Introductory Note:

What do we do when we come face to face with people’s pain and sorrow? We can learn from Jesus how to share in their suffering. Richard Foster shifts the focus from despair to hope: “Our question, however, is not ‘Why is there suffering in the world?’ but ‘How do I enter into the suffering that is in the world in a way that is redemptive and healing?’

In this chapter from Prayer, Richard discusses the redemptive work of repenting on behalf of others, entering another’s pain through presence, wrestling with God, and other ways we can bear one another’s burdens in prayer.

Renovaré Team

Excerpt from Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home
It is the prayer of agony which saves the world. — St. Mary of Jesus

We now come to a topic that is not at all popular. I would hesitate even mentioning it were it not for my conviction that you are quite serious about the life and work of prayer. I am speaking, of course, about the Prayer of Suffering.

If in all the pantheon of prayer there is one form that is totally other centered, we have now come to it. In the Prayer of Suffering we leave far behind our needs and wants, even our transformation and union with God. Here we give to God the various difficulties and trials that we face, asking him to use them redemptively. We also voluntarily take into ourselves the griefs and sorrows of others in order to set them free. In our sufferings those who suffer come to see the face of the suffering God.

No Greater Image

There is no greater image of this suffering love that redeems than Jesus pinned to Golgotha’s tree, uttering the words of absolution: Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This is the unrepeatable, supreme act of redemption, and in this we cannot in any way be Christ’s companions. He had to walk this path alone.

But he has invited us to share in his sufferings and so participate with him in the redemption of the world. Paul understood this. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake,” writes the great Apostle, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). Paul’s idea is not that something is missing in the sufferings of Christ as if there were some deficiency in his substitutionary atonement for the salvation of the world. Far from it. It is rather that we are invited to be partners with Christ by sharing in the fellowship of his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10).

Redemptive Suffering

But before you think I am leading you into some kind of strange religious masochism, let’s back up a bit and see if we can get a clearer picture on all this. I am talking about a form of suffering, to be sure, but it is redemptive suffering. We are all acquainted with the unredemptive negative variety — suffering that is utterly cruel and completely meaningless. This we must fight against with all our might, for it is always opposed to life in the kingdom of God.

But there is a kind of suffering that has purpose and meaning. It is the kind that enriches the lives of others and brings healing to the world. On a purely human level we understand this instinctively with regard to our children. We are glad to deprive ourselves of many things so that they may have a better chance at life. (This, by the way, is one reason why their teenage rebellion is so hard for us — we fear that all our sacrifices will be for nothing.) It is hard for us to grasp the idea of redemptive suffering because our whole culture mitigates against any form of discomfort or inconvenience. It is the same reason we find it difficult to reconcile Jesus’ words about bearing our cross with his promise of life abundant. But the entire life of Jesus shows us the compatibility of grace and suffering. And Paul, whose sufferings were abundant and well documented, declared, I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). Pope Paul VI writes, The Christian can have at the same time two different, opposite experiences sorrow and joy — which become complementary.“1

In redemptive suffering we stand with people in their sin and in their sorrow. There can be no sterile, arm’s-length purity. Their suffering is messy business, and we must be prepared to step smack into the middle of the mess. We are crucified” not just for others, but with others. We pray in suffering, and, as we do, we are changed. Our hearts are enlarged to receive and accept all people. The language of they” and them” is converted into we” and us.” All supposed superiority — whether intellectual, cultural, or spiritual simply melts away. Together we stand under the cross.

Joy, not misery, is the compelling energy behind redemptive suffering. It is not that we love pain or are trying to find ways to be martyrs. This is not misery for misery’s sake. It is that God is using us for the greater good of all — which is a rather amazing notion once we stop to think about it. This is why it could be said of Jesus that he for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). This is why we today can resonate with Peter’s words, Rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13).

