By Spencer and Kari Essenpreis
In a fallen world, suffering happens year-round. But during a widespread crisis such as the current pandemic, Christians and pastors can become more attuned to the burdens of others.
Your video-driven small group or Bible study, for example, has likely been filled with prayer requests and admissions of personal struggles through dark times.
In such moments, it can be difficult for saints to know how to respond to someone else’s suffering.
Saying the right thing doesn’t come naturally, and—if we’re honest with ourselves—we often fumble the handoff when someone shares their burdens.
So how can we speak words of encouragement during times of suffering without coming across as being trite?
The answer comes through offering lament—a biblical pattern that affirms someone’s suffering while helping them find encouragement from God.
Lament is the language the psalmists often used as they took their hardships to God.
Because most of us aren’t expert lamenters, here are five practical steps adapted from Mark Vroegop’s excellent book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, to get us started in encouraging our brothers and sisters as they face various trials.
1. Learn and affirm
When someone shares their burdens with us, we want to begin by affirming they’re going through a difficult time while we seek to learn more about it.
The goal is to understand someone’s suffering and affirm their hardship.
Our first response to their suffering may be an affirmation like, “I’m so sorry. That must be very hard for you.”
Then, as we learn more about someone’s suffering, there may be further moments where we want to add additional affirmation.
We live in a sinful, fallen world where things go so drastically wrong. It’s OK, therefore, for people to be sad, frustrated, or otherwise emotional because of their suffering.
Jesus wept over the death of a friend He was about to raise back to life (John 11:35), and asked God the Father why He had forsaken Him (Matthew 27:46).
Take time to learn more about someone’s suffering. It’s good to ask questions about the situation, especially about how the person is feeling and holding up spiritually.
People will more quickly share about the situation itself before they’ll share how they’re personally feeling, but as you’re faithful to ask thoughtful questions, people will often open up.
2. Turn to God
When someone is going through trials, our first impulse is to give advice (to fix things), offer encouragement (to make them feel better), or explain how we’ve been there too (so they don’t feel alone).
Unfortunately, these attempts to help the situation usually fall flat.
What we can do instead is turn to God in prayer. After all, He’s the one who really can fix things.
He’s the one who offers true hope and encouragement, and He’s the loving Father who never leaves or forsakes His people.
After learning and affirming, ask if you can pray out loud with a person who’s suffering.
3. Bring our complaints to the Lord
As you turn to God in prayer, present the person’s complaint to God. Tell God about the difficult time they’re going through.
Talk to God about how this world is so messed up it led to this person’s suffering.
You can even, like the psalmists, ask God why He’s allowed this suffering to happen and how long He will allow it to continue (see Psalm 13 and 22 as examples).
Asking such questions can feel wrong, but it’s clearly biblical.
In this way, you can bring the person’s suffering to God while also helping them understand their hardship is not abnormal.
After presenting the complaint, ask God to make things better.
Ask God to provide healing or deliverance, to end oppression or bring justice, or to do whatever it takes to bring an end to the person’s suffering.
Pray for God to give the person hope, peace, and joy in Christ. Pray that He will comfort them and strengthen their faith.
Pray that God will show them how He’s working all things for their good.
The last step is to express your trust that God, in His sovereign goodness and steadfast love, will care for the person who’s suffering.
It may be far easier for you to express this trust than for them to do so in the moment, and that’s why it’s especially important for you to share it in prayer.
The trust you express in God will be an encouragement that helps them to trust in Him.
Be careful, however, not to promise more than God promises.
For example, we can’t say with certainty that God will respond to our prayer by healing a person from a chronic illness in this life.
We can, however, always express our trust that in the end all things will be made right and new and that our present suffering is but for a time and not worth comparing to the glory to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).
Following these steps will allow you to lament together with brothers and sisters in Christ in a way that will encourage them, strengthen their faith, and give them a biblical pattern for bringing their own suffering to God.
SPENCER AND KARI ESSENPREIS served overseas before Kari began suffering debilitating chronic pain. They strive to encourage others who suffer through their blog WithHopeWeSuffer.com. Spencer is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has served as an elder and missions leader.