At the ripe young age of 59, I had my left knee replaced. My doctor wanted to wait until I was older, but I got tired of dealing with the pain and the limitations. (And by the way, I hope this is bringing a tear to your eye). I was in the hospital for several nights and then went home where I did my rehab and PT with the aid of my loving wife.
In case you’ve never had your knee replaced, I can testify to the fact that when it’s over and you begin your recovery, it hurts. A lot. And the PT hurts. A lot. But it wasn’t too long before I was up and around, walking a mile each morning to strengthen my knee, and within a few weeks the pain was gone, as expected.
When it comes to pain, I wish it was that easy all the time, but it’s not. Pain, whether physical or emotional, doesn’t always go away quickly.
I’ve been thinking recently about how Christians deal with people who have what I call “long-term pain.” What I’m referring to are situations where the hurt hangs on for a long time, even months or years. For example, consider the impact of a job loss, a financial reversal, a relationship failure, or some other kind of disappointment that has life-altering consequences. I’m not including illness here because while long-term or serious illness is certainly life-altering, we tend to do pretty well with this category. But it certainly could be included.
I’ve found that at first we give people room to process their grief and disappointment, but only so much room before we forget that their hurt still lingers (because of the way in which their lives have been changed). Or we lose patience because we don’t feel they’re processing their hurt the way we think they should. But imposing our timetable for people to move beyond their pain is simply not reasonable.
May I offer a few suggestions on how to deal with people with long-term pain? These are suggestions not only for those of us in ministry, but I believe they should be taught to the congregation as a whole.
First, don’t expect people to follow a template for “recovery.” We’re all different, and what rolls off of one person’s back may not roll off another’s. A lot depends on our makeup and how much of an impact the loss has had on our lives.
Second, we’re commanded to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:13). R.C Sproul, in his commentary (Romans: The Gospel of God) writes:
This is another of those injunctions, however, that is much easier said than done. It takes real sensitivity, real grace and discipline to listen and watch for the moods of other people, and to express empathy. Empathy means to feel with another person. Paul is not referring to sympathy, but empathy, where we enter into the feelings of others.
Empathy is more than merely acknowledging that someone is hurting. Empathy means that we work to gain an understanding of why the person is “weeping.”
There are some situations in which we may look at someone and wonder, “What’s their problem? Why haven’t they gotten over (fill in the blank)?” Empathy finds out the answer to that question, asking it in a way that is not judgmental. Be willing to listen to the person’s story, even if it sounds like the same thing they’ve been saying for months (years?).
Third, point people to the Psalms of lament. There are so many places where David tells God about his pain. And in each case David concludes that God is his source of strength. And it’s good for people to see both. It’s good for them to pour out their hearts to God without any shame for telling God the same thing over and over. It’s also good for them to realize that God is with them in the midst of their pain.
For example, there isn’t a hurting Christian alive who can’t relate to the words of Psalm 69:
1 Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
3 I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. – Psalm 69:1-3 (ESV).
Fourth, don’t ever, and I mean ever, tell someone “Well, at least you don’t have it as bad as so-and-so.”
Has anyone ever said that to you? How did that make you feel? Right! That’s why we shouldn’t ever say it.
No matter how well-meaning we are, we’re minimizing how someone feels, almost telling them they have no right to their pain. And if we stop and think about the logic behind that statement, there’s really only one person in the world who has any “right” to hurt because person “A” doesn’t have it as bad as person “B” but person “B” doesn’t have it as bad as person “C.” Oh and person “C” doesn’t have it as bad as person “D.” And so on . . . .
Not only that, when we minimize someone else’s pain in this way we minimize God’s work in their lives. If suffering is part of the process God uses to sanctify us (Romans 5:2-5, for example) then we have no business telling someone that what God designed to be used in their life is comparatively insignificant to what someone else is going through.
Finally, I would recommend that everyone who works with people read Ed Welch’s superb book Side By Side: Walking With Others in Wisdom and Love. It’s one of the most helpful books I’ve read.
Yes, there are times to gently call people to put aside self-pity. But before you take that approach make sure that you understand why whatever loss or disappointment they have had has led to their sorrow. And do that without passing judgment.
If you are a younger pastor, learning how to lovingly deal with the hurts of your people can have a great impact on your ministry. It is likely that, as a younger man, you’re going to be ministering to people who are older than you. Sometimes two or three times older than you. And one of the best ways of building a connection is a sincere interest in their well-being after they’ve gone through hard times.
Let’s do a better job dealing with those who have long-term hurt and pain. Let’s not run from them, but let’s engage them, bearing their burdens, and leading them to see God as their refuge as he displays his love through our caring.