On loving someone in pain

Job Rebuked by His Friends, by William Blake

Job Rebuked by His Friends, by William Blake

A dear friend texted me today asking for advice on how to support her friends whose teenage son has been suffering from debilitating migraines for a year and a half. He is angry at God, she said, and can’t believe a good God would allow this kind of suffering. His parents are afraid he is going to renounce God, and she wants to know how to be there for them.

I wrote last year about my own experience with debilitating migraines and depression and struggling to find God in it all. When you are in pain and the life you know has been pulled out from under you, you naturally ask why. When you have prayed till your knees are bloody and cried out to God until your throat is hoarse, and still the pain continues, of course you wonder why a loving God is not answering you. Of course you do.

But when your friends and loved ones have prayed their own knees bloody and throats hoarse, and still you are not better, something else begins to happen. They may question God, too, but they may also — out loud or only in their heads — begin to question you. Are you sure you’re praying enough? Are you sure you have faith that God can heal you? Are you taking the right meds, have you tried acupuncture, are you eating right and getting enough sleep; have you tried everything you can? And the blame begins to shift, slightly, to the one in pain. It can be subtle or overt, but it echoes the person’s own questions and doubt. Are you sure you aren’t psychologically attached to the pain? Maybe you’re getting something out of it. Why did you stay up late last night when you know a regular sleep schedule is shown to help migraines? Maybe all of this is actually your fault?

In my earlier post, He suffers with us, I wrote that I didn’t find answers to my questions, but instead I found God’s presence with me in the pain:

Then, one day on a whim, I bought a little crucifix online. I was raised in the Protestant tradition and remember being told that Catholic theology was wrong because they kept Jesus on the cross, whereas Protestant crosses were empty, representing the resurrection. When the package came, and I took out the little plastic Jesus it seemed so strange — a little Jesus doll when what I wanted was the real man, present in my heart, mind, and spirit, as he used to be. But one day, when the pain was at its worst, I placed my fingers on the nails in his hands, studied his face and his body, and wept with understanding: Jesus was in pain, too. He was suffering, too. I might not understand why it was happening to me, or why he wouldn’t answer my prayers to take it away, but now I knew that He was in it with me. For the days and months to come I lay in bed, clutching the crucifix to me and crying.

That presence, that willingness to be with me, to suffer with me in the pain, was what I found in God — and it was what I most needed from my friends and family.

I don’t know how much you’ve read Job, but it has always been kind of a confusing book to me. I don’t understand why God would allow Job to lose his family and everything he owned. I don’t understand his friends’ advice really, or what God means when he shows up and silences them. And I don’t understand how everything is supposed to be okay when Job gets a new family and new riches. You can’t make the loss of children all better by having new children. But this quote by Buechner helped me to understand it a little more:

Words Without Knowledge

IT IS OUT OF the whirlwind that Job first hears God say “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 42:3). It is out of the absence of God that God makes himself present, and it is not just the whirlwind that stands for his absence, not just the storm and chaos of the world that knock into a cocked hat all man’s attempts to find God in the world, but God is absent also from all Job’s words about God, and from the words of his comforters, because they are words without knowledge that obscure the issue of God by trying to define him as present in ways and places where he is not present, to define him as moral order, as the best answer man can give to the problem of his life. God is not an answer man can give, God says. God himself does not give answers. He gives himself, and into the midst of the whirlwind of his absence gives himself.

There aren’t answers to our questions, at least there aren’t answers that we can understand now. Job’s friends try to explain God to him, to tell him he must not be praying enough, must not have enough faith, must have some un-confessed sin or pride. And Job listens and argues with them and suffers even more because of their arguments and advice.
(Another time we can talk about the bad rap Job’s wife has gotten, and the nasty look she’s giving the beatific Job in Blake’s painting above. She lost her children, too, you know. She was in pain, too. Her advice to Job to renounce God must have come out of that pain.)

But when God finally shows up, he does not give answers, he gives something better — himself. And that is what we need from each other, too: Not answers, but just presence, just understanding and listening and presence. I told my friend that even if her friends’ son does feel like renouncing God, or even if he renounces him, the best, most loving response his parents and friends can give is not arguments, but presence:

“It must hurt so much. I’m so sorry. I can completely understand that you would want to renounce God, and I don’t love you any less for it. If God is God, he will understand, too, and not love you any less for it, either. Go ahead and cry and swear and do whatever you need to do. We’re here.”



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6 comments on “On loving someone in pain

  1. soundtek says:

    I don’t think God gets mad at us when we get mad at Him – I think He is perfectly fine with us crying and cursing and yelling and asking “why?!” – at least that has been my experience.

    Being a parent, I never get mad at my kids when they are hurting if they yell at me… I know they are hurt and usually their questions lead to me asking them questions and usually we both gain a new perspective… (I do get angry if they are just being a brat and yelling at me for not getting their way, that doesn’t usually go over well…. but them being in pain is different)

    When I was going through a tough time, I never lost my faith in God – I could always feel His presence, even when He was silent (which was awful)…. but I did lose my faith in “church” and “His people” b/c they were supposed to be His hands and feet… but they weren’t – so I always try to remember that time and actually be Gods hands and feet (and not necessarily His mouthpiece) to others who are hurting – that way even though God might be silent, they can still feel and see Him working

    I don’t know if that helps… just me rambling mostly

    Liked by 1 person

  2. brianbalke says:

    Have you seen The Red Robe? The praetorian goes to find Peter, and discovers a crippled woman that testifies as to the greatness of Christ. He asks her how she can honor a man that could have healed her and did not, and she says, in effect, “I thought that too, and then realized that my faith was a greater testimony because he had not healed me.” Her service to others was made stronger by her weakness.

    I know that this probably wouldn’t satisfy the young man in question, but Jesus came down to suffer so that he might understand, and so be able to heal. So do many inventors of medicines. We cannot heal pain unless we confront and understand it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Will Moriarty says:

    When I walked away from God I asked Him to go with me. I’m not stupid enough to do a thing like that alone. -w

    Liked by 1 person

  4. tbenevento76 says:

    I think this makes perfect sense! What a beautiful way to think about it.


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