Our assistant pastor recently preached on suffering. You might think that his sermon would be a philosophical approach to the theology of suffering, or if not, that it would be depressing. It was neither. It was an honest conversation about what Psalm 6 says about suffering, and it was just what our church needed to hear. We have so many suffering people in our church family, and I personally soak up anything I encounter that deals with suffering and teaches us how to have a proper perspective and response. Jeremy talked about how suffering needs to be done in community. Oh, how that is true! He defines suffering with each other: to seek someone else’s relief is to willingly take a bit of their suffering on our own shoulders, to shoulder a piece of their suffering for them.
Those words grip my heart. How many times have I suffered without a friend to shoulder my burden? How many times have I felt incredibly alone in my pain, desperate for a kind word of empathy? And yet, when faced with others’ suffering, I recoil. I want to plug my ears and sing, “La la la la!” I am uncomfortable with suffering. I spend my life trying to avoid it, trying to spare my children from it. But I’ve learned it’s all around; I can’t escape it.
We were at a party a couple of weeks ago. I had been looking forward to the social time and meeting a friend’s new baby. I was excited to get out of the house and laugh with friends. Instead, I found myself immersed in conversation with a man I had met once before. As we chatted, his grief came out—he and his wife lost their 3-year-old daughter almost a year ago. I saw the torment of his heart on his face, how he spoke carefully as not to crumble under the weight of his words. I pray I did not visibly flinch. I wanted to say, “I’m sorry to hear that,” and then go pour a glass of wine, find a fun conversation to join.
But I couldn’t.
I couldn’t ignore the crack of his voice as he shared. I could not dismiss the very realness of his brokenness, right there in front of my face. I asked his daughter’s name. I asked who she was, what she liked, her favorite color, what kind of sister she was. He graciously and passionately shared with me until he was overcome. “I think I’m done talking now,” he choked out.
What a privilege to hear this man’s story and to know about his precious daughter. My awkwardness and discomfort paled as I soaked in every word about this amazing little girl and what a joy she was. I realized in the heat of my own emotion—wasn’t he reading my mind, telling me my worst nightmare?—that it was an honor to shoulder even a tiny bit of this suffering. That a 30-minute conversation could be life-giving to both of us and could provide a tiny bit of comfort and safety. That the fear and pain I was experiencing was simply a reflection of this father’s, and for the length of the conversation, we could share that burden.
That was a tiny expression of empathy. Everywhere I turn around, though, it seems like I have opportunity to love others and walk with them in their suffering. Will you please pray for me to have the courage and compassion to reach out in love instead of withdraw in discomfort?