Life + Culture
The Loneliness of Suffering
One of the hardest things for me about suffering is loneliness.
Inevitably I feel isolated. Though my friends can help, they cannot share my sorrow. It is too deep a well.
When loss is fresh, people are all around. They call, offer help, send cards, and bring meals. Their care helps ease the razor-sharp pain. For a while.
But then they stop. There are no more meals. The phone is strangely silent. And the mailbox is empty.
No one knows what to say. They aren’t sure what to ask. So mostly they say nothing.
Sometimes that’s fine. It’s hard to talk about pain. And I never want pity, with the mournful look, the squeeze on the arm, and the hushed question, “So how are you?”
I don’t know how to answer that; I don’t know how I am. Part of me is crushed. I will never be the same again. My life is radically altered.
But another part of me craves normalcy. A return to the familiar. To blend into the crowd.
I Don’t Know What I Want
I want to be grateful for my friends’ support. And on the best of days, I can see and appreciate all of their efforts. But on the worst of days, I feel frustrated and angry. I wonder why people aren’t meeting my needs. Don’t they know what I want? Can’t they read the signs? Why can’t they figure out what would make me feel better?
They can’t figure it out because I don’t know myself.
This is the crazy part of grief for me. I don’t know what I want. I have no idea what will satisfy me. And somehow, whatever others do cannot meet my expectations. Expectations that are fickle. And one-sided. And reflect my self-absorption.
Intense pain, physical or emotional, has a way of doing that. I become fixated on myself — my needs, my pain, my life. Somehow I forget that other people have their own pain and their own lives. They want to help, but they can only do so much.
Alone with God
While I am frustrated that others aren’t easing my pain, I need to remember that there is a part of suffering that I must bear myself.
Paul addresses that very tension. In Galatians 6:2, he says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” And then, three verses later, he reminds them, “For each of you will have to bear his own load” (Galatians 6:5).
The word Paul uses for burden implies burdens that exceed our strength. In Paul’s day, travelers often had heavy loads to transport. Others would relieve them by carrying their burdens for a while. Without help, their loads could be crushing. This could be likened to the tangible help we can offer — our acts of service, our continual prayers, our physical presence.
His word for load is something proportioned to our individual strength. It could be a pack carried by a marching soldier. That could be the ongoing work of processing our grief. The parts of our suffering that no one else can carry for us. The burdens we must shoulder ourselves.
Even the closest, most caring friends cannot be with us in our deepest pain. They may weep with us, but ultimately, they cannot walk with us.
Jesus understands that. In his moments of greatest need, his friends deserted him. Friends who said they would die for him could not even stay awake and pray with him.
So in the garden, Jesus found himself alone. With God.
Just like we are. In the end, we are all left alone with God.
Where Do I Go?
So what do we do when we feel drained and empty? When no one understands our suffering and no one seems to care? When we feel discouraged and tired and unbearably lonely?
Read the Bible and pray.
Read the Bible even when it feels like eating cardboard. And pray even when it feels like talking to a wall.
Does it sound simple? It is.
Does it also sound exceedingly hard? It is that as well.
But reading the Bible and praying is the only way I have ever found out of my grief.
There are no shortcuts to healing. Often I wish there were because I’d like to move on from the pain. But in many ways, I am thankful for the transformative process I undergo.
A process that requires I read the Bible and pray.
Not Just Reading
When I read, I don’t mean just reading words for a specific amount of time. I mean meditating on them. Writing down what God is saying to me. Asking God to reveal himself to me. Believing God uses Scripture to teach and to comfort me. To teach me wonderful things in his law (Psalm 119:18). To comfort me with his promises (Psalm 119:76).
Reading this way changes cardboard into manna. I echo Jeremiah who said, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jeremiah 15:16).
Not Just Praying
And when I pray, I don’t mean a rote recitation of requests and mindless words. I mean really praying. Speaking to God as honestly as I would a friend. Praying through a Psalm. Desperately crying out to him. Asking him for specific help. Expecting him to answer.
What transforms me is spending time with Jesus, sitting with him, lamenting to him, talking to him, and listening to him.
As much as I would like friends to comfort me, no one has ever met me the way God has. No one’s words have ever changed me the way Scripture has. And no one’s presence has ever encouraged me the way the Holy Spirit has.
My friends may help me, but they cannot heal me.
It is only the living God, and his living Word, who can do that.
This path of suffering, of heartache, of loneliness takes me directly to my Savior. Which is the lone path worth taking.
For only Jesus can heal me.
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