Toward a Fellowship of Suffering

When my children were small and they got hurt they would come running to me, tears streaming down their faces. And I would pick them up and hold them close. I rarely said “Shh, shh – don’t cry. Everything will be okay.” Instead I would  say “I know, I know. It hurts so much. It hurts and I love you.” And then I would just hold them. Even now, I’m not sure why I didn’t tell them it would be okay.

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At one time I was an expert at labor. I have a body that takes to pregnancy like the proverbial duck to water. My body glows during pregnancy. My hips, inherited from both sides of the family, are made for delivering babies. In five pregnancies I only had morning sickness a couple of times, and that was because I made the mistake of taking prenatal vitamins with their mega doses of iron on an empty stomach. I’m not saying any of this in pride – it’s fact. I could have probably had 10 babies and been fine in terms of the pregnancy. (I’m glad I didn’t by the way – just in case you were thinking of asking. Post pregnancy, child raising is a completely different journey.)

I also went through the labor and deliveries of five children with no hitches, no complications, just the hard, hard work of labor. But no matter how “easy” the labor, no mom ever forgets that period that they call ”transition.” Transition is when you look at your husband and you want to say things like “I could kill you right now with my bare hands for putting me in this position.” Transition is where you think you can’t bear one more contraction, one more pain. During transition, you need the presence of people who will sit with you, with no condemnation, no judgment and walk you through the process. You need people who will not chide you for telling your husband he has bad breath, or to shut up and get out. There is no other way but through. You have to get to the end of yourself. During transition you don’t want an explanation, you just want someone there with you. You want someone to lean on, someone to rely on, someone who knows that you can make it through to the other side; the side of the tears and that baby that is so precious that it hurts your heart.

I think sitting with women through labor is a bit like sitting with people through suffering.

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There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us, to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole the familiar, patient presence of another says to us “it’s too much for you to bear, but I will help you.”

So often we want to move people through the process of pain, suffering, and healing at our own pace, on our own terms. We want to impose our own schedule on the process of pain in another. We want to make pain and suffering controllable, manageable. Why is that?

Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the pain of others. We are not in control. We would do anything we can to make it all okay. But we can’t. We can’t make the pain okay. We can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.

Like the doctor or midwife that walks a woman through labor, not hurrying it along, aware that the body has to move through each stage to have a successful outcome, so it is with suffering.

And so we must not leave people alone. 

Coming beside them, will I pick them up and say the words “I know, I know. It hurts so much. It hurts and I love you.” And then will I hold them? Will I work toward a fellowship of suffering?

fellowship of suffering

“If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him”(from interview of Lee Strobel with Peter Kreeft, Boston College)

“Out of the darkness of the cross, the world transfigures into new life.

And there is no other way.

It is dark suffering’s umbilical cord that alone can untether new life.

It is suffering that has the realest possibility to bear down and deliver grace.

And grace that chooses to bear the cross of suffering overcomes that suffering.

My pain, my dark—all the world’s pain, all the world’s dark—it might actually taste sweet to the tongue, be the genesis of new life.

And emptiness itself can birth the fullness of grace because in the emptiness we have the opportunity to turn to God, the only begetter of grace.

And there find all the fullness of joy.”

ANN VOSKAMP

 
 

17 thoughts on “Toward a Fellowship of Suffering

  1. Pingback: conardsinafrica
  2. Some cultures have this being together and just sitting with the suffering one built in. American culture does not. We are so busy and independent and a lot of other things that
    keep up from showing up and just sitting awhile. I think giving comfort is not a “cookie cutter” thing. What’s comforting for one person may not be for another. But who can deny the powerful effect of “presence.” Hope I can improve on comfort giving to others. Thx for such helpful insights, Marilyn.

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    1. It’s so true – American culture doesn’t leave much room for grieving of any kind. Thank you so much for coming by, and for the reminder that comfort is not cookie cutter.

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  3. What a beautiful parallel between childbirth and suffering.
    You said, “we can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.” I agee.
    In my early 20’s, one of the students I worked with at a college campus who was also a friend was killed in a car accident. My husband and I went to the hospital where she had been taken. I was dumbstruck when I heard she had passed away from her injuries.
    One of the nurses just rattled on and on about how God “needed her more in heaven” and now “she was an angel.” I was so angry. I wasn’t old, or wise, or mature, but I knew enough to know those explanations fell far short of truth and offered no real comfort. In fact, they could lead to some intense anger towards God if taken to heart.
    I still struggle with how to comfort the suffering. Being present seems so little and there’s always a longing to fix or remove. But, like childbirth, what it would take to end the pain prematurely would result in a stillbirth. So it seems with suffering. Quick fixes abort the depth of true comfort God can birth from it.

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  4. I so appreciate this perspective. I have a friend who is grieving deep pain. I want it to be okay for her. I want to fix it. There’s nothing I can do but sit with her in it. Sigh.

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  5. Marilyn, this so so true, the just needing someone to sit with us, to be there in our pain. Some of us had to live too many years before we learned to just keep quiet, to stop trying to give people answers. Years ago, in that other life we had in Pakistan, I got sick with a high fever. Your Dad must have been away, because I ended up staying the night at the Doctors’ bungalow. Dr. Mary must have sat up all night with me. Every time I opened my eyes, there she was, just sitting beside me. She never left me alone. That wasn’t “suffering” as you are writing about it, but I think it is a picture of what the one going through pain and suffering needs – just someone to come along side, to just be there. Thanks for the reminder.

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  6. Good essay Marilyn. Sharing another’s suffering with our presence is a gift. From Isaiah 30:15, “In quietness and trust is your strength.”

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