By Ben Hartwig
No one wants to become experienced with suffering. Yet for the last three and a half years, our family has walked through many times of suffering, as ordained by our sovereign, wise, and good God.
In February 2015, our then-seven-year-old son, Micah, was diagnosed with a tissue cancer around his left eye. Our lives were turned upside down in one day as we took him for tests, which led to surgery, a hospital stay, and the word cancer becoming a regular part of our vocabulary. Six months of chemo followed, along with a month of daily radiation treatments. During that time we were stretched by trying to grapple with the pain of our son having cancer, times of separation from our normally close family, and the birth of our fifth child. To say that our lives were chaotic would be an understatement. During that time, I read as much as I could on the topic of suffering in an effort to ground my own soul in the hope that Christ gives. I knew I needed the truth of God’s Word to strengthen my own relationship with Christ as well as to give me the grace during that time to lead my family and the church I pastor. We made it through that time by God’s grace and with the help of our family, loving church, and supportive community. After the six months of treatment, we heard the glorious words, “The cancer is gone!”
We struggled for normal again for nine months. Then our world was shattered again with the news that Micah’s cancer had returned in the same spot. Surgery. Chemo. We were all too familiar with that. Yet this time, the treatment plan stretched over an entire year, making the first treatment cycle seem easy in comparison. During one very difficult week, Micah’s doctor called me Job, and in ways, I felt like him! We endured the roller coaster of emotions, persevered through many trips to the doctor with many hospital stays, and we worked to respond to God with trust and love despite the ongoing pain. We fought against the tendency to define ourselves by cancer instead of by our relationship with Christ. Again God gave grace, people helped us, and we heard the good news, “The cancer is gone!”
We didn’t even have a chance to establish normalcy in our home, for within three months, we found out the cancer had returned. After several months of trying with the doctors all that we could with conventional treatments, my wife and I made the gut-wrenching decision for the doctor to remove Micah’s left eye in an attempt to stop the cancer. Jan. 5, 2018, was the hardest day of our lives, as the doctor performed an orbital exenteration for Micah. Etched forever in our minds are the people who stayed with us, cried with us, and prayed with us that day.
Physical and emotional healing has come slowly as we seek the Lord and He has given His grace and mercy. We are faced with the tremendously difficult task as parents of shepherding our young son through this adjustment. So many times, we don’t know what to do, but God has given us wisdom and used others to encourage us.
More chemo and radiation followed. Lord willing, we will be able to look back on the years of cancer treatments as a distant memory—while not forgetting God’s loving-kindness to sustain us through this intense suffering, nor to forget the people who have encouraged and helped us along the way.
The Lord has taught us much in these years about how to minister to those who are suffering. During this time, I compiled a list of ways to help (and not help!) those who are going through prolonged suffering. Many of these ways are not original with me but are the distilling of much reading and personal experience. Some examples of prolonged suffering are an illness, the slow loss of a loved one, having a disability or special needs, being caregivers, being foster kids, enduring difficult relationships, a fire, or an accident. The reality exists that many people will experience some sort of prolonged suffering, and they need other believers to come alongside them. Sometimes others want to help but really don’t know how. These 10 ways to help (and four things that don’t help) are intended to act as a guide, enabling people to enter into the lives of those who are suffering and help them. While there may be exceptions to these ways to help others, I hope that these ideas will help you minister to hurting people.
What Doesn’t Help
1. Compare their suffering or minimize suffering.
Regardless of the severity of the suffering that someone may be experiencing, it is very real to him. When we minimize others’ suffering by saying that it is no big deal, we are not helping them to work through it Biblically.
2. Play God by explaining why this is happening: “You must have committed some sin.”
We don’t know all things. We cannot say with certainty why something is happening. God may have multiple reasons for suffering. We can instead ask sufferers to consider what they think God wants to teach them through their suffering.
3. Address the natural, not the spiritual.
Don’t just ask about the treatment plan, about the medical stuff, about what they need to take care of. Lots of other people will do that. Don’t offer unsolicited medical advice. There may be a time and a place to share ideas, depending upon your relationship with the person. However, as fellow believers, we are to address the spiritual: What does God want to teach them through this time of suffering? What do they need to remember about God?
John Piper has said, “We waste our cancer if we spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God” (Don’t Waste Your Cancer).
4. Offer help but do not follow through with it.
Sometimes suffering people consider the source before believing that someone will do what he says he will do. Nevertheless, it hurts when someone offers to do something and doesn’t follow through. It is one thing if you can’t do it—simply tell them so! But fading away without responding hurts. Don’t offer to help if you don’t really intend to do so, and don’t overcommit.
