Exalting Pain? Ignoring Pain? How Do We Counsel Those Who Suffer?

Edward T. Welch

©1999 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals

(An earlier version of this article appeared in The Journal of Biblical Counseling, XII:3; Spring 1994.)

Human life entails misery and woe. Broken relationships, agonizing illness, the prospect of one's own death, depression, injustice and atrocity, quiet yet paralyzing fear, memories of sexual victimization, the death of a child, and many other painful problems leave none unscathed. It would be impossible to minimize the breadth and depth of suffering both in the Church and the world. Significantly, God's Word acknowledges this pain, stating that "the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth" (Rom. 8:22).

Forced to respond to the reality of pain, most Christians are pulled in one of two directions. Some exalt pain, others ignore it. Some are bleeding hearts, others are stoics. Some are "pain counselors," others are "sin counselors." Pain counselors are expert at having people feel understood; sin counselors are expert at understanding the call to obedience even when there is pain. Pain counselors run the risk of over-emphasizing pain to where the alleviation of suffering becomes the thing of first importance. Sin counselors run the risk of rendering personal pain of little or no importance. Pain counselors can be slow to lead sufferers in responding to the Gospel of Christ in faith and obedience. Sin counselors can run the danger of breeding stoics whose response of obedience is unaware of God's great compassion. Pain counselors might provide a context that enhances blame-shifting and a counselee's sense of innocent victimization. Sin counselors may be so concerned to avoid blame-shifting that they have a poorly developed theology of suffering. There are pitfalls to each position.

Exalting Pain
Those who lean toward exalting pain have said or heard, "The Bible doesn't speak meaningfully to my suffering." The Bible's theology of suffering doesn't seem to "work." They tried the Bible, but it didn't have deep answers. They have heard counselors and friends encourage them to have faith. They may have heard excellent preaching and biblical teaching about suffering. But nothing has really spoken to the depths of their pain.

This accusation seems strange when you consider that the Bible is filled with penetrating teaching about suffering. Why does God's Word seem shallow for some Christian sufferers? Why do Christians seek out counselors who will understand them and enter into their pain, but who will not lead them to the Gospel of Christ and God's purposes in suffering? Undoubtedly, one reason is that many sufferers have been stung like Job by his comforters. We have all encountered people in the body of Christ who deal with suffering in a way that is academic, aloof, and whose counsel can be summarized as "shape up." These counselors and friends have not really known what God says to those in pain, so they are poor ambassadors to others. But this is not the only reason.

We are becoming a psychologized church, where healing from pain has become our deepest need! Consider this preface to a popular Christian book: "We have behaved compulsively [translation: sin] because it's a way to stop pain." The writer then describes three different men: one obsessed with sex and pornography, one with work, and one with alcohol. "In each of these men the behavior was not the real problem. The behavior was only a symptom of the problem. All of them were hiding from pain. The things they did were medicating the hurt that came from some deep wound somewhere in their lives."

Here is a consequence of exalting pain beyond biblical boundaries: our pain problem becomes deeper than our sin problem. We revise our theology to say that pain is actually the cause of sin. But is this what God says? Is it true that pain precedes sin? It certainly often feels that way. Most people who are angry in marital disagreements would say that hurt and disappointment stand behind their sin. But there are significant problems with granting primary status to suffering. Biblically, sin can never be reduced to--or explained by--pain. Sin is just sin. We cannot find the culprit anywhere else but in our own law-breaking. The cause of sin does not reside in the actions of another person or in our desire to protect ourselves from pain. Other people do, indeed, inflict pain on us; but this pain can never lead us into sin or keep us from loving others.

