“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
“I was immediately worn out by the tyranny of prescriptive joy.” – Kate Bowler
What is it about suffering that causes people to scatter? Many times, when a person walks through a season of suffering, the response is an energetic burst of movement away from that person–a human diaspora initiated by tremors of reality echoing the pain of our universal human condition. Do you need proof? Ask almost anyone who is a member of a church and has experienced a divorce.
I currently find myself sitting in “the pit” of suffering with several lovely women–and by sitting I don’t mean that I am suffering personally, but I am choosing to stay close and empathetic alongside these women. The situation and pain looks different from person to person, but when asked what they need most during these difficult circumstances the response is pretty much the same, “Prayer and not to be forgotten.”
It’s a valid concern… being forgotten. These women have learned this fear from watching others walk through suffering. Some have had a lifetime experience of people leaning away.
So, I ask you again: why do people scatter?
I have to admit that I have been the person moving quickly away from the suffering of others, so I can say something about what has caused me to join the scattering in the past. Much of my own movement was fueled by fear, misunderstanding, or because I felt I was drowning in my own hurt and I did not want to be pulled under by the desperate grasping of others.
But I’ve also had the incredible opportunity to experience what it is like when humans move in. I have been the recipient of courageous Jesus-like love moving towards me in the middle of horrific pain.
The first time I experienced this type of love was when I lost our second baby. A 70-year old woman, who really didn’t know me all that well but was notified that I was miscarrying, took it upon herself to come to the emergency room and claim me as family to get closer. She cleaned up blood, brushed my hair, steadied my husband, prayed over me, and held my hand as I endured the most difficult loss of my young life. She stayed all through the night and when it was all over and my husband and I found our footing, she left as swiftly as she came.
In the days after, we had followers of Jesus bring us flowers and meals, and one incredible acquaintance took it upon himself to dig the gravesite for our precious baby. And one year later, I had a friend text me and tell me how she thought of our loss on that day and prayed for comfort for our souls.
Having experienced this incredible Christ-like response to suffering, I now find that I can sit in suffering with others and that human impulse to flee has quieted in my soul. I take intentional note in scripture whenever I see Jesus moving towards death, the mentally ill and the socially ostracized, and I pray that the Lord will give me the heart of Christ for the sufferer. I pray to be the person who helps the sufferer notice His eager presence with them.
Below, I offer five ways that a person can practice moving in towards the suffering of others, obeying the command in the Bible to mourn with those who mourn. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but hopefully it is enough to fuel in you the courage to notice when you are tempted to scatter, and–rather–turn to help the one suffering look at the face of Jesus.
5 Ways to Mourn with Those Who Mourn
You do not have to be always present and always available, for that privilege belongs to the Lord–but one way to show empathy is to show up. A presence that does not demand the attention of the person suffering or require that anyone notice their presence at all, can be a great comfort. Sitting in silence, and being emotionally ready to mourn alongside another person is a beautiful picture of Christ.
And helpful. When you notice something that needs to be done–an act of true service–simply do that thing. Mow the lawn, clean the kitchen, walk the dog, take the kids to a park, drop off groceries, bring a fresh bag of toiletries to the hospital, help a person move, bring coffee to the caretakers, put gas in the car, bring the mail when you walk in the door.
Hesitate when giving advice.
When you have a moment to speak, for the love of all that is holy and good, don’t be the “pick up your bootstraps” person. And although you may have walked through similar suffering before, and especially if you have not, be very hesitant to offer advice–unless asked.
There isn’t one hard and fast rule, and there may be times when the Holy Spirit is guiding you to offer soft advice to a person suffering–but prayerfully navigate your timing. You are not there to solve the problems of the one who suffers. You are there to mourn with them.
Jesus is alive and He is active, and sometimes the best thing you can do when you feel the urge to correct, offer advice, or give an opinion is to hesitate and practice being quiet just a little bit longer.
We often underestimate the power of prayer, but praying silently and praying with someone who suffers has the power to deeply encourage that person and engage the Lord in both your heart and the heart of the sufferer. What better thing is there than to engage the Lord who offers living waters straight from His heart?
Be ready and willing to look at Jesus.
It always takes courage to bring up Jesus, but the best thing you can do or say to a person who is suffering is to remind them of the gospel or share it with them for the first time. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:10-11) In the midst of suffering, it is good to remind the sufferer and yourself that Jesus is an active King who lays down His life for His sheep. He moves in towards those who suffer and He is ready and waiting with salvation and comfort for our souls.
Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved helped me tremendously to understand how to be long-suffering alongside a friend.
I have also prayed Psalms of lament over friends who are suffering by replacing the first person “I” with the person’s name. Psalm 6 and 130 are Psalms I often reference in this way.