Friendship, Support, and Spiritual Pain

There was recently an article in The Guardian that talked about what not to say to someone undergoing cancer treatment or other kinds of physical distress. It got me thinking about my experience of spiritual distress and the things that were and were not helpful to hear during that time.

It’s a far less cut-and-dry thing because what may have been welcome and helpful earlier in the process of dealing with my spiritual trauma became decidedly unhelpful and even provoked anger towards the end. And because of the often silent and hidden nature of spiritual pain, it’s almost impossible to know what stage a sufferer is at. It’s also difficult because spiritual trauma — especially, as in my case, the sense of spiritual abandonment — flies in the face of Christian religious expectation, and therefore beliefs and statements of support required by Christians can quickly become nonsensical to the sufferer.

I think this disconnect between Christian expectation and the experience of the sufferer is the main reason why it is so difficult for the faithful to offer helpful support for those who are in spiritual pain. One of the trickiest things is that, because of Christian beliefs about God — His Love, faithfulness, mercy, and compassion — the onus is always on the sufferer. The problem cannot be God — God is perfect, God is Love — the problem must be the believer. Therefore there is always the feeling that something more can/should be done. There is always one more book that can be read or one more prayer (or means thereof) to be said, one more experience of the Spirit (whether one defines this in terms of liturgy/sacrament or charismatic experience), one more class to take. There is never ‘enough’ one has done or can do. And while these things are good — and indeed they sustained me for a long time — in the midst of spiritual anguish, when you have nothing left to give, it is entirely overwhelming. My advice to the faithful is to read, pray, attend the services, do what you can whenever you can before you are in crisis: it will sustain you for a long time if things fall apart down the road. But when you see a brother or sister suffering spiritually, it’s not the time to suggest more to read or pray or do. If they are faithful enough to be patiently suffering in the first place, they will have in all likelihood already done all that they could and already feel guilty for not being able to do more.

Another common blunder is oversimplification. This is the well-meaning advice like, “Just give it to God” or “Look up to your maker.” This induces a very primal and emotional response in the sufferer, something like a sarcastic “OH, I HAD NEVER THOUGHT OF THAT!!!” or “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK I’VE BEEN DOING!!!” Related to this is the very common supposedly comforting advice, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” This is fine as long as you CAN handle it. But, what does it say to the person when they can no longer handle it? What is intended to give strength to the spiritual sufferer then becomes incredibly unhelpful and guilt-inducing, an outright accusation of failure they almost certainly already feel.

Lastly, the worst possible thing to say is “You’ve already given up.” When someone is thoroughly exhausted, has prayed all they can pray, recited the Psalms so often they have them memorized, been anointed with oil so often that they have a permanent sheen, and is holding on as best they can, DO NOT under any circumstance tell them they have already given up. This is like looking down at someone hanging onto a cliff-face by their fingernails and telling them they’ve given up. The intention of this statement is not to be cruel; I know that. But it is actually more about its speaker than the hearer; it’s a statement of anguish and concern and comes from a deep and emotional place. But just DON’T SAY IT. Experiencing grief at the sight of a beloved friend in the midst of such trauma is natural, but please keep that grief to yourself. You can share in the grief of your friend and weep with them, but the last thing he or she needs is to have to deal with your own grief on top of their own emotions.

So what can you do or say?

In my own time of spiritual trauma I found three things helpful:

1. Be quick to listen and slow to speak. Chances are you won’t know the right thing to say or do, but listening always helps. If your friend isn’t talking, don’t push or press the matter, but if he starts to talk, LISTEN. Listen deeply, intently. Listen past the pat answers, sayings, and verses that pop into your head. They aren’t anything your friend hasn’t already told himself hundreds of times already. It is more important for him to feel understood.

2. Be faithful in love. Love love love. Love especially when it’s hard. Stand with your friend and by your friend. Walk with her as long as she needs it. And if her faith fails her in the end, don’t stop loving her. Continue to nurture the parts of your relationship you still share; keep the common bonds alive as much as you can.

3. Pray selflessly. The adverb here is critically important. A good friend of mine once said that he was no longer comfortable with his family praying for him because he could not trust their prayers. Too often prayer can slip into homiletics, telling God what to do rather than trusting in His Wisdom. Thankfully, being Orthodox, I didn’t have to worry about this too much: The standard Orthodox prayer is “Lord have mercy,” a prayer that is always welcome and always timely and always compassionate. And you don’t need to become a theological or spiritual or moral relativist to pray without opinion: Scripture contains many examples of events intended for evil but which God intended for good. You don’t know how God’s Wisdom and mercy will be worked out in the life of your friend. If you are a person of faith, have faith in His Wisdom and not your own. So yes. PRAY. Just make sure your friend can trust your prayers.

As with all my posts, this is not intended as a final word. Just some thoughts that were on my mind today.


One thought on “Friendship, Support, and Spiritual Pain

  1. Jon Stovell April 27, 2012 / 12:44 am

    Entirely agree. My only addition would be that the one message I have found that people in spiritual distress often find comfort in is this: For Jesus our Lord and our Example, the path to the resurrection went through the crucifixion. He prayed, he quoted psalms—”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—and having done all and having endured faithfully to the bitter end, he died. And on the third day he was raised again in glory by the hand of his Father. This is the pattern we are called to follow, too. The resurrection comes after the crucifixion, and the crucifixion leads to resurrection.

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