This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Comfort in Suffering
In this episode, Ligon Duncan, author of When Pain Is Real and God Seems Silent: Finding Hope in the Psalms, discusses how Christians can face profound life-changing suffering with their faith intact. He shares stories of severe suffering from his own ministry as a pastor, reflects on God's role in our suffering and how he often uses it to draw us closer to himself, and offers encouragement from God's word to listeners currently in the midst of a season of intense pain.
Topics Addressed in This Interview
- Personal Stories of Suffering
- The Privilege of Pastoring through Suffering
- Sharing in Suffering
- Feeling Distant from God
- Is Suffering Caused by Sin?
- Where Is God in Suffering?
- Offering Encouragement to the Suffering
- Fighting Bitterness
- The Darkness of Psalm 88
- Preference for Light and Happy Christianity
- The Importance of International Friendships
- Facing Depression in Suffering
Personal Stories of Suffering
I want to start our conversation today by quoting a verse from Psalm 88, which you call the most tragic song in all of Scripture. In verse three of that Psalm, the psalmist writes, “My soul is full of troubles” (Ps. 88:3). So my first question is, Have you ever personally experienced a season of life when you would say that was true of you—that your very soul was full of troubles?
Yes, Matt, I have. But as a pastor I have become aware over the last thirty years that my sufferings pale in comparison to the kind of sufferings that I've had the privilege of walking with my people through. I could talk about different kinds of struggles at a family level, but honestly the things that I've seen my friends and members go through are so much greater than anything that I've ever experienced. I've watched believers that I love and know really well go through really, really hard things—things that I, forty years ago I wouldn't have known things like that existed, and God's given me the privilege of being their pastor with them through those things—and I think I've learned more about suffering from watching brothers and sisters than anything else.
The Privilege of Pastoring through Suffering
A couple of times now you mentioned that it's a privilege to walk alongside them as a pastor, as a husband, as a father—why do you say that? Why do you use that word “privilege”?
It has struck me, as I've walked a little bit in the Christian life and as I've pastored, that our suffering as believers doesn't belong to us. Our suffering is meant for the edification of the body. And when I get to walk with brothers and sisters in my congregation through really hard valleys, I realize that the Lord not only has good in his designs for them but he has good in his designs for the congregation and maybe even for unbelievers who were going to become believers through the suffering of those saints. And so it really is a privilege to watch the Lord work and watch the Lord's people believe and hang on when all they've got is hope and all the lights have gone out. That's an enormous privilege to watch that. I'm struck over and over again by the thought that I'm on holy ground when I'm with a saint who's suffering. I have so many heroes that the world doesn't know about because I've been able to be the one there watching them believe when there was nothing else to hang on to in life.
I'm struck by your emphasis on the fact that our suffering is not our own and that God has purposes for the broader community—the Christian community—in the midst of our suffering and through our suffering. And yet, it seems to me that in my own experience, but certainly in seeing others suffer, that one of the hardest parts can actually be those feelings of isolation and loneliness—a sense that no one else is with them in that and that no one understands what you're going through. And I just wonder, as a pastor and as a friend, how have you helped people work through those feelings when they're in the midst of suffering?
One, as a pastor, is to quickly admit when you don't know what a person is going through. I think sometimes because we want to be sympathetic and empathetic and we want to emphasize how much we love and care for a person, we're tempted to try and say, I know how you feel. Baut so often they are facing circumstances for which you have no parallel in your experience. And so I think actually admitting upfront to to a brother or a sister, I wish I knew what you were going through right now, but I've never gone through this myself. But I will say this: the Lord has been kind to give me other people in the congregation who have gone through similar things. So for instance, early in my ministry, Matt, I lost count of the number of suicide funerals that I had to preach. I lost count of them. Just take that in. Some of these included children of believers in the church who had taken their own lives—just the most gut-wrenching kinds of circumstances that you can imagine. And I soon found out that Christians who had experienced that in their family life were amazing resources to other Christians who were experiencing things like that in their family life. Again, so many times I've been able to say, I don't know what you feel like, but I do know brothers and sisters in this congregation who do know what you feel like and they've walked this road before. And all of them had said to me, Ligon, when you need to call on me to help minister to somebody who's going through this, you call on me anytime, day and night. It was amazing to watch them minister to one another. And what a powerful testimony about how the body cares for one another. The pastor has no idea what you're going through experientially, but there are other sheep in the flock who understand and they're ministering to you in that. So a lot of times I would say, I don't know how you feel, but you know what? You've got brothers and sisters in this congregation who have gone through the exact same thing and they're ready to walk with you in it.