To believe that pain causes our sins and that the alleviation of pain is really our deepest need has dramatic implications. First, sin is reduced to self-protection. That is, our greatest sin is protecting ourselves from further pain. This misses the distinctly "against-God," law-breaking nature of sin. Second, when we realize that we are not shielded from suffering, and as we find that "healing" never really loosens the grip of suffering, we believe that God has reneged on his promises; and we feel justified in our anger toward him. We also believe God's Word has no meaningful answers to the deepest problem in living. God, however, never promises temporal freedom from suffering. In fact, he speaks to us on almost every page of Scripture in order to prepare us for suffering. As difficult as it may sound, the Gospel doesn't take away all present pain. Instead, the Gospel goes deeper. It heals the problem of our sinfulness before God. It points us to realities that are more beautiful than our suffering is hard, thus offering joy even in suffering. It gives power for a new obedience that can endure under suffering. The Bible does not provide a technology that removes suffering, but teaches us how to live in the midst of it. To teach anything different would be to compromise the Gospel itself.

Ignoring Pain
Those who lean in the direction of minimizing pain, or calling for a stoic acceptance of it, are often more precise in their theological formulations. But they may be guilty of ignoring important biblical themes and, thus, do not offer the full counsel of God to those who suffer. For example, if suffering is a result of being sinned against by another, those who minimize suffering might immediately think about the call to forgive the perpetrator. This theme is critical, so it certainly is no mistake to make forgiveness part of the counseling agenda. Yet it is a problem when forgiveness is made the only counseling agenda. Too often, the first and last advice given to a severely victimized woman is to forgive the perpetrator.

To compound this problem, some counselors might attach a rider to forgiveness. That is, forgiveness must be accompanied by forgetting. This is sound counsel if forgetting is understood as not allowing your view of the perpetrator to be controlled by the sin. However, counselees typically hear this counsel to mean that they are sinful if they even think about the victimization. The result: the victim now becomes the perpetrator, and victims fell guilty if they ever again mention that being sinned against still hurts.

Those who minimize personal suffering can also err by attempting to rapidly fix the sufferer. Men, in particular, seem to move in this direction. The intent might be praiseworthy. (Most of us want people in pain to feel better.) But the way it is carried out can be hurtful. Counselors might barely hear the outline of the suffering before they race in with answers. Counselees often respond by feeling like the counselor does not want to hear of the pain, and counselees then feel that the pain is in some way wrong.

At other times, the "fix it" intent might not be so laudable. Some people simply don't want to hear about another's suffering. Tears are too messy to their otherwise comfortable lives. "Just get on with it" is their counsel. A brief study of Jesus' compassion is a profound rebuke to this selfishness. The incarnation itself was the dramatic example of God entering into the lives of his people. Jesus was characteristically moved with compassion for those who were leaderless, oppressed, destitute, or bereaved. As Jesus counsels us to mourn with those who mourn, he points us to his own life as the example. The stoic avoids or ignores these clear themes in Scripture.

Ask people who have gone through difficult suffering what most helped them. Many will say something like, "She was there with me." A friend or counselor was able to be physically present during times of suffering. This friend might not have offered lots of counsel or advice. Rather, he or she was available so the grieving person did not feel so alone and swallowed up by the suffering. Perhaps it meant having an open house or a standing invitation to dinner, so the suffering person had a place to be with other people who cared and understood. Perhaps it meant sitting with the person in church. If our chief goal is to fix suffering, to make pain go away, we will probably make it worse.

Another common pitfall of stoics occurs when a counselor has an internal alarm clock that goes off, announcing that it is time for the suffering to be over. There are different reasons for this. Again, perhaps the counselor is compassionate and wants the pain to be alleviated. (Perhaps the suffering is an inconvenience to the counselor.) Or perhaps the counselor thinks there is a biblically imposed one-month or one-year limit on grief, and then it is time to get on with life. Biblically, however, there is no time-table; there are no predetermined stages of grief and suffering. There are sorrows that will not be erased until the last day (Rev. 21:4). Counselors are to be patient with everyone, to mourn with those who mourn, and to maintain the goal of assisting people to love others and love God in the midst of suffering.

