I am currently writing a series of blogs that deal with the topic of suffering. These blogs will seek to answer the following questions: (1) What does Christian community have to do with suffering?, (2) What does the Bible teach us about suffering?, (3) What does the gospel teach us about suffering?, (4) If God is good, why is there suffering in this world?, and (5) How can we help those who are suffering? For the rest of this post, I will focus specifically on answering the fifth question.
Paul writes in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” This command is binding on all of us as Christians. It assumes that we’re living life together in a Christian church such that we can adequately care for one another during times of trial, hardship, and suffering. Obedience to this command (and others like it) not only requires that we (1) belong to a local church and (2) have an adequate theology of suffering, it also requires that (3) we actually do something to care for sufferers in our midst. Our convictions should lead to action.
With that said, here are seven activities that will help us bear one another’s burdens:
1) Abide in Jesus
John 15:5 teaches us that apart from Christ we can do nothing. The fruit-bearing in ministry (and in all aspects of the Christian life) only comes as we abide in Jesus. The strength of our marriages, the strength of our parenting, the strength of our counseling and discipleship, and the strength of our comfort and care ministry is directly contingent upon our own relationship with Jesus. The more we abide in Jesus, the more we’ll be able to effectively care for and love the people in our church and small group. Our love for others flows out of our love for God.
2) Show up in times of need
When crisis hits someone’s life, we need to literally be there for them. We need to show up. We cannot neglect people that are suffering. We cannot play the avoidance game. Sometimes when we don’t know what to say or exactly what to do, we’re tempted to avoid people who are suffering because we want to avoid the awkwardness of not knowing exactly how to care for the sufferer. We cannot do this! We must fight against this tendency.
I once heard a pastor say, perhaps hyperbolically, that if we spend 20 years discipling someone and pouring into their life but then in their time of greatest need we’re nowhere to be found, those twenty years of discipleship go out the window. Our relationship will be fractured because we weren’t there for them when they needed us the most.
Job’s friends are not exactly the greatest examples of comforting friends in the Bible, but at least they understood the importance of this point. After Satan took everything from Job, this is what it says in Job 2:11-13:
Now when Job’s friends heard all of this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw his suffering was very great.
Job’s friends made an appointment to visit their suffering friend and mourn with him. And it took them seven days to even say a word to their friend! That should be instructive to us. When someone in your church or small group is suffering greatly, show up and mourn with them. There are times when all you need to do for someone in their moment of suffering is just sit quietly with them and weep.
3) Listen before you speak
James 1:19 says, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, and slow to speak.” This applies to many different situations but I believe it applies especially when ministering to people who are suffering. Listen to them. And when you listen to them, actually concentrate on what they’re saying. Don’t look for an opportunity to speak. Don’t presume you know what they’re going to say. Really listen to them. Often times the best thing we can do when someone is suffering is show up, be silent and listen to them share about their experience of suffering.
4) Pray for them and with them
James 5:16 says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working out.” This verse (1) commands us to pray for one another, (2) indicates that prayer leads to healing, and (3) reminds us that there’s great power in prayer! We must pray for the suffering. And don’t just pray for them, pray with them. If someone shares something with you about a hardship in their life, don’t simply tell them you’ll pray for them later and leave it at that. Instead, pray for them right then and there. Don’t underestimate the healing effect that praying with someone can have. Martin Lloyd-Jones said, “Always respond to every impulse to pray.” Pray for comfort. Pray for peace. Pray for healing. Pray for a greater trust in the Lord. And don’t stop asking God for the impossible—for healing, for reconciliation, for salvation, etc.
Ed Welch in his book, Side by Side, gives a very simple question to ask a sufferer before you pray for them: “How is your faith in the midst of this?” Ask them that question (or something like it) and listen to their answer and then let it inform how you pray for them and what Scriptures you might try to include in your prayer. Welch also gives a helpful example of something we might pray: “Lord, please give my friend eyes to see the spiritual realities in her suffering.” Don’t presume to know what those spiritual realities are, but rather ask God in his sovereignty to reveal them to your friend.
In the past, small groups in our church have set aside a group meeting to pray for certain needs within their group. Groups have also had times of fasting for people that are suffering in their group. Small group prayer meetings and times of fasting can be very helpful in ministering to and comforting someone in the group that is suffering.
5) Share Scripture with them
Psalm 19:7 says, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” We need to take the time to listen to someone, to consider their situation and then, when appropriate, share Scripture with them to encourage them. The Word of God contains power to revive the soul. There are many Scriptures we could use to encourage a sufferer. For example, the book of Psalms in particular contains many passages that help us give voice to our suffering. So maybe you select a couple of Psalms to read with someone when you visit them. Another thing you can do is take a passage and pray through it with them. Find ways like this to use God’s Word to comfort and encourage them in the midst of their suffering.
6) Point to Christ and the gospel
The gospel speaks directly into our suffering. So constantly bring people back to the gospel and use it to point to the hope we have in Christ. It won’t necessarily take the tears or the pain away, but it will help them remember to fix their eyes on Jesus and to have an eternal perspective in the midst of their suffering.
7) Think of practical ways to serve them
Jesus did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). We are to likewise serve one another. And often times the call to serve one another is even more pertinent during times of suffering.
Dave Furman, in his book Being There, writes, “Sacrificial service is marked by selflessness that takes the time to truly know the person’s needs. When you’re caring for a hurting individual, one way you can demonstrate your love is by knowing people well and looking for unique opportunities to serve them.” There are many ways that we can serve one another but we need to consider the situation and think creatively and specifically about what might help someone’s situation. Here’s a short list of some practical ways we can serve those who are suffering:
- Bring a Meal / Setup a Mealtrain
- Offer child care if needed
- Clean their house
- Give gifts
- Write cards
- Raise money in your small group to help with a financial need
- Reach out to people on the anniversary of the death of a loved one
- Give someone a ride to an appointment
All of the activities mentioned above require intentionality, effort, and sacrifice. That is what it takes to bear the burdens of others. It will cost you at times and may even cause you to suffer. This is what we see in the gospel after all. Remember what Christ has done for you. Let his example serve as all the motivation you need. We love because Christ first loved us. We serve because he first served us. We carry one another’s burdens because he first carried ours.