Being a Neighbor to the Deeply Suffering
The shock of it all was numbing. My mind – every ounce of energy I tried to find to think – was flailing to make sense of anything at all. People were talking at me, but I couldn’t mentally connect one word to the next much less understand what they were saying. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. My world was collapsing around me and no one could tell me why. My chest ached with a pain I had never experienced before, and I struggled to breathe and simultaneously try to hold back the sobs that shook me despite my inner protestations for them and everything else around me to stop! Just stop!
When deep suffering strikes people are left incapacitated. Whether the blow is physical, emotional, or something else, it knocks us breathless, so that even gasping for air feels like more than we can bear. An indescribable, wordless, whirlwind of unanswerable questions and unidentifiable emotions flood over us until we feel, often, that we’d rather die than go on.
Do you know what to do to help someone in that state? Do you know what to say – or sometimes more importantly, what not say to them? Do you know how to be bodily with them in a way that is genuinely helpful? How do you find what you need when someone else’s pain threatens to drown you, too?
These are questions I have asked and been asked many times in recent months. They come from genuinely concerned people whose deep desire is to do something that will help, but whose experiences don’t come close enough to know what that kind of suffering is like. “What can I do?” isn’t a question that is only asked of the sufferer – it’s one that helpers ask of themselves as well.
Suffering is something that every believer will experience – we are assured of this in scripture. (1 Peter 4:12) But suffering is not something we are particularly well prepared for. We live our lives as if suffering only happens to other people, or, more insidiously, less faithful people. But that is not what the Bible teaches. Instead we can bank on suffering if we’re Jesus followers. And since this is the case, we ought to be prepared both for the suffering and the sufferers. But it is all too common for those surrounding the sufferer to stand by helplessly asking the person whose world has just been torn apart, “What can I do?” It’s not only not helpful, it’s insensitive and sometimes cruel to ask them what they need. But what can we do?
Fortunately, Jesus has offered some very practical instructions to all of us who want to comfort people in their distress. We can be prepared, at least to some degree, to be genuinely helpful in the face of unimaginable pain. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), Jesus does far more than instruct us on who are neighbors are. He instructs us on what loving our neighbors looks like, too. I think if we’re willing to pay attention to the details of the story, we will see some intensely practical concepts for walking with those who are unable to bear the burden of suffering alone.
Know that suffering overwhelms
The first man in the parable was traveling and was attacked by robbers who overwhelmed him. They stripped him of everything, wounded him severely, and left him for dead. There are many things that we encounter during the course of our lives that are difficult – really difficult. They test our strength and stamina, they push us to our limits, and they sometimes make us want to give up. That is not the kind of suffering we are talking about here. Sometimes those things are not suffering at all. Those are hard things, and sometimes we need help, but we use the resources God has given us and we get through. Deep suffering, however, overwhelms our normal abilities to cope. Deep suffering renders us helpless – stripped naked of all the resources we had. You’ve no doubt heard people say things like, “I felt like I got hit by a truck,” or “I felt like I was drowning,” or some other iteration of being swallowed up, buried, or overcome. All of these kinds of expressions try to articulate the sense of encountering something beyond our ability to cope. People in these situations don’t just want help, they need it. They are desperate for it. Deep suffering overwhelms and renders us helpless. Those suffering before you don’t just feel like they are drowning – they are. Physical and emotional pain can render us deaf and blind to everything else going on around us. Don’t expect much of anything from a traumatized sufferer – they are incapable of directing you.
Respond with compassion
The Priest and the Levite in the parable saw the helpless traveler and did nothing. We don’t know what they were thinking, but we know from the story that they saw the man, that they made sure they were on the other side of the road – close enough to see, but far enough away to stay uninvolved – and we know they continued on their way. But the Samaritan saw him and had compassion. Unless there is something incredibly hard-hearted about a person, it is normal to have compassion on someone who is in distress. In my experience, and from listening to many other sufferers, many people feel compassion toward a suffering person. Lots of people say with sincerity, “I’m so sorry.” It might be easy to take this for granted, but it must be recognized as the necessary first step in being a loving neighbor and actually helping someone who is suffering. Compassion literally means with suffering (from the Latin, com – with, and pati – suffer). It is a picture of entering into the suffering of another. It starts with a stirred heart that is troubled by the pain of another, but real compassion – Christ-like compassion – cannot be satisfied with emotion only.
