Shepherding the Suffering

By Wayne Stapleton, Pastor at Renewal Church in Warren, MI

“I don’t know how to tell you this, but your father is dead.”

Those were the words of my dad’s cousin, who called our home one evening three days before Christmas in 1989. I had just gotten off work from my job at the bank working late Friday hours, and I came home to an empty house, as my parents had plans for a Christmas party.

That sentence is forever etched in my mind and represents the deepest chasm I would enter in my life. The death of a parent can do that, especially for an only child.

Pastoring a community has enabled me the great privilege of being with people in their most profound moments of suffering. As I consider the impact and power of suffering in the context of Christian community, I feel it’s helpful to draw upon my own personal moments of pain.

I recently visited a friend in Florida. He has been through the ringer for the past year, going from thinking he had a torn hamstring to being in excruciating pain with what the doctors discovered was a tumor. A cancerous one. One that was consuming his blood and his flesh and so had to be removed. With his entire right leg.

My friend, Greg, has been a believer for decades, a dedicated servant of the Lord. He serves with joy, asking no questions, just enjoying being used by God.

And now he has only one leg.

What is our response? How do we lead well those who are suffering?

We know that suffering forces us to seek the Lord. And suffering causes us to yearn for heaven as it turns our eyes upward off the world and its pain. In good times we can be so mired in the present, so enamored with the shiny objects and the political positioning of this world that we don’t give our glorious destiny the mind-space it deserves. Suffering brings things into perspective.

Perhaps when it comes to Christian leadership, God is after something simpler, more relational. Suffering also reminds us of our common humanity. The thing that is so important about being in a community where there is suffering is being in community with the suffering. To suffer in community is to grieve with presence, sometimes in silence, sometimes in seeking the Lord together. How we minister in the midst of suffering must invoke the only One who can truly comfort, the Holy Spirit. Those who are suffering are not looking for pithy words of wisdom or intellectual brilliance. They are in pain and need the presence of the Lord.

The night my father died I was suffering with great grief, and the most profound display of love I experienced occurred when two of my friends from college just stayed at the hospital until I left. They offered no profound wisdom and gave no deep metaphysical insight that I remember. I was too sad, overwhelmed with grief. But I remember their presence. Likewise, as soon as my wife and I heard of Greg’s condition, we determined we would be present with him and his wife, even if only for a couple of days.

Suffering provides an opportunity for us to do the thing that Jesus said would distinguish us as His followers: to love one another as He has loved us. He said that all men will know that we are disciples of Jesus Christ if we love one another.

Sometimes as pastors and leaders we can feel pressure to say the right thing, the wise thing, the deal breaker that will bring reason and understanding into the situation. But I submit that is not what is needed. What is needed is the love that is found in presence. To shepherd the suffering calls for us to comfort one another with the comfort of the Lord Himself.

As it is written in 2 Corinthians 1:4, “(God) comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (ESV).