Sunday, February 12, 2012

How do you respond to someone who is suffering?

What do you do when someone you know is dealing with physical pain?  What is the most helpful response?  I know I tend to either be silent, or to try to help fix the problem.  Neither of these two options are really good ones, I'm beginning to realize.  But I don't really have much experience with suffering, so how am I to begin?  Maybe silence is the wisest rout.

I write this post now not because people in my life are suffering more than usual, but because of what I read this week in The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence.  Brother Lawrence writes to a friend of his who is suffering from some illness.  At first I was a little shocked at what he wrote:
I do not pray that you may be delivered from your pains, but I pray [to] God earnestly that He would give you strength and patience to bear them as long as He pleases.  
Not only this, but he goes on to mention that it is God who allows the suffering:
Comfort yourself with Him who holds you fastend to the cross.  He will loose you when He thinks fit.
How is this helpful, I ask?  This is certainly not how I would write to a dear friend who was suffering.  And yet, as I read on through his letters, I realize a couple of things:

First, I realize that Brother Lawrence actually envies his friend.  He believes that God brings or allows suffering into our life that we might know His love better.  His prayers are only what he would want prayed of him, were he suffering.  As contrary as this might seem, this is Brother Lawrence's argument.  He writes
Happy those who suffer with Him. [...] I wish you could convince yourself that God is often (in some sense) nearer to us, and more effectually present with us, in sickness than in health.
Be satisfied with the condition in which God places you; however happy you may think me, I envy you.
Ah, how sweet it is to suffer with God!
God has many ways of drawing us to Himself. [...]  I would willingly ask of God a part of your sufferings, but I know my weakness, which is so great that if He left me one moment to myself I should be the most wretched man alive. [...]
What gives me some ease and sweetens the feelings I have for your griefs is that they are proofs of God's love toward you.  See them in that view tand you will bear them more easily.   [...]  God often permits that we should suffer a little to purify our sous and oblige us to continue with Him. 
Although these words may seem harsh they also demonstrate Brother Lawrence's respect for his friend and confidence in the working of God.

Secondly, Brother Lawrence writes out of deep compassion for his friend, and is clearly supporting him in prayer continually.  At the beginning of one letter he writes
I am in pain to see you suffer so long.
He is the Father of the afflicted, always ready to help us.  he loves us infinitely, more than we imagine.  Love him, then, and seek no consolation elsewhere.  I hope you will soon receive it.  Adieu.  I will help you with my prayers ...
This last type of remark, a promise of continued prayer, is found in every letter.  It is clear that Brother Lawrence spends much more time in praying for his friend than in writing to him.

Finally, his letters are underpinned by a high view of God.  This God whom Brother Lawrence loves is a God of love and continually present with us in joy and in grief.  He knows that even comforts in pain are nothing compared to "the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil 3:8).  To this end he exhorts his friend in his last letter:
Let all our employment be to know God; the more one knows Him, the more one desires to know Him. [...] If we do love Him alone, [...] do we not deserve blame, if we busy ourselves about trifles which do not pelas e and perhaps offend Him? [...] Let us be devoted to Him in good earnest.
I am still thinking through this and sorting it out.  What I have learned so far is the importance of praying for my friends who suffer - and not just praying that they will get well, but supporting them in prayer and praying that they might know God's strength and grace and love - and most of all that they might know God!

What do you think of this view of physical suffering?   Does it help you, or make you feel uncomfortable?  

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