Several Sundays ago, I was speaking with a gentleman at church whose wife has been struggling with an undiagnosed condition for the past two years. They’ve been researching, visiting expert physicians, and petitioning the Lord in prayer for healing, answers, and comfort, yet no reprieve has come.
In response to one of my questions, he commented, “Suffering’s a lonely road.”
I immediately empathized, as I knew what he was talking about.
As humans, we’re good at responding to emergency situations. When confronted with someone else’s tragedy, we’re helpful right out of the gate. Bring food—on it. Take someone’s kids to school—check. Run an errand—absolutely. Do the dishes—done.
Rarely do we balk at responding to someone’s immediate needs.
However, we’re not so great at maintaining this same level of commitment and support over the long haul. We’re not good at sitting in the muck of someone else’s life for extended periods of time.
This is why suffering can be a solitary journey. After the initial supportive burst, everyone moves on while you’re still stuck in the mud.
Yet, it’s precisely when we’re still in the sludge that we need people to come along side of us. When we’re in pain, whether emotionally, physically, or spiritually, we want people to be with us. We want to be surrounded by their presence, knowing that they still care enough for us to bear our continued burden.
In Gethsemane, in his moment of deepest need, Jesus wants his disciples to stay up with him. He wants them to be with him, uniting with him in prayer, as he himself petitions the Father. He desires their presence, and solidarity, as he prepares to go to the cross, and yet, all three times, he finds them sleeping. Not only is Jesus abandoned in the Garden, but, several scenes later, he experiences this same desertion on the cross. In a moment of irony, he’s left to suffer alone, just when he takes on, and enters into, the world’s suffering.
It’s no secret that we live in a world where suffering abounds on both a personal, national, and international level. How then, as disciples, do we navigate this? How do we sit with someone in their prolonged pain journey? How can our presence neutralize the loneliness that accompanies grief, sorrow, and pain? Unlike Jesus’ disciples, how can we stay up with people? What does entering into someone else’s suffering look like?
It looks like the friends who carry their paralyzed comrade to Jesus in Matthew 9.2-3. Out of care and concern, they bring their feeble friend before Jesus, and so too should we. We intercede, petitioning God on behalf of our friends, loved ones, and community members, when they’re too weak to do so. Our faith carries them when they can’t stand.
It looks like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, Job’s three friends who sit with him in Job 2.11-13. Their initial plans of verbal comforting and consoling go awry when they see the intensity of their friend’s misery. Instead, they embrace Job’s suffering by reenacting his grief—they cry out in anguish, weep, tear their clothes, and throw ashes on their head. They sit with Job for seven days and nights. They don’t speak. They don’t offer condolences. They don’t offer platitudes. They offer their presence.
Ultimately, it looks like the slain Lamb in Revelation 5. On the cross, Jesus embodies our suffering. He takes on the grief, shame, and pain of broken people. In willingly taking our place, Jesus fully identifies with the depth of human anguish. He suffers in solidarity with us.
Yet, as John tells us in Revelation, suffering isn’t the endgame—there’s more to the story. Victory lays on the other side of the slain Lamb. What looks like horrific defeat is actually the moment of divine conquering.
And perhaps this is what we most need to remember when entering into the pain of friends, family, and those in our community. In bearing with one another, in soaking ourselves in someone else’s turmoil, we need to recognize that suffering isn’t the final word. We can buoy one another in life’s tumult, offering each other hope, because the slain Lamb has conquered. We can devote ourselves to the long haul, without growing weary, precisely because God is committed the long haul. We can embrace our own struggles and those of others because victory is here and now.
In God’s faithfulness and power, suffering and death aren’t the grand finale. Life is.