For the next few weeks I will be 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 first question.
Everyone experiences suffering in this life. This reality is unavoidable in our sin-cursed world. If you aren’t in a place of suffering right now, you likely know someone who is. And the larger a church becomes, the more instances of suffering there will be in that church at any given moment. I’ve certainly observed this to be true at Trinity. Since the start of the 2018-2019 ministry year, for example, I can think of a whole host of different types of suffering that people in our church have had to endure. Over the past six months there have been couples in our church that have dealt with miscarriages, infertility, or the death of a child. Others have had to mourn the loss of a sibling, parent, grandparent, or friend. Some, both old and young, are fighting cancer. Others are battling chronic illness. There are examples of wayward children, family conflict, persecution, depression, and job loss in our church. I could go on but I think you get the point.
And as the church, we have a God-given responsibility to minister to the suffering in our midst. Consider these four passages:
- “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:2
- “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” – 1 Corinthians 12:26
- “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” – Romans 12:15
- “Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all in our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” – 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Notice that each of these commands and principles are found in letters written to local churches. Hence, we are commanded as the church to care for sufferers as we seek to live in community together. This means, as Christians, it’s not enough to care for our family members and friends when they suffer. If we are to truly live in obedience to these commands, we must also (1) belong to a local church and then (2) seek to care for those who are suffering within it. We cannot simultaneously live disconnected from Christian community and obey the command to bear one another’s burdens. God has designed us to need each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We cannot go about the Christian life alone. We need each other’s help, especially in times of suffering. In his book Side-by-Side, Ed Welch puts it this way:
We were meant to walk side by side, an interdependent body of weak people. God is pleased to grow and change us through the help of people who have been re-created in Christ and empowered by the Spirit. That is how life in the church works.
This, in part, is why I believe that the small groups ministry in our church is so important. Small groups in particular provide a context for us to obey the commands in Scripture given above. One of the core tenets of our small groups ministry is that small groups are meant to be a primary support during times of hardship. As Christians seek to live out the one-another’s of Scripture together in the context of a small group, people will come to truly know and love each other such that they can then adequately bear each other’s burdens and care for one another during times of hardship. Thus, when people are suffering, small groups become places of comfort, care, and healing. This is one of the byproducts of life-on-life ministry. The more we know and love one another, the more we’ll naturally help one another in times of suffering.
The church ought to be a refuge for sufferers. But in order to adequately care for sufferers (and in order to suffer in a godly way when we ourselves endure seasons of suffering), it’s important that we first have a sufficient theology of suffering. We need to know what God himself has said about the topic of suffering. So, what does the Bible teach us about suffering? …That’s what I will discuss in the next post.
 Edward T. Welch, Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015), 14.