In a world of hurt

Four ways to respond to (rather than shrink from) suffering in the world

By Fred Miller

The magazines arrive in my mailbox. On their covers are pictures of people who look a lot different than I do and who live in a world a lot different from mine. Their eyes are vacant, their bodies shabbily clothed. They often look poor. And needy. I wonder, Am I supposed to meet such great need?

Then there are those missions trips I’ve taken to Chicago, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Zambia. I’ve seen people suffering—from poverty, injustice, violence, and destruction—firsthand and returned home troubled by the question, What does God want me to do?

And added to these experiences, are the articles in this magazine about believers in South Asia facing obstacles and trials that I probably never will. Again, How does God want me to respond?

The words of James hauntingly come to mind: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

So sometimes I write a check or click the “donate now” button. It’s loving; I sense God’s pleasure in it, and I view it as one way for me to care for others out of my own abundance. But the reality is that most of the time I do nothing. And I’m acutely aware that these needs are way beyond my limited monetary gifts.

Then how should we respond to world needs that we encounter? How can we avoid apathy (because we tune them out), spiritual dullness (because we don’t use them as an opportunity to turn to God), and heavy guilt (because we do nothing or because we don’t experience them in the same way as others do)? When we encounter stories of suffering, what might God want us to do?

FEEL.

And guard ourselves against feeling nothing. Scripture speaks of having “tenderness and compassion” for one another, even towards those we don’t know or will never meet (Philippians 2:1). In Matthew 5:7, Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful,” which implies a heartfelt awareness of the needs of others, and Romans 12:15 instructs us to share in one another’s sadness and joys. Just as Christ took on flesh and endured the suffering of humanity, so should we strive to walk in the shoes of others, that we might gain insights into love.

In a world of hope

Feeling, loving, praying, and growing are lifelong endeavors. But here are a couple practical ways to pursue them.

FEEL.

  • Find out all you can about the context.
  • Listen to people in the situation talk about what they are experiencing.
  • Ask yourself some questions. (You may even want to write down your responses.)
  • Have I ever been in this situation or a similar one? What was that like?
  • What might I be feeling if this happened to me?
  • What things might be keeping me from feeling (fear, busyness, pain, etc.)?

LOVE.

  • Ask others to tell you what they need and seek to provide them with it.
  • Take the time to “mourn with those who mourn.”
  • Give to the BIC World Hunger Fund in cases of global emergency relief assistance.
  • Go with BIC World Missions if visitation is the best approach.
  • Sponsor a child thru SPICE and nurture the future leaders of the BIC Church in India and Nepal.

PRAY.

  • Use the Prayer Focus, a weekly list of prayer requests from the worldwide BIC community.
  • Sign up to receive The Challenge, a monthly newsletter of prayer requests from BIC global workers.

GROW.

  • Subscribe to Shalom!, a quarterly journal that shares stories of peace and reconciliation from around the world.
  • Engage in conversation with others at InPart.org.
  • Challenge yourself with new ideas using the resources offered by the BIC Church.

LOVE.

Compassionately act in the best interests of others (Romans 12:10–13). This can feel overwhelming, especially when we see news stories of thousands or even millions of people who are suffering. But we should remember that not all expressions of love need to be complicated. A place to start might be the simple gift of feeling their sorrow and not reducing their experiences to a news-bite. They may never know you joined them in this way, but it is one way to honor people’s humanity and enter into the story with them. At the same time, true love will be open to other expressions—like giving money, working to correct social injustices, and sometimes offering comfort and support through direct communication, visitation, and service. God knows we can’t do every one of these things each time we hear of a need, but we must regularly respond, even if it’s in small ways.

PRAY.

Through this act, we bring the needs we know of to God, telling Him what’s on our hearts. Then, we listen, letting God say what’s on His heart. We let Him speak to us about how we feel (or don’t feel) and how we love (or don’t love). Through heart-to-heart conversation with God, we ask for His kingdom-will; we cry with Him; we confess our apathy; we pursue the heart of Jesus in us (Ephesians 6:18).

GROW.

We must allow every encounter to shape our minds and hearts. Romans 8:28 says that God works good things out of bad when we love Him and embrace His purposes. God is not the author of evil, sin, and suffering—they’re the results of twisted free will and a groaning fallen world—but He can redeem them. He can show up, with mercy, power, and even redemptive judgment. And in the midst of it all, He desires to change us. The Lord wants to use these encounters with pain to make us more merciful, more sensitive, more globally-minded. He desires to increase our awareness of evil so we can fight it, to show us our own failings even as we see those of others, to move from self-centeredness to selflessness, even to increase our convictions so that we might increase our courage to take radical actions on behalf of the oppressed.

A wide path of freedom

I find it helpful to understand God’s will as a wide bike path, rather than a narrow, single-file trail. Most of the time, I believe God is not trying to get me to discern one single, God-pleasing response to human suffering. Rather, He’s pleased if I stay on the wide path of compassion, moving forward and not going off to the left or the right. The four guidelines above assist me in this process.

For example, my wife and I seek to practice these responses when we encounter hurting people in our church and community. We discuss human needs and pray for them with our children and grandchildren. For a broader perspective, I set my homepage to a site that highlights world events. I subscribe to secular and missions-oriented magazines that inform me of global, regional, and local issues, and I try to periodically visit places where I may encounter these issues. I also do my best to engage and be open to different voices that propose spiritual, social, or political solutions to needs.

In all of these things, our main call is to follow Christ. In the words of the worship song “Hosanna,” we must ask Jesus to:


Heal my heart and make it clean

Open up my eyes to the things unseen

Show me how to love like You have loved me

Break my heart for what breaks Yours

Everything I am for Your Kingdom’s cause

As I walk from earth into eternity.*


*Lyrics by Brooke Fraser

This article originally appeared in the spring 2012 issue of In Part magazine.
Fred Miller

Fred Miller is the senior pastor of Cumberland Valley Church (Dillsburg, Pa.). Fred loves to read theology, to coach youth lacrosse, and to watch and evaluate movies with his wife, Cathy.

Comments

There are currently no comments for this story. Be the first!

Post new comment

Your email will not be made public.
Tip: You may use <strong> and <em> HTML tags if you want.
By clicking "save," I affirm that I have expressed my thoughts with civility, courtesy, and respect. I understand that while thoughtful disagreement is fine, personal attacks, prejudicial assumptions, and insensitive language are unacceptable and will not be published.