Why do you think it is that we—I think all of us—can resonate with that experience of when we learn that someone else has struggled and is in a similar way, it can just open up a level of relationship and a level of comfort that really doesn't come from anywhere else. Why do you think it is that that's the case—why are we wired that way as individual humans?
Well, I mean you just said it. I think that sometimes suffering is so intense that it breeds a feeling of isolation and you really do feel like nobody understands what I'm going through right now. I'm all alone in this. And then suddenly when you find out that you're not alone because somebody reaches out to you—you don't have to explain what you're feeling because they already know what you're feeling. The power of that is palpable for Christians that are going through it. And a bond comes out of that. I think pastors can have that kind of bond even with people that are going through things that the pastor doesn't understand. Here's an example: one of my dearest friends on earth is a ruling elder whose son took his own life. And it was my privilege to hold that man in my arms when I had to tell him that his son was dead. And we will be close until we take our last breath. We can go two years without seeing one another and then we'll see one another and we're close. And we always will be because we've gone through something together. So I do think that even when it's people that don't fully understand what you're going through, the fact that they fight through the fight with you can make it close. But man, when there are other people who have been through the same thing and they're there for you in that circumstance, it's almost like you can talk to one another with your eyes and without your mouth even moving. You know in your heart, you know in your gut what you feel like, what you're going through, what you need. As hard as those circumstances were, I love to see that kind of ministry from one part of the body to the other.
Feeling Distant from God
I think another thing that we often experience in profound suffering is that not only do we feel isolated from other people but sometimes we can even feel isolated and distant from God, and to such an extent that even God seems like he's pulled away from us and he's become silent in the midst of our cries to him. You mentioned that other people in your life and ministry have suffered much more than you have, but even with that have you ever personally struggled with a season of feeling like God had become distant from you and had maybe even abandoned you—has that ever been a struggle for you?
Yes, but it's always been my fault. And that's one difference. Oftentimes people in extreme or intense periods of suffering experience that, in a sense, by no fault of their own. In other words, it's the intensity of the suffering that can breed despair. I realized that so often when I feel distant or when I feel like God's not hearing me it's because of my own soul having wandered from God. It's not because I've been under some intense suffering that has caused that. I also think that there can be less intense suffering over a duration of time that can create the same kind of feeling of despair. So for instance, if you've got someone in the congregation with a chronic pain problem, that can breed despair even though the suffering doesn't have the same intensity as say a woman whose 18-month-old child has just died in her arms. A chronic neurological pain disorder, or something like that, just can wear somebody down to the point that they think like Job, God, do you even know that I'm here anymore? So that's how I would describe that.
Is Suffering Caused by Sin?
And you'd say it's not necessarily because of sin or a lack of faith that people might struggle with those feelings in the midst of profound suffering?
Right. Every circumstance can spawn faith battles. That's exactly what happened with Job. My church is doing a through the Bible in one year program right now and we're doing a chronological reading of the Bible, so one of the things I was reading in January was Job. It struck me that one of the interesting things about Job's friends is that they say a lot of things that are true that are utterly irrelevant to Job's situation. A lot of Job's feelings are directly derived from the intensity of the suffering that he is experiencing. That raises faith challenges for him, but his suffering wasn't caused by some faith failure on his part. So I think we have to remember that when we see believers in suffering, struggling with faith struggles, that those faith struggles may have actually been prompted by something that was unbidden in their own experience, which is God's providentially sending them hard things.
Where Is God in Suffering?
I wanted to return to that idea, too. In Psalm 88:6 the psalmist writes, “You”—speaking of God—”have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep” (Ps. 88:6) I think verses like that, and comments even like what you just said, can sometimes cause us to wonder about God's role in relation to our suffering. What would you say to that?