Finding Value

The values of the Prayer of Suffering are legion. To begin with, it saves us from a superficial triumphalism. Perhaps you have had the experience of hearing someone talk about faith and confidence and victory. In one sense all the words are right, and the stories certainly sound good, but somehow something does not ring quite true. The problem is that you are listening to someone who is living on the fluff side of faith, someone who has not been baptized into the sacrament of suffering. Augustine notes wryly, How deep in the deep are they who do not cry out of the deep.“2 But we have a Savior who was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (lsa. 53:3, Rsv). Jesus, we are told, offered up prayers and supplication, with loud cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7). I ask you: is the servant any better than the Master? There is a triumph that is in Christ, but it goes through suffering, not around it. The triumphant note of the Apostle Paul is no triumphalism. His we are more than conquerors” comes on the other side of hardship and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and peril and sword (Rom. 835b-39).

The trenchant words of William Penn ring true to life: No Cross, no Crown.” For disciples of Jesus suffering simply comes with the territory. Thomas Kelly notes, God, out of the pattern of His own heart, has planted the Cross along the road of holy obedience.“3 But here is the wonder: the suffering is not for nothing! God takes it and uses it for something beautiful, something far beyond anything we can imagine. Right now we catch only glimpses here and there, the moon’s reflected light. But a day is coming when the blinders will be removed and the scales will fall off, and then we will see a glory in our sufferings that will blaze like the noonday sun. Jesus tells us frankly, In this world you will have trouble.” But he goes on to add, Take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33NIV).

Another value: our hearts are enlarged and sensitized by suffering. We become wounded healers,” as Henri Nouwen has taught us to say. Gone forever are the pat answers that — zip, zap — make everything fine. We endure the agony that prepares us to enter into the anguish of others. The more love sandpapers our hearts,” writes Glenn Hinson, the more it quickens us to suffering.“4 We come to recognize the suffering of our time in our own hearts, and that becomes the starting point for ministry. 

I once prayed for a young woman whose father was a pastor. There were many wonderful things about this good pastor, but on this occasion the daughter’s heart was heavy with the losses: the multiplied times he was gone because of the demands of the ministry; the tight budget, which meant few toys, skimpy vacations, no special things; the snooping, sniping parishioners that found fault with anything and everything. I know these are garden-variety losses, but that does not make them hurt any less. 

I wondered to myself if she was telling a story my own children might recite some day, for I was a young pastor, and for me, too, the hours were long, the money short, and the parishioners picky.

After she finished her sharing, I stood behind her, gently placing my hands on her head in a ritual form of the laying on of hands. I wanted to pray for the healing of the little girl still inside this woman, the little girl who had suffered all these losses. But I could speak only a few words, for I felt a deep sorrow welling up within me for her emotional pain. I prayed forgiveness for the father who did not know what he had done. But by then I could no longer speak, for a great brokenness came over me, and I quietly sobbed on her behalf. Emotion does not come to me quickly, and so you can understand that what was happening was unusual, to say the least. There I was, standing behind her with great tears falling to the floor as I entered into her pain, repented for her father, and sought healing for her inner child. Evidently the tears did what the words could not, for she left substantially healed. This way of prayer we learn only in the school of suffering. 

Shall go on enumerating the values of redemptive suffering, ticking them off like items on a grocery list? I think not, for though they are all true- — each and every one — they can actually become like those pat answers that we use to protect us from the raw nerves of sorrow. No, think it is better if we turn our attention to the practice of the Prayer of Suffering.

What Do We Do?

Our task-yours and mine — would be so much easier if we were, for example, dissecting the problem of evil. Then we could debate all the theories in a properly detached fashion. Our question, however, is not Why is there suffering in the world?” but How do I enter into the suffering that is in the world in a way that is redemptive and healing?” We must ask the question of practice.

What do we do? We do the kind of thing Moses did. After he leads the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, they thank him by rebelling, making a golden calf. Yet Moses refuses to give up on them, saying, I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Exod. 32:30b). And this is exactly what he does, boldly standing between God and the people, arguing with God to withhold his hand of judgment. Listen to the next words Moses speaks: But now, if you will only forgive their sin — but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written” (Exod. 32:32). What a prayer! What a reckless, mediatorial, suffering prayer! It is exactly the kind of prayer in which we are privileged to participate.

