With Suffering, Words Can Poison Comfort

Suffering, like death, comes to us all. And like death, it comes not to enrich but to gnaw and chip at the sinews. Finally fatigued, we give in to death's unwelcome embrace.

Bryan was in the prime of life. He enjoyed competing with his young nephews in impromptu six-pack displays. He was enviably healthy, but self-deprecating, almost to a fault. Bryan was a good man, and he was my friend. Two weeks before they discovered he had cholangiocarcinoma, he singlehandedly shingled the leaky roof of an elderly Sabbath School member he knew could not afford the bill. Thirty-one days after his diagnosis, he was dead, leaving behind an aged mother, a stunned family, and an army of loved ones groping to understand.

My son Michael was in 8th grade when Bryan, his favorite uncle, died. Bryan introduced Michael to fishing, and secretly – (and probably “illegally”) – gave him his first driving lessons. It was Bryan who read Uncle Arthur’s Bible stories to him when he could barely read. I would learn later, when reading an essay he wrote two years after Bryan’s death, of Michael’s faith crisis. He wrote, “I prayed so hard and so often when my uncle got cancer that God would cure him. My uncle had assured me when he told me Bible stories, that God answers our prayers if we are earnest and if we believed. I was earnest. And I believed. But he died”. In his concluding sentence, his wrestle with guilt is evident: “Now I wonder whether I was earnest enough, or believed less”.

The bard was right, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies but battalions”. Substituting “suffering” for “sorrow” serves as well. Suffering doesn’t give us room to breathe or regroup. It piles on and makes us question Paul’s assurance that God “will not let [us] be tempted beyond what [we] can bear” (1 Cor 10:13, NIV).

Then, June – she with the sunniest smile – followed Bryan. Smart. Poised. Enigmatic. June was one of those blessed individuals whose presence always calmed our restless souls. She never lost a debate because June always had the last word. Within a year of Bryan’s passing, she was diagnosed with Thymoma, a rare cancer of the Thymus gland. We had her a little longer than we had Bryan. But she too lost the fight, leaving behind a distraught husband, a most devoted son, and a new grandson she adored. Again, we did not understand. And the pain deepened.

But not all suffering involves death. Life’s most intractable sufferings are those that come to stay. Unbidden, they strut in to keep us company and set us adrift, to extend the pain. This is Priscilla’s state. Our friendship dates to college days. Her career had taken root. The children were on their own. And it finally seemed that worrying about life could be a luxury. Then sickness intruded. The experts can’t divine the cause, but month by month her health continues to decline, reducing a hitherto self-assured lady to self-doubt and near resignation. And we who love her are reduced to impotent bystanders, not knowing what to make of this, or how to relate to what we do not understand. The only constant is the interminable pain.

When suffering concerns our children, it is a special kind. A bitter, cruel kind. This is the story of Chance. A recent college graduate with a new teaching job. I remember him, several years back, incurably happy and full of promise. Now a malevolent diagnosis, coupled with difficulty managing the disease. His fear is mirrored in the faraway gaze of his devastated single mother who had hoped the stars for her son. We who love them both look on in helpless disbelief at the unfolding nightmare, and wish we could understand.

These are only a few of my private pains about people I love, whose sufferings have left me like Jacob with a bruise that will not leave my side. But I am aware that the ripples from the pain I feel transcend me to a wider circle of common humanity. I own my grief, my pain, my suffering, and find private ways to negotiate a truce. I am not always successful and sometimes feel over-run by its enormity. I manage to limp along and not give in totally to crippling effect. But my greatest fear, when in the throes of suffering is the advice of kind comforters who genuinely aim to help, but end up speaking words that only intensify the pain.

Consider a core biblical approach we sometimes use to mitigate suffering. The most entrenched view, expressed throughout the Old Testament and reinforced in the new, is that God uses pain and suffering as a corrective, to bring his wayward children back to him. This is how prophets like Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea explain why the children of Israel end up in exile, or endure famine, or come under foreign occupation. Calamities befall God’s people, whether as individuals or as community, because they walk away from God. Amos’ rhetorical inquiry, “Does misfortune come to a city, if Yahweh has not caused it?” (3:6 NJB) and Hosea’s “I will destroy you, oh Israel: who can help you?” (13:9, NIV), grow out of a settled understanding that God initiates these actions as punishment for their transgressions, in his attempt to bring them back to him.

