I spent four years as a hospital chaplain, nine years as a pastor, and eleven years as a trauma counselor working with victims of violence. During those years, I learned a great deal about suffering. I observed it, empathized with it and prayed over it. I tried to discover ways to enter into the suffering with those who were drowning in it. But suffering with others is a complicated and difficult task. Feeling sympathy is easy. Knowing about a person’s suffering is easy. But entering into the suffering of others, being with them in their suffering, is very difficult.
The words of Gordon Cosby ring true to me:
Compassion is to know the pain and suffering of others. Not to know about the suffering and pain of others, but in some way to actually know that pain—to enter it, hear it, taste it, let it in. We talk about getting in touch with our feelings, and that is central to our freedom. The complementary step is to get in touch with the feelings of others. This necessitates getting into their frame of reference, their way of perceiving. Others’ way of seeing might seem wrong or distorted, yet it still is their experience of life…. In part, knowing that someone understands and feels our pain is the relief we need, even if nothing more can be done.
– N. Gordon Cosby
Source: Seized by the Power of a Great Affection
One additional lesson the years taught me: Suffering is much more than pain. Suffering is more than grief. Suffering is the deep-down and relentless assault of one’s soul and spirit. It is utter darkness. It is feeling alienated from the healing God. It is feeling completely alone in an abyss of unrelieved torment.
Medication cannot touch it. Sympathy cards, flowers and covered dishes cannot ease it. Only presence is effective, abiding presence with the sufferer, entering into deepest silence, being near to dry the tears that won’t stop, sitting vigil for as long as it takes.
May God give us the inner strength to suffer with those who suffer, to share with them the healing, renewing grace of a compassionate God.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you: when you walk through the fire, you shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon you.
– Isaiah 43:2