How To Support Friends Through Their Suffering

Storms of suffering present challenges on at least two levels. The storm itself is level one – the accident, the miscarriage, the sickness, the betrayal, the financial loss. These objective realities are incredibly hard to navigate, but according to the testimony of survivors they are, surprisingly, not the biggest challenge. The internal storm (level two) that rages as a result proves even more difficult to navigate – the untamed anxieties, the unyielding doubts, the unshakable depression, the unresolved confusion… the unending exhaustion.

I recently interviewed an incredible circle of women who have shown me what it looks like to help a friend navigate both levels of life’s devastating storms — the objective realities and the personal grappling. These women have faithfully supported their close girlfriend Nicka Pohl while her husband, Brent, endured: a liver transplant, a kidney transplant, and over 80 days in the hospital due to complications.

First, these women pursued opportunities to relieve as much pressure as possible.

“While Brent was in the hospital, the question we focused on was, ‘What can we take off Nicka’s plate.’” Dana Frain said. “There were many practical needs. A neighbor organized a meal plan and basically the whole neighborhood stepped up to provide meals. Friends from the house church mowed their lawn. Some collected money to pay for Nicka’s parking at Hopkins. Others assembled snack packages filled with drinks and health bars that she could take on her trips to the hospital. A few would check in with Nicka regularly to see if she needed them to run errands or stop by Target. Others babysat or drove their children to events.”

Through it all, Nicka’s inner circle of girlfriends took point and guarded her from having to interface with lots of people, especially when her emotional reserves were depleted.

Supporting a friend through suffering requires forethought, organization, and loving sacrifice. These women did a great job relieving the pressure of Nicka’s “level 1” challenges. They saw what needed to be done and jumped into action. But the wisdom of their care shined even brighter as they supported Nicka through the “level 2” challenges.

Equally important as relieving certain pressures, they also understood their limitations to make things better.

Keyne Geisler had known Nicka since high school. Their long history and intimate knowledge of each other allowed them to feel completely safe. In the midst of terrifying uncertainty, they could communicate without speaking any words. There was no need to ask questions, even though they had the same ones – What is going on? Is Brent going to die or not?

“Nicka didn’t know why all this was happening to her husband. I didn’t feel I needed to answer her.” Keyne said. “I knew how deeply Nicka desired to trust Christ—not people, not me, not doctors. It wouldn’t be me that helped her. It would be the Holy Spirit. I just felt like I could help with practical needs but only God could truly meet her heart needs.”

So these women turned to God and helped Nicka to do the same. They appealed to everyone they could to pray for the Pohls and to send index cards with encouraging Bible verses. They wallpapered Brent’s hospital room with God’s promises. With Nicka, they waited patiently on the Lord and resisted the urge to try to “fix it”. Their faithfulness to God and their sympathetic love for Nicka made them sweet comforters.

Personally, Jenna Mace knew how hard it was to lose a family member. Jenna’s loss propelled her into a depression that made it very painful to worship the Lord. Because Nicka had walked through that experience with Jenna, they shared a deep trust that enabled genuine conversations to occur without presumption or guardedness, even on Nicka’s most fearful days. This was 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 in action: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

“When we face suffering, our experience is often marked by trust and fear — intertwined together.” Keyne added. “One moment can be full of faith, the next full of fear. But somehow, God’s grace is enough.”

For this group of women, it was God’s grace – not their ability to understand things or fix things that sustained them with an undeniable (and contagious) sense of peace. And it was their love for a friend that enabled them to anticipate need and work to relieve it.

By learning from their story, we might offer better comfort to our friends when they endure life’s stormiest seasons.

Reclaim Hope

Painful events focus our attention on everything that is wrong in our lives. Those seeking to grow hope drive back the darkness by refocusing on worthwhile activities. After tragedy strikes, they work toward reinvented goals and focus on what they can do, not their limitations (even when all they can do is pray for others). They get busy living through work and service. Surprisingly by spending energy, they regain strength.

In a perfect world, humans worked. At creation, God placed Adam and Eve in the garden to keep it. Our first parents reflected God as they cared for each other and all God entrusted to them. Their work was a life-producing gift.

However, since humanity’s fall into sin the gift of work has been cursed. “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it, all the days of your life…by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground…for dust you are and to dust you will return.”  Genesis 3:17-19

Under the curse, work is like silver. It remains precious, but it tarnishes quickly. When we forget work’s inherent value or its cursed condition, we tend to overwork or underwork to our own harm. This is especially true during seasons of suffering. Overworking contributes to living in denial. Underworking contributes to living in despair. But working rightly contributes to living with hope.

