For the Suffering Friend: Show Up, Shut Up, and Let God Take Care of the Answers

By David Mills Published on April 20, 2016

It was a honking big needle the nurse held up as my very sick friend pulled up his sleeve. I really, really don’t like needles, but I stayed by his chair as the nurse pushed the needle into the underside of his upper arm, one of the few places that wasn’t already all bruised from IV needles. He thanked me as I wheeled him out of the doctor’s office. “I notice you stayed,” he said, and grinned a little. Sick as he was, my discomfort amused him.

Mine was a tiny act of friendship. Not a big deal, even for someone with serious needle-phobia. It still meant something to a sick man to have his friend stay with him as he got his shot.

Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up,” and in being with my friend (I wrote about him here), I’ve been seeing how much of the Christian life is just being there, which is not an easy lesson for some of us to learn.

Christianity answers our questions, sure, but it doesn’t always answer them as completely as we want. Sometimes the truth that you believe with all your heart doesn’t help you deal with your pain. The truth can comfort you but it doesn’t comfort you in the same way that a friend sitting at your side comforts you.

Don’t Lean on Answers

A lot of us — I, for one — tend to think that once we’ve explained something we’ve fixed it. We feel the need to explain, even to those who really don’t want to hear it. Maybe it’s a way of dealing with our own pain, of trying to establish some control of a world that’s hurting us and people we love. But we need to learn to shut up.

I’m not saying that the answers aren’t important and that the suffering should throw out their copies of Knowing God or, for my fellow Catholics, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We need to know the big story to make sense of our own small stories. Christianity tells us that our suffering matters and that the world still makes sense, that it’s still a good place, that everything works out for our good in the end. It tells us we can live in hope.

It’s not nothing to know that’s the truth about the cosmos. Anyone can say “God loves you,” talking about who-knows-what god. People do. It’s easy to say. It’s also often meaningless. You’re thinking that God loves you but you’d like a really good answer for how He could love you and still let you (or someone you love) suffer like this. It helps to know what the real God has said about life and death, including your friend’s.

All that being said, we can’t lean on ideas, however true they are. Our suffering friends usually want us to talk to them about friends or pets or current events, or pray and read Scripture with them, or watch TV, or just sit there and not say a word. They’re rarely big on an intense discussion of the problem of evil.

A friend told me about talking with a friend who’d just lost a loved one. He wrote, “I told my friend that all I really have for him are the platitudes about ‘God’s providence,’ etc., that I’m sure he’s heard before. Other than that I’m flying blind. He told me later that he found our conversation very helpful, but I’m not really sure how.”

I think his friend found the conversation helpful because he didn’t say stuff just to say stuff. It’s helpful to have someone speak realistically to you, even if all he says is “I really don’t have anything to say.” That’s the way to be there with a friend.

More Than Answers

Being with my friend, I’ve learned better how much of the Christian life is just being there. We need the answers the Faith provides, but not only the answers. Truth isn’t all that God gives us.

The Father gave us Jesus. He also gave us each other. He wants every Christian to be there for his brothers and sisters when they need him. Which is to say: He gives us Jesus and each other and the greatest good we can do is often just being their friends who sit with them when they need someone at their side. It isn’t in trying to explain to them the mystery of the ways of God.

Christianity answers mankind’s most urgent questions. True, and crucial to know. But the practical truth is that sometimes we don’t need the answers in that form. The suffering need Jesus and they need him in his people. We bring Jesus to others just by sitting with them as the nurse holds up the honking big needle, and sometimes that by itself answers all the big questions.

 

“For the Suffering Friend” is adapted from a column he wrote for Aleteia. Follow David at @DavidMillsWrtng.

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