So two potential hazards can lead us away from a biblical approach to suffering. If you exalt suffering, then pain becomes the cause of sin; self-protection becomes the problem; and the alleviation of suffering is the chief problem to be addressed. If you ignore suffering, then pain becomes a minor, fixable problem; and compassion becomes a temporary step that is intended to pave the way for more important things. Even with the large number of good books about suffering, there are problems that a current theology of suffering must address. The practical theological task is to speak with compassion to those in pain and point them to realities deeper than their pain. In the remainder of this article, this task will be approached through two basic questions: Where does suffering come from? How can I help those who suffer?

Where Does Suffering Come From?
When pain comes at me, from what direction is it coming? Is it my fault? Is it Satan's initiative? Or is God the author of it? These questions are different than the inevitable question, "Why didn't (or doesn't) God stop it?" or, "Why me?" And, frankly, the "where does it come from" questions are less burning for most people. Nonetheless, the "where" questions do have important biblical answers, and these answers are dense with potential implications.

We can properly identify five categories which answer the question of the cause of suffering: others, me, Adam, Satan, and God. These are important for their mind-clearing effects on sufferers, as well as the cautions they provide. When the relevant causes appear in bold relief, it can be immensely helpful for those in pain. It brings a biblical clarity that fosters biblical responses. For instance, when people who have been (wrongly) blaming themselves realize that their suffering was the consequence of another person's sin, the sufferers are relieved of a burden that wasn't theirs. Although this seems self-evident, those who have been victimized seem to have an instinct that says, "I am responsible." God responds by reminding us that we do not cause the sin of other people. This answer can also encourage us because it points us to the heart of love: forgiveness of sins. As Christians, we are not stuck when the pain has been inflicted by someone else. Instead, we have the opportunity to grow in an attitude of forgiveness that it is hoped will lead to a fully transacted forgiveness, to reconciliation and restoration of the relationship. Similarly, recognizing where I am the source of my own suffering can be an encouragement because there is clear hope for change. Or, recognizing times--such as a drought or a flood--where Adam is the source of our suffering teaches us to anticipate the consummation when Jesus will return and the curse will be rolled away.

But these answers are not always tidy. Suffering rarely falls neatly into any one of these categories. Instead, suffering often falls into all of them. Many psalms move back and forth from one cause to another. In any one incident there may be more emphasis on one part of the observable triad of me, others, and Adam, but the issue will be one of relative emphasis. For example, in cases of sexual victimization the emphasis is certainly on being sinned against by others. But this does not exclude the fact that the victimization wouldn't have taken place if it were not for Adam's sin, and it also does not exclude the reality that we are sinners who will profit from God's discipline in our lives. Apart from Jesus there is no such thing as an innocent person suffering.

Or consider the case of physical sickness. The most obvious emphasis within the triad of others, me, and Adam would be the curse associated with Adam's sin. However, physical sickness can also be related to personal sin, and it can be a result of the sin of other people (e.g., AIDS from a blood transfusion).

Caution people to avoid reducing the causes of suffering to one cause. If suffering is reduced to "others," we become blame-shifters. If suffering is always reduced to "me," as it was by Job's counselors, then guilt and condemnation are ever-present. If it is solely from Adamic sin and the curse, we become fatalists. If it is only from Satan, we become one-sided spiritual warriors who ignore the purposes of God and interpersonal aspects of suffering. The only sure "diagnosis" is that suffering, by the time it gets to us, is God's ordained will for our lives. Yet we cannot reduce the cause of suffering even to God. God is over sin and suffering, but he is not their author. It is blasphemers and angry ones who make God the sole cause of suffering. What the Bible emphasizes is that suffering, no matter what the cause, is a time for tears and wrestling, for repentance, for putting faith in God amid anguish, for following him in obedience. With this basic theological background, we can consider further how to help fellow sufferers.

How Do I Help Those Who Suffer?
The biblical strategy for helping those in pain is to outweigh it. In other words, at first all the weight seems on the side of suffering. It is as if sufferers are unable to see anything outside of their own pain. Gradually, as they practice fixing their eyes on Jesus, they encounter glory-weights heavier than the weight of their pain. These glory-weights include the sufferings of Christ, the joy of forgiveness of sins, the contentment of obeying Christ in small ways amid large hardships, the presence of God in our lives, and the hope of eternity. To this end, those in pain must be surprised by both the intimate love and the transcendent glory of God; and they must be led to know God in a way that obeying, trusting, and worshipping God become irresistible.