What do we do? We do the kind of thing Daniel did. Daniel had lived all his adult life in the Babylonian courts, but now he reads in the writings of Jeremiah the prophet that the days of Jerusalem’s devastation are complete. This leads to one of the most beautiful prayers ever recorded in Scripture, surpassed only by Jesus’ Upper Room prayer. It is a prayer of repentance: I prayed to the LORD my God and made confession” (Dan. 9:4). But Daniel is not confessing his sins; he is confessing the sins of his people, Israel. And note that he refuses to stand off at a safe, self-righteous distance but instead identifies intimately with the sins of the people. Listen: We have sinned and done wrong … we have not listened … we have sinned against you” (Dan. 9:5 – 19, italics mine). On it goes: Daniel standing with his people; Daniel repenting on behalf of his people; Daniel mediating between God and his people. Finally, he closes his prayer with exactly the right perspective: We do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies.” What a prayer! This is what we are to do.

There were so many who lived and who prayed in this way. Think of Joseph and his exile. Think of Mary and her Calvary vigil. Think of Stephen and his stoning. Think of Paul and his tribulations. Think of the list of those suffering giants of the faith in Hebrews 11 and the appropriate epitaph, of whom the world was not worthy” (Heb. 11:38).

I reiterate: this is not suffering for suffering’s sake. There is no hankering for martyrdom here. This is a conscious shouldering of the sins and sorrows of others in order that they may be healed and given new life. George MacDonald notes, The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.“5

The Passive Side and the Active Side

There is a passive side and there is an active side to the Prayer of Suffering. The passive side involves the many trials that come into the course of our daily lives. These can be merely irritating or genuinely tragic. Sometimes they come because of disobedience or wrong living, and, when this is the case, we are to change the way we live. But there are other times, times when we are caught in the whirlpool of a good world gone bad: a collapsing economy that eats up our life savings, a personality feud at the office that adversely affects our position, a terrible accident that changes our lives forever.

When we suffer these things — things for which we are not responsible and over which we have no control — we are to endure them patiently, putting our trust in God. Few of us today have much capacity for despair and destitution, and the Prayer of Suffering increases this capacity. Barrenness of soul sometimes comes to us for this very purpose. Jean-Nicholas Grou writes, Let your suffering be borne for God; suffer with submission and patience and suffer in union with Jesus Christ and you will be offering a most excellent prayer.“6

We can be assured of this: God, who knows all and sees all, will set all things straight in the end. Even better, he will dry every tear. In the meantime he mysteriously takes our sorrows and uses them to heal the world. 

I know the danger inherent in the counsel l have just given. People can wrongly turn it into a passivity toward injustice and evil. This we must never do. We are under divine orders to fight against evil in every form. Passivity, however, is seldom our problem. We tend to fight and struggle over every minor inconvenience that comes our way. With spiritual maturity comes the ability to discern between the trials that are a normal part of living under the cross and the injustices of an evil world that demand correction.

The active side of suffering involves those times when we voluntarily take into ourselves the griefs and sorrows of others in order to set them free. A woman whom I shall call Anne once came to my wife, Carolynn, for prayer counseling. Anne’s outward problem of depression was easy enough to see. In a short time the inner cause came to the surface as well — a sudden and tragic loss of her child. Carolynn has the gift of burden bearing, and so, as she began praying, she vicariously took on Anne’s grief. Wave after wave of deep sobs, even wailing, came over Carolynn as she mourned the death of Anne’s child. She asked God to take Anne’s emotional pain and redeem it through the cross of Jesus Christ. When she did this, the sobbing subsided and was replaced with a settled peace.

Later, Carolynn received a letter from Anne, describing the new life that had been breathed into her during that prayer session. The healing Anne received on that day was significant, though not total, for the roots of these matters go very deep and have many branches. Certainly Anne’s depression had lifted enough that she could function normally once again. Through Carolynn’s redemptive suffering, God had opened up a healing conduit into Anne’s past So that she could mourn for herself the loss of her child. 

