Watching other people suffer is one of the most difficult realities of the human experience. We can feel helpless when it comes to others' internal struggles, especially when they come with daunting labels like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anorexia, bulimia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (just to name a few). How does God call us to engage in these struggles? While the specifics of each situation obviously vary, in one sense it's as simple as seeking to love a fellow brother or sister as we live in this fallen world.
We Have More in Common Than We Think
Sometimes a particular struggle seems so foreign that we feel we don't know how to interact with someone in the throes of it. We fear awkward pauses. We don't want to ask the wrong question or embarrass them. We don't want to reveal how much we really don't know. The reality is that being human yourself gives you a lot more to go on than you may think. As believers, we have been given the opportunity to engage in the lives of fellow strugglers, following in the steps of our compassionate Savior. The key is for us to remember that we are seeking ultimately to point them to him, not to be their savior ourselves. As humans, we are more alike than we are different, so we can have confidence in our ability to engage compassionately in one another's lives.
We Have More Differences Than We Know
On the other hand, be careful not to assume that you understand another's situation or to equate your struggles with theirs. I have heard people try to encourage others, who are in the midst of trial, by saying that they have personally faced “harder” struggles in their own lives. This can be dehumanizing and makes a personal struggle into something that we rate and compare, like earthquakes or hurricanes. Part of treating someone as a human is understanding that this person is unique. Medical studies have made us more aware than ever of the wide variety of physical differences between us. Some people have higher pain tolerances; others can deal well with less sleep; some struggle deeply with substance addiction; and others seem prone to discouragement and depression. Some have minds that do not function as they ought. The reality is that our "natures" can be very different, impacting our ability to deal with trials.
While we don't believe that one’s upbringing or life experiences are determinative in the absolute sense, we do know that one's “nurture” can also greatly impact how a person perceives and responds to life. Has the person had a traumatic experience in the past? What was his home situation like, and how did his parents and siblings treat him? Has there been a pattern of a particular struggle throughout his life? Yes, our own humanity gives us enough common ground to seek to engage, but the complexity of these factors demands humility when entering into the suffering of another. The most effective engagement will be that which seeks to truly understand and serve another in self-sacrificing love (Prov. 20:5; Phil. 2:3–4).
We Have Bodies That Need Care
Sometimes Christians focus exclusively on the spiritual aspect of a struggle and neglect the physical. While it is important not to act as a medical professional if you are not one, it is also crucial that you acknowledge the profound interplay between the body and the soul and seek to help as you are able. Often a person struggling deeply will not see the possible connection between bodily neglect and further difficulty. Encouraging the person to seek proper medical assessment is an act of love, and often what they will need most is someone to accompany them to hear the prognosis and help them decide on and implement a course of action. Our heavenly Father cares for our physical needs, and we have the opportunity to exhibit this care toward those who are suffering (Matt. 6:30–32; James 2:14–17).
We Have Souls That Need Care
While the medical role many of us can play will be limited, the Bible teaches that we all can have a great impact on the soul of another. In writing to the Romans, the apostle Paul was confident of their goodness, knowledge, and ability to instruct one another (Rom. 15:14). As embodied souls, every struggle we face in this life has a spiritual component. Our hearts are affected by our situations and shape how we respond. Mental illnesses, physical difficulties, and besetting sins are particularly disorienting. The interplay between body and soul can be very confusing. As believers, we have the opportunity to move toward those who are suffering, seek to better understand their hearts, and gently and lovingly speak words of truth, life, and hope found in Scripture (Gal. 6:1). Sharing truth in this way can send beams of light through the darkness of confusion and despair.
We Are Made to Be Cared for by Others
The independent, self-sufficient culture in which we live causes many people to lose sight of how interrelated the body of Christ is meant to be. God intends for us to truly depend upon one another. A person in the midst of a serious struggle, however, often feels shame over his condition and reluctance to reach out to others for help. Mental difficulties may make it necessary for that person to learn to trust others to help him understand what is true, because his mind is not always reliable. Such trials can serve as opportunities to bring the body of Christ together, poignantly demonstrating how incomplete we really are without one another. It is not just the weak who need the strong. Paul reminds us that the weaker parts are indispensable, and God has designed it in this way so the body together can glorify him (1 Cor. 12:14–27).
We Are Made to Have Hope
Part of being human is that we were created for more than life in this fallen world (Heb. 2:5–10; Eccles. 3:11). Yet our hope is not merely in the fact that God will one day consummate a perfect existence for all of his own. Part of our present hope is the encouragement that God is working in us even now as the firstfruits of that new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; James 1:18). We are able to see the supernatural work that God is doing, even in the darkness of sin and suffering. Helping a suffering brother to recognize that work is perhaps one of the most important ways to truly treat them as human—because it connects the difficulties of his life with the eternal purposes of our good and loving God.
On this side of glory, we don't have guarantees that struggles will ever end. But we do know that the Spirit of God is at work in the hearts of struggling believers. As those coming alongside, we get a front-row seat to the budding and growth of spiritual fruit. Even the fact that the person is still struggling—still coming to church and participating in the means of grace, still crying to God for help—these are all testimonies of a life filled with the “glorious might” of Christ himself. We need to help shine the light of these supernatural realities into the life of the struggler, allowing them to see glimpses of the glory of God at work in them.
Engaging in the sufferings of humanity is by no means easy, but Christ's love for us in the gospel gives us the supernatural ability to truly love others (1 John 4:19). May God grant us wisdom and grace as we tread these valleys of the shadow. May we be vessels of his goodness and mercy until at last we all dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Adapted from Craig Marshall, “Caring for Those in Distress,” Modern Reformation, July/August 2014.