How To Love Someone Who Suffers

I just got the news that I have moved from the “have nots” to the “haves.” Prior to last Saturday, I was part of the “have not had COVID” club, but on Saturday I joined the “have had COVID” club. Last Friday, I assumed that the cause of my cough was just a common cold, but then I took a nose swab test which in 15 minutes confirmed that I was a “positive” person—at least when it comes to the coronavirus! Just as there’s a reliable test that reveals the status of our physical health, there’s also a reliable test that reveals the status of our spiritual health.

In Matthew 25:34-40, Jesus reveals that perhaps the best test of one’s faith is not something you put in your nose, but how you treat those who suffer. “Real Deal” followers of Christ are identified not through a nasal swab test, but through how they treat the poor, the broken, and the sick. In short, an authentic faith in Christ is revealed by how well we love those who suffer.

There’s a great example of this found in Mark 9:14-29. There, Jesus meets a man who deeply loves his suffering son. As you read the dialogue between the dad, the disciples, and Jesus, you discover five things that true Christ followers do to really love those who suffer and thereby authenticate their spiritual health.

To love those who suffer, we must…
1. Assess the mess they are facing.

When someone else suffers, the two most common initial responses are to: (1) Criticize the sufferer (“If you hadn’t done that, you wouldn’t be in this mess.”); or (2) Minimize the suffering (“It’s not as bad as you think… I’ve seen or been worse.”). God’s guys don’t minimize or criticize, instead they recognize and empathize with the one in distress. Through careful observation and caring questions, Jesus and the father of the suffering son assess the mess the boy is dealing with (loss of hearing, loss of speech, loss of consciousness) and conclude that his suffering is significant and sustained. They don’t minimize or criticize. They recognize and empathize. Rick Warren once said, “Sympathy says, ‘I’m sorry;’ empathy says, ‘I’m here for you.’” That’s a great place for us to start when dealing with people in pain.

2. Look to others for help.

We can assume the boy’s dad had tried everything he knew to address the distress of his kid. When he tried and failed, he did something that was really smart but really difficult. He brought his suffering son to the disciples, and when they too struck out, he brought his boy to Jesus (Mark 9:17-18). Looking to others for help when we or those we love suffer requires us to set pride aside and acknowledge we can’t fix this on our own. Maybe someone else is smarter or stronger than me!

3. Adopt a long-term commitment to those who suffer.

If we’re being honest, most of us especially in the church show just enough mercy to check the box and appease our own guilt. “One and done” mercy occurs when someone receives a bad prognosis, gets laid off, loses a loved one, experiences relational disruption, etc. and we do offer an initial response (send a note, drop off a pizza, or even pay them a visit right now) but then essentially leave them to a life of solo suffering. One of the things that makes the dad in our story so special is he was on board for the long haul. When Jesus asked him how long his son had suffered, he replied, “since childhood” (Mark 9:21) indicating his son was now likely a young adult and this horrible hardship had been going on for a long time. While momentary mercy is better than none, what makes this dear dad, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33-35), and King David (2 Samuel 9:7-10) all so special is they made long-term commitments to go the distance with loved ones who suffer.

4. Recognize the radical role of faith.

Some view all hardship as a direct spiritual attack. Once, I even had a friend tell me the devil caused her to burn her tongue on some hot chicken! At the other extreme, many in our culture dismiss any spiritual component in suffering. That’s wrong, too. I believe the Bible says some suffering (like what the boy in Mark 9:14-29 experiences) is the result of spiritual warfare, but ALL suffering has at least a spiritual component. Although suffering may not be the direct result of the devil, he does desire to use or exploit any suffering to sow the seeds of doubt and discouragement. It is one reason Jesus calls both the dad and the disciples to strengthen their faith in Him (Mark 9:19, 23, 25).  Jesus won’t always remove suffering, but I can promise that anyone who suffers will benefit from a stronger faith. While it’s no fun, suffering with Jesus is way better than suffering without Him.

5. Make prayer our priority.

Let’s be honest, prayer has a PR problem. We tend to apologize to those who suffer by saying, “All I can do is pray.” We treat prayer as a consolation prize which we give when all the really good stuff is no longer available. That’s too bad because Jesus’ final words regarding the suffering son are, “Make prayer the priority.” Praying for those who suffer pleases God and brings help and hope to our loved ones who are on a rough road.

So how can we test positive in regard to our spiritual condition? Jesus calls us to “reveal that we’re real” in our love for Him by really loving those who suffer. To pass the test, I must pull the ALARM:

Assess the mess they’re facing.
Look to others for help.
Adopt a long-term commitment
Recognize the radical role of faith.
Make prayer our priority.

Blessed are those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”   – Matthew 5:7