I must add one small counsel to this story. We need not continue shouldering the burdens of others, but rather we release them into the arms of the Father. Without this releasing the burdens will become too much for us, and depression will set in. Besides, it is not necessary. Our task in reality is a small one: to hold the agony of others just long enough for them to let go of it for themselves. Then together we can give all things over to God.

Repenting on Behalf of Others 

The Prayer of Suffering stands out in all its naked reality when we are given the grace to repent on behalf of others, especially our enemies, forgiving them and setting them free. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that when we pray for our enemies, we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition upon ourselves, and pleading to God for them. We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves.“7

In the Ravensbruck Nazi concentration camp — the camp where an estimated ninety-two thousand men, women, and children were murdered — a piece of wrapping paper was found near the body of a dead child. On the paper was written this prayer: O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we bought, thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.“8

This idea of repenting on behalf of others may be new to you. Do people not have to repent for themselves?” you may wonder. You are correct, of course. Each of us must turn for ourselves in heart sorrow for our offenses to Divine Mercy. But — and here is the wonder — our repenting prayers on behalf of others somehow seems to make it easier, more possible for them to turn on their own. How this works I do not know. That it does work I am quite certain. Not that everyone we pray for is instantly transformed into some sort of saint. (Not even Jesus’ sacrifice produced that kind of result — a result we would not even want once we fully understood it.) No, it is more like the releasing of little droplets of grace and mercy — droplets that perhaps can be shook off but certainly cannot be ignored.

The Groanings of a Struggling Faith 

This standing between God and people involves a kind of wrestling with God. That is part of our suffering, a little like arguing with our best friend. Tertullian calls it a kind of holy violence to God.“9 Like Jacob of old, who wrestled all night with the angel, we refuse to let go until we receive a blessing, not for us but for others. We argue with God so that his justice may be overcome by his mercy. It is only because of our intimacy with God that we can thus wrestle with him.

This intense interaction is not unlike God himself, for, as Donald Bloesch tells us, God even wrestles with himself, seeking to reconcile his holiness, which cannot tolerate sin, with his infinite love for a sinful human race.“10 Even so, this wrestling is a hard image for us to accept. We much prefer the image of restful harmony. Our difficulty is due, in part, to our culture’s inability to reconcile struggle with love. We assume a loving relationship by its very nature must be peaceful and harmonious, and yet even on a human level those things we care about the most deeply we argue for the most passionately. Struggle is consistent with love, for it is an expression of our caring.

This is not anger. It is not whining. It is, as Martin Luther puts it, a continuous violent action of the spirit as it is lifted up to God.“11 We are engaging in serious business. Our prayers are important, having effect with God. We want God to know the earnestness of our heart. We beat on the doors of heaven because we want to be heard on high. We agonize. We cry out. We shout. We pray with sobs and tears. Our prayers become the groanings of a struggling faith. As Charles Spurgeon reminds us, Prayer is able to prevail with Heaven and bend omnipotence to its desires.“12

Fasting is one expression of our struggle. Fasting is the voluntary denial of a normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity. It is a sign of our seriousness and intensity. When we fast, we are intentionally relinquishing the first right given to the human family in the Garden — the right to eat. We say no to food because we are intent upon others receiving far greater nourishment. We are committed to breaking every yoke and setting the captives free. Our fasting is a sign that nothing will stop us in our struggle on behalf of the broken and oppressed.

In Celebration of Discipline I provide detailed instruction in the practice of fasting, and there are many other good books to guide you. Here I want to underscore fasting as a means of helping us to suffer joyfully. We are depriving ourselves for the sake of a greater good. Our fasting has weight with God and effect upon others. Pastor Hsi of China was so concerned to see his wife set free from her deep depression and mental torment that he called for a fast of three days and nights in his household, and gave himself to prayer. Weak in body, but strong in faith, he laid hold on the promises of God.“13 His subsequent prayer for her was completely successful, restoring her to full health. In time she became an effective companion in his remarkable ministry.

