A Christian Response to Suffering: Listening

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest” (Psalm 22.1-2).[1]

“Then Job answered: ‘O that my vexation were weighed, and all my calamity laid in the balances!  For the it would be heavier than the sand of the sea; therefore my words have been rash” (Job 6.1-3).

In this series, listening is the first of five Christian responses I want to address.  The other four responses are lament, empathy, compassionate service, and hopeful living.  However, before we can truly lament, empathize, serve, and be a vessel of the hope God promises in Christ, we must learn to listen.  That is, by listening we must learn to hear and understand without judgment or scrutiny.  Without listening, we may offer some generalized response that is rooted in Christian practice and good intentions but I am skeptical as to how much good they do.

As sufferers, we are strained to find adequate words for the experience and the subsequent trauma.  From a post-resurrection vantage point, it is easy to overlook the horrific spiritual and emotional suffering that Jesus’ death was.  Alan E. Lewis writes:

…[T]he day of the cross is, in the logic of the narrative itself, actually the last day, the end of the story of Jesus.  And the day that follows it is not an in-between day which simply waits for the morrow, but it is an empty world, a nothing, shapeless, meaningless and anticlimactic: simply the day after the end.[2]

As one can imagine, in the logic of the narrative, those who were family, friends, and followers of Jesus…those who came to believe in him, would have been shattered by grief, left with an acute sense of meaninglessness…not to mention the anguish felt by Jesus evidenced in his cry of dereliction towards God the Father (Matt 27.46; Mk 15.34).  It is this same profound grief, unspeakable horror, meaningless affliction, and divine abandonment that are found among those who suffer.  The cry of dereliction is the cry of everyone “…as they plead for meaning in the midst of the world’s absurdity.  And the silence that greets [them] is the same sorrowing stillness of the cancer ward and the concentration camp.”[3]  Such suffering destroys our life – perhaps not physically but often socially, emotionally, and spiritually.  Indeed, we are left “too troubled to speak” (Ps 77.4).[4]

I have taken the time to briefly describe the effects of suffering so that when we encounter someone in a cancer ward, a family in a funeral parlor, refugees of war and disaster, etc…we might have a ball-park idea of the impact such suffering has and will continue to have upon them.  However, and to the point of this post, to truly understand how a suffering individual feels, we must listen first. 

I would like to suggest how we can practically listen to those suffering.  I know that sounds a bit oxymoronic but when we encounter others in their tragic suffering, we are often confronted with realities and questions we would rather not face and therefore we tend to either block the sufferer’s complaint out by hearing but not hearing or offer some rationalized response in order to deflect the complaint and maintain our complex but naïve world where there is a reasonable meaning for everything that happens, good or bad.

So how do we listen so that we truly hear and understand?  It is simple to grasp but admittedly more difficult to practice.  It starts by remaining quiet.  Let the sufferer speak as desired.  Let them speak without facing critical analysis.  If the person wants to cry, listen to them cry.  If the person wants to express an angry rant, listen to their angry rant.  If the person wants remains silent, listen to their silence.  This does not mean we should remain mute (although muteness is preferable to criticism) yet we must exercise prudence and restraint in speaking.  More importantly, to make sure we are truly hearing and understanding how the sufferer feels, we might practice some reflection.  That is, as the sufferer expresses abandonment, grief, complaint, etc…we might say at an appropriate time “It sounds like you feel…”  This is not done so that we can act as a counselor or therapist but so that we can validate the feelings of the sufferer while gaining an understanding of what they are going through.

As a personal reflection, some of the greatest comfort my wife and I received after the death of our son was the presence of people who listened, allowing us to speak when we wanted to and remain silent when we wanted to.  The first night after our son’s death, it was difficult for either of us to sleep and we hardly slept at all because the pain was too great.  The next evening, our small group from church came over and without any such plans, the women wound up staying in the living room with my wife while the men followed me into our son’s room.  Neither the women nor the men spoke much but instead listened as we each spoke about our son, cried, struggled to grasp the magnitude of his death, etc…  Though the grief and pain did not leave us, we both slept well that night.

Let us learn to listen as our first Christian response to suffering.

——————————

See also: A Christian Response to Suffering

 


[1] Unless otherwise noted, scripture is taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 31.  It should be noted that the author was facing his own suffering through a battle with cancer as he wrote this book, a battle he eventually lost.

[3] Ibid, 56.

[4] Taken from Today’s New International Version.

5 responses to “A Christian Response to Suffering: Listening

  1. AS A CHRISTIAN AND A REGISTERED NURSE WHO HAS BOTH ENDURED AND SEEN MUCH SUFFERING, THIS IS THE BEST ARTICLE I HAVE SEEN ON THE SUBJECT. THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR HEART SO BEAUTIFULLY. THIS ONE IS A KEEPER! LIKE JOB AND CHRIST, MAY YOU BE REWARDED WITH MUCH FRUIT THAT GLORIFIES THE FATHER. IN HIM, DLG

  2. Many times we approach suffering with a solution approach. We consider this a very compassionate act. When we see someone hurting and respond our heart is moved. But, that may not necessarily be compassion. Compassion implies that we enter the suffering of another. Our quick solution approach may be more of an attempt to avoid the pain and suffering rather than entering it. As Parker Palmer notes in The Active Life if we give someone advice and it works, we are off the hook, because there is no more pain. But, if we give someone advice and it does not work, we are off the hook, because we told them what we know and it might be that we can put the blame back on them because they didn’t do it right. It may be that we have many with mercy gifts who want to help; their hearts truely break for others in pain. But, maybe the response is not to help find a solution, but rather, to sit with a person and barely say a word.
    Thanks for the post rest, a very significant topic in which you have great depth.

  3. Pingback: A Christian Response to Suffering: Lament « Kingdom Seeking

  4. Pingback: A Christian Response to Suffering: Empathy « Kingdom Seeking

  5. Pingback: A Christian Response to Suffering: Compassionate Service « Kingdom Seeking

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