This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 2 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
In a bruised and broken world, we must learn to embrace suffering if we are to love deeply. We can suffer wisely, or we can suffer badly. It is a skill to be developed but not sought out. The apostle Paul writes the whole world is groaning in travail as it awaits its final redemption (Rom. 8:16–23). Ecclesiastes tells us many times life is “vapor” or “mist” (as in 1:1).1 The good that seems solid melts away, and we are distraught. As followers of the “man of sorrows” and one “acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3 NASB),2 how might we speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) to those who are torn up, knocked around, and spit out by this fallen world? I hope to chart the way by challenging some American ways of consoling the suffering and then by outlining the biblical wisdom that gives us “an instructed tongue” able to sustain the weary (Isa. 50:4). I will intertwine my own story as I try to offer wise counsel.
If we suffer well with others, we honor God and give the watching world another reason to consider the gospel. As Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). The early church father Tertullian (ca. 160–220), wrote a defense of Christianity against its Roman critics. In Apologeticus, he writes: “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another.”
It seems God has made me an authority in suffering and lament, although I did not ask for it. It has been a struggle to love God and others through this searing pain, as I am a melancholic by nature. Recent years have been agonizing. I was inducted into the school of sorrow as I walked — and often stumbled — through many years of my wife’s chronic illnesses and finally through her dementia and death at age sixty-three in 2018.
Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, author and editor, lost everything to primarily progressive aphasia. This is a rare form of dementia that first takes away language and then everything else. Along the way, God taught His reluctant (and often angry) student much about suffering well and suffering poorly with others. The Bible’s teaching on lament gave me the resources to endure my misery with hope and to offer my wife empathy and comfort, imperfect though I was. I could bring my entire being to God, as did the Psalmists who expressed their sorrow, confusion, and anger (see Ps. 22, 39, 88, 90, for example).3
I still needed forgiveness when I responded in the flesh and not the Spirit (Gal. 5:19–21). I thank my Lord for His forgiveness through His sacrificial work on the Cross and this strength for the journey, no matter how hard it was (1 John 1:18–20). And now I thank Him that my wife of nearly thirty-four years is free from suffering and in a far better place with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:20–21). I often told her that we would dance and sing together one day in the promised New Heavens and the New Earth (Rev. 21–22) to come. And we will!4
THE FOUNDATION OF APOLOGETICS
Some say intellectual answers are not needed or cannot be received by those suffering terribly. This is only partially true. In the midst of great anguish, few want to study the problem of evil. Nevertheless, a confidence in the truth of Christianity makes a sure foundation when our subjective experience of God dims. I have spent my entire adult life testing and defending the Christian worldview and have written a tome on apologetics. Through the crucible of my suffering with and for my wife, I was consoled greatly by my confidence in the rationality of my faith. Becky was consoled also. When we were driving to a restaurant, I tried to encourage her that, after this life, there will be no more disease, pain, or tears. She looked at me with sad and inquiring eyes and said, “But is it really true?”
Please understand that dementia both robs the mind of its abilities and causes profound sadness as people lament their losses and ponder their fate. Becky had never suffered from deep doubts before. She was a thinker of the highest order, who engaged Christianity at a deeply intellectual level. Now a thick darkness was descending. I said to her, “Do you think I’m smart?”
She said, “Yes.”
I continued, “Do you remember that big apologetics book that I wrote called Christian Apologetics?” She nodded. I continued, “You edited the whole thing and believed all of it. I assure you that Christianity is true.” She was satisfied, although her faith struggles continued until she saw Jesus face-to-face. I did not ask her to take a blind leap of faith in the dark.
HELP FOR THE SUFFERING
As Becky and I walked together into the twilight, I found friends and acquaintances responded to her plight in decidedly different ways — helpful, unhelpful and, in a few cases, hurtful. How we walk with others through their suffering can be a powerful witness to the compassion of Jesus Christ, so it is crucial that we learn this skill.
We can be fixers. We can make it work if we try hard enough. However, when Becky was diagnosed in 2014 with a terminal illness, I realized she could not be fixed this side of heaven. The diagnosis explained symptoms she had suffered from for years previously. During that time, we sought healing through our own regular prayer, my prayer and fasting, through special prayer by those gifted in healing, through traditional medicine, and through alternative medicine. Nothing worked. Shortly after Becky’s diagnosis, I gave up on her healing and focused on her being able to die well. (However, I did not give up on God or on providing proper care for Becky.)
Well-meaning folks offered me possible cures or kept saying things really were not so bad. God could still heal. Yes, but this counsel was not apt at this point in the struggle. Becky and I needed someone to sit and lament with us, to empathize with our suffering. To that end, our church served communion to Becky at home every week. We were grateful for this care and encouragement in the highest realities of Jesus Christ.