Our unique human ability for thoughtful work reflects God’s image — like the moon reflects the sun. When we work as God works, we shine brightly casting light into the darkness of our world. When our work is aligned to God’s will, the tides of suffering are bound. They are kept at bay and not permitted to flood us in despair.

For example, in the movie Shawshank Redemption, a banker named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is wrongly convicted for the murder of his adulterous wife and her lover. Andy is sentenced to two consecutive life terms at Shawshank, a notoriously brutal state penitentiary. He befriends Red (Morgan Freeman) who helps him to learn the ropes of his new life in prison.

Strangely, Andy possesses an immunity to the dehumanizing process of prison life; a devolution the inmates call being institutionalized. A fully institutionalized man surrenders all hope. Andy never becomes institutionalized.

Andy’s hope empowers him to overcome persistent and grievous injustices committed against him and then devote himself to improving the lives of his friends. He builds a library. He helps inmates get their high school diploma. He magically creates moments when the prison walls all but vanish in the eyes of his fellow inmates. At one point, he gains unauthorized access to the prison’s loudspeakers. He plays Mozart’s duet from Le nozze di Figaro to the whole prison compound.

“I tell you those voices soared, higher and further than anyone in a great place dares to dream.” Red, his friend says. “It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

Andy’s punishment is two weeks in solitary confinement. When he returns to the general population, his friends ask him if his stunt was worth the cost. Andy replies that it was the easiest time he ever did because the music helped him forget.

“Forget?” Red asks.

“Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there is something inside that they can’t get to. That they can’t touch. It’s yours.” Andy says.

“What are you talking about?” Red asks.

“Hope.” Andy says.

“Hope? Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. Its got no use on the inside. You better get used to the idea.” Red says.

“Like Brooks did.” Andy quips.

Brooks Hatlen, their friend, had become “fully institutionalized”. He lost hope. When he was freed from prison, fear ruled him; so he hanged himself.

For Andy Dufresne everything came down to a choice. “Get busy living or get busy dying!” he said. He fought for hope with all his energy. In the end, Andy was vindicated in more ways than one! (It is a must see movie.)

Hope builders take responsibility for their choices. They know there are only two options — abstaining in despair means choosing death. So, they choose life and get busy living.

Realizing there is no middle ground is the first step out of the solitary confinement of helplessness. If you refuse to abstain in despair, and choose hope, your own prison walls will begin to disappear. Like Andy Dufresne you may even give others glimpses of hope beyond the stone wall of your present confinement.

So what will you choose?

May God give you the grace to reinvent your goals, get to work, and in so doing — rediscover hope.

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Embrace Imperfect Community

Scholars call Genesis chapter one The Song of Creation. As God creates, He sings for joy. Like an artist who steps back to appreciate his work, God breaks out in poetry and at the end of each stanza (each day) he sings, “It is good!”

From the perspective of Genesis 2, the Song of Creation builds to a crescendo on the sixth day, after God creates Adam in His image; and then suddenly the song screeches to a halt. God yells, “It is not good!” God then, seemingly, walks off stage at the climax of the concert and takes the composer’s sheets with him. He scribbles new notes as the orchestra and audience wonder, “What’s wrong?”

What is so problematic that God interrupts the song of creation?

“It is not good for man to be alone.” God said. (Genesis 2:18) So, He created a friend for Adam, named Eve.

Why did Adam need a human friend so desperately? Adam had God at his side. Was God not enough? Sin had not yet entered the world, so it couldn’t have been that Adam needed support for difficult times.

By including a dramatic pause in The Song of Creation, God was making a dramatic point. He was saying that human friendship is not merely beneficial, but absolutely necessary. If humans are made in God’s image, and God is a community (Father, Son and Holy Spirit); then no one can be fully human outside community.

At creation, Adam and Eve delighted in perfect community — with each other and with God. There was no shame, no fear, no disappointment. There was only beautiful intimacy.

Since the fall, our ability to function in community has been severely damaged. Community works about as well as a smartphone with a cracked screen. It still functions but the image has been distorted. This can cause enough frustration to tempt us to go without. But that would mean losing something that still has value and functionality.

It may be frustrating to live in community but it is unbearable to live outside of it. We tend to lose our humanity when we are separated from others for too long. We may not bother to make the bed, get dressed or use utensils. Like a hermit, we’ll appear more beastly over time.

Unfortunately, living in community usually gets harder during seasons of suffering. Even the most extroverted among us are tempted to pull away from the very people we need. We can anticipate how a certain person (or group of people) will respond. Stepping into community, we become vulnerable and we actually don’t know what someone may say and do! Facing this unknown is exhausting and stressful. It just seems easier to hide away and avoid all potentially uncomfortable situations.

