Responses to suffering

Job’s case is so extreme that it can be hard for some people to identify with him. But the Bible contains other accounts of suffering that are instructive, such as that of King Hezekiah (Isaiah 38).

Hezekiah was seriously ill, and the prophet Isaiah came to tell him that his illness was terminal (verse 1). The king was immediately plunged into despair (verses 2,3). But then he prayed for healing, and God granted him a reprieve (verses 4-6).

Afterwards, Hezekiah wrote a poem (verses 9-20) to describe his feelings. When first given the news, he had reacted as most people do – with shock (verse 10), anger against God (verses 11-13), and grief (verse 14). But afterwards, as he thought back on what he had gone through, he began to understand some of the reasons for what had happened to him (verses 15-19). He concluded, “Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish.” (verse 17)

Only with hindsight (and not always then) can we find meaning in our sufferings. Many years ago, a middle-aged woman became a Christian and joined our church. Her two teenage children also became believers but, to her distress, her husband refused to have anything to do with her new faith. After a year or two, she developed breast cancer. She had surgery, then chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The church prayed for her too… but to no avail. Her condition deteriorated steadily, and she eventually died.

A few weeks after the funeral, her husband suddenly appeared at one of our Sunday services. He began attending regularly, and within a few months asked to be baptised. What had caused this sudden change of heart? He had observed his wife coping with her illness and with the prospect of death – and he could see the supernatural strength that her Christian faith had given her. Although she did not live to see it, her suffering bore fruit; it brought about the greatest desire of her heart.


Some practical advice

DON’T pretend that pain and suffering don’t matter (“Praise the Lord anyway!”). This is a false spirituality. People will assume that you don’t care. “Mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15)

DON’T give pat answers! For example: “If you have enough faith, you will be healed.” How cruel! It raises false expectations, and implies that if someone is not healed then it is their own fault. It also betrays a deep misunderstanding of the nature of faith. An intense longing deep within us is easily confused with a conviction that God also wants the same thing (and will therefore bring it about). But this is not faith; it is wishful thinking.

DON’T ask Why? Instead ask, How? How can I help? How can I be involved? How might God be present in this situation?

DO what you can to help. Even small things – a drink of water, a lift to hospital – can make a big difference.

DO give support and compassion (Job 2:11-13); silence can sometimes be more helpful than words. Even if you cannot actually do anything to relieve the suffering, make the effort to spend time with the sufferer; your presence will be much appreciated. “I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me.” (Matthew 25:36,40)

DO pray. Remember that we have a God who “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us.” (Ephesians 3:20)

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