fix” to a difficult situation. As those who suffer, we don’t really need friends to make us “feel better;” we need people to help us live better and to glorify God through our suffering.
We are no more or no less likely to sin than someone not in physical pain. We are no more or less likely to fall prey to fleshly temptations, or lack faith in God’s promises, or lust after that which is not ours, or have a bitter heart over a circumstance not in our control. Our sin just looks different; in our hearts it is true that “no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Cor 10:13). There is however, one particular thing that I notice about those who are suffering in regards to sin; no one wants to call you out.
Our friends and family may think we have “too much to worry about ” already to be concerned with “small” sins or underlying patterns of disobedience. Our friends may worry about further burdening us by asking questions about our faith, or may be scared or feel insufficient to offer spiritual encouragement to someone who suffers in a way that they have not experienced. And I think that we often feel the same way; we can easily offer up excuses for areas of our life where we are spiritually stagnant. “When I’m in less pain, I’ll read the Bible more because I’ll be able to focus better.” “I can’t serve my husband – he needs to be serving me – I’m the one in pain here!” “If I have to lay here on the sofa all day I’m going to watch whatever TV shows I want.” “Well I can’t drive, so how can I mentor younger women?” “Spending hours on Facebook distracts me from the pain.” I could go on and on with the thoughts like this that pass through my mind. And sometimes they can sound like perfectly valid answers to spiritual problems.
I think if we who suffer from chronic illness and pain have one thing to really watch out for it is spiritual laziness and allowing others to disengage from our lives. They back away because they don’t know how to help, and we let them. We don’t think they can really help anyway. We indulge in private sins, because we feel like we deserve to be cut a little slack. And no one is there to help us correct our course.
But before God, we are not a special case when it comes to sinning or suffering. We all suffer in different ways, as humans, and as Christians, in a fallen world, and none of us are meant to suffer alone. Like all the other believers out there, He made us to exist in a community, in the body of Christ. Don’t wait for that one perfect “mentor” who has been through all the same experiences as you to come along before you open your life to a fellow believer. The battle to bring our souls into joyful submission to God is far too critical for that. If we let small sins take root in our life as we are suffering, they will turn our hearts away from God, and we lose the purpose in our pain.
In his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, the apostle Paul writes to encourage the brothers and sisters there to care for one another’s souls;
“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ […] therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing (1 Thess 5:9-10).
“And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:14-18).
Friends, our pain does not excuse us from our calling to live in a way that is pleasing to the Lord. Yes, we have a particular, difficult, and painful burden that challenges our strength and faith - but all the more need for us to be helped by fellow Christians!
We may need to take the initiative in inviting others into our lives. Let your close friends know when you are fainthearted and need encouragement – better yet, let them be so involved in your life that they just know. Ask them to admonish you if they sense you are becoming idle in a sinful way. Let them help you when you are weak – physically and spiritually. Share your successes – physical and spiritual – with them so they can praise God and rejoice with you, and rejoice with them likewise in their lives. Have someone who prays for you, and don’t forget to pray for others “without ceasing.” This intimate fellowship is “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you!” This sort of fellowship and deepening of your (and your friends’!) walk with God brings purpose to your pain.
A few months ago I decided to finally be open about my pain with my small group at church. God had put a heavy burden on my heart that by hiding my pain from my friends I wasn’t living the way He desired, and that blessing would come as I opened up my life. My pride did not want me to let all those people know that I was not fine. I told them that even though I look young, fit, and healthy I am literally falling apart from the inside out and have to take pain medications most Sundays just to sit through church. For the first time they heard the extent to which my husband helps me around the house – doing everything from laundry to dishes to bath and bedtime with our two boys, on top of two jobs and being a fulltime seminary student. I told them that I struggle with anxiety and anger, and that our marriage doesn’t look anything like we’d once imagined it would. I asked them to pray for my heart to be guarded from bitterness and asked them to please ask me how I’m doing – how I’m really doing – in trusting God through this suffering.
Sometimes I want to go back to pretending everything is fine. There is something so uncomfortable about humility and really letting people in sometimes, isn’t there? My ego wants me to look like I’ve got it all under control. But now that my friends know how deeply the pain reaches into my life and how it challenges my faith they can really help me – not by telling me to “let go and let God” – whatever that means – but by caring for my soul.
A life of chronic pain can be a Spirit-filled, joyful, and fruitful path through suffering that blesses, encourages, and admonishes the body of Christ. But only if we share our lives with others and only if we refuse to give up the good fight of faith.
The next time I write I want to share with you what I’ve learned, now that I’ve let others in, about allowing others to help.