People are a mixed bag of treats — sometimes sweet, sometimes sour. Suffering amplifies that experience. When a friend anticipates our needs without making a fuss; it leaves an unforgettable savor, like grandma’s chicken soup. But when they forget about us (and say something hurtful); it is like food poisoning that turns our insides out. We would do anything to avoid a second incident.

During seasons of suffering, we long for real rest. We want to be understood and encouraged. We need people to weep with us — to share our pain because we can’t bear it alone. We cannot handle all our normal responsibilities and our suffering at the same time. We need help, but we don’t know how to ask for it. Managing help requires more forethought and energy than we can spare. We need people to jump in and simply do what needs to be done, without being asked. Unfortunately they don’t always know what to do. And, the average person relates awkwardly. They don’t know what to say, so they say nothing; or they say something stupid.

The bottom line is during your season of suffering you must offer forgiveness toward people offering imperfect help. Walking this path is not easy, but it is better than the alternative — going down the isolating path of resentment.

Thankfully we have a Savior who showed us the way forward.  He not only suffers with us but he also shows us how to embrace the imperfect help of others.

“Keep watch and pray.” Jesus told his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. They tried to help but failed him miserably during his greatest hour of need.

Remember, you are not alone. Everyone must embrace the only type of community available to them — an imperfect one. While it may be tempting to go without it, you simply cannot afford it and maintain your humanity.  The community surrounding you may be damaged but it is still functional. So embrace it. And, who knows, it may pleasantly surprise you!

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Weathering the Storms of Life (Part 2)

In my previous post, I told you about the recent storm that overtook my life and how God used the story of Mark 4:35-41, to speak to me.

Recovery from my storm took an unexpectedly long time. I developed pleurisy. It took three months for the fluid to leave my lungs, so breathing was challenging and painful. It also took three months for my red blood cell counts to get close to normal, so I was severely exhausted. I would lie down after lunch and not wake up until dinner.  Then I ended up in the ER two more times with atrial fibrillation. Both times I was dehydrated from the medication I was given to rid my lungs of fluid.bonnie_dripps

During those three months the world kept spinning. People were living their lives, and the ministry of DiscipleMakers was going splendidly. But somehow, I had gotten spun off the world.  I was isolated and lonely. It was humbling to realize how dispensable I was.

I started asking myself, “Is God really enough?”

When we suffer, life implodes. We want to know there is meaning in our suffering. We want see it make a difference. So, I began to pray that God would use my suffering to minister to others and show me his bigger story. He has answered that prayer as people continue to share how God used my storm to encouraged them in their storms.

It’s been over four months since the storm first hit. I still have not recovered all my strength. I was weeding my flower bed for five minutes, and my hands began trembling. I couldn’t write for a while. I am told that it could be nine months before my strength fully returns.

So what was God’s purpose in my storm?

I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that he showed me who he is more clearly than I’ve ever understood before. The Bible promises us that “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us” (2 Peter 1:3). My knowledge of Christ gives me all I need for a godly life.

He showed me that my storm is part of a bigger story. He is weaving together my life with the lives of those around me.

The storm tested my faith and refined it. It showed me that we really can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil, for he is with us.

What is your storm right now? What are you afraid of? What causes you to doubt God’s love and goodness?

When storms overtake us, we can choose faith instead of fear by remembering the cross. Jesus gave up his life to rescue us. He cares. We can remember that he is right there in the boat with us and isn’t going anywhere! We can remember that he is commanding our storms. He is in control.

For years I have had a picture of a storm on the wall of my office. Underneath the picture, I wrote a quote from How People Change by counselors and authors, Paul Tripp and Tim Lane. It says:

“When you are in the middle of (storms), you haven’t somehow gotten yourself outside the circle of God’s love and care. God is simply taking you where you don’t want to go to produce in you what you could not achieve on your own.”

Underneath this I wrote another quote: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) God is in our storms, refining us, completing us, making us like Jesus.

By his grace, we can dare to hope that we could actually join Jesus in peaceful sleep in the stern of our boat — even the midst of life’s worst storms. We only need to remember who Jesus really is.

Weathering the Storms of Life

Storms can suddenly and unexpectedly overtake us in life. And when they do, they present a multitude of opportunities to become fearful and anxious.