Oh, that's huge. Psalm 88 is so Job-like there. A lot of times people will address hard sufferings by asking the question, Why would God allow this? And that puts God in almost a passive relationship to the suffering that you're going through. Sometimes people do that because the suffering is so unspeakably grievous that they want God not to be accountable or responsible for that, and so they try to distance God from what they're going through. But Job never asked the question, Lord God, are you involved in what I'm going through? He speaks just like Psalm 88 does and that, Lord, you've done this. I know that you're in charge of everything. His question is, Why are you doing this Lord? What is this for? What does this mean? What am I supposed to do with this? There's no Did you do this or not? or Are you involved? He knows that God is sovereignly and providentially in control. The question is, What does this mean and how am I supposed to respond? And so I tell people that as hard as a situation of suffering is I want God right down in the middle of that because very often that experience of suffering may be the most significant life-shaping experience of your human history. And do you want to try and push God out of that, or do you want God to be in the middle of that? And the Bible makes it clear: God's right in the middle of that. And what that does is it assures us that there is no such thing for the believer as meaningless suffering. God always has a good purpose no matter what. And God's always in control no matter what. And that is a source of hope. Even the psalmist saying that in Psalm 88, which is so dark, there is a glimmer of hope in there even as he sort of remonstrates with God—Lord, you put me here! Yeah, that's the hope. Yeah, he put you there, which means you're not the victim of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This isn't luck. This isn't blind faith. There is a personal, loving, good, infinitely wise, infinitely powerful God who is up to something in this. And I may not understand it and I mean like it and it may be the most horrible experience that I've ever felt, but there's still meaning in it. And I still believe Romans 8:28—God is working all things for good for me. So that “you put me here”—even though that's probably sort of a remonstrating with God at that point in Psalm 88—the hope in that is, yes, God put you here.
Offering Encouragement to the Suffering
As you think about that truth—that foundational and rock solid truth that we can hope in when we're in the midst of suffering—but especially as a pastor and as a friend, how do you balance emphasizing that truth with the other side of the equation? When somebody is in the midst of profound suffering, sometimes reminding people of things like that—Romans 8 is the classic example—can feel trite and it can feel like it's belittling the actual profound suffering that they're experiencing. How do you keep those things in balance?
First, thank you for that question. Everybody needs to hear that question loud and clear. Here's my policy: until I am very confident that I have a relationship with someone where I know that they will receive that as an encouragement—not as some sort of a trite imperative but as a profound encouragement from someone who aches with them—I don't deploy that word of encouragement. I've got to have the relationship, I've got to have the right to say that. And there are all sorts of ways that you know whether you have that right or not. And so I do think Christians need to be very careful about glibly employing that word. Because what happens is if you glibly employ that kind of encouragement, it robs it of its profundity—and it is profoundly true. Even godly people can be at places in their life where they're not ready to receive that encouragement. And so you've got to really read the situation carefully. And Christians are at different stages of maturity, so you've got to know what salve from the Scripture to apply at what time to what person. And some of that is not only determined by their spiritual maturity but it's also determined by your relationship with them and the level of trust and confidence and openness that they have with you. A number of years ago I sat in a pediatric intensive care unit with a young mother whose infant was dying in her arms, and after the boy died she asked me to sing the doxology. I never would have said to her, Let's sing the doxology. But when she said to me, Let's sing the doxology, I was ready to jump in and do that because it said to me something about her confidence in the goodness and providence of God. And that opens up the door for a kind of conversation that I might not be able to have with everybody in that kind of circumstance, even other mature Christians.
What advice would you offer to someone who is suffering when it comes to guarding their heart against bitterness? I think we all recognize that it does often take time and we have to be patient as we persevere through suffering, but at some point that could turn into a bitterness against God and anger against God. So what advice do you offer to people who are in the midst of that to guard their hearts from that?
I think one thing is to bring your pain to God. He wants it and he can take it. When you look at Psalms—like Psalm 88 and Psalm 89, and we could look at dozens of others—it is amazing to me that God, in his inspired word, has the psalmist set down their deepest disappointments and trials and fears and anxieties and worries and troubles and sufferings. And he says, Now, come into the assembly of the saints and sing those things to me. Sing to me about your pain. Sing to me about your confusion. Sing to me about your hopelessness. Sing to me about your fears. Sing to me about how you feel like I'm distant from you. Sing it to me. And it's just the Lord saying to you, I love you. I made you. I understand what you're like. I know what you need. I can take it. I can hear that. You can bring that to me and I'll receive it. I'll minister to you. And it's so kind that God does that for us in the Psalms. So one thing I say is, brothers and sisters just go to the Psalms! When you don't know what to say to him, he's giving you the words to say to him. And he's telling you that he wants to hear those words from you and that he's not afraid or offended by hearing those words from you and that he's ready to minister to you when you feel like that and then he's reminding you that you're not alone. There have been saints in all ages that feel the same way. So thank God that he's given us the Psalms!