This is no excessive, unhealthy asceticism. It has nothing to do with the extremes of torture and self-mortification, which are a perversion of genuine sacrifice. We do not take pleasure in pain, nor do we seek it out unnecessarily. Our fasting is part of our wrestling with God. It is part of the birth pangs we endure in order to see new life come forth.

The wrestling may be painful, but the net result is worth the struggle, for, as Soren Kierkegaard reminds us, we win — and So does God: The righteous man strives in prayer with God and conquers — in that God conquers.“14

Suffering with the Body of Christ 

The Bible tells us that we are the body of Christ.” This description of the community of faith is not some romantic metaphor but is a genuine reality. Jesus Christ through the Spirit continues to live within his Church, and our sufferings are his sufferings. John Calvin writes, As, therefore, Christ has suffered once in his own person, so he suffers daily in his members.“15 And these sufferings are redemptive; they are actually used of God to change and transform and draw people into the way of Christ.

As our sufferings are his, so his sufferings are ours. Every now and then we are given the privilege of sharing in the sufferings of Christ over some special need in his Body. A minister in Africa once woke up in the middle of the night in tears. A strange name came to him over and over, a name he did not know. He sensed it was a call to pray, but for whom, for what? He did not know. Still he prayed in the Spirit over this name that he did not know, suffering intense pain as he did so. After several hours the burden lifted, and he knew his intercessory work was complete. The next day the newspapers carried the sad story of a Christian village whose inhabitants had been massacred during the night. The village had the same name the minister had been weeping over. 16 In some way that we do not now understand, this minister was allowed to share in the sufferings of the village people and so share in the sufferings of Christ. Our prayer privilege may never be this striking, but it will be just as important.

O Holy Spirit of God, so many hurt today. Help me to stand with them in their suffering. I do not really know how to do this. My temptation is to offer some quick prayer and send them off rather than endure with them the desolation of suffering. Show me the pathway into their pain.

In the name and for the sake of Jesus. —Amen.

  1. Pope Paul VI, The Role of Suffering in the Life of the Church,” in The Pope Speaks 19, no. 2 (June 26, 1974): 170. ↩︎
  2. St. Augustine: Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons, trans. Sister Mary Sarah Muldowney (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1959), p. 86. ↩︎
  3. Kelly, Testament, p. 71. ↩︎
  4. Glenn Hinson, The Contemplative View,” in Christian Spirituality, p. 179. ↩︎
  5. As quoted in C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1961), p. vi. ↩︎
  6. Grou, How to Pray, p. 83. ↩︎
  7. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 2d ed., trans. R. H. Fuller (New York: Macmillan, 1963), p.166. ↩︎
  8. From Rob Goldman, Healing the World by Our Wounds,” The Other Side 27, no. 6 (Nov./Dec. 1991): 24. ↩︎
  9. As quoted in Bloesch, Struggle of Prayer, p. 132. ↩︎
  10. Bloesch, Struggle of Prayer, p. 77. ↩︎
  11. Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, ed. and trans. Wm. Pauch (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), p. 349. ↩︎
  12. As quoted in Eriedrich Heiler, Prayer, trans. and ed. Samuel McComb (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1958), p. 279. ↩︎
  13. As quoted in Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast: A Spiritual and Practical Guide to Fasting (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1986), p. 67. ↩︎
  14. Søren Kierkegaard, Edifying Discourses, vol 4., trans. David Swenson and Lillian Swenson (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1946), p. 113. ↩︎
  15. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, trans. John Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1948), p. 164. ↩︎
  16. This story is recorded in Paul Yonggi Cho, Prayer: Key to Revival (Dallas, TX: Word, 1984), p. 86. ↩︎

Excerpted from Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home by Richard J. Foster (HarperOne, 1992), pp. 185 – 186, and used with permission.

Text First Published August 1992 · Last Featured on March 2022