CS Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain, which tries to explain why God allows bad things to happen. At the time, he received a lot of criticism - not because the book was incorrect about any of its claims, but because of how easy he made those truths sound.
Years later, he wrote A Grief Observed, which is the experiential counterpart to that first book. In it, he shares his exquisite confusion and shock upon actually experiencing suffering. That book is uncomfortable and scary. It challenges everything you feel about God (and CS Lewis!). I found myself wondering if Christians were allowed to think these thoughts: here was someone who spent his whole life pursuing God and writing and speaking of the beauty and goodness of God, asking things like, “Is it rational to believe in a bad God?” But Lewis never fell away from the faith. The ugly questions he asked while suffering got resolved, by the grace of God. Though hobbled by grief, he continued to pursue and proclaim the glory of God to the day he died.
There can be a temptation to put believers who are suffering in a petri dish, watching to see if they grow evidence that will confirm our doctrinal beliefs without making us too uncomfortable in the process. We give brownie points to those who never expose their fears or give voice to the darkness surrounding them, and we avoid those who don’t excel at smoothing over their own grief. If you are judging whether or not someone is suffering well based on what doubts they express, you are doing it wrong. Instead, be encouraged by those who are honest with their fears, yet still pursue the Lord despite those doubts.
We really like to see the results of growth but we don’t want to watch the growth happen. Instead of stepping up and being there to hear, pray for, and engage the fears and brokenness of our brother or sister, we throw the blanket over our head and squeeze our eyes shut until the climax of the thriller has passed and all the pieces start lining up with our comfortable Christianity again. Seeing a fellow believer go through the slimy metamorphosis of pain can be so uncomfortable that we can be guilty of insisting that they go and shut themselves in the bathroom until they get their makeup fixed - until they can keep up appearances.
Asking believers who are suffering to not only carry the weight of that suffering but also the weight of our expectations about what suffering ought to look like, adds to their burden rather than bears it.
Those who are suffering in our community are not there for our benefit. We are there for theirs. We are called to bear the burdens of those suffering in our community. Don’t ask the battered to deny their brokenness, needs, or fears. Don’t ask them to suffer alone or suffer in silence by making it about you. By doing this you can cause them to never have the freedom to feel those things and thereby, feel their need for Christ. This can cut them off from the grace that Christ offers those who are suffering.
So, what does it look like when believers suffer in faith?
It can look like Jesus, sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemene and begging His Father to put an end to it. It can look like Job tearing his hair out and ripping his clothes, and wearily insisting on his eventual vindication. It can look like Habbakuk complaining about the Lord’s apparent failure to punish the wicked.
Suffering in faith does not look like denying the pain suffering brings. Joy in the face of suffering does not look like easy laughter and smiles. In fact, to suffer faithfully, you have to actually suffer. We can choose to spend the whole time out of touch with our own thoughts and feelings, but then we don’t feel our need for Jesus. We miss out on the opportunity to run to Jesus with all our brokenness, feel Him care for us, and learn experientially just how marvelous He is. We see those doctrinal beliefs to which we mentally assent come to life, in vivid colors and textures.
Sometimes, suffering in faith doesn’t feel very faithful. Faithfulness sometimes stands next to anxiety, fear, and perhaps even doubt that God is who He says He is, but it chooses to submit to Him anyway. It can look as simple as getting up on Sunday mornings and going to church even though you don’t understand or appreciate what God is doing, or aren’t even sure how God feels about you. Suffering in faith can look like trusting Him with all your yucky thoughts, trusting Him with your anger and fears, trusting him with the weight of your sadness.
Very often, the things that make us mad or sad are the very things about which God is mad or sad. By suffering, we can learn deeply about the heart of God. Through suffering, asking the hard questions, facing the doubts and fears, we can find God rising above it all, more beautiful, glorious, and redemptive than our intellectual theology could ever have communicated on its own, without the animating force of experience to illuminate it.
So, if you see a sufferer continuing to pursue the Lord, that probably means they have the Holy Spirit inside of them. But that does not mean that their pursuit will not be dogged by tears, agonies, anger, and frustrations. You can trust that believer will be taken through the Valley of the Shadow of Death where, in the complete and utter darkness, he fears falling off the road with every step forward, but will come out on the other side convinced in a way no one could ever take from him of God’s goodness, God’s sovereignty, and all the other things you are terrified he (and you) might lose. To insist that your suffering friend pretend that the Valley is well-lit and simply traversed could very well do the thing you fear most and knock them off the path to the Celestial City.
One of the best things you can do for someone in the throes of suffering is to listen to all of their unfiltered scary thoughts and tell them that none of that is too big for God. Encourage them to keep asking those questions and looking for the answers, and to wrestle boldly with the Lord, knowing that He can handle those questions, that He will not be found wanting. As Lewis says in A Grief Observed, “Nothing will shake a man - or at any rate a man like me - out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”
But maybe your suffering friend’s heart is so hurt and filled with anger at God that they’ve stopped following and obeying Him. Maybe they are living in open rebellion to Him. You know what? It’s not too late. They and their rebellion don’t take up an iota of the grace God has to offer. He’s not mad at them. If they return to Him He’s not going to treat them passive-aggressively or put them on probation to see if they are really and truly sorry. No. He is waiting for them with eagerness. Take God’s example then, and patiently call and wait. Remind them: “Whatever you have suffered, He knows how heavy it has been. He knows how much heavier your sin has made it, and He is ready and waiting to free you, His beloved, from all those chains and give you Himself.”
In this way, you can become the hands of Christ, lifting the burden from the neck of the heavily-yoked. Be one who gives rest for weary souls.
“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30