Bonnie DrippsMy recent storm began with months of sleepless nights when my heart felt like a herd of horses galloping in my chest. You’ve probably taken your car to the mechanic because it’s making a menacing noise, but when you get there, all is quiet. Then, on the way home, the menacing noise emerges again! So it was with my heart. The problem seemed to go into hiding whenever I stepped into the ER or wore a heart monitor. But one morning, after a sleepless night, I lost consciousness. The EMT’s were able to get evidence on the EKG that my heart was in paroxysmal rapid atrial fibrillation. That means it was unpredictably beating at 177 beats per minute, which my body could not sustain. I was hospitalized to get it under control.

I also have a rare blood cancer. I was diagnosed 13 years ago, and it has no cure. Without treatment, my blood becomes so thick that my organs shut down.This cancer and the medication I take for it, both suppress my immune system and increase my risk of infection.

While I was in the hospital being treated for the heart condition, I contracted a super bug — a nasty drug resistant bacteria. Treatment was a week of IV antibiotics. What no one realized until I returned home was that the antibiotics were creating a medium for an even more dangerous drug-resistant bacteria to grow. People regularly die from it.

A week later I was back in the hospital, in isolation. Fluid was filling my lung cavity and surrounding my heart. This made it difficult and painful to breathe. The bacteria suppressed my bone marrow so that I was not producing red blood cells. The doctors began talking about blood transfusions. The anemia was so intense that I fell asleep texting and talking with my husband. The doctors thought I may have blood clots in my lungs, so they did a CT scan. I’m allergic to CT scan dye, so for the next week, I had an angry rash over 25% of my body. Eleven pounds of water had taken up residence in my legs and feet. My fibromyalgia was very unhappy with the hospital bed, so my pain level was getting intense.

My body’s systems were like a row of dominoes. When the first one fell, they all came toppling down. The doctors were saying, “You are a complicated case. Nothing is straightforward with you.”

At the same time I discovered that my infant grandson was in the hospital on oxygen with RSV and pneumonia. Both he and my daughter had contracted it. She was staying at the hospital with him. My son-in-law was deployed. They were all the way across the US, and I couldn’t help them.

Storms lead us to ask questions. Did the medication set this all off? Do I need to stop the medication and go back to traditional chemo? Can my body endure chemo again? I was scheduled to speak at a women’s conference. Was I going to be able to keep my commitment? Since atrial fibrillation is unpredictable, was this the end of ministry as I had known it? But, there was one critical question I had to answer, and the answer would determine how I would weather this storm.

Who is Jesus?

Mark 4:35-41 tells us about a sudden fierce storm, the opportunity for fear and anxiety, the questions asked, and finally that critical question — Who is Jesus?

This passage ministered to me in my storm. Jesus had finished a long day of teaching the crowds by the Sea of Galilee. He asked his disciples to go to the other side of the lake to rest. When got in the boat, Jesus, exhausted, fell asleep on a cushion in the stern. Suddenly, a fierce storm overtook them. Waves were crashing and filling up the boat. I imagine the disciples were bailing fiercely. They were afraid for their lives, but Jesus slept through the storm! They were frustrated that he was not doing anything about their situation.

Isn’t this just like us? The storms of life hit, and we are scared and frustrated because it seems like Jesus is not doing anything about it. But Jesus knew that storm was going to hit. He knows everything. It was part of his plan to test their faith.

When God tests our faith, it’s not because he doesn’t know what we believe. It’s because we don’t know what we believe. Those tests reveal what we believe so that our faith can grow. Storms evoke a response of either faith or fear.

They woke Jesus and asked, “Teacher, don’t you care we are perishing?” First they called him teacher, not savior. How many mere teachers can heal diseases, cast out demons and raise a widow’s son from the dead? The disciples had seen Jesus’ power with their own eyes yet when the storm hit, they forgot.  Isn’t that like us?

Second, their question, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” exposed their doubt concerning Jesus’ care for them. Isn’t that one of our first responses when storms hit and things feel out of control? We doubt God’s goodness. “If he really cared, he would not allow this to happen to me.” Jesus doesn’t answer the disciples’ question. There had been plenty of evidence of his care for them.

We have even more evidence. Look at the cross! There, Jesus weathered the greatest storm anyone will ever experience in order to love and care for us. Surely, he will care for us in the smaller storms that overtake us in life.

Instead of answering their question, Jesus demonstrated once again who he is. He commanded the wind and sea to be quiet, and it calmed immediately. Then it was Jesus’ turn to ask the questions. “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Faith is the opposite of fear. If they had faith in Jesus, they would not have been afraid. Jesus wanted them to remember all he had done. They saw his authority over sickness, demons and death. But, because they didn’t remember, he spoke to the wind and sea to demonstrate his authority over it. It’s easy to dismiss miracles that happen to others. But, this miracle was personal. It was happening to the disciples, in their boat, and it had tremendous impact.

