In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, the apostle Paul instructed his readers to, “…admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” This verse is a rallying cry within the biblical counseling movement.
Counseling those who suffer across a broad spectrum of issues, and conditions are at the heart of the mission of biblical counseling. Helping people to patiently endure suffering as they learn, or are gently reminded that the sufferings of this present life are “not worthy of comparison to the weight of glory that is to come” (Rom. 8:18) is a privilege, and one that is to be undertaken with gentleness, care, and concern.
For those on the outside of God’s Kingdom, or perhaps even for those believers who have been persuaded by a prosperity view of the gospel that suffering is to be avoided at all costs, and at all times, the biblical message concerning suffering is simply untenable. The notion that a loving God would allow, much less bring a season of suffering to the door of his child makes him akin to a “cosmic child abuser,” rather than a heavenly Father.
But, these and other similar views fail because they aren’t developed out of an understanding of God’s nature, as revealed in Scripture, or his purposes, and means in bringing about the end to sin, and death. They cannot see that it is through suffering, that redemptive history will reach its final destination.
So far as counseling is concerned, these under-developed, or even unbiblical views of human suffering threaten to rob the sufferer of the temporal, if not eternal rewards of suffering well, in the hope of the Gospel, and for the sake of Christ.
How then should we live?
With the understanding that biblical counseling’s goal is to shepherd the hurting heart into the arms of Jesus, it all depends on the individual circumstances. For example, the man who suffers from depression after losing his family to a sexual affair demands a response that is different from the child who has suffered abandonment. In both cases, the Gospel is the hope to which we call them, but the dialogue we engage in will look and sound much different.
With gentleness, however, and in age-appropriate ways, we can help those who suffer find Christ in the middle of their storm, whether He chooses to calm it immediately, or deliver them through it. Our role as encouragers is to help the suffering lay hold of the promises of God, and in so doing, to experience the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, and which will guard their hearts and minds from feelings of abandonment, hopelessness, and purposelessness (Phil.4:7).
This issue of suffering, taken to its logical end, will unfurl a conversation on the so-called “problem of evil.” That’s beyond the scope of this discussion. My point in this post is to help those of us who are encouragers to take greater care in developing our theology of suffering before we are actually called into duty. If we don’t, we risk defaulting to Christian clichés that are more often than not unhelpful, if not untrue.
On the other hand, I want to encourage those who face suffering today of some timeless truths. While we cannot always say precisely why we suffer, we can say with confidence that God is with us, God is good, God is good to us, and God is up to something good in our lives through whatever trial we face. And, through it all, He is fashioning us into the likeness of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:29).
I don’t recall where I heard this, but it is a true statement that we must all reconcile sooner, rather than later, that we come to know God more fully in this life in the context of suffering. The Bible teaches that we will enter the kingdom of heaven through “many tribulations” (Acts 14:22).
To be sure, Christians are not called to run toward suffering for the sake of suffering alone or to somehow infuse our salvation with merit. The Bible knows of no such attitude. The ascetics were all wrong on this. But, the Christian faith has more to say about suffering than any other worldview. And, it is overflowing with hope, not only for today but for eternity.
In his newer book on the subject, Tim Keller writes, “Suffering dispels the illusion that we have the strength and competence to rule our own lives and save ourselves. People ‘become nothing through suffering’ so that they can be filled with God and his grace.”[i]
He then goes on to quote Martin Luther, who said:
It is God’s nature to make something out of nothing; hence one who is not yet nothing, out of him God cannot make anything, and therefore God accepts only the forsaken, cures only the sick, gives sight only to the blind, restores life only to the dead, sanctifies only the sinners, gives wisdom only to the unwise. In short, He has mercy only on those who are wretched.
So, today, whether you suffer because you are physically sick, or spiritually blind, Christ is the ultimate source of your hope and mine. Rest in Him.
If, by God’s grace, you are called to serve as an encourager to the sufferer, remember that at the point of crisis or trauma, your mere presence may be more valuable than your words of wisdom. Resist the urge to do all of the talking, but take the time to listen well. When the dust has settled, gently remind your friend of God’s immanence, or presence, and be ready to provide logistical, practical support.
[i] Keller, Timothy (2013-10-01). Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (pp. 49-50). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.