The prophets are not the only divine messengers who see suffering as punishment from God. Biblical wisdom writers, especially in Proverbs, Ecclesiastics and Job, share this orientation. Indeed, this is the main argument Job’s friends make throughout their long discourse. “Can you recall anyone guiltless that perished?” (4:6, NJB) is Eliphaz’s first question. Bildad's impatience with Job’s protestation of innocence shows: “If your sons sinned against him, he has punished them for their wrong doing” (8:4, NJB). Zophar concurs; “let God speak … Then you would realize that God is calling you to account for your sin” (11:6 NJB).

This viewpoint, in a nutshell, undergirds the many iterations of the same idea we find in the New Testament down to our own time. In the hour of suffering, our consolers promise us, in different ways: “We won’t understand why now, but we will find out later that God allowed our suffering for good reason.” Or, “God will not allow us to go through more than we can bear.” Or, “God uses such trials to bring us back to him.” Or, “God allowed our loved one’s death to preserve her for eternity.” These are restatements of the same basic idea, that God punishes us or allows us to suffer because, 1). We have sinned, and 2) the resulting punishment or suffering is redemptive. After all, doesn't Paul assure us that "all things work together for good to those who love God"? (Rom 8:28 NKJV)

I must confess to being agnostic about the veracity of this notion, that God uses suffering as punishment for our sins with the goal of spurring us to re-establish a relationship with him. My agnosticism stems from my interpretation of other parts of the Bible that seem to resist this thinking. For example, it was generally accepted by the Israelites that God punishes future generations by visiting “the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exo 34:6-7; Deu 5:8-10). This idea was so entrenched that it achieved proverb status. Then the people protested to God about the unfairness of their father’s eating “sour grapes” and their teeth “being set on edge” (Jer 31:29; Eze18:2, NASB). God heard them and declared that, from then on, this proverb was anathema. Now a new and better proverb will replace the old: “everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge” (Jer 31:30, NASB). Or, as Ezekiel puts it, “the soul that sinneth, it shall die” (18:20, KJV). Translation: everyone was now responsible for his or her own actions, and consequently their salvation. The era of communal responsibility for one person’s sins was over.

We often feel compelled to say something when confronted by raw suffering, so we resort to clichés from our biblical background. We speak words meant to comfort, but somehow the words fail to achieve their intended goal. In many instances, we realize the moment we begin to speak that what we are saying is inadequate, inappropriate, or even hurtful. But we continue because we feel we must say something. Why do we feel we must speak to comfort?

Job's three friends don’t fare well in the reader’s imagination. I think this verdict is largely because the three were reproached by God for misrepresenting him. But I see them differently, and maintain that as friends go, Job had no better. Recall that on learning of his unspeakable plight, the three left everything to be with him. Re-envision what they did when they got to the open field where their unrecognizable friend sat, alone. The narrator tells us they wept, tore their garments, and threw dust over their heads. “They sat there on the grounds besides him for seven days and seven nights”, he continues, adding poignantly: “To Job they spoke never a word, for they saw how much he was suffering” (2:12-13, NJB).

Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar demonstrated true friendship by their actions for seven days and nights. The four friends were never closer than during that week together when speech was irrelevant. It was only when they began speaking that everything turned. I’m not sure if the interaction between Job and his friends teaches us anything when we attempt to ease suffering in those we love. One thing seems clear, though. We don’t have to speak to demonstrate that we care. Presence is often more eloquent. As John Milton observed, “They also serve who only stand and wait”.

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8119

Eloquently Matthew Quartey presents word “pictures” about the results of evil and suffering in the world. In the book of Lamentations we have a view of suffering that transcends mere words.Jeremiah lamented a tragedy entirely of Jerusalem’s making. The people of this once great city experienced the judgment of the holy God, and the results were devastating. But at the heart of this essay by Mr. Quartey, is presented the power of presence and “being still in the Lord”., These are deep thoughts devoted to hope in the Lord. These statements about presence in the midst of inadequate words and cliché explanations stand strong in the midst of the surrounding darkness. To be able to listen and meet others at the point of their needs is to shine a beacon to all those suffering under the consequences of their own sin and disobedience. We are reminded of the importance not only of mourning over our sin but of asking the Lord for His forgiveness when we fail Him. Much of the imagery in this piece concerns itself with the fallen bricks and cracking mortar of the overrun city that is our life. Do you feel overrun by an alien power; are you in need of some hope from the Lord? Turn to God in prayer and study Lamentations 3:17–26, where you’ll find someone aware of sin’s consequences and saddened by the results but who has placed his hope and his trust in the Lord.

