Whether it was losing a loved one, becoming the victim of a violent crime, or facing a life-threatening illness, my immediate reaction to experiences of genuine suffering has been a profound feeling of being alone in that condition. I don’t know if other people react that way to sorrow. For me, suffering is a deeply personal issue that I don’t often discuss with other people. But I recently heard Christian psychologist Jim Wilder state that people who undergo trauma often lose a sense of relationship for a time—thus feeling personally detached and numb.
How does the Christian faith inform the personal existential experiences of those believers visited by sorrow? And how can Christians help those who experience such trials and difficulties?
The Gospel and the Power of Empathy
At its core, historic Christianity is a religion of suffering and comfort. This is one of my faith’s most existentially satisfying features. Allow me to offer three specific points to help believers who find themselves in the throes of a struggle.
First, believers need to know that they never suffer alone. God is acquainted with suffering. Jesus Christ came into the world as a man and suffered with and for human beings. Of all the world’s religions, only in Christianity does God himself enter into the painful and ugly mix! His suffering on Earth and especially on the cross can transform the individual suffering of his people. Even now, in his role as the great High Priest, Jesus intercedes for believers during their great adversities (Hebrews 4:14–16). Jesus is not aloof or indifferent to human distress; he suffered as a real man.
Second, Scripture calls all believers to live with faith (confidence and trust) in God’s goodness and sovereignty despite the presence of evil and suffering. The Bible points to the powerful examples of Abraham, Moses, Job, and Paul as examples of people who held onto this kind of faith throughout intense trials. To paraphrase a hymn, we don’t know what tomorrow holds, but we know who holds tomorrow. Faith is trusting in God’s character when circumstances are painful and confusing. Christians can trust God in the midst of suffering because they are aware of his character and his promises (Romans 8:35–39).
Third, evil and suffering are not merely logical or philosophical problems—they are intensely personal. When people suffer they need comfort and reassurance. By comforting those afflicted by evil and easing the pain of people around them, Christians can confront evil and suffering in a powerfully practical way. The church, as Christ’s hands and feet in a needy world, exists to extend loving care and concern for its members who are wounded by evil and suffering.
Being able to empathize with another person’s pain frequently depends on sharing some common experience of sorrow. All of us can sympathize with the trials that others endure. But in order to empathize genuinely it seems we must have traveled some similar road of difficulty. The statement “I feel your pain” can indeed carry a deep bond of compassion and understanding, and often brings the greatest source of encouragement to the sufferer.
When we reach out to others who are experiencing a sorrow we have also undergone, we can truthfully tell them—in light of Christ’s Incarnation—that we and God feel their pain!
For more on the Christian response to theodicy (the problem of pain and suffering), see chapters 13 and 14 of my soon to be released book 7 Truths That Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012).