“God just needed another angel,” said more than a few people after learning that our son had died.

“No, he doesn’t,” my wife and I would silently scream. “God, doesn’t need any more angels!”

That was fourteen years ago. My wife and I began keeping a list of things people would say, always with good intentions, which were neither helpful nor encouraging. You know, sayings like the one I just mentioned or a saying like “God never gives us more than we can handle” with the implication that God will get us through this. Or saying like… Well, you understand what I’m getting at. These responses might sound good on a Hallmark card and sometimes they are even evoke scripture but like trying to heal a shotgun wound with a mere bandaid, these responses do little, if anything, for the deep grief and pain of losing a child.

In The Wilderness of Grief and Pain

            In the fourteen years since losing Kenny, I have talked with many other parents who have journeyed down this long road of suffering. From those whose children were born silently, to those who lost their children as babies, and those whose children died later in life from illness, injury, etc… The grief and pain is a new season in life more akin to wandering in a wilderness rather than just a bad week or two. Though over time people can learn to live with such suffering, the loss doesn’t disappear and there isn’t any “getting over it.”

While faith in Christ along with the love of God revealed in Christ is the basis for hope, it makes the suffering more difficult in some aspects. After all, where was this loving God and why has he allowed this child to die? This pilgrimage for such suffers, through months and even years of gray skies, carries a burden that often seems almost unbearable.

And sometimes the burden is unbearable!

In my journey down this darkened path, I learned to pray with the words from what has become my favorite hymn, “Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side. Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.” But sometimes the journey seemed so difficult and left me without words. My only thought was that echoed by the Psalmist who says, “I was too troubled to speak” (Ps 77:4).

Fortunately though, one of God’s many blessings was expressed by the presence of some caring Christians who journeyed with my wife and I. They didn’t try to theologize for God about why our son died and they didn’t try to heal the pain with quick antidotes. Instead they listened to our pain, our struggles, our big faith questions. They wept with us and mourned the loss of our child with us. And over time, as they walked with us in grief, listening and grieving with us, they were able to empathize. That empathy, which came from enduring this pain with us, gave them the ability to help us navigate the troubling seas we were in. That is, by enduring with us, my wife and I were open to their guidance which they were able to offer because they were with us listening, grieving, and learning to empathize.

Empathetic Presence

            As a minister, I have witnessed other examples of horrific suffering. It’s the sort of persistent suffering that Billman and Migliore describe as creating “an abyss of speechlessness for the person in pain” (Rachel’s Cry, p. 105). It might be the sudden death of a child or spouse but it could also be a young husband and father who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. It might be the college freshman who was sexually assaulted on what she thought was supposed to be a friendly date or maybe it’s that man at church whose wife of fifteen years has filed for divorce after confessing to having a long affair with another man. Perhaps such suffering is the plight of a mother whose life long battle with depression is now at a crisis point as she struggles to care for her new born baby. Or perhaps it is that bachelor who struggles with his sexual identity and attraction to other men but is scared of what others, especially his parents and church family, will say if they knew. Maybe its that friend who has just entered into Alcohol Anonymous or maybe it…

My point is that suffering comes in a multitude of ways and just because I may not have experienced a particular form of suffering doesn’t make it any less real. While there are occasions when people will need some sort of professional help, what all suffers need is a friend or friends who walk with them in their sufferings. Really, what sufferers need is a church who will reserve judgments and patiently bear with them in love.

In discussing how to practice sincere love, Paul instructs the church to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15) among other things. Our ability to mourn with those who are mourning is a result of our empathy towards others as we spend time listening and suffering together. This is about the presence of God among us, embodying the grace we have received from God by extending grace to those who are hurting as we walk the road of suffering together.

The difficulty stems in part from the messy and complicated challenges faced as we walk with others on the road of suffering. It’s a journey that will challenge our faith to varying degrees and one that defies any easy answers. But that’s ok! We trust in God even when we have more questions than answers.

Sometimes people wonder about what to say when someone is suffering. But worry not, since other than saying “I’m sorry!” there isn’t anything a person can say that will make the grief and pain any better. Words don’t bring back someone who has died, they don’t erase an act of evil committed against another, etc… But presence, being their to listen and hurt with the hurting, to mourn with those who mourn is the ministry of the church to those who suffer. When those who suffer find such a church, what they find is a people and place where God is with them in the wilderness leading them towards his promise of hope.

Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.” – Psalm 77:19

K. Rex Butts

Chillicothe, MO