How to help when suffering causes friends to lose faith

3 mins read
Suffering friends faith

A younger friend, who has led an heroic life and suffered the pain that goes with it, wrote me to tell me about the pain he’s suffering now, which was heartbreaking to me. “I know this does not compare to the grief that you have experienced recently,” he wrote. “However, I have been assured that no one is a winner in the trauma Olympics and suffering and cross comparison is a black train to nowhere.”

No one wins the trauma Olympics, but he was wrong that his grief doesn’t compare with mine. My wife has terminal cancer, as I’ve written on bearing the crosses you didn’t choose, but she’s still at the stage when “terminal” means “chronic,” partly because the latest treatment has worked better than expected.

It’s what I call a “sword of Damocles” life, which includes real losses but whose biggest loss will come some unknown time in the future. You adjust and go on and enjoy what you have. Millions of people live like this.

What my friend lives through and has lived through for years is more painful and much more immediate. Between the two of us, he gets the gold medal. I didn’t even make the team.

But neither of us feel the pain we suffer tells us God doesn’t love us and that Christianity tells a lie about the world. I can’t imagine any event that would make me reject the Faith. (Though of course I could be wrong, pride going before a fall.) Not because I have great unshakeable faith, but because I’ve been blessed in some ways, stubbornness in holding to what I believe being one, though I admit that is probably mixed with pride in refusing to believe I might have been wrong.

Accepting that we don’t know the full picture

Not everyone has that kind of advantage. Sometimes Christians can’t reconcile the pain they feel, and the reality that pain reveals to them, with the claims Christianity makes.

It’s easy to feel that they gave up too soon and they should have tried harder, that they’d made the commitment when they were thinking more clearly and should stick it out. The truth doesn’t change just because their lives get worse.

You knew this might happen, we may want to tell them. Suck it up. Deal with it. Other people have had it worse than you and didn’t lose their faith. Someday you’ll feel better and you’ll be glad you kept at it.

That had been my instinctive reaction when I was younger and had not seen how life can beat people down. We can’t expect someone having a heart attack to remember how much they love Mozart even if they’re sitting in the hall as the orchestra plays.

We don’t know what they suffered and how their suffering affected them. Maybe the loss was a small one, from what we can see, but it could be a small hurt piled on top of years and years of small hurts. It may be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

We also don’t know whether we would have folded, and maybe folded quicker than they did. Suffering hits different people in different ways. There but for the grace of God go we.

What they don’t need and what they do

I always feel helpless when people say they’re done with the Faith after suffering a loss. I want to fix things with an answer that will convince them, but I don’t have one, because they’ve suffered a loss we can’t fix with words.

It’s their cross to bear, though they may not feel it’s a cross or they may feel they’ve been relieved of their cross, that their religion itself had been the source of their suffering. But it’s still their cross to bear, and like Jesus on the walk to Golgotha, they need help bearing it.

Here are my suggestions for helping (assuming you have a relationship with them that makes your help welcome), which I’ve come to after making several mistakes: Don’t presume, don’t blame and don’t preach.

Don’t presume you know the reason they now think the way they do. Don’t blame them for their feelings and what those feelings lead them to say, as if you know enough to judge and have the right to judge them. And don’t tell them things will be all right and give them a theological explanation why.

You may be right about all three, but you’ll probably just alienate them. In any case, you won’t help them, because people in pain don’t need anyone presuming he knows what they’re going through, blaming them for it, and giving them an intellectual answer.

They need friends to listen and sympathize, and answer questions if they ask them, and pray for them to the God they may no longer believe in.

David Mills

David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.