Don’t Confuse Suffering People with the Problem of Suffering

Suffering presents us with a theological problem: If God is good and all powerful, then why does he allow people to suffer? 

It is a fair question.

Here’s another one:  What is the best way to help a friend who is suffering?

It is important not to confuse these two questions.

 Job and his Friends by Ilya Repin (1844-1930) Public Domain, from Wikimedia

Job and his Friends by Ilya Repin (1844-1930) Public Domain, from Wikimedia

Like Job’s famously unhelpful friends did.

Job’s experience, of course, is the classic biblical case study of suffering.  It teaches us practical realities about suffering and, more powerfully, eye-opening truth about God.

But today, let’s focus on Job’s three friends who entered the story as comforters.  They started well by sitting silently with Job on his ash heap for seven days.   It was their finest moment.

By all accounts we are most helpful when we are simply present with a loved one who is suffering.  To stand with a friend in prayer, encouragement, and practical assistance is powerful ministry.

Most of us get that right at the onset of a crisis.  We’re there.  We express love, support and offer hope.  So far, so good.  But after a while we might start offering extra “help” (as I have at times.)  Have you tried…?  I have a friend who…   

Job and his Friends by Ilya Repin (1844-1930) Public Domain, from Wikimedia

Job’s friends did too.  They began to wonder why God had allowed such catastrophe in the life of good guy like Job. They figured that Job must have offended God and deserved punishment.  When Job didn’t agree his comforters became accusers.

Job became “exhibit A” in a problem of suffering rather than their suffering friend who needed comfort. 

Sometimes there is a connection between suffering and sin, but not always.  Do we really think we can discern the cause of another’s troubles?  It’s true that there might be a time for professional counseling or tough love to help a friend get beyond a crisis.  But to confuse such “help” for comfort is to qualify as a miserable comforter.

Jesus was the perfect comforter.  He had unfailing compassion for suffering people regardless of the theological implications of their situations.  He healed, delivered and ministered in love.  If challenged he defended his actions, but never at the expense of the sufferer.  He had no problem correcting theological error, but he saved that for the appropriate audience, the Pharisees, and the right place, the temple.

Interestingly, it was Job who gained profound theological insight as he struggled in his own suffering, and he received God’s approval for persistent faith.  His friends, analyzing things in problem solving mode, got frustrated and made God mad.

“It was my role to identify with others’ pain, not relieve it.  Ministry was sharing, not dominating; understanding, not theologizing; caring, not fixing.”  Brennan Manning in Abba’s Child

How have you experienced or observed confusion between comforting one who is suffering and wrestling with the problem of suffering?  Has God met you in powerful ways in your sufferings?

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Four Constructive Questions to Ask Yourself in January

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Did you set goals for yourself at the beginning of 2013?  If so, did you meet them?  What are your resolutions for 2014?  Ho-hum.  Same old questions. Keep reading for four genuinely constructive questions to ask yourself this January. 2013 was a fruitful and enjoyable year in … Continue reading

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How Does Christmas Come About?

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It’s almost Christmas.  Are you ready? Will you be ready?  I’m not ready…yet. Christmas will come about, like it always does, and I will be ready, like I always am.  However, not without some chaos and confusion.  Every year I determine … Continue reading

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Give the Gift of Relationship this Christmas

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Are you wondering what to give your loved ones (who don’t need anything) for Christmas?  I have an idea for you! Invest in your relationships this Christmas. Christmas gift giving in my extended family has morphed from all of us exchanging gifts with each other (very fun … Continue reading

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What is your Heart’s Desire?

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If God visited you tonight and promised to grant you any request, what would you ask for?  Really, what is your heart’s deepest desire? King Solomon was given this very opportunity as he took the throne in ancient Israel.  He apparently understood the formidable … Continue reading

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Life Stage Whiplash

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I stand in a moment between two life stages, and it is a bit whiplash inducing.  We took our youngest back to college for the last time over the weekend.  The empty nest  feels rather permanent this time. I vacillate between … Continue reading

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Who is Well Represented in your Church?

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What are the odds that two bikers traveling east on a bike path will pass two bikers heading west at the exact moment that they both intersect with two walkers? Because I can find a spiritual application in just about anything, that and several similar scenarios during … Continue reading

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Dancing to the Melody of the Future

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“Hope is hearing the melody of the future.  Faith is to dance to it.”* What is the melody that your future will compose? How do (will) you dance to it today in faith? “You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.” Psalm … Continue reading

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Mixed Leadership Metaphors

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Does a school of fish have a leader?  Not really.  How do its members collectively determine the timing and destinations of their movements?  According to Wikipedia, “A recent investigation showed that small groups of fish used consensus decision-making…The fish did this by … Continue reading

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Whispers from Beyond this World

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Every once-in-a-while I have a momentary awareness of unseen but very real spiritual activity.  It usually happens at night.  Last night, after pleasant patio dinner with all of our children and our one (napless and rather bleary-eyed) three-year-old grandson I couldn’t get to sleep.  For no good … Continue reading

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