By now everyone is aware of the earthquake in Haiti. There has also been a myriad of responses, most good but some not good. Of the regrettable responses, there has been at least one Christian claiming the earthquake was God’s punishment upon Haiti. Another political commentator has used this tragedy as fodder for his own agenda. Fortunately such responses seem few and far between. Other responses, the praise worthy responses have been for the most part well documented in the news. People, persuaded by a variety of reasons, have been generous to contribute to charitable causes helping the Haitians. Some have even volunteered to travel to Haiti and serve the wounded first hand. One other response I should point out that is appropriate but is not well known is reported by Collin Packer on his blog who tells of his church having a lament service in response to the Haitian tragedy.
With such different responses to the Haitian tragedy and so many other memorable events of human suffering that come to mind, I thought it might be worth the effort to ask what should we do as Christians when suffering occurs. What should be the Christian response to suffering? Or perhaps, asked another way, what should be the biblical response of Christians to suffering?
What do we do when a natural disaster such as an earthquake, hurricane, famine, etc… ravages a community or even an entire nation of people? What do we do when a young husband and father in our church discovers he has advanced stage cancer and now are in a fight for their very life? How do we respond to that him, his wife, and children? What are we to do when a young couple living in our neighborhood experiences the sudden death of their baby from what the medical community labels as SIDS? How do we respond to a fellow church member who continually battles severe depression stemming from issues we neither need to know about nor have the expertise to understand the complexity? What can we do when we find out that a couple we are friends with, perhaps even attend worship with, is seeking a divorce? What will we do…?
I could go on laying out the different ways in which suffering presents itself to us. What I hope is evident is the reality that suffering is much more extensive than we often realize. It may be right in our own home but it surely exists the minute we step out the front door.
In some subsequent posts I would like to address the question of what should be the Christian (biblical) response to suffering. I am thinking of five responses: listening, lament, empathy, compassionate service, and hopeful living. There is some reason to the order but that is not a strict order for which we should follow. In my estimation listening always comes first because without listening we really do not know what to lament over, how to empathize, what sort of compassionate serving is needed, or how to contextually practice hopeful living. There also may be times when circumstances will not permit us to respond in all five ways. Nevertheless, I believe these five responses are biblical and therefore Christian ways of dealing with the reality of suffering. I am hoping to shed light on each response from a biblical perspective as well as my own experience in ministry and as a parent who has experienced my own suffering with the death of a son.
Before I end this post I need to point out that as I listed a variety of possible scenarios in which suffering occurs, I did my best to keep the question of response on what we should do. That was intentional. Too often when suffering occurs we are left speechless but yet we search for words to say. Part of this is natural because such suffering forces questions upon us we would prefer not to entertain. However, at some point we then are fooled into believing our words will bring comfort yet they never do. Therefore speaking should not be one of our responses. I am not suggesting that we literally become mute but I am suggesting we exercise restraint and prudence when we speak (something I will address in ‘hopeful living’) until then we need to listen to what Job had to say about unrestrained and unwise speech:
Then Job answered: “I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Have windy words no limit? Or what provokes you that you keep on talking?” (Job 16.1-3, NRSV).