How should we respond when others are suffering?

The gift of presence

Originally I had planned to move on to my last section which would be finding meaning in suffering. However, after recent experiences I realized that God had been preparing me to address another area before I wrapped things up.

How do we respond to people who are going through suffering? This week my sister-in-law’s father was in the ICU after complications related to surgery, a friend’s father passed away, I had to give someone a devastating diagnosis, and I encountered multiple patients who were suffering from depression or anxiety from overwhelming circumstances beyond their control. At the end of along day yesterday my heart ached for the hardships they were facing. That along with my utter helplessness to make things better brought me to tears. What do you say in those circumstances when every word out of your mouth feels empty and hollow? The truth is that there is often nothing you can say that will even begin to bring a degree of comfort.

For those of us who are “fixers”, this is hard to hear. But in that moment they don’t need us to fix it, they need our presence and our understanding. We do more harm than good when we hand them a cliches like “Everything happens for a reason” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle”. Even though praying for the individual is one of the most helpful things we can do, statements like “I’ll pray for you” can give the impression that we are trivializing their problem. When you hear news that is tragic and unexpected its difficult to respond without putting your foot in your mouth. So it’s better to contemplate our response before it happens, because inevitably one day it will happen. It has been six years since my family experienced a house fire that removed us from our home for 6 months. When I called to tell my boss that I would not be coming in because of a house fire, his words were “Bummer”. I still remember how that comment made me feel. How can I keep from doing the same to others?

Thinking about this brought to mind the story of Jesus and Lazarus. People always remember the miracle Jesus bringing this dead man back to life four days after his funeral. However, the events that led to this moment were just as significant.

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days,  John 11:5-6

At first it doesn’t make sense. If he loved Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha why did he wait two additional days before beginning the journey? Of course, knowing the end of the story (as Jesus did) we realize that Jesus was waiting for Lazarus to die so that through his resurrection God would be glorified. It would also provide evidence for the people that he was God’s son. This part of the story demonstrates his godliness. But what happened prior to this miracle was just as significant. When Jesus arrived, Mary and Martha were grief stricken. They both knew that Lazarus would not have died if Jesus had been there. Jesus already knows he will be resurrecting Lazarus but when he sees their grief he is moved.

“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” John 11:33

This leads to the shortest and yet one of the most significant verses in the Bible.

“Jesus wept.” John 11:35

Jesus did not weep for himself or for Lazarus because he would soon be resurrecting his friend. He wept for the emotional pain that all of those present were experiencing. He showed empathy and compassion for those who were suffering. Although the miracle demonstrated his divinity, his simple act of presence, weeping with those who were grieving, demonstrated his humanity.

What can we learn from Jesus’ example? First, is the need to open our hearts. Instead of worrying if we will have the right words we should be focused on their need. Human beings were not made to be alone. The simple act of presence often means more than we realize. Often in that moment, a quiet embrace or a held hand communicates more that words can say. Allow them to feel their grief and allow yourself to be moved by it. The next thing that Jesus did was pray.

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” John 11:41-42.

Praying for someone experiencing hardship feels like the least we can do, when in fact it is the most we can do. Instead of jumping into action, we need to realize where the real power comes from.

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” John 11:41

Through prayer God is able to direct us to the proper course of action. Finally, Jesus acts and a miracle is performed. We are called to help lift the burdens of others in any way we can. That may be cooking a meal, picking up groceries, babysitting, mowing a lawn, or any number of acts of service. But ultimately it will be God who acts. We must be sure not to give ourselves too much credit or be too hard on ourselves when our contributions seem so small.

Honestly, I write this blog more to remind myself of these truths. Remembering Jesus’ example in responding to grief reminds me that I should not be quick to offer words of comfort or to solve a problem. Instead I need to be still and remember who God is. I can only offer my presence and my heart, pray to God and listen for direction, and allow God to act.

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