The Darkness of Psalm 88
Well one of the things that's most striking about Psalm 88 in particular, and it makes it different than most other passages in Scripture that do speak to suffering, is that it's pretty much exclusively dark. It really doesn't contain any expressions of hope and salvation. What do you make of that and why do you think that's the case?
Isn't it kind that the Lord would give us some Psalms like that? Psalm 88 isn't entirely unique, but I really view it as the lowest, darkest point in the Psalter. It's got companions, but there are certainly not any darker than that. And I think it reminds us that sometimes really godly, really mature believers can be in places where all the lights have gone out and all their earthly hopes have been extinguished and there's some sort of a glib happy ending right around the corner. A number of years ago a friend of mine wrote an article called “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” And he was just making the observation that almost all of modern Christian worship music is happy and that there are very few lyrical materials being created for people who are facing misery and trial and pain and suffering. That really struck home to me and I realized we need to be singing a range of material that's thoroughly rich and biblical that can give expression to different experiences because not everybody is coming to church happy. There are people that are coming to church with their hearts breaking. There were hymns where I would look out into the eyes of my congregation to see how they sang certain hymns. “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” has this line that goes, “What need or grief ever hath failed of relief? Wings of his mercy did shade thee.” I would look at people to see how they sang that and there were many times I thought, Okay, I need to follow up on that person. I think Psalm 88 functions in the same way—it lets saints that are in the pit of despair realize, God knows that people like me exist. He put these circumstances in the Psalms and they're here for me. It's not just the “Hallelujahs!” at the end of this Psalter that are appropriate for the worship of God. God knows that there are people like me that need to have something to bring into this presence. So that's one way that I approach that.
Preference for Light and Happy Christianity
What do you think our preference for positive, happy worship songs says about our view of the Christian life or our theology?
Don't you think a lot of it is in North America in particular we have not faced in the last hundred years the same kind of deep suffering that other believers around the world regularly face? Until five years ago I did not know a Christian friend who had been in prison for the sake of Christ, and now I have one and he's an Indonesian. That sort of experience is still the norm for Christians outside of our culture. And so I think somewhat the very context that we're in has made experiences of suffering in the Christian life a little more distant for North American believers than they would be for believers in other cultures.
The Importance of International Friendships
Do you think it's important for us to seek out and pursue those kinds of relationships in order to have a deeper sense for the suffering of other Christians—is that an important goal?
Yes, absolutely! My international friendships have profoundly enriched me in that regard. I'm on every inhabited continent about once every 18 months because of my job now and, no doubt, the friendships that I've been able to cultivate in other cultures where suffering is just such a norm of the Christian life has changed me. For instance, right now a pastor friend of mine literally has his bag for prison packed and at the front door at all times because he knows that at any moment his government is going to come and arrest him. And it's not a matter of if but when, and he's just downright matter-of-fact about it. There are very few pastors in the United States that know anything like that.
Facing Depression in Suffering
So one of the other things that I'm struck by as I read through Psalm 88 is just the strong language that the psalmist uses throughout. Oftentimes that language is related to death and how close to death that he feels. Just a couple of examples: he says his life draws near to Sheol, he says that he's going down into the pit, and he's like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave. (Ps. 88:3–5) And there's other examples throughout that Psalm. I wonder what you make of that. I think that kind of language is a language that today we often would recognize or associate with severe depression or even suicidal thoughts. So I just wonder, could that have been a factor here in this Psalm, or how do you think about that in light of what Scripture says?
The most important thing that we need in suffering is faith, a sense of God's love and good purposes for us, and hope. So cultivating those things in the Christian life with the means of grace—and we always ought to be preparing to suffer. Admiral Duncan, who I don't think was any relation to my family, was a famous British admiral in the days of the Napoleonic wars and his family crest featured the Latin phrase disce pati, “learn to suffer.” And that's actually a pretty good motto for the Christian life, that you always are preparing for what your great challenges will be. I often tell people who have entered into a season of suffering that are believers, Now you know at least one of the things that the Lord was preparing you for through the means of grace in the rest of your life. But I think for the rest of us, we always have to say, Lord, I know things are going to come that are challenges to my faith, so use the means of grace in my life right now so that I'm prepared to suffer when the time comes. Normally what happens is we go into autopilot. When trauma hits, the normal processes shut down and only the things that are deeply ingrained into the very essence of who we are survive those moments of trauma. And you just want those things worked down into your bones before it comes.
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