Consolation can take many forms. In some cases, words such as, “It’s not so bad” or “At least it isn’t worse,” are fitting for someone who is blind to the light that is there. In other cases, darkness is winning — at least in this world. Such words in desperate times are arrows shot into an already wounded soul. Professor Kate Bowler has written a poignant memoir of her journey through stage IV cancer called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. In an appendix called “Absolutely Never Say This to People Experiencing Terrible Times: A Short List,” she writes:
- “Well, at least…”
Whoa. Hold up there. Were you about to make a comparison?
At least…what? Stage X cancer? Don’t minimize.5
After losing his twenty-five-year-old son to a climbing accident in France, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote a modern classic called Lament for a Son. He notes that the person who gives condolence should never say, “It is not so bad.” This robs reality of the ruin, disregards the gravity of the loss, and overlooks the sharp sting of the grief.6 Silence is always better than cheap and cold comfort.
Unwise words, while well intentioned, may offer no comfort at all. As Scripture says, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart” (Prov. 25:20). Jesus did not tell jokes at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. He wept before He raised Him from the dead (John 11:35).
While visiting Willow, Alaska, recently, I learned that a veteran pilot and his four passengers had perished during a sightseeing flight. I wanted to attend the funeral, even though I knew no one there, except a friend who came with me. I was saddened to see that no one in the family seemed to be a Christian. Those who spoke were groping for things to say, which is common at a memorial service. But it struck me that several people tried to lighten the mood without honoring the lament due to the newly dead man. Someone said, “Don’t be sad. He died doing what he loved.” Yes, but sadness was due as well. I prayed for everyone and gave my condolence to the pilot’s wife and two brothers, touching the men on their shoulders. I tried to suffer well with strangers.
You cannot console someone by comparing some similar malady in your own life to his or her suffering. Many times people would say to me, “Oh, my father got dementia and died at age 85.” That is terribly sad, but it hardly compares to me caring for my suffering wife in her early ‘60s. It is far better to say, “I have no idea what you are going through,” because you do not. “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” (Prov. 14:10). Comparisons to our own experience should take the back seat as we sit in silence. We ought to practice the presence of another human being — this one experiencing pain of which we know nearly nothing. I have suffered profoundly through losing my wife. However, when I hear of a miscarriage or of parents losing a child, I dare not say, “I know how you feel.” I do not know what they are suffering. A tear on the cheek and a hand on the shoulder are far better than troubling the air without wisdom.
In spasms of short-lived altruism, people sometimes will make heroic offers to help those suffering. But they do not. These unfulfilled promises are nothing less than lies. Paul writes, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Eph. 4:25). As Ecclesiastes says, “It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it” (Ecc. 5:5). I understand and accept it when people offer more help than they can give and then apologize to me. But those who make big promises and never apologize for doing nothing are harder to forgive. Yet forgive we must, since we have been forgiven so much by Jesus.
We can show love in action by helping with simple tasks that those grieving are too overwhelmed to perform, such as making meals, doing wash, babysitting, and helping with funeral arrangements in the case of death. We can pray with and for those suffering as often as possible (Eph. 6:19).
Cards or letters of condolence can bring comfort and encouragement to those suffering from myriad ills. My policy is to write a card to each person I know who has experienced any significant loss. I keep a close watch on my theology, so I don’t write untruths that fail to comfort anyone, such as “God needed another angel.” No, He did not, and the dead don’t become angels. I avoid trying to cheer anyone up. Rather, I desire to show my sympathy and to validate their grief, not rush them through it with clichés. I do offer a biblical hope, though. I wrote a card of condolence to the widow of the pilot I mentioned earlier, even though I only met her at the funeral.
The love of God takes many forms, one of which is the love shown in suffering well with others. In this, God is glorified, sufferers are encouraged, and the watching world beholds people who radiate a love and concern from beyond this world of tears.
Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy, Denver Seminary, and author of Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness — A Philosopher’s Lament (IVP Books, 2017).
- This Hebrew word, hevel, is translated as vanity (KJV, NASB) and meaningless (NIV), but the word literally means vapor, or mist. Life is not without purpose or meaning, but our understanding of life’s purpose often dissipates when it turns out far different and far more difficult than imagined. But we can prepare for grief by holding fast only to what is eternal (2 Cor. 4:17–18; Col. 3:2).
- All Scripture quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted.
- See Glenn Pemberton, Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2012). In LXX, see Ps. 21, 38, 87, 89.
- See Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness — A Philosopher’s Lament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017).
- Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I Have Loved (New York: Random House, 2018), 169. Bowler is a Christian, but denies easy answers to suffering, as I do.
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).