Some of us suffer. And some of us suffer a lot. We have broken homes, broken marriages, broken hearts, broken souls, broken emotions, and broken relationships. We experience betrayal, loss, and destruction. We have sorrow, anger, grief, and despair. And then on top of that, and often interlaced within it, we have pride, bitternes, jealousy, envy, and wrath stored up in our hearts. Life can be torturous.
I will come right out and say that I am disillusioned a bit with what the Church has to offer us in our suffering. It in't that it isn't well-meaning. Some counsel and encouragement is helpful, as well. I try to see a nugget of help somewhere in every encouragement, and I try to always remain teachable even if I don't think the person (pastor, counselor, elder, leader, friend) has any clue what my suffering is like inside.
But time and time again, I feel as though the Church is perhaps too quick to want to be helpful without listening and entering into the suffering of people. This may be borne out of a true desire to fix problems and alleviate suffering. It is a typical male dynamic: men like to fix problems, not sit in them. In the confines of the Church and the help and counsel of the Christian community, we may follow the same vein and be too quick to offer something for the hurting to "work on", as though a little home-work and thought and reflection will make everything better. "Take two of these and call me in the morning."
As one who spent his entire existence viewing life that way, I have to say that this idea misses it. Life is not to be "managed" by "homework" or information or better practices. It is to be lived with others, to be wept through with someone's hand on your shoulder and yours on theirs, to be walked along beside another.
Here are two examples that make me want to smack someone. I hold my tongue because I know the people who tell me these things truly mean well toward me, but it doesn't change my frustration about it.
1. "What you need is just to realize how much God loves you." From Brennan Manning's Abba's Child to Robert McGee's The Search for Significance, much ink has been printed on the idea that simply knowing how much God loves you will remedy your internal suffering in regards to your insecurities, fears, and broken sense of self. I do agree there is something to this from a theological standpoint. I am convinced that we were built for this relationship with God and that true closeness with God and with others, not marred by judgment and sin and selfishness, has a curative effect on the soul. However, what has really frustrated me over the years is how these books are offered as help when the real problem isn't lack of information but unresolved brokenness that exists beneath the surface layer. Yes, if such love and closeness did consistently touch our unconscious and shine its light on the darkest and deepest recesses of our pain, loss, and brokenness -the part of our soul that is buried deep within under layer upon layer of anxiety and defense mechanisms and self-abandonment and self-deception- I believe it would help. But sorry... a book can't make that happen. Only experience can -an experience of true, one-to-one, uncovered, vulnerable closeness and love and partnership. That is what I wrote this short little article about. Information, though part of the mix, doesn't ultimately do it. Most of us have read enough Bible and internet articles, in our pain, to fill a library. What we need is someone, anyone, not another book.
2. "Ahh, your problem is idolatry. All of us worship something... " Maybe that is the problem. Maybe it isn't. Does it really help me if you accurately diagnose that as the problem? This is one of the things I've found so frustrating especially among those who I find the most theologically astute and concerned. The craze, the buzz-word for all that ails us, even with some of my favorite pastors such as Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll, is "idolatry." You get the feeling that everything, all of your personal internal and emotional problems, must somehow be so bad because of idolatry somewhere.
And there are thousands of sermons out there about how to diagnose idolatry, how idolatry affects us all individually and culturally, and how through believing the Gospel it somehow goes away. It isn't that I don't believe there is some truth to it. I absolutely do. The problem is that it is tall on analysis and diagnosis, almost like a kind of pseudo-science or pseudo-psychology, but very short on help and solution. If you are suffering terribly, you already feel alone and isolated, but this leaves you feeling only more alone or worse... like you just need to "believe more" so that your idolatry (and hence your terrible suffering) will go away. To deepen the wound, it seems to encourage a kind of ultra-intellectual navel-gazing that I believe does really nothing good to help people grow and change and find relief and find Jesus more deeply. If I see one more article on the subject, I'm going to be sick. And, if you are on Facebook and know Christians who read that stuff all the time, it makes for some good status message quotes -you know, the kind that make you go "oooh. good one." and press the "Like" button. But beyond that...?
I have Pastor Mark Driscoll on my Facebook page. I remember him making a comment in his facebook status a few months ago about visiting a woman who lives alone and is a compulsive hoarder -you know, one of those people who can't throw anything out so their house looks literally like a dump. There were hundreds of comments from other Christians, many of them lamenting this woman's "idolatry." It infuriated me. Only one other person seemed to feel as I did, rebuking people for making simplistic declarations about this woman's spiritual state without even knowing her, her story, or the pain and suffering in her life. There are many words that come to mind with this, but I'll only say the cleanest one: unhelpful.
So what do I think is the solution? What is a huge factor that I think the Church is often missing when it comes to soul-care? Well, I've already mentioned it. Suffering people and the people who are seeking to help them need to actually connect. Suffering people need to buck the gravitational pull to isolate and, rather than showing up on the doorstep of their pastor merely to "be fixed" from their crisis and pain, immerse themselves into good, mutual relationships within the body of Christ.
