“We can’t love our neighbor if we don’t care about their suffering.” – Trillia Newbell, in Uncommon Ground
“One of the worst things you can ever do to a person is convince them that God has nothing to say to their suffering.” – Mika Edmondson
The angel of the Lord found [Hagar] by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” – Genesis 16:7-8
There’s a whole lot of suffering in the world right now – physical suffering, economic suffering, emotional and social suffering, suffering due to a pandemic and suffering due to systemic injustice. There’s been a whole lot of suffering for the entire history of humanity, and yet right now feels like a time that the suffering we’re experiencing is at the forefront more than at other times. I believe firmly it’s necessary for us to consider our theology of suffering and to know how to discuss the suffering around us with the students we serve. However, our current circumstances have me thinking more about how we progress from that broader level of theology to the lived out practice of speaking to and coming alongside those who are suffering. This theology of suffering with is incredibly important for us to take seriously as well.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of suffering with over the past few weeks, in part due to the other reflecting I’m doing on racial justice, and in part due to Mika Edmondson’s piercing tweet above. As I consider my role in speaking out about the suffering around me (particularly in regards to racial injustice), this insight has rocked me. To remain silent in the face of someone’s suffering is to present a falsehood about God to them – because the witness of Scripture shows a God who speaks to (and enters into) human suffering again and again. One example I’ve been reflecting on this week is the story of Hagar. In Genesis 16, Sarai and Abram have not seen the child God promised them yet, so Sarai gives her Egyptian slave to Abram. Hagar conceives, tension ensues, and Abram allows Sarai to drive a pregnant Hagar out into the wilderness.
In the middle of the story of Abraham’s covenant with God, this moment pops up where a cast-out, foreign slave is met by the angel of the Lord. God speaks to Hagar in the midst of her suffering, and deals graciously with her. Hagar then names him as “the God who sees”. This is just one of many instances where God speaks to people in their suffering, and there is no greater example than Jesus’ time on earth. As Jesus went from place to place, he had compassion on crowds who were suffering, and took time to stop and speak to those who were suffering. Jesus even tells his disciples that they will suffer in this world, but to take heart, because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). God has a whole lot to say about our suffering and to affect change regarding it, and as people who are being transformed into his likeness more and more, we need to have a lot to say about it as well. As we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, a big part of that is suffering with those who are suffering and speaking life and hope to them.
In many of my posts I have a “What does this have to do with youth ministry” section – in this case, I hope it would be very apparent. But as I’ve been reflecting on suffering and speaking to that, and as I’ve been considering how well I care for others and understand their sufferings, joys, concerns, and hopes (and where I fall short in all of it), I’ve been thinking a lot about how to practically love others in these ways. I think a big part of it involves wrestling with the theological foundations, things like the grace God has shown us, the image of God in all people, our theology of suffering and suffering with. As we wrestle with the truth we believe, we have to allow that truth to transform our hearts and affect the way we actually act towards others. When we wrestle with that, we can then consider the practical steps we need to take to live out our theology of suffering with.
For myself, that’s included considering my temperament and how I typically interact with others, how I think about others who are suffering, and what I actually say when I’m talking to and understanding someone else. In Hagar’s story, the angel of the Lord asked her 2 questions that I think are very helpful as we consider how to suffer with others. The angel asks, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” I think a great place to start is to ask a student, parent, or anyone else where they’re coming from – what is their background, where are they at right now, what disappointments or suffering have they experienced. Then we can ask them where they’re going – what they hope for in the future, what help they need, how they can trust God to meet them in their suffering. As I move forward, my desire and commitment is to allow these reflections to impact how I speak to those who are suffering, both in a broad sense and in my individual interactions. I hope you’ll join me in that!