Move toward the sufferer
In the parable, Jesus said the Samaritan went to him. We might overlook this because it seems so basic, but the Samaritan didn’t stay safely on the other side of the road and yell, “Hey buddy! Let me know if you need anything, OK?” He went to him. He stopped what he was doing, changed his direction, and went to where the man was lying in the aftermath of what had overwhelmed him. There is no way to make an assessment of need without going to the sufferer. This means that we will encounter a bloody mess sometimes (both literally and figuratively!). It means that, depending on how overwhelmed the sufferer is we will likely need to move toward him or her without an invitation, without instructions, without knowing what we are getting ourselves into. Yes, it’s scary, but this is one of the hard things that will stretch you and increase your capacity to deal with the stuff of human existence. The sufferer you’re looking at didn’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not to be overwhelmed. Go.
Skillfully dress the wounds
The Samaritan saw what had overwhelmed the traveler and took action. The traveler was bleeding. He was in pain. He was naked. He was alone. Most sufferers are all of these. Their wounds may not be visible, but they are just as devastatingly raw and exposed. As a former cardiac nurse, I can tell you that pretty much nothing else matters if your patient is bleeding out. The hemorrhage has to be stopped or all will be lost. After that, nothing else can be addressed with a patient if they’re in intractable pain. Measures need to be taken first to soothe the excruciating. Healing has to start to happen first, then the patient can begin to engage. The Samaritan skillfully applied life-saving measures by stopping the bleeding, cleaning out the wounds, and preventing infection from setting in. We can help suffering people by skillfully taking measures to protect them from further injury while they are incapacitated and defending them while they recover. Sometimes this will be as simple as shielding sufferers from insensitive comments or questions. Sometimes we will need to guard the door (or the phone) so that they are not repeatedly overwhelmed. Sometimes we will need to hold their heads while they cry or vomit out the unbearable thoughts and emotions that have swelled to flood levels decorum can no longer contain. It’s going to be messy and ugly. Do whatever needs to be done with sensitivity and care.
Use your resources
The Samaritan put the wounded traveler on his own animal and transported him to a safe place. We may not need a donkey, but we may need to use our cars and other resources to get the sufferer to where he or she needs to be. Sometimes they will need to be transported to a hospital and sometimes they will just need to be taken away from their environment for a little while so that they see that there is life outside of their misery. We may need to drive someone to a safe house, or to a cemetery. Or we may need to be willing to bring them to our homes where they can sit in quietness and safety from further threats. We may need to use our time or money or efforts or comfort or ease as we love our suffering neighbor, but we will need to use what we have. If we’re willing to help sufferers we will be called upon to use our resources. It will be costly, and inconvenient, but it will be worth it.
Most Christians are fairly willing to do all of the above. We are willing to jump into action when called upon, and graciously use our resources when a need pops up. We make meals, clean bathrooms, drive, and even pay bills. But here, right here is where we tend to fall down. We’re busy. Our schedules are full. We have things we were planning to do as well as people waiting for us to do them. We don’t have time to take care of suffering people. Taking care of someone – tending to their wounds of body and soul – however, is a slow process that takes great quantities of time and patience. But we are not a patient people. We want things to be cleaned up quickly and we want the sufferer to be able to tend to his or her own needs without too much delay. We tend to lose resolve around the two-week mark, but deep suffering often takes months – or years – to traverse. Not surprisingly, those who look back on their suffering point to the people who were willing to be with them and take care of them over the long haul as the ones who got them through and helped them the most. The reality is, the sufferer sitting before you in bewildered confusion at all that has crashed down on them doesn’t really expect you to be able to explain the inexplicable – they just want you to be speechless at it with them. They want to see you in the room, not leaving but staying. They want to hear your breathing (and occasionally your voice). They want to feel your hands, your hugs, and even your heavy sighs that mirror their own as you hold them tight as if trying to hold them together while they feel like they’re flying apart. Be willing to spend time with the suffering and take care of them.