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Once again Matthew Quartey has regaled us with very wise words very well written. Thank you.

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Who and/or what makes Berrien Springs an “Adventist ghetto”?

Ghetto according to Wikipedia says –
It is just a part of a city in which members of a minority group live, typically as a result of social, legal, or economic pressure.
Originally used in Venice, Italy to describe the part of the city to which Jews were restricted and segregated. [Does NOT say the people live in “slum” or substandard housing.]
Adventist Ghettos – These are self-imposed living circumstances. One notices they are typical living conditions around Institutions.
Self-segregation FROM the community,

** In suffering, we humans often find that other people’s pain becomes OUR PAIN. This can be a close relative, or friends.
On the other hand other people’s suffering can become OUR SUFFERING JUST because they suffer. Examples are – The Slave Trade. Human bondage anywhere. Seeing famine with starvation in parts of the world. Devastation by weather forces – floods, fire, tornadoes, earthquake. Devastation from war.

There are times during unspeakable moments when just “being” with the suffering is all that is required. Words not being necessary.
But we need to remember, God’s name is Immanuel – God WITH us. Evil brought degeneration to the body, to the planet. We have things happen, no fault of our own. But whatever tragedy, God says I will be with you. He also says, I will remember.
Dealing with loss, it is important for the person to speak of it when and how often they need to. Whether is a human, one of God’s creatures, a cherished treasure, a home. It often takes a long time to go through the Stages of Grief. Even Jesus yelled – God, where are You!!! God allows us to do the same. But God was there in that blackness all the time.

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I’ve heard Adventist communities referred to as “Adventist Ghettos” (by Adventists) for many years. It’s always in a kidding manner.

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Only he who has suffered/suffering can relate to the poignant truths so eloquently narrated in this epic piece of literature!
Keep writing man.

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This resonates with me so strongly. We lost our grandson at birth, and you ache to take the pain for your own children. He looked at me with tears streaming down his eyes, holding their dead son in his arms and said “I would trade all the “little” answers to prayer for our prayer for a resurrection right now!”

It was not the words that people said that comforted - it was their presence. It was their arms of comfort. It was their willingness to do things that we struggled to do while not functioning well. And it took years to work through. The void is still there. This is so well written because it expresses reality.

Bring on the Resurrection Morning! Even so, come Lord Jesus.

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Superb! Given that into each life, some rain will fall, it resonates. :hourglass_flowing_sand:

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Being a participant in the loss of Bryan and June, Dr. Matthew Quartey shares the sorrow many of us felt, not only from their deaths but from the words spoken by well-meaning friends. Thank you for helping me to feel more forgiving of those whose words hurt.

“Presence” is an authentic gift.

Thank you, Matthew. Your writing begins to respond to my wanting to better understand Silence and, particularly, God’s apparent silence when we feel our suffering is too much to bear.

My resolution has been that God does not interrupt the natural consequences of decisions we make or others make. The drunk driver who hit us and left my husband dead on the Detroit highway or the long suffering, since 1958, of my daughter are the results of living in this world where Satan still manipulates the events.

Another thought that has come to me through the years is that Jesus drank the whole cup of sin and suffering. Whatever happens to me and those I love is just a sip!

Would appreciate more thoughts on God’s silence.

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Brother Matthew, you have touched my soul with your thoughtful words. I have asked more than three times for God to remove my thorn in the flesh. Then I began to look for, and see, the blessings this pain has brought me and now I praise God for it. I hope to use what I have learned as a way to help others suffering with chronic pain to find the gifts it brings to us. God bless you Brother Matthew for your care and thoughtfulness. – Jim Wyche

Is God present when a dear friend sits in silence with us? Is it God’s arm that is around our shoulders in that time of silence?

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