They finally asked the critical question. “Who is this that even the wind and sea obey him?” They were beginning to see that Jesus is not just another teacher. What he did was the work of Elohim, the God who spoke creation into existence, commands it, and sustains it by his powerful word. This storm was planned to help them see who Jesus really is and to perfect their faith in him.

Thankfully, even though the disciples were fearful Jesus stayed with them through the storm. He does the same for us in our storms.

We are in the same boat as the disciples. When storms overtake us, we must answer the critical question: Who is Jesus? How we answer it will determine how we weather the storms of life.

(Bonnie Dripps helped her husband found DiscipleMakers in 1981.)

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When the Pursuit of Wisdom Disappoints

I recently taught through the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. The class sparked lively discussion about life’s most troubling experiences and unsettling questions. When asked for their initial impression after listening to the book read aloud, people repeated the words: Confused, Frustrated…Disillusioned.

Ecclesiastes’ sobering introduction decries, “Meaningless! Meaningless…Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (1:2). When a teenager bursts out with similar sentiments we wonder if adolescent hormones are to blame. But when a seasoned sage declares it, we are deeply troubled. Ecclesiastes was written by an elder statesman — “the teacher, the son of David, king of Jerusalem.” Traditional scholarship credits Solomon as its author.¹

God offered Solomon anything he wanted (2 Chronicles 1:7) and praised Solomon when he did not ask for wealth or honor. Instead, Solomon heeded the advice of his father, King David, who taught him, “My son…get wisdom… never forget wisdom… wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom! (Proverbs 4:1,5-7)

When Solomon asked for wisdom God gave it abundantly! Royal court officials and foreign dignitaries marveled at Solomon’s wisdom. “[Everyone] perceived that God’s wisdom was in him.” (1 Kings 3:28). Though Solomon never asked for wealth and honor; wisdom landed him on top of the world — financially, politically, and socially!

It’s remarkable that the person most qualified to sing Wisdom’s praises instead warned us about its limitations. Solomon wrote, “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business… a striving after the wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:13,17-18)

Wisdom’s limitations present unsettling news for hope seekers. I saw it on the faces of people in my class.

The mentors in my life taught me to get wisdom, just as David taught Solomon. I have enjoyed the benefits of pursuing wisdom as well as suffered the pain of ignoring it.

When I discovered wisdom offered me exceptionally valuable things, I’ve wrongly assumed certainty was part of the offer. Unfortunately living wisely will not guarantee: a healthy marriage, faithful children, financial security, vocational advancement, or good health. Those who confuse absolute guarantees with general principles are prone to misjudge the benefits of wisdom. For example, Proverbs 22:6 has paralyzed faithful parents with false shame after an adult child has gone off the rails. But Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart”) is not a guarantee. It is a proverb, not a law. It is generally true but there are exceptions. Many factors outside of bad parenting can cause people to ruin their lives.

When people ignore the limits of wisdom and grab for certainty, they cause wounds that even the best of intentions cannot salve. They will be exposed as naive, self-righteous or just plain wrong — like Job’s friends.

As a young adult, a few people tried to warn me about wisdom’s limitations. When they suggested my search for understanding might lead to frustrated uncertainty, I thought them jaded or faithless. But then life’s unexpected twists and turns led me to the precipice of my vain assurance and I fell to humbler ground. I realized I might never understand why certain bad things happen. Soon afterward, Solomon became my empathetic friend. He shared my sense of futility — “Meaningless, Meaningless…utterly meaningless!” 

Unexpected comfort comes when we realize the Bible doesn’t conveniently dismiss life’s most troubling dilemmas. In fact it often silences those offering easy answers to allow space for frustrated voices to wail. Even Jesus wailed, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” from the cross (Matthew 27:46).

Jesus’ suffering and death proved there were no easy answers for life’s most disturbing troubles. The solutions we need could not be delivered through a book. But, they could be incarnated in a person. So God sent Jesus. He is the person of exceptional wisdom² who entered our troubled darkness, absorbed it, and conquered it. In Jesus, God crushed despair and meaninglessness and replaced it with resurrected hope!

Jesus may not explain your darkness away, but he has shared it. Eventually he will pierce it again and bring you into new light. Trust Him, even when your best efforts to understand things leave you disillusioned. Though frustration and despair rage, wait on him. He is powerful to deliver!

¹ Strictly speaking the writer of Ecclesiastes is anonymous since no personal name is attached, but the evidence strongly indicates Solomon is the author. 

² See 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

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