Biblical sufferers can guide us. When we encounter these people in Scripture, it is as if they come alongside, take our hand, and lead us to truths that are deeper than suffering. First, consider Job, a companion for many sufferers. In Job 1:21, he says, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised." After the most horrifying of losses, this is Job's first response. He worshipped God. The weight of God's glory was more than that of his own suffering. Likewise, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had amazing spiritual instincts when, facing a fiery death, they said, "If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O King. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up" (Dan. 3:17-18). Suffering, or the threat of suffering and death, was a time when they knew they were called to depend on God alone.

The Apostle Paul rehearses the same theme in 2 Corinthians 4:17. His sufferings were surpassed only by Jesus himself. After recounting his sufferings in chapter one, and before he reminds his audience of even more suffering in chapters eleven and twelve, Paul says, "Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all." How do you think a person in pain might respond to the Apostle Paul's comments? If they didn't read the context, they might say something like this: "Light and momentary? Get real, Paul, you don't know about my suffering." But when we recognize the extent of Paul's suffering, he begins to engage our attention. Paul is a credible sufferer to whom we must listen. He is not offering casual encouragement; he is speaking truths that are weightier than suffering. Getting to the point where we echo these words may seem a long and impossible trek, but Paul sets before us a goal that can guide our prayer and meditation. He reminds us to look for biblical glory-weights that counterbalance, and thus lighten, the suffering.

Again, though, we must remember that outweighing the suffering does not mean ignoring or minimizing it. Although we remind the sufferers of God's purposes in suffering, we are not thereby attempting to get them to hide from their pain. Expressing your empathy is often the best initial response. Sufferers feel isolated. They feel like no one really understands their pain. Therefore, counselors are anything but passive during this time. They actively move into the world of the sufferer, seeking to understand through the eyes of the sufferer. "What is it like for this person?" is an ongoing question. Furthermore, it is critical that counselors express their responses to the sufferer. Are you overwhelmed by the complexity of the suffering? Tell the counselee. Are you grieved by what you hear? Say so. Are you angry at the wickedness of the person who caused the suffering? Express it. Are you moved to tears? Mourn with the person in pain.

Do you do this for an hour? a month? a year? How long do you have compassion on the person in pain? How long do you encourage sufferers to name the silences in their souls? The answers are obvious. You have compassion as long as there is pain. You encourage people to speak as they have parts of their lives that are unexpressed before God. This doesn't mean that they never listen. The verbalization of their pain is the beginning of a dialogue that consists of speaking to God and listening to God.

In the course of that dialogue, you are helping the counselee learn to hear God. In cases of overt victimization, God acknowledges that we are not only sinners, but also sinned against, and that he is a God of justice. God also always says that he is with us, that he loves us, that he is sovereign, and that he has purposes in suffering. One purpose is often to produce repentance, faith, and obedience. Additionally, our suffering helps us see eternity. It provokes hope. It is as if our suffering urges us closer to eternity so we can see our present affliction from that perspective. In this dialogue with God about our suffering, we are learning more about our identity in Christ.

Suffering Servants of God and Responders to His Grace
So who are we? What is our identity? People of pain? People who are healing from pain? People who have been victimized and wounded? Or are we people who need to forget about pain and just get on with it? Do we need a tougher brand of Christian who ignores the pain and stays in the battle?

God clearly shows another way. The incarnation speaks against the shallowness of the stoics. Jesus' presence on earth shows his solidarity with those who suffer. His ministry was full of compassion and understanding. His ministry also exposes the shallowness of the bleeding hearts. He demonstrates that pain, suffering, victimization, and death are not the preeminent features of life. Jesus points us to deeper realities, deeper spiritual needs.