1. Show up.
Sometimes in our uncertainty about how to help those who are suffering, we keep at a distance. One of the most important things to do is show up—to be there for them during their time of difficulty. Call them. Text them. Visit them. Send them a card. Let them know you are praying for them. Call and leave a message. Don’t expect a response. (Keeping up with correspondence can be a lot, even for those who really do try.) By reaching out to them in their time of hurt, you show love and care for them as individuals. In a world of loneliness and shallow relationships, people need others to show up and show they care.
2. Give people time and space to talk. Listen.
When Job’s friends first arrived, they sat in silence (Job 2:11–13). They listened. They grieved with him. We need to be careful of trying to provide answers and help when we just need to listen to someone. We need to recognize that most Christians do not lack knowledge of the truth, but they experience an emotional problem as they try to come to terms with what they are going through. People who are suffering often don’t need answers, but someone to love them by listening to them.
3. Offer more specific help than, “Let me know what I can do for you.”
People mean well when they say, “Let me know what I can do for you.” Many times, the offer is legitimate, and people would do a lot for those who are hurting. But when people say that, what they have done is placed more responsibility on those who are hurting—responsibility to contact others for help with the hope that they will follow through with what they promised. Instead, put forth an idea of how you can help, presenting it to the hurting in such a way that they can say no if the idea doesn’t work. You don’t want to push yourself at others, but you also want to provide practical help. Oftentimes others can help, but it is awkward to ask for help. Offer services that you excel at, such as cleaning, childcare, mechanics, or lawn care.
4. Purpose to support those in your church who are experiencing ongoing suffering.
You can’t support and encourage all the people you know who are going through extended suffering. And you shouldn’t try. But if someone in your church is suffering or God has specifically laid someone on your heart, be there for that person along the whole journey. Most people will contact a hurting person once—sending one card, a phone call, a gift, one meal. That’s normal, that’s natural. They often will pray for a longer period of time, but will contact only once. But those who are suffering need a few people to continue along with them the entire journey. People from their local church should stand behind them the entire journey.
5. Help financially.
Suffering individuals and families often have increased expenses. “Do you have financial needs?” a lady asked me at one point on our journey, and I gave her a glimpse of where we were financially. Later she apologized, saying, “That’s not how you give a gift.” If you are led to give a gift, give it! I thought that lady’s perspective was good, because it shows the mindset that people should have toward giving. Sure, there is a time to ask about specific needs. But don’t just give because someone may be scraping by. Give because you feel led to give, because you want to give. Seek to be a blessing to those who are suffering.
6. Remember the rest of the family.
The whole family is affected by suffering, not just the patient. Seek to encourage the rest of the family (siblings, spouse, parents) throughout the time of suffering. Use your creativity and be a blessing.
7. Invite them.
People who suffer are often busy. Their schedules change, and they are unable to do the activities they used to do. In response, others can begin to assume that the sufferers are too busy, so they stop inviting them. Maybe they are too busy, but if they stop getting asked to do things with their friends or church, they can feel the loss of the relationships. Let the suffering decide whether they are too busy; don’t assume it for them. Invite them to do things as you normally would. Give them the freedom to back out—even at the last minute if they need to. Maybe they will never accept your invitation, but it still is nice to be asked. One of your invitations might actually work out.
8. Share truth appropriately.
Share truth, not casually or flippantly, but appropriately. Casually saying, “Just remember Romans 8:28–30,” is usually not helpful. Neither is, “God is really going to use this in your life.” Or, “God is using this in the lives of others.” Those statements are true, but they can be hard to grasp at the time. Sometimes all that those who are suffering can think about is, “I don’t care how God is going to use this—I just want to get through it!” Yet, believers must share truth. Just as there are times to listen, there are times when we must share truth. So share it appropriately. The truth is what guided believers to walk with the Lord through suffering. Take time to pray and think about what you will say.
9. Encourage active involvement in your local church.
When people suffer, they naturally want to withdraw from others. It is hard to talk about the things that hurt. Sometimes it is hard to talk appropriately about those hurts. It is easier most of the time to not face people. Yet it is people we need. We need the Body of Christ. In line with this also, is that at times what those who are suffering really need is to help others, for it gets their eyes off of their own struggles, helps them remember that others are hurting as well, and reminds them that God’s grace is sufficient to meet all needs.
10. Choose to be thankful.
With Christ there is always something to be thankful for. But thankfulness is a choice. We need to take time to express our thankfulness to the Lord. Your gift of a journal or notebook could help a sufferer record blessings or insights he is thankful for along the way.
First Corinthians 12:26 says, “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” I hope these 10 guidelines will enable you to enter into the suffering of fellow members of the Body of Christ and, by your doing so, encourage them to endure in their trials with a steadfast faith in God. For His glory.
Ben Hartwig is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Greene, Iowa.