Intersections

What is the Christian Obligation to a Friend in Pain?

by: 
Kelly Kapic, PhD

What is the Christian Obligation to a Friend in Pain?

Good Instincts

When we see people in pain we rightly want to help. We want to make everything better. That is a noble intuition that reflects a good Creator God.

When Jesus encountered people dealing with hurts, he very often brought his healing touch. He restored sight to the blind, enabled the lame to walk, and opened the ears of the deaf, indicating the nature of his kingship and his Kingdom. His life and proclamation promised a new creation where there will be no pain, fear, or tears. Nevertheless, it was but a taste. Those he healed still died; their temporary healing pointed toward a full and final renewal that has not yet come.

It makes sense that followers of Jesus want to proclaim and offer hope and full healing. Still, this good instinct can easily go astray. Sometimes, even though there may be good intentions behind this impulse, we can really hurt those who face suffering.

What to Pray for Those in Pain

To begin with, we are not Jesus, and we do not have his messianic touch. We can and should pray. We can and should explicitly pray for physical healing. In the power of the Spirit we cry out to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who hears and responds to the prayers of his people. God remains the great physician of the body and soul. Not only in the ancient past, nor simply in foreign lands, but even in North America our God continues to do the miraculous. Cancer disappears, weak hearts grow stronger, and a baby survives an experience when death seemed certain.

We can and should pray for health. But, we must always remember that such prayers are appeals to our loving Father. We are not forcing his hand, nor are we in a position to understand why, in his wisdom and grace, he permits suffering to occur. Prayers rightly include the request for the healing of broken bodies. It is not wrong to pray for physical healing, but if that is all we pray for, we don’t really understand pain and suffering.

What happens when the cancer isn’t cured? What happens when the debilitating chronic pain never goes away? What happens when the doctors can’t figure out how to solve the excruciating cluster headaches that make life almost unlivable? Why is it that physical healing tends to be the only thing we really concentrate our prayers on? This is really my main concern.

Far more often than we realize, we should be praying that the wounded saint won’t give up in despair. We must ask that God will protect their hearts from growing hard toward the Father. We ask that they would discover God’s kindness in the midst of heartbreak, not just in its absence. While it may be legitimate at some point amid a prolonged difficulty to cease to pray for a miraculous healing (e.g., we don’t normally pray for someone’s arm to heal after it has been amputated), there is never a time we should not ask for God to strengthen their faith, stir up their hope, and comfort them with his love. That is the heart of our prayers.

What Is Required of the Friend of the Hurting?

We are not required to always be happy or optimistic—instead, sometimes we lament with those who hurt, we ache and yearn. This shows them they are not alone, and we encourage them by validating their pain and struggle. Sometimes this reminds them of their hope in Christ better than sermons would. We cling to the hope that God is our refuge even as we feel exposed to the excruciating elements of pain, doubt, and confusion.

How should we deal with those who live with ongoing suffering, especially when doctors cannot find solutions and prayers have not resulted in physical health? Unfortunately, what most of us try to do is keep offering remedies. Such a response is often far more hurtful than most people recognize.

Whatever the illness or trouble, there are Christians (and non-Christians) quick to offer a pill, or suggest a trendy diet or an exercise regimen that promises to cure all your ills and leave you feeling younger, wiser, and more godly. These offered solutions often sound a lot more like magic than biblical wisdom.

Most of us really are not qualified to offer appropriate advice regarding a person’s illness or chronic pain. We are not physicians nor trained psychologists. Our suggestions can make them feel that there is always another thing to try and the only reason they are still suffering is because they haven’t yet done the right thing. So now they are not only physically hurting, but they feel tremendous guilt as well! Like the poor woman who suffering for many years, spending all her time and money, she never found healing but only great frustration (Luke 8:43).

If we are not primarily called to give our suffering friends advice on possible solutions to their health problems, what are we called to do?

We are called to love them! We should not make this more complicated than it needs to be. We are not responsible to solve their health problems—that is not a burden we are normally asked to carry. Instead, we are called to love them, to be present with them, to walk through this difficult journey with them. Further, we can learn from them, listening to their struggles and attempts to trust God amid the fear and pain.

We are not required to solve the mysterious pain and suffering of others, nor are we required to explain it or make it all better. No, we are called to go on walks with them, to share meals, and offer warm embraces.  We are called to weep with those who weep and lament with those who lament.  We are invited to try to lighten the darkness with humor (as appropriate), to grow sensitive to the pressures the wounded and their family are going through (financial, exhaustion, etc.). Again, simply put, we are called to love them by offering our prayers, presence, and perseverance. This is heavy enough without us trying to carry the burden of diagnosing or treating their illness; that is a burden we were never intended to carry.

Kelly Kapic, PhD

Kelly Kapic, PhD

Dr. Kapic is professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College, where he has served since 2001. His most recent book just published is Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering (IVP Academic, 2017).