We are "people-who-have-been-shown-mercy." This certainly doesn't sound new. It is an identity that even a child can see in the Scriptures. But its commonness belies its ability to revolutionize the sufferer's perspective. For example, people who have suffered at the hands of others sometimes feel that life as a victim is certain. This is who they are, and the most they can do is try to protect themselves from the pain. But God reorients sufferers. He reveals that the grace they received does not compare to the pain they experience. Grace is weighty, suffering is light. Or consider people who are angry because they feel like they don't deserve pain. As recipients of mercy and grace, these people are suddenly humbled by the astounding cost of the initiative of love taken toward them. They were reactive victims; they become loving responders. The foundation for the life of the Christian is God's grace, not freedom from pain. We were enemies of God who were naked and blind, and he took the initiative toward us. "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8).

Perhaps "responders" captures our new identity. God is the relentless initiator of liberating grace; we respond to his grace by faith. As responders, we are defined by the one who liberated us, and we become his servants. This does not remove suffering. No indeed, suffering will cling to earthly life. But we are not defined or controlled by it. We are responsive, suffering servants.

Here is curious counsel for sufferers: we travel a path that urges us to look outward, toward the triune God. "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:22). This certainly does not mean we ignore suffering, but the weight of God's glory does mean that our questions begin to change. The question, "Why didn't God stop it?" becomes less urgent; and we begin to ask, "How can I respond to what God has done for me by loving God and loving others?" "How can I treat others the way Christ has treated me?" The questions for sufferers, thus, become the same as those for all Christians, "How do I enact the two great commandments, love God and love your neighbor as yourself?"

Responders Who Love Others
For people who have been victimized, this is when you talk about forgiving the perpetrator. "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:21). The outward movement of biblical counseling makes this unavoidable. As you have been forgiven, you forgive others. As God has dealt with you "unfairly"--that is, he has loved you when you did not deserve it--you begin to love your enemies.

What will this love look like? There are dozens of possibilities. Sometimes it will take the form of confronting the person, either by letter or in person. Sometimes it will take the form of praying for the perpetrator and not giving up hope for full reconciliation. Sometimes it will take the form of calling the pastor and 911 for help in the middle of a crisis. Sometimes it will take the form of ministering truth and grace to people suffering similar woes. God's love can inspire many creative initiatives.

Responders Who Love God
At the last supper Jesus told the disciples that they were soon to experience great grief; but shortly after that pain there would be a joy which could never be stolen, even during the tremendous persecutions all of them were to face.

I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will ever take away your joy (John 16:20-22).

How can this be: constant joy overlaid with grief and pain? Certainly it is a difficult experience to describe, but it is true nonetheless. It is because we worship the risen Lord. Jesus is alive. No matter what happens to us, our great God reigns. Personal hardships and afflictions cannot mute the resurrection. The greatest joy of the Christian is God himself and the fact that nothing can separate us from him.

Evidence of this joy in suffering can be found at the funerals of many of God's people. For example, consider the following comments given by the family of a child who died of cancer:

Lend your heaven-song to ours from earth, dear son, and worship him whose love constrained him to die for the likes of us so that you could enter into the paradise you now enjoy so much and live forever with him. We miss you but "we'll be strong, and carry on, till the day when we'll see you, up in heaven."

There is great sorrow because of the loss of a dear friend or loved one.There might even be anger because death is an intruder that doesn't belong in God's creation. But there is also joy. Joy in knowing that the one who died is home. Joy in knowing that in the resurrection of Jesus the greatest enemy,the most profound cause of suffering, death itself, "has been swallowed up in victory" (1 Cor. 15:54).

There are, indeed, realities deeper than our pain. The understanding love of Jesus who became a man, forgiveness of sins, knowledge that God has a purpose; these are glory-weights that change our suffering. But the greatest of all glory-weights is God himself. To know him as the true God who is to be worshiped and adored is the greatest glory-weight for any sufferer. It doesn't end our temporal grief and pain, but it means that we neither exalt our pain nor ignore it. We exalt God amid pain.

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18).§

Dr. Edward T. Welch is the Director of Counseling at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, Laverock, Pennsylvania.

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