Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 1
Dr. William J. Richardson joined RTS in December as a professor of Marriage and Family Therapy. A graduate of Wheaton College, he earned both a master’s degree in education and a Ph.D. in counseling from Georgia State University, where he also served on the faculty. Richardson has served as adolescent counselor and youth minister in various churches and as a counselor in two church counseling centers. Before coming to RTS, he was a marriage and family therapist in private practice. In the following interview, Richardson discusses suffering and how to deal with it.
Q. How would you define suffering?
A. By and large suffering comes because of pain, and pain comes when deep needs are not met. Since one of our deepest felt needs is for love, suffering often comes about by the loss of love or the loss of loved ones. Even the threat of such loss causes suffering. Examples can be divorce, death, or even neglect. Suffering also comes when others direct intense “unlove” toward us. By “unlove” I mean anger, sexual abuse, or violent acts. The more intense the experience of loss or violation, the more intense the pain and suffering.
Q. Is suffering the result of our sin?
A. This may sometimes be the case. However, most scripture concerning suffering does not connect this pain with punishment. Examples include the book of Job and James 1.
God designed us to live in love relationships and in closeness with each other. He made us dependent beings. We have deep emotional needs –for closeness, for belonging, for fellowship. Notably, God tells us in Romans 13 that the whole law is summed up in one principle — that we should love one another. Pain and suffering most often have to do with the loss or violation of that loving environment for which we were intended.
It may be possible that God never meant for us to lose each other; Adam and Eve were not going to die but were meant to live forever. When I think about the eternal state that God has planned for us, it sounds as if we as believers will have access to each other forever, never having to experience loss. Perhaps we were not built for loss; perhaps it is against the very nature of how God made us. That is why it is so painful. If I try to run the engine in my car without oil, when it was designed to be bathed in oil, it will be damaged. You and I are made to be bathed in loving relationships; to lose that is very abnormal, damaging, and painful.
Even Christ on the cross cried out when he was separated from God. It was devastating for Him to take on our sin and then be separated from God, even though He knew the wonderful outcome of His death. If Christ could feel such pain at losing relationship with His Father and if we are made in His image, it seems reasonable that we too will experience pain and suffering at the loss of relationship.
Q. When a calamity strikes, what guidelines can we follow to help us get through it?
A. First, remember that experiencing pain is a normal part of human existence in our abnormal, fallen world. There are certain stages of pain, and it is all right to experience them. Allow yourself the humanity to go through grief.
Second, while you are going through it, the best thing you can do for yourself is share your experience with someone else, someone who will simply be with you. They don’t have to have answers, they don’t have to scold you or tell you how to come out of it. In Romans 12:15, God instructs us to “…weep with those who weep.” Isn’t it wonderful that he didn’t tell us to cheer up and rejoice? He didn’t tell us to quote memory verses or tell each other to buck up. He simply and lovingly instructs us to “be with” and “weep with.”
Consider Christ’s reaction to the news that Lazarus was dead. Even though He knew that He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead in a few minutes, Christ did not tell Mary and Martha, “Cheer up, things are going to be fine.” Instead, He was deeply troubled, and He wept. When we suffer, Christ would like to be close and weep with us; He chooses to do so through the ministry of His people. Therefore, find a weeping partner and share the grief.
Third, after allowing yourself the time to grieve (or during the grief process), eventually force yourself to become involved again with the daily tasks of life.
Q. What are the stages of suffering?
A. We might not all follow the same progression, but generally the first stage is shock or disbelief. Next, we begin to experience the actual pain of the loss. This is analogous to getting a very bad cut. At first we are stunned, but later the pain finds us.
Next comes the feeling of loneliness and its accompanying depression. These feelings may be so intense that physical symptoms also occur, such as fatigue, insomnia, sleeping too much, or loss of appetite.
Many times the next stage is fear, characterized by questions like “What is wrong with me? I can’t quit thinking of this tragedy. I must be going crazy; I must be abnormal.”
Next, people usually begin to feel some guilt, either that they did not relate well enough or love well enough in the relationship.
Soon after, some anger and resentment will probably come. It is common to feel angry at the person who left, even if they left by death. Anger toward God may also occur as we confusedly lose sight of His goodness in the midst of our pain.
Finally, a resolution or acceptance of the loss will come. There is another side to the dark tunnel of grief, and it will be reached. We must not discount the painful intensity of the darkness in the midst of the tunnel, but there is always an end to intense grief.
Q. How long does acceptance take? Should we try to shorten it?
A. The time it takes is different for everyone, but the intensity of suffering is probably directly proportional to the intensity of the lost or violated bond. In a sense, we never completely get over the loss because the sadness and grief may last a lifetime. However, the intense grieving process briefly outlined above will end. Often, we get into trouble by trying to shorten the experience or by trying to gloss over it. In cases of loss, I encourage people to allow themselves at least a year or more before feeling anywhere close to normal.
Q. Do you have any instructions for those who minister to suffering individuals?
A. Probably first on the list is to “be with” and “weep with.” Use actions and words to express that you are grieving alongside of them. People typically make two mistakes when trying to help a suffering person. They either withdraw because they do not know what to say, or they say things meant to speed up the grief process and hurry the sufferer out of his pain. Neither of these is helpful. We need to accept the grieving and demonstrate that we are alongside of him in the process. Even if we don’t have the right words, just being there and weeping with him is what the sufferer really needs. And that takes time.
Second, if the situation allows it, provide care-taking for the sufferer in some way — fix meals or take him places.
Finally, help him become active again. Encourage him to reinvolve himself in the routines of life, but at the same time allow the grief process to be experienced and expressed.
Q. In your counseling experience do you see many people who are afraid to grieve?
A. Close to one hundred percent of the hurting Christians I see do not believe that it is all right to grieve. They do not think they should be so upset because, first of all, they are going to see their loved one again in heaven or, second, because they believe that their faith in God should, in some way, cheer them up more. Often people think that, as Christians, they may be sinning by grieving intensely. They think it might mean they don’t believe in or trust in God. They don’t realize that the loss is so painful because they were not built for it.
The primary help I offer is to give them the go-ahead to grieve. We can appreciate God’s sovereignty while accepting the fact that it is painful to suffer loss. I think this acceptance of the need to grieve frees people to go through the grief process and then move on, saying, “It’s all right to feel this way. I probably will feel this way for some time, but it will pass. I will simply have to continue living my life while feeling this pain right now.” When a person can do this, it alleviates some of the debilitation.
I believe that Satan is involved in an evil scheme to condemn people who are feeling loss and bitter pain. At a time when they need compassion, He delivers condemnation by accusing sufferers of “thanklessness” or mistrust in God’s sovereignty. I think this is destructively cruel.
Q. Can suffering strengthen our relationship with God?
A. Certainly, God allows pain and suffering to build strength, compassion, and patience in us. Through suffering, He teaches us the supremacy of our relationship with Him. We will never lose Him. Through suffering He also teaches us to draw close to Him.
He shows us that we are weak, vulnerable, and dependent upon Him. Yet, through His instruction in suffering we also learn that dependence upon Him brings spiritual strength and true life.
I once heard Joni Erickson Tada say that, if given the chance, she would suffer her pain again because through it she has come to know Jesus Christ more intimately. I agree; all else pales in significance when compared to knowing Him.