Christians are good at supporting suffering people. The Salvation Army’s mission, as coined by General John Gowans, is to “save souls, grow saints and serve suffering humanity.” Sometimes, though, we forget that we are included in suffering humanity. And sometimes we forget that there is more to serving than practical support.
We are called to be compassionate. “Compassion” comes from the Latin compassio, literally “to suffer with.” Paul puts this well in describing the fellowship of Christ’s body to the church at Corinth: “God has so arranged the body … [that] the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:24- 26 NRSV). He repeats this to the Roman church: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15 NRSV). Why this calling? Suffering isolates. Suffering people like me need a community willing and prepared to break down that barrier and suffer with us.
What does compassion look like in action? Compassion is not taking on the suffering of another the way Jesus took on the suffering of the world. It does mean wanting to do so, like a mother yearns to change places with her suffering child. Compassion is not providing answers to questions that are as profound as suffering.
“Why, God, do I have ALS?” “Why, God, was I abused?” “Why, God, is my child addicted to meth?”
We may want to answer, but the old standbys can be received as cold comfort. When we skip forward to the happy ending, we fail to read the pages and pages of a person’s suffering.
Compassion means being present with the person and grieving with them as they grieve. One way of doing this is through lament, something we don’t often practise together anymore. Lament is prayer to God uttered out of the sorrow, confusion, even anger felt in suffering. It takes courage to admit to a suffering person that we cannot explain their suffering. It takes even more courage to call on God for answers.
But this is what people in the Bible do. The voices in Lamentations grieve together as a people rejected by God. Jeremiah asks God why his pain is unceasing and his wound incurable (see Jeremiah 15:18). Job demands to know why God is hiding (see Job 13:24). And psalmists beg God for redemption:
Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up, come to our help.
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love (Psalm 44:23-26 NRSV).
Even Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 NRSV).
The language of lament is strong! Perhaps that is why we fear it. But if those who lament in Scripture have anything to teach us, it is that God would rather receive the angry accusations of a faithful follower than the empty applause of a lukewarm worshipper. Suffering people need strong language to give voice to the indescribable evils we suffer. It’s cathartic, part of holistic healing.
Lament (almost) always ends in a word of hope—the kind of hope that can be claimed even by a person in profound suffering: “I believe; help my unbelief!” Sometimes this help comes directly from God in personal prayer. But I doubt I would believe in God today if my community had not shored up my belief with the hope that can endure despite suffering.
How can we rehabilitate lament as a community? We might start by using the mercy seat as a place of lament in suffering. Or by reading Psalms of lament together to express our grief and suffering. The important thing is that we lament with people who suffer.
Compassionate communities are wise enough to admit they don’t know why suffering is taking place. They are courageous enough to join suffering people in asking God questions we can never answer on our own.
Dr. Aimee Patterson is a Christian ethics consultant at The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg.
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