We all know someone who could probably talk for hours if you let them. Some people are verbal processors; Some have a stockpile of wise words to share; Others, frankly, just love to hear their own voice.
But we can say a lot without really saying anything at all.
I’m guilty too; Sometimes I don’t know what to say but speak anyway just to fill the silence. I shudder thinking about all the occasions on which someone has come to me with a heavy burden and my immediate response has been to talk.
A friend recently opened up to me about her battle with some pretty intense inner darkness and I poured on the advice, bible verses, and personal anecdotes to walk her through it. On one hand, I hated to watch her hurt and wanted to help. On the other, perhaps I spoke out of pride, hoping that something I said might lead her to an epiphanic moment, that my words could be the right ones to pull her through. Either way, I wound up feeling frustrated because they weren’t landing.
With a few steps back from the conversation, it struck me that in my lows, words were not always what I needed. Even those of scripture have ricocheted off my anxious heart — I have specifically prayed out texts like Philippians 4:4-9 & 1 Peter 5:7 on countless occasions and still wound up shaky, tearful, and absolutely breathless with anxiety — How did I think that my words would fix her situation?
Sure, there are moments when advice is sought and well-received, but how many times have I opened my mouth when all someone wanted was my ears? Discernment is so much more than knowing what to say; It is knowing when to say it and when to withhold it.
The interesting thing about being a human and having a tongue is that the venom is reciprocal; we have all hurt others with words and have been hurt by others’ words. I’ve spit my fair share of poison, but I’ll also admit that well-intentioned yet pain-inflicting responses to my cries of mental unhealth still ring in my ears. However, I’m working on giving grace here, because there are realities that are difficult for those who aren’t in the arena to comprehend. Anyone can speak out from the stands, but what they say holds no weight until they’ve been out on the court.
I’ll shout this from the arena: Mental health is complex and throwing spiritual bandaids on behaviors that are the product of a chemical imbalance is not the way.
Quick-fixing is not burden-bearing.
Imagine the growth that can unfold in God’s time when we don’t rush so quickly to solutions for each other. Regardless of how deeply we care for our friends and want to see healing, our mistake in offering explanations might be that we think what is best for them is that they reach the other side right now. But Peter writes…
“These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” – 1 Peter 1:7
I recently listened to a Tim Keller sermon in which he referenced the prophet Amos and his occupation as a shepherd and caregiver for sycamore fruit. Keller compares the journey of the sycamore fruit to the passive discipline of suffering, which enters in our life and bruises us so that we can mature. “Some kinds of fruit only ripen when they’re struck”, he says.
If the fire is for our refining, then our role is not to eliminate suffering, whether personal or proximal. We are not the answer to each other’s pain, but we can practice faithful presence and fervent prayer while God does the deep work. The ministry of presence is often about showing up and saying less.
“Why?” is not a helpful question when it comes to suffering, because much of it is beyond understanding (See Job 42). God does not owe me answers and I choose to praise Him for the trials that have humbled me by stripping away all control.
We cannot point to the exact origins of and reasons for trials, but we can seek strength from the Lord himself in their midst. Jesus not only came to suffer and die for humanity but also conquered death by resurrecting. We should live out a rich theology of suffering, confident that pain has both an expiration date and a purpose — eternal glorification for those who have put their faith in Christ.
The darkness presses in, but we rejoice “…because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3-5).
When suffering feels anything but light & momentary (see 2 Corinthians 4:17-18), we don’t have to diminish it. We keep meeting it on the ground with hope, the steadiest truth. We suffer well, with eternity set on our hearts. Dare to believe that joy and suffering can coexist because what stands in front of us is weightless compared to the glory to come.