I just finished reading a friend’s newly released book, The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Our Suffering. I can’t think of a better way to have spent my Monday. My wife Stacy read the book as well, so as we went for a long walk on Monday afternoon, we reflected on our reading.
The personal tone of the book and the short chapters make it a perfectly suitable gift to give someone in the midst of suffering. This is no abstract, academic approach. It’s raw and revealing (as is her blog).
In numerous places Vaneetha highlights the importance of not glossing over our suffering with plastic happiness. “Lament highlights the gospel more than stoicism ever could” (33). “Deadening our desires may make us stoics, but it won’t make us passionate followers of Christ” (87-88). Don’t encourage those who are suffering to simply think positively. The Christian can fully acknowledge the pain of life, and in fact, this leads all the more to casting ourselves on Christ. She points to Spurgeon’s saying, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages” (94).
She points out that we are often uncomfortable listening to the lament of others (35). I know this is true of me. I confess this as my own sin, and was reminded that both in my marriage and in ministry, I am called to acknowledge the full reality of suffering in order to help others suffer well.
Her counsel for the one suffering is to avoid a positive thinking facade and embrace grief fully (141). Don’t cover up your grief with happy stoicism. Only those who can lament and grieve understand their need for God.
Personalities and Suffering
Vaneetha describes how personality types can multiply the experience of suffering. She suffers from post-polio syndrome, which severely limits her physical stamina and capabilities. This often renders her unable to serve others in ways she’d like to. This would be difficult for anyone, yet its even harder for Vaneetha who is very much wired to serve others. She sees herself as a “helper personality.” This is hardwired into who she is, which only heightens the grief of her inabilities (87). Although her suffering has opened up opportunities to serve that she never imagined, it also limits her capability to serve in so many other ways.
Individual personality and desires can intensify the experience of suffering. Some losses are felt more acutely based on pre-existing desires. For someone who loves the outdoors and enjoys exercise, it will be extremely difficult to deal with physical limitations like chronic joint pain. Whereas for someone who likes being inside and would rather read a book than go for a walk, physical limitations while still difficult, might be easier to bear.
This is important to remember in walking with someone through pain or suffering. If they seem to be “blowing things out of proportion,” we should remember that what might seem like it should be small or manageable to us may be of much greater significance to another person. We should avoid dealing with problems by offering solutions, and rather deal with individual people by listening to their experience of suffering and how they are processing it.
Pray for Healing?
“In the midst of broken dreams and reinventing pain, how should we pray? Should we pray for healing and deliverance, believing that we just need to ask because God can do anything? Or should we relinquish our desires to God, trusting that even in our anguish he has the perfect plan for us? Yes. When life falls apart, God invites us to do both.”
In this section and throughout the book, Vaneetha strikes a helpful balance in encouraging prayer for healing without putting hope in the healing itself. Our hope is in God and not in his gifts (66). Abraham’s faith wasn’t in the promise alone. His faith was rooted in the Promisor (80). God’s refusals remain his mercies (82).
In this sense she says we can consider the future and ask God for healing. There is no need to fear the “what if” of the future. What if the healing doesn’t come. What if the suffering doesn’t end. Rather, we can pray for change, and yet remain confident in God’s mercy “even if” the change never comes. “Replacing what if with even if in our mental vocabulary is one of the most liberating exchanges” (118)
Where to Go in Suffering
At one point, Vaneetha says that the best place to go in the midst of suffering is the Bible and prayer. “Read the Bible even when it feels like eating cardboard. And pray even when it feels like talking to a wall” (123). These answers might sound simplistic if they didn’t come from someone who has walked through so much suffering and has found through the experience the reliability of this counsel.
Throughout the book she shows how God’s Word has ministered to her in the midst of her suffering. It was instructive to me to see many familiar passages from “the sufferer’s perspective” (71-72).
The Word and prayer are deep wells. I should encourage the sufferer to return to these wells even when they seem dry. And then I should pray that the Lord would give refreshing through these means of grace.
Seeking to minister to a friend in suffering will include asking God to bring them comfort and hope through his Word and through their prayers. While it may not always be right for me to instruct a sufferer in truth (as in the ill-timed exhortations of Job’s friends), I ought to pray that God would speak to the heart of my suffering friend through the Spirt and by the Word.