And it means that pastors, elders, counselors, and encouragers of any sort (i.e. all Christians to some degree, though some are gifted in such ways above others) need to not be as quick to give simplistic advice, rattle off formulaic spiritual maxims, or tell others what to do. They instead need to truly listen to the soul of the person and carry their suffering with them before they offer any informed words of encouragement. This is why those who have suffered much find it easier to connect with people who are presently suffering -it is easier to get to the place of connection where empathy and closeness occurs. There is emotional common ground.
On top of this, I believe we need to find the suffering people and go to them, given the tendency for intense suffering to promote introversion and isolation and even shame. Think of how many people do not show up on Sunday morning because they are too exhausted and depleted and hopeless inside. When your marriage is falling apart, when your children are out of control and on a path of self-destruction, the very last place many of us want to go is to church. There is too much shame. There is a sense that you do not fit in, that you are alone -an alien in a strange land among people with functioning marriages and happy children. It should not be this way, should it? These people are out there. They just fall through the cracks and disappear. They need someone who will seek out the lost, like Jesus did.
It isn't terribly difficult. People who are suffering don't want simplistic pat answers, home-work, formulae, or theology lectures. If they have been suffering long enough, they have heard it all so many times they could teach you. What they want is relief, and if they can't get relief they at least want to know they aren't alone in it.
But what if someone comes to us for help and support but we have not suffered like they have? What if we haven't walked that road before? The Bible tells us that sometimes we suffer, sometimes we walk that particular road, just so that we can bring encouragement to others who walk the same road. That is true. But I don't think it means that we are useless to counsel or encourage someone who has walked a road we have not. It means that if we want to help them, we must walk it with them. To follow after Christ, we must incarnate. We should learn their suffering and what it teaches their soul by proxy.
I remember listening to a sermon by Tim Keller on the death and raising of Lazarus, found in John chapter 11. Obviously, Jesus had bigger plans than simply to ride in on a white horse and save the day -He planned to allow Lazarus to die so that He could display God's glory by raising him from the grave. But, it cannot be overlooked that Jesus took time to do something before all of the supernatural, miraculous stuff. He sat with Lazarus' family and cried with them. Before He "fixed it" He wept with them.
Isn't that somewhat like the incarnation itself? Before Jesus fixed our ultimate problem, He came down and literally walked miles in our shoes. This is, according to the author of the letter to the Hebrews, part of what makes Jesus the perfect High Priest for us. He walked on this broken earth, in this broken life. He was tempted in every point. Every point. He knew loss and betrayal and sorrow and suffering.
Jesus did not leave us with mere spiritual maxims about the connection between God's good and sovereign plan and human suffering -though they are true, indeed. Before any of that, He came and entered into our life. This is what makes life just that much more bearable. Rather than just giving us some helpful bits of information to chew upon, to "correct our thinking," He gave us Himself.
I think as Westerners we would almost prefer to just be given a solution we can implement ourselves. "Just believe these things, and it will get better." "Just do these things, and watch how much better you feel." "This will fix it." In my own experience with my most recent therapist I found out how much this is true for myself. When we suffer, we go all self-reliant. We might show up for help, but we don't want closeness -we want you to give us a pill, some data, some information, or some tips to help us fix things ourselves. Or if that doesn't work, we just want to lay there and have God -or someone- snap His fingers. We are individualistic to a fault, and some of us take that nine or ten steps further. I say this is true for Western culture because I believe older, more traditional cultures tend to be less individualistic and more comfortable with partnership and closeness. This is a big part of what I believe is missing, and it transcends men's breakfasts and accountability groups.
And I see this all over Scripture. That is why I bristle when people call the Bible a "manual for life." I hate that idea. Is that really what it is -just a collection of stories and information to help you do life? No. It is a sign-board that shows you that you can't do life alone, individualistically, with your spiritual projects, with your self-help healing attempts. It points you to the One who made you and then sent His Son down into your messy quagmire to walk with you and give Himself to save you. The Bible is not a self-help book, though it contains much wisdom that is helpful for life. If that is all it is to you, then you miss it.
So what would I really like to see? Real closeness. People getting into life with each other -and here's the trick- remaining there, comfortable to stay even when things can't be "fixed" or washed away with some spiritualizing, some Bible lessons, or some self-help books. Sometimes that family won't be fixed. Sometimes that person's spouse won't change and doesn't want to. Sometimes that book on marriage and loving your wife like Christ won't work a miracle. Sometimes doing all the right things as best you can and following all the right steps won't bring your wayward son to his senses. Real life, with its bumps and trials and troubles, just isn't push-pull, like a machine that responds properly when all the right levers are pulled in the right way and the right buttons are pushed. So, if our soul-care for suffering people is ultimately a push-pull ministry, we will fail them.