One Thing Every Church Can Do about Suffering
Hardships and trouble invade everyday life. We can never overestimate the suffering in our churches. Of the struggles that exist in every human soul—guilt, shame, fear, anger, temptations—suffering seems to touch them all. Here we find health problems, loss, conflicts, poverty, victimization, injustice and much more.
As it is an everyday struggle, we would expect God’s Word to speak often about our suffering, and, indeed, it does. Along with these rich words, we live in an era in which every week marks the appearance of another fine book on some kind of human suffering, and every day marks the appearance of dozens of fine blogs. We do not lack good instruction. But we still see this: While we are blessed by people whose faith in Jesus is on grand display in the midst of their hardships, many others are quietly suffering, not knowing what to do or where to turn. They are surprised that such things could happen to a child of God. Good pastoral care keeps the suffering church in view and is always looking for ways to speak apt words in sermons and one-to-one care.
So many good words are available to us, and we have access to so many top ten lists of what God says to suffering people (including one in this package). But if I were to pick one thing, on which I think so much else rests, it would be this:
“Pour out your heart before him [the Lord].” (Psalm 62:8)
This was lived out by Job, Hannah, David, Habakkuk, and Jesus. Hosea identifies it as the defining feature of God’s people and reticence to do so as the defining sin, “They do not cry to me from the heart, but they wail upon their beds” (Hosea 7:14). Pouring out our hearts to the Lord is essential to Scripture’s teaching on suffering. It is the message of almost every Psalm.
But it is not natural for us to be this vulnerable, and is one of the more challenging aspects of our calling and communion with Jesus. Here are some questions for you to consider that spring from this seminal teaching.
- Do you pour out your heart to the Lord? Do you speak about your hardships with others in your church? There is a connection between what happens in our relationship with the Lord and what happens in our ministry. If you don’t speak about your own hardships, your church will probably fall short of the openness that you hope to commend.
- Consider the culture of your church. Is it becoming a place where those who suffer can speak openly? Are there public stories shared by those in your church who have learned to pour out their hearts to the Lord?
- Have there been invitations for those with psychiatric diagnoses to speak? These diagnoses are a form of suffering and are a good test case for evaluating how congregants are pouring out their hearts. Are those who take psychiatric medication talking to someone in the church about these hardships?
- Is there grumbling? If there is, it means people are crying on their beds but are not speaking to the Lord.
As our church approximates this key feature of the kingdom of heaven, and people speak more to the Lord and to each other, what comes next is to learn how to respond well to those who speak openly. Most of us have risked sharing our hearts and received foolish responses from others. And most of us have also given foolish responses to those who have taken those risks with us. As a church, we must grow in responses that are humble, gentle, and accompanied by long-term concern. “I’m so sorry” is a place to begin.
What are next steps for your church? May we mature together as we learn to speak to the Lord from our hearts.