Introductory Note:

Suffering is all around us. Even on the days when we can keep our own suffering at bay the news blares the suffering of others. My work as a spiritual director with children reminds me that even the children in our midst experience suffering. As compassionate adults, the suffering of children unravels us. Flooded with questions and pain we often rush too quickly with a superficial salve. In this 1992 Renovaré newsletter article, Richard Foster offers words of wisdom for sitting with someone in their suffering. I’d like to invite you to take a long, slow look around you, are there children in your midst who are suffering? How can you sit with them in their suffering?

Lacy Finn Borgo

Dear Friend,

I write to you today out of considerable pain and sadness, not for myself or my immediate family, but because of the seeming unending tragedies that have befallen a dear family we are privileged to know. The latest occurred only yesterday — the sudden and tragic death of the mother, Paula Huerta. She was seated on a lawn chair watching a fourth of July fireworks display with her five-year-old son when a drunk driver careened off the road, broke through a fence, and struck Paula, killing her instantly. (Amazingly the child, Eric, sustained only minor injuries.)

Paula’s death, however, is only the latest in a long and heartbreaking string of calamities that have befallen these good friends. I would recount them for you, but they are too many for the mind to comprehend and too sad for the heart to endure.

You, I know, were not privileged to know Paula … but you know persons like her — persons of noble character amid the most tragic of circumstances. I am immeasurably enriched by my acquaintance with Paula and her family. I honor her as a woman of great courage. Why she was taken so suddenly in this seemingly capricious way I do not know.

What can I say or do about this or any of the other sad events that have surrounded this dear family? What can anyone say or do?

What We Do Not Say

I will tell you what we do not say. We do not say that these horrible events are the will of God. We live in an evil world, a tragically fallen world, and sometimes we are crushed under the weight of it all. To be sure, God — whose power is over all — can take the horrible and the unspeakable and, in his time and in his way, work all these terrible things for good … but he never authorized the evil. In fact, he hurts with us over the awfulness of it all. His heart is an open wound of love.

May I tell you something else we do not say? We do not come forward with those God-awful platitudes about clouds with silver linings and painless victory in Jesus. That is an affront to the gospel of the suffering God, the God who stands with us in our agony and our perplexity and our confusion. It is an offense to the gospel of Jesus Christ who in his moment of greatest agony uttered the cry that you have cried and that you will cry; My God, my God, Why? … Why? … Why?”

What We Do Not Do

Then, too, let me tell you what we do not do. We do not pretend that the evil and the tragedy did not happen. We do not act as if all is well when all is not well. In 1849 an eleven-year-old, Catherine Elizabeth Havens, wrote in her diary, I think spelling is funny. I spelt infancy infantsy’, and they said it was wrong, but I don’t see why, because if my seven little cousins died when they were infants, they must have died in their infantsy’; but infancy makes it seem as if they hadn’t really died but we just made believe.”

Shakespeare concludes his magnificent play King Lear with a haunting couplet that speaks, not just for the play, but for the life and experience of us all:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel,
not what we ought to say.

And whether we look at the tragedies of life through the macrocosm of human history or the microcosm of our own personal histories, we must see the sad time, we must listen to the sad time, we must obey the sad time: Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Everyone tells us that we ought to say that God came to the rescue, that the tragedy was averted, and that everyone lived happily ever after. But we must be more honest than that. We must look the sad time straight in the face. We are able do this because Jesus did it. When faced with the darkest of tragedies, he never flinched but stared it down. And as a result he stands with us in the darkness of our own tragedy.

What We Are To Say and Do

And standing with people is what we are to do. Often at such times words fail us, but that does not matter, for what people need is not our words but our presence. We are to be with them, hurt with them, cry with them, agonize with them. The most valuable thing we have to give people in times like these is our presence. And, thus knit together in our pain and our sorrow, we wait for that day when God will wipe away every tear and right every wrong.

Text First Published April 1992