The last few hours before stepping into the pulpit to preach last Sunday were spent in the emergency room. I was sitting next to a young couple in our church. She is pregnant with their first child, and he had an accident earlier that day that led to his losing sight in both eyes. Earlier in my pastoral ministry, I would have charged in to that emergency room with an annoyingly high word count. But this time I came in with very few words and mostly just sat in silence with these friends I love dearly. What changed my approach?
Well, about eighteen months ago, a doctor found a tumor in me, and after having it removed and tested, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Thankfully, it appears the Lord has healed me and there are currently no signs of cancer in my body. But there were some indelible lessons I learned about how to approach those in the midst of suffering during my season of suffering.
Knowing When to Speak
Early on in the book of Job, we meet three of Job’s friends: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. These three men get a bad rap for the dumb things they say to Job, and rightfully so, but we often overlook that they were great friends until they opened their mouths. Faithful friends come sit with you and weep with you in your suffering, and Job’s friends did just that for seven whole days (2:11–13).
The problems began to arise when Job’s friends started to fill the silent devastation of their friend’s suffering with long-winded speeches trying to explain it to him. The book of Job is difficult and interesting for many reasons. One of those reasons is that there are significant portions of the book devoted to Job’s friends speaking words that are not true of God’s character or His works in the world. In the last chapter of the book, the Lord lets these three men know that His “anger burns against” them because “you have not spoken of Me what is right” (42:7). One of the frightening takeaways from this book is that it is possible to be really harmful, even when you’re trying to be helpful. When we speak about the Lord’s sovereignty over suffering, we need to be really intentional about not letting Job’s friends be our guide, or else we’ll make the Lord really angry.
Please don’t misunderstand me: there is a time to speak. There are some “precious and very great promises” (2 Pet 1:4) in the Scriptures that the people of God need to hear during times of suffering. But we need to make sure that when we speak, we never do so in a callous way that dismisses or minimizes the pain of living in a broken and fallen world. As Jesus’ example with Lazarus’ two sisters teaches us, there is a time to use words to point a sister to precious promises (Jn 11:25) and there is a time to say nothing and weep with a sister (Jn 11:35).
Dr. Martin Luther King often spoke about the power of “redemptive suffering” during his life. One of the sacred fruits suffering can produce is building empathy in your heart for others who are suffering. The Apostle Paul also spoke of God’s people being afflicted so that they can comfort those who have been afflicted (2 Cor 1:4). It is usually most helpful for those suffering to be comforted by people who have been through similar suffering, but there is a real sense in which any suffering is designed by God to make you better equipped to minister to anyone who is suffering.
I never expected to hear the word “cancer” connected to my name in my twenties, but one of God’s greatest gifts to me during that season came through a brother who had walked through a very different type of suffering in his life. Within an hour of hearing my diagnosis, he and his wife had walked over to our house and were standing on our porch. We sat in silence and cried; they held us and prayed for us. I’d had hundreds of hours of theological discussions before that moment and after that moment with this brother, but in this specific moment it was a time to sit in the midst of suffering and ask the Lord for His help rather than try to explain all of His ways.
It is very difficult to develop a rock-solid theological foundation to stand on while being tossed about by the waves of suffering. John Piper taught me years ago that you need to develop a theology of suffering before you go through it. It is so important because suffering comes to visit all of us in this broken world. Work hard to help people understand God’s sovereignty over and goodness in suffering on the front end; but when you are sitting in the waiting room with someone, it will probably be wise to make your presence felt but your words few. If the person you are walking through suffering with doesn’t have a solid theological foundation to stand on, pray that later on the Lord would open up doors to speak, and be sensitive to those opportunities when they come.
Unlike what Job’s friends presumed, suffering isn’t a sure sign of God’s judgment for sin, but we do know the Lord sees our suffering and always has a purpose for the pain of His people (Rom 8:28; Eph 1:11).
Almost a week later, we are rejoicing because it appears that my friend from the emergency room will fully recover his sight. In the new heavens and new earth, sickness and sadness will be no more, but in this broken world people are not always healed on this side of heaven. Regardless, when suffering comes, let’s resolve not to do what Job’s friends did. Sometimes it’s ok to sit in silence.