No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.
— C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 15.
My historic Christian faith and worldview teach me that God has good reasons for allowing evil, pain, and suffering in the good world that he created. The principal apologetics argument is that God has greater goods that necessarily accompany malevolence and sorrow. Yet I don’t want to be a mere armchair philosopher when it comes to confronting suffering. I want to understand how to effectively ease people’s suffering and then be an agent of God’s peace and comfort to the afflicted. Often the best apologetics argument in favor of the truth of Christianity is believers who seek to love others unconditionally (agape).
Discerning God’s Good Purposes in Suffering
Having suffered through a life-threatening illness myself I want to learn from such an intense experience. I believe God teaches us significant things, especially through the difficult times of our lives. As C. S. Lewis put it, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”1
Only upon reflection can I explain how I felt during my own time of crisis. My suffering seemed to take the form of a combination of physical pain, mental fogginess, emotional uncertainty and worry, fear, and a sense of aloneness. I’m deeply thankful that there were many people who reached out to me during my time of intense trial. And in light of that experience I want to share some advice about how to help people who are going through similar intense suffering.
The Importance of Expressing Well Wishes
Suffering has a way of leaving people feeling numb, detached, and isolated. As I mentioned when I was sick I battled feelings of extreme aloneness, if not loneliness. When you are going through a health crisis, it is easy to feel that no one understands how you feel. It is something that is happening to you and you alone, or so it seems.
During that time I received dozens of phone calls and messages from people wishing me well. I also received a lot of cards and letters where people wrote me notes and expressed their concern for me. These calls and letters made me feel that I wasn’t alone and encouraged me to persevere at a time when I felt I had few resources left. Therefore don’t ever think your expressions of concern are small things. When people are hurting they need all the help they can get.
While medication can often help with the physical pain, I learned that a person also needs help dealing with the fear and loneliness that so often accompany illness. Visiting people, praying with them, and sending encouraging messages of love are never insignificant to a person who is suffering greatly.
The book of Psalms often addresses the situation of sufferers and their deep need for God:
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).
May God’s Spirit prepare our hearts to be filled with sympathy and empathy for the afflicted.
For more about my illness and the life lessons that I learned through it in the context of the historic Christian worldview see my book A World of Difference.
1. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 91.