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?

9 thoughts on “Don’t Confuse Suffering People with the Problem of Suffering

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  1. Hi Judy,

    I love this sweet example of being there for a friend. Perhaps you have read it:

    One poignant example might be of the little five-year-old whose next-door neighbor had just lost his wife. Seeing the elderly gentleman cry, the little boy went into the old man’s yard, climbed up on his lap, and just sat there. When the boy’s mother asked what he was doing, the child replied, “Nothing. I’m just helping him cry.”

    Thank you for the like on my blog.

  2. Seems like the old-school way, in the Church, was to either ask someone if there was unconfessed sin in their life, or point it out for them (the height of arrogance). And it’s knee-jerk for lots of folks to want to jump in and “fix”–which I learned is not only stupid, but wore me down till I had nothing left to give. What I’m figuring out now, is that we can be most supportive when we ask someone, “What is Support to you? How can I support you, such that you actually feel supported?” It’s easy to assume we know, when we don’t at all–because what is supportive to one person is just plain annoying and aggravating to another. When someone ladles on the praise and “encouragement” as I’m struggling, I feel like they’re arguing with my feelings, even dismissing them as “not the truth” (it IS the truth of my experience at that moment). Just listening, not talking can be very very supportive–as a person will often reach the crux of their issue, in the process of venting. Blabbering away here, just to let you know I’ve moved yet again–you’re welcome to visit the “Madwoman” if you like. How are you doing, Judy?? Yes, I want an honest answer.

    1. So nice to hear from you, my friend! You’re hard to keep track of, you know:). I am truly doing well – still busy teaching in Community Bible Study, keeping up with my growing family, and doing my best to figure out how best to use my time and talents for God’s glory. My husband and I are in a challenging season of waiting and wondering what’s ahead. Not in a worried way, but in an antsy for action sort of way. I suppose I’m learning quite a lot in the waiting – like what it feels like to live by faith for one thing. Thanks for asking. And how are you? Yes, I want an honest answer too:).

      1. Hi Judy! Hopefully, I’ll stay put at this blog, since I just purchased the premium package….but it must count for something that I usually come find you! Glad to hear you’re well. Seasons of waiting and wondering, seasons of transition–and living by faith: the only, and most exciting way to go! Things are good here too, after a painful winter which began with my neighbor’s death, and lasted through March. While the rest of the country was dealing with snow storms, I was having the Internal Blizzard–but really, I feel well now, excited about whatever’s next. See you ’round–God bless you!

  3. There is something profoundly full of wisdom in your words. If we believe our God is sovereign and that He is 100% Love all the time and every time, then we somehow must find the way to understand He is working in the midst of even the greatest trials of suffering. It is difficult to resist the temptation to intervene, to alleviate, to diagnose, but as you have acknowledged, we will accomplish much more by simply being there in comforting love and servitude. As Debbie writes, this is timely, for none of us have mastered how to minister in Jesus’ name, and to let patience have her perfect work. Constructive words, Judy… thanks.

    1. So true that we struggle to “let patience have her perfect work.” This is most definitely a post that I wrote to instruct myself. Glad it is helpful to a few others too!

  4. I’ve been a miserable comforter. :(. Asking for forgiveness and praying to learn how to be better at this. Thanks so much Judy, for a timely post for me. God bless you!

    1. Hi Debbie, As one who has been a “miserable comforter”‘ I was very convicted by this thought from the book of Job. Workin’ on it! May we be loving and gracious comforters! Nice to hear from you!

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