To be a friend in the dust

The news anchor warned me that the story would be disturbing. It opened on a three-year-old Ukrainian boy lying in a hospital bed, connected by tubes to various apparatus. He stared into the distance, docile, while the reporter explained his story.

Home bombed. Lost family members. The same atrocities we’ve been hearing about since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

His family wanted the cameras to show him, to tell his story, so that the world would know. So that I would know, sitting quietly in my loungeroom while my own children were safely and happily at childcare for the day.

Later in the story a man described the moment he witnessed an explosion impact his daughter and granddaughter. He rushed out to them, hopeful they were still alive though they lay flat on the ground, but he found that they had perished. He sobbed at the camera, which moved toward him unsteadily in the hands of the cameraman, a motion congruent with the rawness of the interaction. “I couldn’t protect them,” he said through tears.

His brokenness cut through my television screen and I had to hit mute. Weep for a while. Cry out to God on behalf of this man, the boy in the hospital bed, and this nation.

Engaging with the suffering of others is affecting. It stirs difficult questions about God, the world, and our own lives. I once talked with a person who had lived through a major earthquake, resulting in significant and rapid changes in her life. A year on, she continued to process on a haunting sense of uncertainty she carried.

“I just assumed the ground would stay still,” she reflected.

To stay engaged with the suffering of another confronts our sense of stability and confidence in what we can reasonably expect from life or from God.

I think there’s a lot in life we assume will “stay still”. To stay engaged with the suffering of another, whether a person in your life or a major tragedy happening miles away, confronts our sense of stability and confidence in what we can reasonably expect from life or from God.

How do you tend to react in the presence of suffering? Here are two typical responses.

1. We create distance from suffering

The songwriter of Psalm 88 knew it. Shaking his fist at God, he cried,

You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. (v. 8)

The stench of suffering is hard to be around, and our instinct is often to abort at the first opportunity. This instinct expresses in many forms. Perhaps moving a conversation onto a new topic or prompting the person to place a positive full stop on their difficult story. Perhaps offering advice or solutions or a promise to pray for them to fill the uncomfortable silence when they’ve finished sharing. Perhaps scrolling past it. Perhaps switching off the TV.

Perhaps reminding them of truths from Scripture—God works for the good of those who love him… the Lord is near, do not be anxious about anything… he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear—truly, Scripture is a goldmine for such seasons of difficulty. But when delivered to a suffering friend as a strategy to eject from genuine engagement with their plight, we fail to give something of use or comfort. Rather, we fit the description in Proverbs 25:20,

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.

What does it look like to resist the repelling force of suffering? To stay in the conversation? To sit down even? Perhaps for seven days of silence in the dust, like Job’s friends?

First, we need to notice and acknowledge to ourselves that we are feeling destabilised and uncomfortable. It seems like this might increase a sense of anxiety, but once we can see ourselves in the interaction, we are able to better manage our anxiety. Then we can be more present for the other person.

Second, we need to remember that the act of staying engaged—even when you don’t have the answers or the best questions to ask—is a profound gift to that person. You are choosing to shoulder the weight with them, and though this can feel buckling to you for a period, their burden is made lighter because they’re sharing it with a friend.

Don’t underestimate the power of your presence.

Being present for another in suffering is a capacity you can grow. Look for tangible ways to practise. For example, ask an open question when you feel the urge to back away, or commit to staying up-to-date on a global tragedy so that you can pray regularly and specifically.

Being present is also a capacity you must steward. None of us have the capacity of Jesus to meet every need. Forgetting this is a quick path to burn out. As you engage with suffering, be attentive to your own need for refreshment and act on it.

Staying engaged with suffering is personally costly, so it is instinctive to create distance from it. But another typical response has us drawn to suffering in a way that throws us off balance:

2. We compare suffering

It’s true that a brush with someone else’s extreme suffering can jolt us out of petty complaining and prompt us to be more thankful. A little perspective calibration can be a good thing.

But the shadow side to this phenomenon is when we adopt a mindset of comparative suffering. Comparative suffering is where we rank our own suffering against the suffering of others. If our personal suffering sits somewhere below another person’s in our mental hierarchy, we tend to block our own emotional response or feel guilty for experiencing negative emotions toward our own circumstances. This strips us of resilience for navigating the knocks of life.

Comparative suffering starts from a place of empathy. We have opened ourselves to another’s suffering and have been deeply moved by it. Ironically, the result is that we can become brittle—unempathetic—in the face of lesser sufferings, not just of ourselves but others also.

American therapist and author, Lori Gottlieb, wrote,

There is no hierarchy of pain. Suffering should not be ranked, because pain is not a contest. [1]

This can be challenging to wrap our heads around, because the reality is that some suffering is more horrendous to endure. I’ve never known a pain like the Ukrainian man who lost a daughter and granddaughter before his eyes.

So how do we avoid a comparative suffering mindset, and keep our empathy muscle poised for a spectrum of experiences?

Look to Jesus.

He walked our paths, he faced our temptations, he shouldered our pressures.

Jesus is our High Priest, the writer to the Hebrews tells us. But not “high” in an aloof kind of way, for he empathises with our weaknesses. He sees us in all of our difficulties, and he meets us there. Walk with him through the gospels and you will see him staying in it, getting dirty, hungry, pressed on all sides. You will hear him say things like, “Don’t be afraid,” and “You can trust me”. Never will you hear from his lips a bracing word to suck it up or to look on the bright side.

Which means, when we engage with another person’s deep pain, we can appeal to our High Priest. We can invite him in on their behalf. Urge him to comfort, to act. And, when we experience our own (possibly lesser) pain, we can do the same. There is no criteria or level we must meet before his empathy and intercession is triggered, because he has bridged the whole distance, no matter the suffering we find ourselves in.

Jesus gives us the template for entering the suffering of another.

Further, Jesus gives us the template for entering the suffering of another. Entering in was at once an embrace of constraint—of time, space, body, social position—and a giving up of the “privileges of deity” (Phil 2).[2] Our entering into another’s experience should bear resemblance. In seeking to understand the world through their eyes we look to comprehend the constraints they inhabit. We should remind ourselves: “that person has walked a different road to me, shaped by different people and events, received different kinds of feedback on who they are, and possesses different weaknesses and strengths.” And as we do this, we actively choose to suspend our assumptions and solutions that flow from our own stories and identities. This is what is looks like to show empathy, to be an incarnational presence after Christ.

There’s a saying about suffering that goes,

When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool. [3]

Just as earthquakes arrive unannounced, you can find suffering at your own door at any time. Are you ready for him?

When we choose to sit in the dust with a friend in pain, we prepare ourselves for our own seasons of suffering before us. In the experience of being burdened, helpless, and perplexed for another, we are forced to work on bigger questions about where suffering—of any shape and magnitude—fits in a world governed by a good God.

This is worthy work, for as you care for another, you care also for your future self.

Is God inviting you to sit down with someone today? Ask him to give you his eyes for the pain of others, so that you can be his hands and feet as well.

[1] Lori Gottlieb, “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed”, 2019

[2] The Message translation

[3] Chinua Achebe, “Arrow of God”, 1964

Alison Courtney holds a Master of Arts in Counselling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, USA. She is also a secondary school teacher with pastoral care experience in Christian education. Presently, most of her time is spent raising two young children. When spare time occasionally presents itself, Alison enjoys making art.

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