Enlist others and support them, too
The Samaritan in the parable was on his way somewhere. He put everything on hold to help the suffering traveler he found. It was not what he had planned – no one can plan when suffering will strike. But he was willing to do all that needed to be done to ensure that this man in desperate need was cared for. We must be willing to do the same.
But no one can put their life on hold forever. If you’re walking alongside the suffering, you will get to the point where the sufferer’s needs are greater than you can handle on your own. You will need to do as he did – enlist others and then give them what they need to aid the sufferer.
Jesus said, “And the next day he [the Samaritan] took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’” There is so much packed into this sentence. When the Samaritan could stay no longer, he enlisted the innkeeper, gave him what he needed to care for the traveler, and promised to return. He made sure that the innkeeper knew that both he and the traveler would continue to be supported. In telling the story this way, Jesus shows that the Samaritan was not only willing to help the wounded traveler, but the innkeeper and anyone else the innkeeper needed to employ as well. Jesus knew that helpers often need help to be able to help effectively. Many times deep suffering requires a team of people. It is profound and overwhelming to the sufferer and to those helping as well. Following Jesus is a group activity, and this is one of the many reasons why. Be ready as a church to help the deeply suffering.
Don’t say much
One final note of instruction that is easy to miss unless you’ve spent time on the sufferer’s side of all of this is to not say too much. The Samaritan didn’t say much. In fact, he didn’t say anything at all to the suffering man – he only spoke with the innkeeper in the parable. Sometimes arguing from a position of silence in scripture is a difficult (and potentially dangerous) position to take. But having been in the position of the traveling victim, I’m standing firmly on this one – don’t say too much to someone in deep suffering.
Words are inadequate to describe the indescribable. Explanations are ineffective for the inexplicable. And asking someone who is in agonizing pain to tell you how they feel is a bit ridiculous, really. Let them talk if they want to. Ask a question or two so they know they can, but mostly, just be with them and listen to their grief. Let them cry, or sob. Let them sigh, or moan. Let them speak inarticulately or not at all. When you must speak, use short sentences and small words. Use gentleness in your tone of voice – even when they rail at their circumstances. Job 6:26 says, “Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?” People who are suffering say things they wouldn’t normally say and don’t really mean. Just let it go, remain calm, and remind them that you’re still there, you’re not afraid of the mess, and you’re not going to abandon them. The pain of suffering becomes bearable when there is someone to endure it with you.
Beloved church – we must not be surprised when suffering comes, either to us or to those around us. We must, instead, be prepared for it to happen. Our own suffering proves whether or not we have faith – when everything is stripped away and we are wounded and exposed we find out quickly what we really believe. If we are running to God – even in hurt and anger and disbelief – the proof is there. It might be weak faith, it might be trembling faith, it might be doubting faith that says, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!” But that is faith that is proven, and that proof is a gift, that we will be thankful for eventually. But we must also be prepared to care for the suffering in our midst. We must be willing to put our own things aside – our schedules, our priorities, our expectations – and bend low enough to stoop down to help the wounded soul who has been left decimated by the side of the road, helpless and desperately needy. That’s actually what Jesus did for each of us.
My path of deep suffering is not over – I am very much in the raging waves and tossing winds of it. Some minutes are good – most are a black, confusing, thick fog. I am part of a great church with a kind and loving pastor and we are struggling together to learn how to walk this road with integrity – learning from and teaching one another as we figure it out by trial and error. It’s hard to be both sufferer and tutor at the same time, but I’m convinced that God is teaching me even this so that I might be used to help others as he builds his kingdom. Until then, I pray for strength to continue to walk one painful, faithful step at a time. Learn from those who do this well. Teach those who don’t. Walk together with the ones who are suffering deeply. You will bless them, of course, but you will be blessed too, for you will teach, and you will learn, a great deal about your Savior.